SANAA, Feb. 23 (Saba) - The history of the Yemen stretches back over 3,000 years, and its unique culture is still in evidence today in the architecture of its towns and villages.
From about 1000 BC this region of the Southern Arabian Peninsula was ruled by three successive civilizations -- 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 civilized world and were used as part of various rituals in many cultures, including Egyptian, Greek and Roman.
The last of the great pre-Islamic kingdoms was that of Himyar, which lasted from about the 1st century BC until the 500s AD (seeHimyarites), at their heights, the Sabaean and Himyarite kingdoms encompassed most of historic Yemen, because of their prominence and prosperity, the states and societies of ancient Yemen were collectively called Arabia Felix in Latin, meaning "Happy Arabia." However, when the Romans occupied Egypt in the 1st century BC they made the Red Sea their primary avenue of commerce.
In pre-Islamic times, the area that encompasses the present-day Republic of Yemen was called Arabia Felix—happy or prosperous Arabia—and was ruled by a number of indigenous dynasties in several different kingdoms.
The most important cultural, social, and political event in Yemen’s history was the coming of Islam around A.D. 630. Following the conversion of the Persian governor, many of the sheikhs and their tribes converted to Islam, and Yemen was ruled as part of Arab caliphates, the former North Yemen came under the control of imams of various dynasties, the most important of which were the Zaydis [a Shi'a muslim dynasty], whose dynasty lasted well into the twentieth century.
By the sixteenth century and again in the nineteenth century, northern Yemen was controlled in the cities by the Ottoman Empire and in tribal areas by the Zaydi imam’s suzerainty, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved in 1918, and Imam Yahya, leader of the Zaydi community, took power in the area that later became the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), or North Yemen.
With the rise of the great ancient civilizations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and along the Mediterranean Sea, historic Yemen became an important overland trade link between these civilizations and the highly prized luxury goods of South Arabia and points east and south, as a result, several pre-Islamic trading kingdoms grew up astride an incense trading route that ran northwest between the foothills and the edge of the desert.
First, there was the Minaean kingdom, which lasted from about 1200 to 650 BC, and whose prosperity was due mainly to the trade of frankincense and spices.
In the 11th century BC, land routes through Arabia were greatly improved by using the camel as a beast of burden, and 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, some Sabaean carved inscriptions from this period are still extant.
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.
The large and prosperous kingdom of Saba' (Sheba), founded in the 10th century BC and ruled by Bilqis, the queen of Sheba, among others, was known for its efficient farming and extensive irrigation system built around a large dam constructed at Ma'rib, farther south and east, in the region that would later become South Yemen, were the Qataban and Hadhramaut kingdoms, which also participated in the incense trade.
The Rise of Islam The Islamic era, which began in the 7th century, contains many events critical to the formation of Yemen and the Yemeni people, the force with which Islam spread from its origins in Mecca and Medina in the nearby region of Al Hijaz (the Hejaz) led to Yemen's rapid and thorough conversion to Islam, Yemenis were well-represented among the first soldiers of Islam who marched north, west, and east of Arabia to expand Muslim territory.
Yemen was ruled by a series of Muslim caliphs, beginning with the Umayyad dynasty, which ruled from Damascus in the latter part of the 7th century; Umayyad rule was followed by the Abbasid caliphs in the early 8th century , the founding of a local Yemeni dynasty in the 9th century effectively ended both Abbasid rule from Baghdad and the authority of the Arab caliphate.
By contrast, the two-century-long rule of the Rasulids, beginning in the 1200s and initially based in Aden, identified the coastal regions and the southern uplands with Shafi'i Islam,the Rasulids, one of the major dynasties in the history of Yemen, broke from the Egyptian Ayyubid dynasty to rule independently, their capital, later located at Ta'izz, was famous for its diverse artistic and intellectual achievements.
Ottoman Rule In the early 16th century Portuguese merchants came to Arabia and took over the Red Sea trade routes between Egypt and India.
The Portuguese annexed the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean, and from that vantage point tried unsuccessfully to take control of Aden.
With its long sea border between early civilizations, Yemen has long existed at a crossroads of cultures with a strategic location in terms of trade on the west of the Arabian Peninsula. Large settlements for their era existed in the mountains of northern Yemen as early as 5000 BCE, little is known about ancient Yemen and how exactly it transitioned from nascent Bronze Age civilizations to more trade-focused caravan kingdoms.
Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East, its relatively fertile land and adequate rainfall in a moister climate helped sustain a stable population.
Written by Mona Zaid