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History of Yemen

WARNING: Terrorist threats continue in Yemen, please read this travel warning before going!

People have lived in modern day Yemen for tens of thousands of years, but it wasn't until the Qahtani Semites that organized culture and politics developed. The Qahtani Semites ruled the region from about 2300 BC and were active traders in the Red Sea. At this same time, the Tehama Semitic culture arose, eventually spreading into northeastern Africa near modern day Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

In the 700s BC the Sabaeans rose to prominence in the region, as they traded numerous spices to both the west and east. Soon the people had gained great influence and as the Roman Empire rose, they became a significant trading partner of the Sabaeans.

During the rule of the Sabaeans numerous people ruled over various regions of modern day Yemen. However none were as powerful as the Sabaeans, who ruled until the 300s AD and truly controlled most of the region's trade.

As the Sabaean Empire slowly declined the Himyarite Empire began to rise, eventually united much of the Red Sea coast and the coast along the Gulf of Aden. The next substantial power in the region were the Aksum rulers, who were Christians and supported by Byzantium to take the lands of the region. This takeover in the 300-500s led to numerous conflicts with the other people in the region and soon both sides had foreign support as the Persians backed Aksum enemies. The Aksum rulers fell from power in 570 as the Persian Sassanid Dynasty took over the region.

In about 630 Islam arrived to Yemen from nearby Mecca and Medina (in modern day Saudi Arabia). The people quickly converted to Islam and the religion spread as the region fell under the power of local Imams (although they continued to remain under Persian rule). Soon after these local Imams were fighting each other for power and these struggles continued as various groups took greater amounts of power, but none ever held the entire region.

From the 600s until the 1800s the country, as it is today, was not united. The local Imams fought as foreign powers came in to take control with the help of a local Imam. Despite these struggles and the foreign powers, the region remained in pieces. The Fatimids from Egypt, the Mamluks from Egypt, and the Ottomans from Turkey all held significant power at times, but none could ever secure the entire region, although they did make significant contributions.

In 1516 the Mamluks from Egypt entered the region and gained control of nearly the whole of modern day Yemen. The following year though the Ottomans took power from the Mamluks, and hence gained the region. This led to battles between the Turkish Ottomans and the local people as the Turks tried to control of region and the local people, under the leadership of Qasim the Great, rebelled. The local people had limited success in that they held off the Turks in the region's interior in 1630, but the Ottomans held the coastal regions. From this point the region developed under these two rulers: the Ottomans on the coasts and the Zaidi Imams inland.

This dual rule in the country continued until the 1800s when the Zaidi Imams collapsed due to internal arguments, hence opening the door for Ottoman control, which they took in the 1830s. Among their new gains was the city of Sana'a.

Full Ottoman control only lasted until 1832 when the British arrived along the Gulf of Aden to take the city of the same name. They held this city and its surrounding lands for some time as British influence eventually took control over nearly the entire southern half of the modern country.

Despite Ottoman and British control the people regularly rebelled against these foreign rulers. This led to the British and Ottomans to granting titles, powers, and land upon some local leaders, while enlisting them to fight those rebels who refused to submit to foreign occupation. This led to a re-birth of Zaidi rule as the Ottomans recognized their control over the rural mountainous lands to turn a potential threat into an ally.

At the end of World War I the Ottoman Empire collapsed, giving more lands to Britain, while much of their territory fell into the hands of the local people, many of whom continued to fight each other. They also faced a threat from the north when the Al Saud family tried to take the lands to incorporate into their growing Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In the 1930s war had broken out between the local people and the Saudis, while Britain gained further control over Aden, making that the economic capital of the region. Despite desperately clinging to Aden, they gave up the rest of the region; the British only wanted the port city to protect the Suez Canal so the rest of the modern country was left to rule itself.

After independence, the largest issue to address for the new government was re-taking the city of Aden and the surrounding regions. They turned to Egypt for support, who pressured the United Kingdom to hand the lands over, however this only encouraged the Brits to secure their power in the region (primarily to protect the Suez Canal) as they solidified power in the 1960s with Saudi support. However the people protested and began attacks on British vessels, leading the handover of the region in 1967.

After Britain left the region the local tribes continued to fight for some time, but had most of their issues settled with the departure of the Brits, leading to peace in 1970; peace amongst themselves and with Saudi Arabia. With the departure of the British the country of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was founded in the south as the northern country remained.

This southern country became a communist country closely allied with the Soviet Union and China. Just two years later though the north and south were fighting as the Saudis came in to support the north. By year's end the two stopped the violence and had agreed to unite to form a single country.

Prior to unification civil war broke out in South Yemen in 1986. Many people fled to the north as did politicians who lost influence and power during the struggle. This led to greater communication among the two sides as they opened their border for free passage in 1988. In 1990 the two sides united, creating the Republic of Yemen. Just as the two sides united the economy struggled and the unrest continued.

This unrest and economic turmoil led to a civil war in 1994. This was led by the south who again sought independence, however the war was short lived as the majority of both former governments united to take Aden in the same year. The rest of the 1990s were focused on political and economic unity.

In the 2000s internal fighting escalated as numerous groups either fought the government, each other, or joined the ranks of Islamic extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda. The most noticeably of these attacks were on the USS Cole, an American military ship that was docked in Aden when it was bombed in 2000.

In 2011 two events greatly effected Yemen. The first was that Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan; this revealed that Al Qaeda had moved many stations of operation to the country of Yemen. Despite the government's fight again terrorism and Al Qaeda, they have little control over these groups in their mostly mountainous and deserted country. Second protests began to arise against the government as the economy struggled, a part of what is called "Arab Spring." Despite the president stepping down, full scale violence has erupted in many Yemeni towns and villages between numerous ethnic groups and peoples.

This page was last updated: July, 2012