History of Yemen

Yemen has a long history of independence. Legend speaks of the Queen of Sheba, or of Arabia Felix. Facts teach us that no one ever really succeeded in conquering Yemen, an inaccessible mountainous country riddled by stubborn tribes.

Yemenis themselves speak of before and after the history of Yemen. With ‘before history’ Yemenis refer to the impressive pre-Islamic civilizations, some of the earliest in history. They represent a rich source for archaeologists, which can compete with civilizations elsewhere in the Middle East. In Yemen itself this era instills an – albeit sometimes uneasy – sense of pride, for these peoples were un-Islamic in habits and customs.

As a consequence, it is mostly foreign academics and researches who conduct research on these ancient civilizations. Morever, the conservation of pre-Islamic sites is not always adequate. For instance, the columns of the temple of Bilqis are subject to graffiti and carving of modern names by young visitors. A further complication regarding archaeological research and conservation is the location of the sites. These are found mainly in tribal territory, which is not always controlled by the government. Before and after excavations researchers usually have to spend long hours negotiating with tribal leaders.


In February 2008, French archeologists discovered evidence for the earliest human presence in the mountain province of Mahwitt in Yemen, not far from the capital city of Sana’a. These finds point to human presence in the Palaeolithic period, the age of the Neanderthalers. Later traces of hunters and gatherers have been found throughout Yemen, predominantly in the desert provinces and in the vicinity of the oases of Hadhramawt. Also found were Stonehenge-like monoliths near the town of Zabid, dating back to the Bronze Age, in the third and second millennia b.c.

The Kingdoms of Southern Arabia

The Minaean and Sabaean dynasties kingdoms of Southern Arabia reigned from the tenth century b.c. until the second century a.d. Their power was based on important trade routes between South Arabia and the Middle East. Frankincense and myrrh – necessary for many of the rituals performed by Byzantine and Roman peoples along the Mediterranean – were harvested in the eastern corner of South Arabia, now South Yemen and Oman. Together with other commodities and spices from as far as India and Africa, the goods were transported by Nabatean traders in long caravans from the coast to the centres of civilization in the Levant and Alexandria, from where the goods were sold on by Nabatean sea merchants with much profit.

The trade routes across the Arabian peninsula followed watering places and avoided difficult and unsafe terrain. This led the caravans through the Hadhramawt, past Marib and along the Red Sea coast towards Gaza. The strategic position of Marib on this Frankincense Route resulted in trade, profits and subsequently to the foundation of several South Arabian kingdoms, centred around the kingdom of Saba, also known as Sheba. The Queen of Saba or Sheba – known as Bilqis in Yemen – is mentioned in both the Bible and the Torah, according to which she visited the court of King Salomon at his request. Some archaeologists, however, question whether this is the same queen as Bilqis, insisting that Sheba was a Abyssinian queen. The Koran mentions the dam, and the irrigated lands beyond as ‘two paradises’.

Saba’s lasting fame rests on the elaborate irrigation system the Sabaens laid out in the vicinity of old Marib, of which the ruins can still be found. Archaeologists believe the tradition of irrigating started in the third millennium b.c., well before the era of the Sabaens. Saba’s economic boom was a result of a big dam built around the sixth century b.c., though smaller dams may have been in place earlier. The dam caught the floods caused by the sporadic, but heavy rains in the mountains beyond Marib. The collected water was then distributed through canals, feeding an agricultural complex that supported a civilization that numbered over 300.000 people at its peak. The state of Saba was one of strong institutions, extending its reign for centuries. At times the neighbouring kingdoms of Hadhramawt (to the east), Ma’ín (to the north) and Himyar (to the west) rivalled and even challenged Saba, but the kingdom prevailed until the second century a.d.

