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HISTORY OF YEMEN

 

INTRODUCTION

PRE - ISLAMIC HISTORY

HISTORY IN THE AGE OFISLAM

YEMEN UNDER THE COLONIALISM

THE MODERN HISTORY OF YEMEN

YEMEN ARABIC REPUBLIC (YAR)

SOUTH YEMEN

THE ROAD TO UNITY

AFTER 1994

 

INTRODUCTION

 

There are different theories about the source of Yemen's Arabic name, Al Yaman.
The early Muslims living around Mecca divided their lands into those lying northward, or shaman, and those lying to the south, or yamanan. So possibly the name suggests the geographic location of Yemen on the southernmost tip of Arabian Peninsula.
In the Arab tradition and for Yemenis, the word Yemen derives from the expression "Al-Yumn" which means grace and blessing.
Southern Arabia, especially Yemen is often referred to as Arabia Felix, or the Happy Arabia. This name is a Latin translation from Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a 1st century AD book by an anonymous Greek writer, who coined the original phrase “Eudaemon Arabia” when describing the port of Aden.

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The expression Arabia Felix, or the Happy Arabia, was used already in the ancient world, in the time of the Queen of Sheba (10 centuries BC) which was surrounded by a sense of mystery and the air of unimaginable wealth and luxury. Her country on the shores of the Red Sea was fortunate not only because of the trade route passing through it, but also because of the climate considered favorable by the standards of Arabian Peninsula – the “green Yemen”.
Yemen is one of the oldest inhabited regions in the world and Yemeni tradition and folklore abound with biblical references. As an example, Shem, the son of Noah is supposed to be the founder of the city of Sana’a. While the historical accuracy of such stories might be questioned, what is certain is that history in Yemen dates from the very dawn of humankind.

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PRE - ISLAMIC HISTORY

 

The ancient history of Yemen can be divided into two main periods. The first begins in the first millennium BC with the rise of the frankincense trade and ends with the decline of the eastern cultural centers towards the end of the pre-Christian era when the land route was loosing its importance and was finally replaced by a sea trade route in the western part of the Red Sea. It is not possible to state exactly when the civilization of Yemen first flourished.
The earliest reliable information proves the existence of a highly developed culture in the tenth century BC. This was the kingdom of Saba, which was the centre and heart of ancient Yemen, the greatest and most important political unit of that era that existed 14 centuries, from 10th century BC.
The capital of the kingdom was Marib, the most famous ancient city of Yemen.

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The city had a strategically important position on the edge of the great desert and controlled the frankincense route which ran from the Indian Ocean through Arabia to the Mediterranean. Frankincense and myrrh were one of the most desirable and the most expensive of incense materials in the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands. The substance with its heavy perfume was used in temples, on ritual occasions, at mummifications ceremonies, public festivals as well as for medicinal purposes. Such trade was possible with the domestication of the camels in the last centuries of the second millennium BC, which were than used for long journeys.

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HISTORY IN THE AGE OF ISLAM

 

Major events in this period of almost 1500 years were the result of outside influences. The interest of foreign powers in southwestern Arabia during all the phases of its history was not so much a matter of ruling the country itself as the controlling the trade routes which led through and around the Yemen. Yemen was the key to the Red Sea and it had a strategic position that the rulers of Cairo, Alexandria and Constantinople all wanted to posses. The history of Yemen, therefore, is often more than a piece of regional history of the Middle East; it is a part of the world-wide struggle for power, influence and trade.
In 632 AD, the year that the Prophet Mohammed died and the rule of the first orthodox caliphs began, the Yemenis sent 20 000 troops to serve in the army of the Caliph Abu Bakr and to bring Islam into the area now occupied by Syria and Iraq.

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Next year, Yemen year was divided into three provinces: San’a, Al-Janad and Hadramawt.
Further developments within the Islamic Empire diminished the importance of Yemen especially when the empire’s capital was mowed away from the Arabian Peninsula. Soon after the Umayyad caliphate was founded in 661 AD, the capital was moved to Damascus. When the Abbasid caliphs seized the power in 750 AD they moved the capital to Baghdad and in 812 AD made Yemen one of their provinces. As a result, in Yemen, at the southern edge of the Islamic Empire, numerous small, short-lived, semi-independent states and kingdoms were established.
Two events were of great importance for Yemen and still affect the Yemen today: the conversion of Yemenis to Islam in 628 AD and the foundation of the Zaidi Imamate in 897 by the Imam Yahya.

