San José State University
Department of Economics

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Thayer Watkins
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The Early History of Yemen

From their tumultuous modern history someone remarked that the Yemeni are a people with a genius for chaos. That was not the case in ancient times when the area now known as Yemen was called Arabia Felix, meaning Happy or Fortunate Arabia. It was the land of frankincense and myrrh, two precious products that sustained the high cost of transporting to the Mediterranean world. Ships from India brought spices and other precious commodits to Arabia Felix where they were resold to Roman traders. The Romans thought those commodities were produced in Arabia Felix until a monsoon wind blew a Roman ship off course and it ended up in India. The Romans then found ways to cut Arabia Felix out of the trade.

Pagan Romans used frankincense and myrrh in funeral rituals. When a rich, powerful Roman died a substance fraction of the annual frankincense crop would be purchased for his funeral. When the Roman Empire became Christian all of that changed. The demand for frankincense plummeted. The price dropped to the level where it could not cover the transportation costs. Arabia Felix saddened.

The development of the region of Yemen started long before the era of the Roman Empire however. In ancient times (c. 500 BCE) a dam was built at Marib in the interior of what is now Yemen. It was an enormous for its time. It was about 2000 feet wide and fifty feet high. Its function was to catch the flash floods and divert them into irrigation canals. It irrigated about four thousand acres which probably sustained a population of three hundred thousand.

The Marib Dam collapsed a number of times and was rebuilt. In 575 CE it collapsed and was not rebuilt. The people in the area migrated away. It had maintained a flourishing culture in a very inhospitable location for over a thousand years.

The Geography of Yemen

There is a chain of flat-topped mountains near the western edge of the Arabian peninsula that are the major influence on the climates of Yemen. The highlands in the mountains make life in Yemen bearable. The coastal plains were for a long time virtually uninhabited because of the hot humid climate. The altitude of the mountain chain cooled the air sufficiently for it to drop its moisture. The eastern slopes of these mountains are in the mountains' rain shadow but some of rain falling in the mountains flows east where it can be captured as with the Marib Dam. The southern border of the Arabian peninsula is much less habitable than the western portion where western Yemen is located.

The Geographic Regions of Yemen

In ancient times it was only the flat-topped mountain highlands that had human settlements. The lowlands along the Red Sea coast (Tihamah) and along the Arabian Sea coast were just too inhospitable. Likewise the desert to the east of the mountain, the zone known in Saudi Arabia as the Rub al Khali (the empty quarter) was also unsuitable for human habitation. There were two mountain zones that were settled. One was the chain of mountains above the lowlands of the Red Sea and Arabian Sea coasts and the other was the chain of mountains running east-west, known as the Hadhramaut.

Up until the end of the last ice age the desert zone which includes the Sahara and Arabia was more habitable. With the drying out of Arabia the humans migrated north to urban areas where they learned techniques of irrigated agriculture. Around 1400 and 1200 BCE there were waves of resettlement of the descendants of the earlier migrants back into the area of Yemen. They then were able to create self-sustaining communities based upon catching the runoff from infrequent rain storms in the mountains.

The Ancient Kingdoms of the Yemen Area

There were five ancient kingdoms in the Yemen area of essentially the same culture. At times they were all independent and at other times one kingdom dominated the rest.

The kingdom of the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon in Biblical times was thought to have been Ethiopia. This is because for a period of time Ethiopia controlled the coastal area of Yemen, including the kingdom of Saba. Ethiopia itself was created by migrants from Yemen.

The Ethnicities and Religious
Afiliations in Yemen

Although virtually all of the Yemenis are Moslem and a majority are Sunni Moslems, there is a substantial portion of the Yemenis who are Shia Moslem, perhaps as much as 40 percent. The story of how this came to be is an interesting tale in religious schism.

The Shia Moslems of North Yemen are a different faction than those of Iran and Iraq. The Shia variant of North Yemen is called Zaydi.

The origin of the schism between Sunni and Shia Moslems derives from the issue of whom should lead the Islamic community. Mohammad had numerous wives but had only two children, both of them female and from two different wives. The most famous of the daughters of Mohammad was Fatima. The other daughter's name was Zaynab.

Fatima married Ali, who was the son of Mohammad's uncle and foster father. That uncle, Abu Talib, raised Mohammad after Mohammad's father died. Ali and Fatima had two sons, Hassan and Husayn. It is these two individuals who were crucial to the schism of the Moslem world.

Fatima died. Ali later married Umayma, the daughter of Zaynab, who was the other daughter of Mohammad.

After Mohammad's death the Ulema (council of elders) elected Abu Bakr to lead the community. Abu Bakr was the father of Aisha, the favorite wife of Mohammad.

Others in the Moslem commnity, including Ali, felt the leader of the Islamic community should be of the blood of Mohammad; i.e., a lineal descendant. Ali however supported the leadership of Abu Bakr. When Abu Bakr died in 634 the Ulema elected Umar and then after Umar's death in 646, elected Uthmar to be the leader, the Caliph.

