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History of Yemen

Early History

Some 2,000 years ago, Yemen (known as Arabia Felix to the Roman geographers) was famous and its city-states (e.g., Saba/Sheba, Maʿin), grew powerful and wealthy due to their monopoly over the trade in frankincense and myrrh. From about 1000 BC this region of the Southern Arabian Peninsula was ruled by three successive civilisations -- Minean, Sabaean and Himyarite. These three kingdoms all depended for their wealth on the spice trade. Aromatics such as myrrh and frankincense were greatly prized in the ancient civilised world and were used as part of various rituals in many cultures, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman. Frankincense was carried from its production centre at Qana (now known as Bir 'Ali) to Gaza in Egypt. The camel caravans also carried gold and other precious goods which arrived in Qana by sea from India. The chief incense traders were the Minaeans, who established their capital at Karna (now known as Sadah), before they were superseded by the Sabaeans in 950 BC. The Sabaean capital was Ma'rib, where a large temple was built. The mighty Sabaean civilisation endured for about 14 centuries and was based not only on the spice trade, but also on agriculture. The impressive dam, built at Ma'rib in the 8th century, provided irrigation for farmland and stood for over a millennium. The Himyarites established their capital at Dhafar (now just a small village in the Ibb region) and gradually absorbed the Sabaean kingdom. They were culturally inferior to the Sabaeans and traded from the port of al-Muza on the Red Sea. By the first century BC, the area had been conquered by the Romans.

Once this monopoly was broken, Yemen retreated from the world stage. It was not until coffee became an important international trade commodity in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries that Yemen once again achieved renown. However, its early monopoly over coffee was broken by foreign traders and governments, and it once again became a little-known province of various empires on the Red Sea.

Islam, Christianity, Judaism and the Dynasties

While Yemen was under the rule of the Romans on the shores of the Mediterranean, Christianity was fast establishing itself and ritual fragrances became less popular, causing a considerable decline in the spice trade.

Both Christianity and Judaism were introduced into Yemen by the 4th century AD. In the early part of this century Ethiopians occupied the region. By 570 AD, the great dam at Ma'rib, which had been neglected for several centuries, broke for the last time and was abandoned by the fast-declining Sabaean kingdom. The Himyarites had by this time formed an alliance with the Persians and defeated the Ethiopian invaders.

Islam was introduced into the region in about 630 AD and Yemen was ruled by a series of Arab caliphs. The first mosques to be built in the Yemen were in San'a al-Janad and near Wadi Zabid. These mosques still exist.

Later in the 7th century the Ummayyad and Abbasid caliphs moved their capital first to Damascus and later to Baghdad, thus diminishing Yemen's political status in the new Islamic Empire. A succession of governors of the region followed, with a number of dynasties struggling for supremacy. These dynasties included the Ziyadids, the Najahids, the Sulayhids, Egyptian Ayyubis and the Turkoman Rasulids. The most important dynasty, founded in 897 AD by Yayha bin Husayn bin Qasim ar-Rassi, were the Zaydis of Sa'da. This stable, Shiite dynasty lasted well into the 20th century.

When the country became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517, its real power was still in the hands of the Zaydi imams. The first period of rule by the Ottomans lasted for over a century, ending in 1636, when the Zaydi imams reasserted their supremacy.

The British and Turkish Influence

The contemporary state of Yemen was created by two states with different historical experiences during the past two centuries. Although occasionally united in the past, they had not been so since 1728. Developments in the 19th century, however, are most important to an understanding of the events that led to the reunification of North and South Yemen in 1990.

In 1839, the British took the city of Aden in South Yemen in order to have a major port in the western Indian Ocean and to forestall further expansion by other parties in the Arabian Peninsula. Over the years, British interests continued to grow, and they eventually established extensive links with the multitude of principalities located in Aden's (Yemeni) hinterland.

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