History of Yemen

Historically, Yemen has been home to several civilisations. Ancient Yemenis built the world’s first dam, the Great Dam of Marib, as well as supplying the classical world of Ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, with the great riches that Yemen produced. The most famous of Yemen’s ancient civilisations was that of Sheba, and that kingdom’s most famous queen, known in Arabic as Bilqis, and in the Bible as the “Queen of Sheba”.

It was Yemen’s prosperity and the fertility of its land that led to being named Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia.

At the start of the Common Era, the indigenous Yemeni civilisations were vying for control of their land with several foreign empires, including the Christian Axum empire of Ethiopia, and the Persian Empire. By the 5th century, the powerful Himyarite Kingdom had converted to Judaism, and Yemen became a battleground for wars between various Christian and Jewish forces.

Islam arrived in Yemen soon after its emergence in the Hejaz, and the majority of the Yemeni population was soon Muslim. Yemenis are still proud of their designation as the “people of faith and wisdom” by the Prophet Muhammad.

Yemenis were acknowledged for their leading role in establishing the early Islamic empires, supplying large numbers of men to the early Islamic empires. Yemenis eventually settled as far afield as the Maghreb and even al-Andalus. Many Arabs across the Middle East claim lineage to Yemeni tribes that settled in their regions.

After the early Islamic caliphates of the Umayyads and the Abbasids, Yemen saw the emergence of two local empires, firstly the Sulayhids, and then, after their demise, the Rasulids. Both left Yemen with great cultural and architectural legacies.

The Ottomans arrived in the 16th century, and, with brief Portuguese incursions aside, were the most powerful foreign force till the arrival of the British in Aden in 1839.

North Yemen gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1918, whilst South Yemen gained their independence from the British Empire in 1967. Both empires left deep marks on their former territories, with Ottoman Turkish culture, and blood, mixing with locals in the North, and the British Empire’s trademark regulations and order in the South.

The North overthrew the Hamidaddins, the last scions of a 1000 year imamate that had variously floated between religious and political power over that period, in a revolution in 1962. In the South, the British were followed by the emergence of a Marxist state, the only one of its kind in the Arab world. The tumultuous period before unification in 1990 was one of development in both countries, but also international intrigue and brief wars and skirmishes between the two states.

Unified Yemen’s early optimism was rocked by devastating blows to its economy in its infancy, and by 1994 the Arabian Peninsula’s first multi-party democracy descended into civil war, on the old North-South lines. The North emerged victorious, leaving a bitter taste in the South, many of whom were disenfranchised in the post-war fallout.

Yemen’s worsening economy, and the increasingly autocratic rule, and corruption, of President Saleh, led to a mass peaceful uprising in 2011, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. Months of protests, and the division of Yemen’s military, led to Saleh stepping down in an international deal, to be replaced by his Vice-President, Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and a national unity government made up of various different factions.

And so we come to our present day; with various factions vying for power, poverty and inequality deepening, a southern movement itching for secession, and a youth movement chanting, “al-thawra mustamira”, the revolution continues.

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