Sabaean hegemony started to decline only with the understanding and mastering of the monsoon winds by Indian sailors, which made the long and arduous Frankincense Route redundant. The final collapse of the dam around the sixth century a.d. due to the accretion of sediment and neglected maintenance finally ended the long era of Saba, although there are scientists who claim that it was an earthquake which destroyed the dam. The Koran speaks of the collapse of the dam as a punishment from God – for the Sabaens worshipped multiple gods – and a turning point in history. As the Sabaens often built with perishable materials, the flood washed away many of the traces of Saba. Excavations continue to add to the knowledge of the Sabaen era. Debate continues about the religion of Saba – whether the deity they worshipped, Almaqah, was a moon god or a sun god.

Box: In the 1980s the dam of Marib was re-erected, although this time as a modern dam made of concrete and at a different location, somewhat higher up in the mountains to the east. The funds were provided by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahayan, former ruler of Abu Dhabi and architect of the United Arab Emirates, who traces his ancestry back to Saba. Like many other Sabaens, his tribe migrated from Saba after the second century b.c., in his case eastwards to the Gulf. The dam has not been used much for its irrigating purposes, as the canals channelling the water to the fertile plains have not yet been built. Presently, it remains a site for tourists and qat-chewing bunches of locals on mellow afternoons.

The Birth of Yemen

Before the definite collapse of the dam, Yemeni population was already shifting westwards. Prime reason was the knowledge and mastering of the monsoon winds by Indian sailors. This made the alternative sea route to the Levant possible, wherefore the long and arduous Frankincense Route could be evaded. Second reason was the decline in the use of frankincense as a result of the decrease of Roman ‘pagan’ rituals, in turn caused by the rise of Christianity, which is much more restrained in its use of frankincense. As a consequence, the importance of Marib declined and the Himyarites took over as the supreme kingdom of South Arabia. The Himyarites ruled from Zafar, which is located near the present city of Yarim. The Himyarites were successful in uniting the peoples of desert Yemen and mountain Yemen. Today, Yemeni historians hail this era as the start of modern Yemen.

External influence grew during this era, foremostly that of Christianity and Judaism. The last Himyari king Dhu Nawas converted to Judaism, but was ousted after he massacred the Christians of Najran, now Saudi Arabia, then Yemen. Christian Abyssinians under the command of Abraha, and reportedly with a strong army of men and elephants, invaded the country from Ethiopia and ended the Himyarite kingdom, founding a Christian empire in Yemen. The Koran mentions that Abraha and his army later attacked the Ka’aba in Mecca, in the year of the Elephant, the same year that the prophet Mohammed was born, 571 ad. According to the Koran God defeated Abraha and his army with large swarms of birds.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the defeated Himyarites sought the help of the Persian emperor, after which a large army of Persian Sassanids drove out the Abyssinians and took power. In the seventh century, the Sassanids definitely converted to Islam, making Yemen an Islamic country, with Sana’a as its capital. Subsequently, Yemen was ruled by several caliphs, appointed and influenced by powerful Islamic rulers from Syria (Umayyads), Iraq (Abbasids) and Egypt (Fatimids). None of the rulers succeeded in extending their rule over the whole of Yemen. Noteworthy is the Fatimid Queen Arwa. Arwa moved the capital south from Sana’a to Jibla, close to Ibb. Queen Arwa lives on in Yemeni legends as Bilqis the Younger.

The Sunni Islamic Rulers of South Yemen

It was not until the twelfth century that Yemen was again invaded from without. Under the command of Turansah, brother of Salah al-Din, and supported by a strong army of Turks and Kurds, the Ayyubids from Syria pacified Yemen. The Ayyubids ruled and united southern Yemen as far north as Dhamar, but never reached Sana’a. The Ayyubids were succeeded by the Rasulids, who successfully ruled over the south of Yemen for two centuries, and at times even had Sana’a under their control. Monuments from this era can still be found throughout southern Yemen, particularly in Zabid, the historic town on the edge of the Tihama, just before the road climbs up into the mountains towards Taizz. Zabid was the governing capital of Yemen throughout Rasulid times, and has remained an important religious and academic centre ever since.

