The history of Yemen is especially important because 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, a feature recognized by the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy, who described Yemen as Eudaimon Arabia (better known in its Latin translation, Arabia Felix) meaning "fortunate Arabia" or Happy Arabia. Between the 12th century BCE and the 6th century CE, it was dominated by six successive civilizations which rivaled each other, or were allied with each other and controlled the lucrative spice trade: M'ain, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Awsan, Saba and Himyarite. Islam arrived in 630 CE, and Yemen became part of the Muslim realm.
The Yemeni desert regions (Rub' al Khali and Sayhad) were the core settlements of the Nomadic Semites that would migrate to the North, settling Akkad, later penetrating Mesopotamia, eventually conquering Sumer by 2300 BCE, and assimilating the Amorites of Syria.
Some scholars believe that Yemen remains the only region in the world that is exclusively Semitic, meaning that Yemen historically did not have any non-Semitic speaking people. Yemeni Semites derived their Musnad script by the 12th - 8th centuries BCE, which explains why most historians will date all the ancient Yemeni kingdoms to the 12th - 8th centuries BCE.
According to Arab tradition, the Semites of South Arabia integrated into Qahtan lineage 40 generations before the Qahtani Yemeni tribe of Jurhum adopted Ismail and 80 generations before Adnan was born, in the 23rd century BCE. After the fall of the Northern Semitic cultures, Qahtan revived the Semitic influence in the North through the famous Kahlan (Azd and Lakhm) and other Yemeni tribes migration into the North during the 3rd century AD after the first destruction of the Marib Dam..
The Qahtani Semites remained dominant in Yemen from 2300 BCE to 800 BCE, but little is known about this era because the Semites of the South were separated by the vast Arabian desert from Mesopotamian Semites and they lacked any type of script to record their history. However, it is known that they actively traded along the Red Sea coasts. This led to contact with the Phoenicians and from them, the Southern Semites adopted their writing script in 800 BCE and began recording their history.
The Tihama Semitic culture lasted from 1500-1200 BCE. During the late 2nd millennium BCE, a cultural Semitic complex arose in the Tihama region of Yemen and spread to northern Ethiopia and Eritrea (specifically the Tigray Region, central Eritrea, and coastal areas like Adulis). The Semites of Yemen began settling the Ethiopian highlands. These settlements would reach their climax by the 8th century BCE, eventually giving rise to the Dam't and Aksum kingdoms
During Sabaean rule, Yemen was called "Arabia Felix" by the Romans who were impressed by its wealth and prosperity. The success of the Kingdom was based on the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics including frankincense and myrrh. These were exported to the Mediterranean, India, and Abyssinia where they were greatly prized by many cultures, using camels on routes through Arabia, and to India by sea.
During the 8th and 7th century BCE, there was a close contact of cultures between the Kingdom of Dʿmt in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea and Saba'. Though the civilization was indigenous and the royal inscriptions were written in a sort of proto-Ethiosemitic, there were also some Sabaean immigrants in the kingdom as evidenced by a few of the Dʿmt inscriptions.
Agriculture in Yemen thrived during this time due to an advanced irrigation system which consisted of large water tunnels in mountains, and dams. The most impressive dam, known as the dam of Ma'rib was built ca. 700 BCE, provided irrigation for about of land and stood for over a millennium, finally collapsing in AD 570 after centuries of neglect.
The Sabaean kingdom, with its capital at Ma'rib where the remains of a large temple can still be seen, thrived for almost 14 centuries. Some have argued that this kingdom was the Sheba described in the Old Testament.
The first known inscriptions of the Kingdom of Hadramaut are from the 8th century BCE. It was first referenced by an outside civilization in an Old Sabaic inscription of Karab'il Watar from the early 7th century BCE, in which the King of Hadramaut, Yada`'il, is mentioned as being one of his allies. When the Minaeans took control of the caravan routes in the 4th century BCE, however, Hadramaut became one of its confederates, probably because of commercial interests. It later became independent and was invaded by the growing kingdom of Himyar toward the end of the first century BCE, but it was able to repel the attack. Hadramaut annexed Qataban in the second half of the 2nd century AD, reaching its greatest size. During this period, Hadramaut was continuously at war with Himyar and Saba', and the Sabaean king Sha`irum Awtar was even able to take its capital, Shabwa, in 225. During this period the Kingdom of Aksum began to interfere in South Arabian affairs. King GDRT of Aksum acted by dispatching troops under his son, BYGT, sending them from the western coast to occupy Zafar, the Himyarite capital, as well as from the southern coast against Hadramaut as Sabaean allies. The kingdom of Hadramaut was eventually conquered by the Himyarite king Shammar Yuhar`ish around 300 CE, unifying all of the South Arabian kingdoms.