Najahids and Sulayhids (1046-1138)

Najahids and Sulayhids were two dynasties controlling the southwestern part of the present Yemen. After the decline of the Ziyadids (818-1018) who ruled the southern Tihama region, and established Zabid, the most important Sunni teaching centre, the Ethiopian slave Najah rose, took the power in Zabid and established the dynasty with the same name.
After Rasulids the power over Yemen was overtaken by Tahirids from Lahij who ruled the southwestern part of the country from 1454-1526. In the Hadramawt area, a new dynasty, the Kathiris rose to power in 15 century and existed till the revolution in 1967. At that time the dynasty was much weakened by Quaytis, the western tribe that Kathirids brought to the region to serve as soldiers but they subsequently took power of most of the region.

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YEMEN UNDER THE COLONIALISM

 

The Portuguese

In Europe, changes within and outside marked the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern history: the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the discovery of America and in the same year, 1492, the driving out the Boabdil from Granada and the completion of Reconquistada, the discovery of printing, Renaissance, and the Reformation. While the Spaniards and the English were concentrating on the Americas, Vasco de Gama succeeded in sailing around the Great Hope in 1497. This was the beginning of Portuguese rule in Indian Ocean. De Gama landed as a conqueror in Mozambique, some years later in 1502 he occupied Mombasa and Lamu on the coast of Africa and Goa, Diu and Cochin in India.

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First Turkish occupation (1538-1636)

Within a few years the Turks had succeeded in occupying many places in Southern Yemen and the Tihama. By this time their only remaining opponent was the Imam. Imam Yahya leaded the vigorous resistance against the Turks and that was the time that defensive works give the today appearance of towns Kawkaban and Thula. These two fortresses could never be conquered. Soon both sides came to a sort of unofficial arrangement whereby the Imam retained the actual control between Kawkaban, Thula and Hajja as far as the Tihama, and the Turks controlled the lower part of Yemen, the lowlands and Tihama.
Al Qasim, later called “the great” proclaimed himself an Imam in 1597.

He was very politically and militarily skilled and he fought against the Yemeni rulers imposed by Turks. The battles mainly took places in traditional Zaydi regions: Kawkaban, At Tawilah, Hajjah, Huth, Sa’adah and Shahara, the eagle’s nest in the north. Shahara usually served as a base of resistance from where the Zaydi rulers lead the resistance. The Turks were defeated and they left the country in 1636.


The coffee trade and its consequences

The course of 17th and 18th centuries was determined not so much by political events as by the new economic importance of the world markets which Yemen gained through the coffee trade. For about two centuries coffee was the most important product on world markets and Yemen had the trading monopoly of coffee. The Turkish occupation exterminated all political rivals of the Imams, and by this time, after the Turks had been driven out, the next Imam Al Mutawakkil was the sole ruler of northern, central and southern Yemen.
His long rule (1644-1676) is considered a period of order, justice and prosperity, but most importantly it

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offered him the opportunity to include Hadramawt in the state of Yemen once more for the first time in many years. Following Imams could barely keep the control in the big state, where every tribe wanted to rule itself. As the most significant event was the revolt of prince in Lahij during the period 1728-1731 when Lahij became independent from the Imamate. The modern division of Yemen can be traced back to this event, which also made the British occupation of Aden in 1839 much easier.

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THE MODERN HISTORY OF YEMEN

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The modern history of Yemen began with the desire of foreign powers – the Turks in the north and the British in the south – to control the crucial trade routes that passed through the area. When World War I spread to Arabia, Britain became worried for its base in Aden and tried to use the skilled fighters of the Yemeni tribes against Turkish garrisons. Imam Yahya saw the perfect opportunity to drive the ancient Turkish enemy out of the country and united the tribes. Working with the tribes the British colonel Lawrence of Arabia disrupted the Hejaz railway, essential for Turkish supplies and the Turkish expeditionary force was almost exterminated by Imam Yahya. Turkish garrisons were stormed despite dreadful losses and the occupants slaughtered.
Britain repaid Yahya’s support when the treaty of Sevres in 1920 recognized him as King of Yemen.

However nothing changed for the North Yemenis who wanted far more contact with the outside world. But Imam Yahya had secured his power by keeping Yemen in a state of extreme isolation and backwardeness. Forces of the opposition soon arose in Yemen, with the aim of ending Yahya’s despotic rule. Young intellectuals, tradesmen and important local figures were striving for political reform but most of these rebels were arrested and imprisoned. The original underground groups, Hai’at an-Nidal, the Free Yemeni Party and the Gamiyat al-Islah didn’t combine to form the Free Yemeni Movement until 1944. A rebellion against the Imamate began on 4 June 1944 when four prominent Yemenis fled from persecution in Aden. Imam Yahya didn’t agree with the terms of the opponents and wanted to smash the opposition. However, in 1946 one of the Imam’s sons joined the rebels in Aden; he became the leading figure of the resistance. The Free Yemenis decided to assassinate Yahya, what they realized in 1948.