The Rasulids were succeeded by the Tahirids, originating from Rada, to the east of the mountains. The Tahirids were not as ambitious or successful as the Rasulids, although they did leave Yemen the Ammaryiah-school in Rada, famous for its architecture and recently renovated. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks ended Tahirid rule. The Ottomans ruled for a century, moving the capital from Zabid to Sana’a, and back to Zabid after being defeated in Sana’a by Zaidi tribes from the north. In the nineteenth century the Ottomans briefly returned to Yemen.

Zaidi Stronghold

In the northern part of Yemen, the Zaidi imams ruled from 873 until 1962. Local tribes invited the first Zaidi imam, in a bid to settle tribal disputes, and the imam stayed. The Zaidi imam heads a Shia sect, followers of the brother of Shias fifth (Zaidis are also called ‘fivers’) imam, whom they judged to be a more just leader then the mainstream Shia imam, whom they deemed corrupt. Zaidis briefly held caliphates in northern Iran, but their stronghold was and is Yemen. From the ninth century onwards, the Zaidi imams have been a constant factor in Yemeni politics, at times extending their rule as far as Taizz.

The Zaidi imams never fully controlled the northern Yemeni tribes, the Zaidi imam being a theocratic ruler more than a military leader. During the eleven centuries of their rule – during which they moved the capital back and forth from Sa’adah to Sana’a and on to Taizz – tribal revolts frequently broke out across the country. In the south and the distant Hadhramawt, smaller dynasties, tribes and sheikhs contested Zaidi rulership. The Ottoman Turks remained present in the coastal areas, where they subsequently tried to control the maritime superpowers of Portugal, Holland and Britain.

In the nineteenth century, the Ottomans returned briefly to power. Again, they never managed to rule the entire country. In the north Zaidi tribes withstood the Ottomans easily, while the southern tip of South Yemen was ruled by the British empire. The British controlled Aden and its immediate surroundings, in order to secure the strategic Strait of Perim – the entrance to the Red Sea – and with it the important sea route to Asia. Aden also possesses a natural port, where long-haul ships could refuel. Beyond Aden, the British rule extended not much further than an alliance with local sheikhs, who kept mostly to themselves.

After its defeat in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire perished, leaving Yemen to the Zaidi imams, with the exception of the British colony of South Yemen. The Zaidi imams ruled the country under the name of the internationally recognized Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. In 1934, Yemen lost the northern province of Asir to Saudi Arabia. The reign of Imam Ahmad and his son Yahya cut off Yemen from external influence for nearly fifty years, gradually alienating their institutional base of Zaidi Sayyids. By abducting tribal sons as a short-term means of enforcing obedience, Imam Yahya alienated the tribes on whom his military rule was based. There were several revolts, but the imams always prevailed. In 1962, however, a republican revolt – aided by the Egyptian army and aggrieved tribes – drove away the third imam, Badr, to Saudi Arabia. Imam Badr died in 1996 in England, to which he emigrated upon Saudi Arabia’s official recognition of the Yemen Arab Republic (yar) in 1972. He was succeeded as king by his eldest son Ageel bin Muhammad al-Badr.

Revolutionary Yemen and the pdry

The struggle for independence in North Yemen lasted for five years. Main actors were the royalists – loyal to the Zaidi imams – and a coalition of aggrieved tribes and townsfolk from Sana’a southwards to Taizz. External influence was strong, with the Egyptian army bombing royalist strongholds, in turn supported by Saudi Arabia. Only when the Egyptians withdrew in 1968 was an agreement reached, making way for the yar, better known as North Yemen. The yar was dominated by the military, which in turn was largely controlled by the tribal confederation of Hashid, based primarily in the central highlands. However, key administrative positions were held by southerners.