The ancient Kingdom of Awsan with a capital at Hagar Yahirr in the wadi Markha to the south of the wadi Bayhan is now marked by a tell or artificial mound, which is locally named Hagar Asfal. Once it was one of the most important small kingdoms of South Arabia. The city, which has its origin in 800 BCE, seems to have been destroyed in the 7th century BCE by the king and mukarrib of Saba Karib'il Watar, according to a Sabaean text that reports the victory in terms that attest to its significance for the Sabaeans.
Qataban, which lasted from the 4th century BCE to 200 CE, was one of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms which thrived in the Baihan valley. Like the other Southern Arabian kingdoms it gained great wealth from the trade of frankincense and myrrh incense which were burned at altars. The capital of Qataban was named Timna and was located on the trade route which passed through the other kingdoms of Hadramaut, Saba and Ma'in. The chief deity of the Qatabanians was Amm, or "Uncle" and the people called themselves the "children of Amm".
The Himyarites had united Southwestern Arabia, controlling the Red Sea as well as the coasts of the Gulf of Aden. From their capital city, the Himyarite Kings launched successful military campaigns, and had stretched its domain at times as far east as the Persian Gulf and as far north to the Arabian Desert.
During the 3rd century CE, the South Arabian kingdoms were in continuous conflict with one another. GDRT of Aksum began to interfere in South Arabian affairs, signing an alliance with Saba', and a Himyarite text notes that Hadramaut and Qataban were also all allied against the kingdom. As a result of this, the Kingdom of Aksum was able to capture the Himyarite capital of Zafar in the first quarter of the 3rd century. However, the alliances did not last, and Sha`ir Awtar of Saba' unexpectedly turned on Hadramaut, allying again with Aksum and taking its capital in 225. Himyar then allied with Saba' and invaded the newly taken Aksumite territories, retaking Zafar, which had been under the control of GDRT's son BYGT, and pushing Aksum back into the Tihama.
They established their capital at Zafar (now just a small village in the Ibb region) and gradually absorbed the Sabaean kingdom. They traded from the port of al-Muza on the Red Sea. Dhu Nuwas, a Himyarite king, changed the state religion to Judaism in the beginning of the 6th century and began to massacre the Christians. Outraged, Kaleb, the Christian King of Aksum with the encouragement of the Byzantine Emperor Justin I invaded and annexed Yemen. About fifty years later, Yemen fell to Persia.
Kaleb sent a fleet across the Red Sea and was able to defeat Dhu Nuwas, who was killed in battle according to an inscription from Husn al-Ghurab, while later Arab tradition has him riding his horse into the sea. Kaleb installed a native Himyarite viceroy, Sumyafa` Ashwa`, who ruled until 525, when he was deposed by the Aksumite general (or soldier and former slave) Abraha with the support of disgruntled Ethiopian soldiers. According to the later Arabic sources, Kaleb retaliated by sending a force of 3,000 men under a relative, but the troops defected and killed their leader, and a second attempt at reigning in the rebellious Abraha also failed. Later Ethiopian sources state that Kaleb abdicated to live out his years in a monastery and sent his crown to be hung in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. While uncertain, it seems to be supported by the die-links between his coins and those of his successor, Alla Amidas. An inscription of Sumyafa` Ashwa` also mentions two kings (nagaśt) of Aksum, indicating that the two may have co-ruled for a while before Kaleb abdicated in favor of Alla Amidas.
Procopius notes that Abraha later submitted to Kaleb's successor, as supported by the former's inscription in 543 stating Aksum before the territories directly under his control. During his reign, Abraha repaired the Marib Dam in 543, and received embassies from Persia and Byzantium, including a request to free some bishops who had been imprisoned at Nisbis (according to John of Epheseus's Life of Simeon). Abraha ruled until at least 547, sometime after which he was succeeded by his son, Aksum. Aksum (called "Yaksum" in Arabic sources) was perplexingly referred to as "of Ma'afir" (ḏū maʻāfir), the southwestern coast of Yemen, in Abraha's Marib dam inscription, and was succeeded by his brother, Masruq. Aksumite control in Yemen ended in 570 with the invasion of the elder Sassanid general Vahriz who, according to later legends, famously killed Masruq with his well-aimed arrow.