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YEMEN ARABIC REPUBLIC (YAR)

 

The 1962 revolution started in Tahrir square in Sana’a. Imam Badr meanwhile escaped from the prison to the north of the country. He raised the tribal and Saudi Arabian help and fought a civil war that lasted almost eight years and divided the country, the tribes, clans and families. Republicans were supported by Egyptians who supplied them with weapons and help, but this new occupation force was opposed by many Republicans. These soon provoked a quiet revolution and the country got a new government. In the winter of 1967 the Royalists surrounded Sana’a for 70 days. The battle of Sana’a was won by soviet weapons and because of the death-defying courage of militia and people of Sana’a. However, one men proved the key to the survival of liberal government, Qassem Munassar, tribal general of the Royalists and one of their best men, turned Republican in 1968 with his Beni Husheich tribe and 60 000 allied warriors. The crowd of arguing princes in the Royalist headquarters destroyed the tribe’s belief in a reformed Imamate and tribal leaders killed the Munassar on 29.6. 1969. Imam Al Badr had left Yemen in March 1969 and gone into exile to Saudi Arabia. Agreement was achieved between Royalists and Republicans and after this the kingdom of Saudi Arabia recognized the Arab Republic of Yemen without conditions on 23.7.1970. This ended nearly 8 years of conflict between these neighboring states with widely different social systems.

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SOUTH YEMEN

In 1839 the fleet of British ships appeared off Aden. Supported by cannon fire, the British easily overcame the minimal fortifications in Aden and took control. From this day the British ruled the southern Arabian coast with a firm hand, later expanding their control over the entire hinterland. British were the thorn in the side of the Turks in North Yemen, particularly after the Suez Canal opened in 1869. Imam Yahya, too, wanted South Yemen. However, divisions among Imams, fighting between Turks and Yemenis and the growing resistance of the Yemenis to both Turks and Imams put all the aces in the British hand. When the Free Yemenis marched on Sana’a in 1948 a common nationalist impulse went through all the country. But the revolution failed and the disappointed South Yemenis returned to fatalism.

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The next step toward freedom of South Yemen came when Aden’s trade unions united to form the Aden Trade Union Congress (ATUC) in 1956. From 1961 onwards, the ATUC would play a leading role in the development of independence organizations such as the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the Nasserite Front for the Liberation of South Yemen (FLOSY).

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THE ROAD TO UNITY

The North Yemen was experiencing the turbulences too. The peace making President Al Iryani was pressured by Saudi Arabia, the conservative tribes and the army to resign on 12. June 1974. The following day, Colonel Ibrahim Mohammed al-Hamdi formed a governing council of seven members and took control over the country. A number of parliamentary and democratic elements built up by Al Iryani were dissolved.
In the months, leading up to the first free elections on the Arabian Peninsula it was clear that this process was unlikely to proceed smoothly. The election date was postponed more than once making it obvious to observers that many intractable political problems lay ahead. The considerable economic problems facing the country required swift and resolute handling together with a united political front. Disputes arose between supporters of the former government of South Yemen – now the Social Democrats under the leadership of Vice-president Ali al Beedh – and supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his People’s Congress. Added to this were tensions caused by the powerful fundamentalist Islah party, a growing force in Yemeni politics. A return to the bloody violence of 1970’s seemed likely.

Civil war returns

The military units of the south and the north clashed early in 1994. International pressure and influence were brought to bear which led to a signed peace agreement, but within few weeks it fell apart and the conflict escalated. The fighting was mostly in what had been South Yemen and North Yemen contingents entered Aden by July. The former South Yemen president fled together with 7000 followers to Oman. The civil war ended but peace did not follow. In October 1994 Saudi Arabia and Yemen found themselves in conflict, but Yemen stabilized internally mainly because of the growing strength of the Islah party.

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AFTER 1994

The war succeeded in reinforcing Yemeni unity instead of tearing the country apart. Immediately after the war northern religious extremists damaged different southern sites, from mosques and shrines, to hotels and restaurants serving alcohol, but such incidents soon ended. President Saleh declared a general amnesty to all secessionists dropping their arms, excluding only a 16- strong clique of leaders.
Most of the parties now support national unity even if they disagree on other issues. The second parliamentary elections, in 1997, went so smoothly that many western observers left the country before the results were in.
The main problem seems to be public dissatisfaction with the ineffectiveness of the government and the slow pace of economic development.

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Some issues of tribes in Marib and Al-Jawf governorates remain unsolved, but despite these difficulties, Yemen seems more stable then ever.

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