Meanwhile in Aden another revolution was taking place. Until then, external influence in tribal territory had been minimal, as first the Ottomans and then the British were only interested in Aden and its vicinity. The British Crown Colony of South Yemen (since 1839) constituted a remarkable combination of urban, cosmopolitan Aden with an enormous tribal hinterland. This period was marked by a worldwide struggle for independence and the appeal of socialism. Arab nationalists had already liberated the northern Arab states of Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Iraq and North Yemen. Aden unions teamed up with Arab nationalists from the Hadhramawt. Amidst independence movements and revolutions worldwide, the British rule finally collapsed in 1967. The Crown Colony of Aden and its protectorates were replaced by the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).

For more than two decades, South Yemen formed an interesting experiment in Arab socialism. Women were granted equal rights, a beer factory was built, qat consumption was limited to weekends and revolutionaries – later to be called terrorists – from all over the world underwent military training in South Yemen. The pdry of the 1970s and 1980s was a haven for international leftist ‘resistance’ fighters, in particular the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (pflp) and the German Rote Armee Fraktion (raf). Traditionalism and modernity often clashed during these years, just as rural tribalism, conservative Islam and hardline socialism proved hard to mix. Moreover, some bloody battles were fought at the top of the ruling National Front. The basis of the pdry eventually proved too small. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1988 their major benefactor disappeared, leaving the pdry on its own.


The PDRY and the YAR fought two small-scale wars, or border skirmishes. Both conflicts ended in unification agreements. Prior to unification the YAR and PDRY merged their oil ministeries, accelarated by the discovery of oilfields near their undefined border. It took until May 1990 before the two Yemens were unified. Sana’a became the political capital, Aden the economic capital. The former rulers shared power in a new government. But they were not ready to share power, southerners being afraid of northern fundamentalists, northerners being afraid of southern socialists.

A real unification never took place. Both governments relocated some of their institutions and army units to each other’s territory. This crippled the economy, which had already been severely hit by the return of up to a million Yemeni expatriates, sent back from Saudi Arabia. Income dwindled, resources ran out, crisis loomed. Fighting broke out in January 1994, when the leader of the pdry announced his secession. The war that followed did not last long. Southern army units were isolated from their power base, or succumbed to northern rule without a fight. After seventy days of fighting Yemen was united again, only this time under northern hegemony. A hegemony that during the years to come is gradually proving to be too dominant.

Modern Yemen

Modern Yemen is much the work of the longtime president and his entourage. Ali Abdallah Saleh rose to power as an army commander in 1978, and has been president ever since. Saleh has been prevalent in the constant weighing of multiple powers in and outside of Yemen. Saleh has thus held Yemen together in enduring peace, though at the expense of policies guiding Yemen into the modern era. The economic, demographic and environmental conditions in Yemen have far from improved under his guidance.

Box: In 2007 Dutch senator Sam Pormes was forced to give up his seat when it became known that Pormes – a leftwinger – had followed a course on urban guerrilla in South Yemen in 1976, as a member of a group of Dutch ‘Red Youth’. The Youth were instructed by pflp and raf-fighters in ‘a desert village’, where they learned to handle weapons and explosives. According to German testimonies the Dutch behaved as a ‘lazy and undisciplined group of holidaymakers’, although the Dutch themselves were rather impressed by the toughness of the training. One of the Dutch women was later deployed by pflp commander Wadi Haddad in a failed reconnaissance mission to Ben Centurion [Gurion?] airport.

Box: Many profiles on Yemen mention the Roman description of Yemen as ‘Arabia Felix’, or happy Arabia, emphasizing its fertility, in comparison with Arabia Deserta (the vast sandy deserts) and Arabia Petra (the northern rocky part of Arabia). However, according to some historians, this is a misconception, based upon its description as ‘Arabia Eudamion’ or blessed Arabia by Greek geographers. This is a mistranslation of Arabia Al Yaman, or happy Arabia. It should be translated as Arabia ‘at the right hand’, as cartographers of the early Middle East used a tilted map, on which Yemen simply lies on the right.