Later Arabic sources also say that Abraha constructed a great Church called al-Qulays at Sana'a in order to divert pilgrimage from the Kaaba and have him die in the Year of the Elephant (570) after returning from a failed attack on Mecca (though he is thought to have died before this time). The exact chronology of the early wars are uncertain, as a 525 inscription mentions the death of a King of Himyar, which could refer either to the Himyarite viceory of Aksum, Sumyafa` Ashwa`, or to Yusuf Asar Yathar. The later Arabic histories also mention a conflict between Abraha and another Aksumite general named Aryat occurring in 525 as leading to the rebellion.
This development was a consequence of the expansionary policy pursued by the Sassanian king Khosrau II Parviz (590-628), whose aim was to secure Persian border areas such as Yemen. Following the death of Khosrau II in 628, then the Persian governor in Southern Arabia, Badhan, converted to Islam and Yemen followed the new religion.
Islam came to Yemen around 630, during Muhammad's lifetime. At that time the Persian governor Badhan was ruling. Thereafter Yemen was ruled as part of Arab-Islamic caliphates, and Yemen became a province in the Islamic empire.
Yemeni textiles, long recognized for their fine quality, maintained their reputation and were exported for use by the Abbasid elite, including the caliphs themselves. The products of Sana'a and Aden are especially important in the East-West textile trade.
The former North Yemen came under control of Imams of various dynasties usually of the Zaidi sect, who established a theocratic political structure that survived until modern times. In 897, a Zaidi ruler, Yahya al-Hadi ila'l Haqq, founded a line of Imams, whose Shiite dynasty survived until the second half of the 20th century.
Nevertheless, Yemen's medieval history is a tangled chronicle of contesting local Imams. The Fatimids of Egypt helped the Isma'ilis maintain dominance in the 11th century. Saladin (Salah ad-Din) annexed Yemen in 1173. The Rasulid dynasty (Turkish in origin) ruled Yemen, with Zabid as its capital, from about 1230 to the 15th century. In 1516, the Mamluks of Egypt annexed Yemen; but in the following year, the Mamluk governor surrendered to the Ottomans, and Turkish armies subsequently overran the country. They were challenged by the Zaidi Imam, Qasim the Great (r.1597–1620), and were expelled from the interior around 1630. From then until the 19th century, the Ottomans retained control only of isolated coastal areas, while the highlands generally were ruled by the Zaidi Imams.
North Yemen became independent of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and became a republic in 1962. The British, who had set up a protective area around the southern port of Aden in the 19th century, withdrew in 1967 from what became South Yemen. In 1970, the southern government adopted a Communist governmental system. The two countries were formally united as the Republic of Yemen on May 22, 1990.
Ottoman suzerainty was reestablished in northern Yemen in the late 19th century but its control was largely confined to cities, and the Zaidi imam's rule over Upper Yemen was formally recognized. Turkish forces withdrew in 1918, and Imam Yahya Muhammad strengthened his control over northern Yemen creating the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. Yemen became a member of the Arab League in 1945 and the United Nations in 1947.
Imam Yahya died during an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1948 and was succeeded by his son Ahmad. Ahmad bin Yahya's reign was marked by growing repression, renewed friction with the United Kingdom over the British presence in the south, and growing pressures to support the Arab nationalist objectives of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. He died in September 1962.
Shortly after assuming power in 1962, Ahmad's son, the Crown Prince Muhammad al-Badr was deposed by revolutionary forces, who took control of Sanaa and created the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Egypt assisted the YAR with troops and supplies to combat forces loyal to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia and Jordan supported Badr's royalist forces to oppose the newly formed republic starting the North Yemen Civil War. Conflict continued periodically until 1967 when Egyptian troops were withdrawn. By 1968, following a final royalist siege of Sanaa, most of the opposing leaders reached a reconciliation and Saudi Arabia recognized the Republic in 1970.
Aden was ruled as part of British India until 1937, when the city of Aden became the Colony of Aden, a crown colony in its own right. The Aden hinterland and Hadhramaut to the east formed the remainder of what would become South Yemen and was not administered directly by Aden but were tied to Britain by treaties of protection. Starting in the latter decades of the 19th century and continuing into the 20th century, Britain signed agreements with local rulers of traditional polities that, together, became known as the Aden Protectorate. The area was divided into numerous sultanates, emirates, and sheikhdoms, and was divided for administrative purposes into the East Aden Protectorate and the West Aden Protectorate. The eastern protectorate consisted of the three Hadhramaut states (Qu'aiti State of Shihr and Mukalla, Kathiri State of Seiyun, Mahra State of Qishn and Socotra) with the remaining states comprising the west. Economic development was largely centred in Aden, and while the city flourished partly due to the discovery of crude oil on the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s, the states of the Aden Protectorate stagnated.