Dissatisfaction developed about Uthman as Caliph, in part, because he was of the clan Banu Umayyab, which had bitterly opposed Mohammad in Mecca. Uthman was also accused of corruption and nepotism. Soldiers killed Uthman in 656. Ali was made caliph.

Another Banu Umayyab, who was governor of Syria, refused to recognize the authority of Ali. When Ali invaded Syrian territory. The battle was inconclusive and the governor of Syria called for arbitration. Ali accepted the principle of arbitration. However when the arbitration was not in his favor he refused to accept it. There was a group of Ali's supporters who did not accept the principle of arbitration and they withdrew their support of Ali and elected their own leader. They became known as the Kharajites. As other events unfolded the Kharajites became more alienated from Ali.

Ali and his dwindling supported attacked Syria again and lost the battle. In 661 a Kharajite killed Ali in what is now Iraq. The governor of Syria then declared himself to be Caliph. He would rule from Damascus.

Shiat Ali (The Party of Ali)

The supporters of Ali, Shiat Ali the party of Ali, refused to accept the Caliph of Damascus. They declared Ali's older son Hassan to be the new caliph. Hassan relinquished the title and accepted the Damascus Caliphate. Ali's younger son, Husayn, did not accepted the Caliphate of Damascus and tried to organize an armed rebellion. He and a small band of his followers were killed in 680 in the city of Karbala in what is now Iraq. Husayn was revered by Shias as a martyr.

The Zaydis

Husayn's grandson also rebellled against the Umayyad Caliphate. His name was Zayd ibn Ali Zayn al Abdin. Zayd claimed the right as a direct descendant of Mohammad and Ali to be the leader of Islam. The residents of the city of Al Kufah, who had always backed Ali and his line did back Zayd. Zayd led the rebellion from Al Kufah but the Umayyad Caliph sent a force to suppress Zayd's movement and Zayd was killed in Al Kufah in the year 740.

The movement however continued under the leadership of Zayd's son, Yahya.The Zaydi movement cohered and adopted its own theological positions which differed not only from those of the Sunni but also with those of other Shias. In some respects the Zaydi positions were more like those of the Sunnis than other Shias. While the Zaydis believe that the imman (leader) of the Islamic community must be a descendent of Mohammad and Ali they believed that Mohammad had chosen Ali to succede himself based upon the personal merits of Ali rather than from kinship.

The Zaydis survived as a religous group but without any statehood until 864 when a small Zaydist state arose near the Caspian Sea in what is now Iran. It survived until the 1100's.

The Zaydist state arose in northern Yeman as result of the practice, called hijra, of inviting a revered religious figure to adjudicate tribal disputes. In the highlands of northern Yeman there are a number of tribes which frequently are at war with each other. In the 890's the Sharafa tribe invited the Zaydi religious leader known as Al Hadi ilal Haqq (the Guide to the Truth). However that initial stay was brief because of the unwillingness of the Sharafa tribe to accept Sharia law. But when disputes again broke out Al Hadi was invited back and the Sharafa promised to adhere to his judgements. He established his juridiction over other tribes in the highland and his role in this matter was passed on to his son. This line of religious and secular leaders became a dynasty known as the Russids. This family endured up into the twentieth century.

The Ismailis

The Ismaili sect in Yemen is relatively small in numbers but nevertheless highly influential in leadership in various Yemen regions. The claim of descent from Mohammad the Prophet for the Ismailis is through Ali and his second wife, Umayma, the daughter of Zaynab, the other daughter of the Prophet.

The name Ismaili comes from a dispute concerning succession. The imamm (leader) Jafar al Sadiq at first chose his eldest son Ismail as his successor and then withdrew that nomination and chose his a younger son Musa. Ismail died before his father, Jafar. When Jafar died in 765 Musa officially became the imam. Some of the Shia community believed Ismail was the true successor and the that immamate should have gone to Ismail's son.

The Ismaili have elements of their religion that differ considerably from other Moslems, even other Shia Moslem. According to Ismaili belief there is always an imam but the imam may be revealed or hidden. If the imam is hidden then the Ismaili community may be governed by a representative, called the dai of the true imam.

There seems to be a belief among the Ismailis of Yemen of there will come a Messiah. The actual beliefs of the Ismailis are uncertain because there is a tradition of taqiyya (dissembling) among Ismailis when dealing with non-Ismailis to protect themselves and the true nature of their beliefs. The role of Ismailis in Yemen was enhanced when a dynasty of Ismailis came to power as caliphs in Egypt. This dynasty was known as the Fatimids. When the Fatimid line in Egypt lost power the role of Ismailis in Yemen was vastly diminished.

The Shafiis Sunni Moslems

(To be continued.)


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