Yemen, Arabia Felix

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(San’a, Capital of Yemen) – This is the ancient land of the Queen of Sheba, a land of fabled mystery and surprising contrasts, even to this day.

The ancient Greeks were so impressed with its natural wealth and advanced civilization that they named Yemen, Eudaimon Arabia. Later, the Romans called it Arabia Felix and the Arabs knew it as Al-Yaman-Al-Sa’eed. All three names translate approximately to Fortunate Arabia, or Happy Yemen.

Yemen’s capital of San’a is situated in the midst of the Yemeni plateau at a height of about 2200 meters above sea level, between two mountains. It is one of the oldest sites of human settlement in the world and according to Yemeni folklore, was founded by Noah’s son Shem.

While it is part of the Arabian Peninsula, which is mostly desert, Yemen is blessed with waterfalls, vineyards, coffee plantations, banana groves, orchards of pomegranates and apricots, and varied field crops such as corn and watermelons.

In fact, agriculture was this country’s chief wealth before the discovery of oil throughout the rest of Arabia. But since no oil has been found here – a mystery and surprise to many – 40% of the country’s population of 20 million Yemeni are poor, with many leaving their homeland to find work in neighbouring countries.

Yemen shares its northern boundary with Saudi Arabia, while on its eastern side lies the state of Oman. Its remaining boundaries are natural ones – the Gulf of Aden hugs the south and the Red Sea laps its western coast. Along Yemen’s northeastern border lies one of the most inhospitable deserts in the world — the infamous Rub’ al-Khali, or Empty Quarter.

Ancient Yemen also grew wealthy through its key geographic and commercial position as a major trade centre for luxury goods of the time. Especially popular were exotic spices that came from India and were transported northward via Arabia to Greater Syria, Iraq, Egypt and further west to Africa via the Red Sea. Modern historians credit the people of Yemen with creating the longest North-South trade route in the ancient world. The Yemenis also traded in two rare, aromatic resins – frankincense and myrrh – which were in high demand among royalty in the ancient world, particularly the Romans.

In addition to being successful traders, the ancient Yemenis made excellent use of the seasonal Monsoon rains by constructing a marvelously engineered irrigation and water storage system. A notable example was the famous Marib Dam, a structure built in the seventh century BC across the Wadi Adhana gorge. Thanks to the success of their irrigation network, Yemenis could sustain extensive agricultural productivity, making this the most populated region of the Arabian Peninsula in ancient times.

Two successive and famous civilizations, the Sabeans and Himyarites, dominated ancient Yemen for 14 centuries, from the ninth century BC to 520 AD.

But it was the Queen of Sheba (Belqis), ruler of Yemen during the 8th century BC, who is mentioned in every history book, as well as in both the Bible and the Qur’an. We read in the Qur’an (27:22) that an unusual messenger came to King Solomon saying, "With sure knowledge have I come to thee from Saba’ (Sheba)." The messenger was a bird, a native species called the hoopoe, which had just returned from Ma’rib, the capital of ancient Saba’. The bird discovered in Saba’ not only a rich kingdom and advanced civilization, but also "a woman on the throne." The Qur’an praises the Saban Queen for consulting her people before taking major decisions (a rare quality anywhere in the world today!).

Jonathan Raban, a British writer and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, visited Yemen and wrote a fine book, "Arabia Through the Looking Glass" (1978). Tim Mackintosh-Smith, another British writer, visited Yemen in 1982 and has lived and worked there ever since. In 1996 he wrote another fine book, "Yemen – The Unknown of Arabia," which won him the Thomas Cook Travel Book Award.

Yemen’s influence in the ancient world waned gradually from about 200 AD to 520 AD, due to both internal and external forces. A main cause was the disintegration of Yemen’s hydrological marvels, including the famous Marib Dam. The final blow was the invasion of a Christian-Ethiopian army (with the blessing of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople) in 520 AD that toppled the Yemen’s Himyari monarchy.

Yet much of the ancient Yemeni style of architecture survives and has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. In fact, this unique architecture could teach today’s professionals a great deal, for it was Yemeni builders who discovered more than millennium ago how to construct energy efficient ten-story skyscrapers from local stone and adobe.

Today, San’a is a city of densely packed tower houses, some reminiscent of the durable buildings of ancient times. Their walls are adorned with fine traceries of gypsum plaster and warmly lighted stained-glass windows against a picturesque backdrop of mountains and misted green foliage.

But the people themselves are even more exciting and colourful than their dwellings and landscape… and this is the topic of another story.

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