Box: A common, incorrect theory places the ‘Land of Sheba’ in Yemen, or Southern Arabia. But ‘Saba’ is the name of a female, like ‘Maria’; it is not the name of a land, but of a woman. When the queen visited King Solomon in Jerusalem, he gave her a ring, saying: ‘If thou hast a son, give it to him and send him to me.’ And the queen departed to Ethiopia and she bore a son, and she called him Menelik. (Robertino Solàrion, Apollonius of Tyana & The Shroud of Turin)

Box: The Sana’a Mansucripts. The world’s oldest Koranic manuscripts were discovered in 1965 and rediscovered in 1972, during repairs on the Sana’a Great Mosque, built in the sixth year of the hijra, which signals the start of Islam. The paper manuscripts were found hidden inbetween old and newer layers of ceiling. Extensive restoration work on the ancient, damaged manuscripts is ongoing, but the manuscripts are surrounded by controversy. The non-Muslim ‘orientalist’ scientists previously working on the papers (in case Gerd Puin, a renowned paleographer of the German university of Saarland, who ‘secretly’ photographed the manuscripts) have been accused by some Muslim scholars (for example Aisha Geissinger) of trying to undermine the authenticity of the Koran.

Banner: I asked Anas: “What kind of clothing was most beloved to the Prophet?” He replied: “The Hibra (a kind of Yemenese cloth).” (Qatada, in a hadith)

Banner: Allah’s Apostle was asked about Al-Bit, a liquor prepared from honey which the Yemenites used to drink. Allah’s Apostle said: “All drinks that intoxicate are unlawful (to drink).” (Aisha in a hadith)

Historic overview


Paleolithic- Traces of human presence found in Al Mahwitt (Central Mountain Yemen)

Stone Age- Traces of hunters and gatherers found in Ruba Al Khali (Eastern Yemen)

Stonehenge-like monoliths found near Zabid (West Yemen-Hadhramawt)

Pre Islamic

2000 bc-500 ad- Unrivalled civilisation in various Kingdoms (Saba, Himyar, Hadhramawt, Ma’ín) across Southern Arabia (South Yemen)

200 ad -621 ad- Various Christian and Judaic kingdoms across South (-West) Yemen


  • 630 Sassanid rulers of Yemen convert to Islam
  • 873 or 897 Arrival of first Zaidi Imam in North Yemen
  • 873-1962 Epoch of various Imamates in Northern Yemen
  • 7th- 11th century – Various Islamic dynasties rule the rest of Yemen (Umayyad, Abbasids)
  • 11th century – Fatimid rulers (arrival of Ismaili presence)
  • 12th century – Ayyubid rule of Yemen
  • 13th and 14th century – Rasulid rule of Yemen
  • 15th century – Tahirid rule of Yemen
  • 1517- 1636 First Ottoman epoch
  • 1849- 1918 Second Ottoman epoch
  • 1839 -1967 British rule in Aden and parts of Southern Arabia
  • 1918 -1962 Epoch of last imamate in Yemen

Modern age

  • 1962 – Revolution in North Yemen, proclamation of Yemen Arab Republic (yar)
  • 1963 – Start of uprising in Aden protectorate, or British South Yemen
  • 1967 – Revolution in Aden, proclamation of People Democratic Republic of Yemen (pdry)
  • 1978 – Ali Abdallah Saleh becomes president for the first time
  • 1990 – Unification of yar and pdry into new Republic of Yemen (roy) – Saleh remains president
  • 1994 – Short civil war following seperation attempt former pdry-leaders
  • 2004 – Start of Zaidi uprising in the North
  • 2006 – Ali Abdallah Saleh reelected president for third consecutive time



Festive days

  • 1 May – Labour Day
  • 22 May – National Day/Unity Day (Unification, 1990)
  • 7 July – National Day/National Victory Day (following the civil war of 1994)
  • 26 September – National Day/Revolution Day (Revolution North Yemen, 1962)
  • 14 October – National Day/Revolution Day (Revolution South Yemen, 1967)
  • 30 November – National Day/Independence Day (following the Northern revolution war of 1967)
  • …………………………………   and the variable islamic events of Ramadan, Eid al Fitr, and Eid al Adha