Encouraged by the rhetoric of President Nasser of Egypt against British colonial rule in the Middle East, pressure for the British to leave grew. Following Nasser's creation of the United Arab Republic, attempts to incorporate Yemen in turn threatened Aden and the Protectorate. To counter this, the British attempted to unite the various states under its protection and, on 11 February 1959, six of the West Aden Protectorate states formed the Federation of Arab Emirates of the South to which nine other states were subsequently added.
During the 1960s, the British sought to incorporate all of the Aden Protectorate territories into the Federation. On 18 January 1963, the Colony of Aden was incorporated against the wishes of much of the city's populace as the State of Aden and the Federation was renamed the Federation of South Arabia. Several more states subsequently joined the Federation and the remaining states that declined to join, mainly in Hadhramaut, formed the Protectorate of South Arabia.
In 1963 fighting between Egyptian forces and British-led Saudi-financed guerrillas in the Yemen Arab Republic spread to South Arabia with the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), who hoped to force the British out of South Arabia. Hostilities started with a grenade attack by the NLF against the British High Commissioner on 10 December 1963, killing one person and injuring fifty, and a state of emergency was declared, becoming known as the Aden Emergency.
In January 1964, the British moved into the Radfan hills in the border region to confront Egyptian-backed guerrillas, later reinforced by the NLF. By October they had largely been suppressed, and the NLF switched to grenade attacks against off-duty military personnel and police officers elsewhere in the Aden Colony.
In 1964, the new British government under Harold Wilson announced their intention to hand over power to the Federation of South Arabia in 1968, but that the British military would remain. In 1964, there were around 280 guerrilla attacks and over 500 in 1965. In 1966 the British Government announced that all British forces would be withdrawn at independence. In response, the security situation deteriorated with the creation of the socialist Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) which started to attack the NLF in a bid for power, as well as attacking the British.
In January 1967, there were mass riots by NLF and FLOSY supporters in the old Arab quarter of Aden town, which continued until mid February, despite the intervention of British troops. During the period there were many attacks on the troops, and an Aden Airlines Douglas DC-3 plane was destroyed in the air with no survivors. At the same time, the members of FLOSY and the NLF were also killing each other in large numbers.
The temporary closure of the Suez Canal in 1967 effectively negated the last reason that British had kept hold of the colonies in Yemen, and, in the face of uncontrollable violence, they began to withdraw.
On 20 June 1967, there was a mutiny in the Federation of South Arabia Army, which also spread to the police. Order was restored by the British, mainly due to the efforts of the 1st Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, under the command of Lt-Col. Colin Campbell Mitchell.
Nevertheless, deadly guerrilla attacks particularly by the NLF soon resumed against British forces once again, with the British being defeated and driven from Aden by the end of November 1967, earlier than had been planned by British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and without an agreement on the succeeding governance. Their enemies, the NLF, managed to seize power, with Aden itself under NLF control. The Royal Marines, who had been the first British troops to occupy Aden in 1839, were the last to leave. The Federation of South Arabia collapsed and Southern Yemen became independent as the People's Republic of South Yemen. The NLF, with the support of the army, attained total control of the new state after defeating the FLOSY and the states of the former Federation in a drawn out campaign of terror.
In June 1969, a radical Marxist wing of NLF gained power.
The major communist powers assisted in the building of the PDRY's armed forces. Strong support from Moscow resulted in Soviet naval forces gaining access to naval facilities in South Yemen.
However, these plans were put on hold in 1979, and war was only prevented by an Arab League intervention. The goal of unity was reaffirmed by the northern and southern heads of state during a summit meeting in Kuwait in March 1979.
What the PDRY government failed to tell the YAR government was that it wished to be the dominant power in any unification, and left wing rebel in North Yemen began to receive extensive funding and arms from South Yemen.
Although the governments of the PDRY and the YAR declared that they approved a future union in 1972, little progress was made toward unification, and relations were often strained.
In May 1988, the YAR and PDRY governments came to an understanding that considerably reduced tensions including agreement to renew discussions concerning unification, to establish a joint oil exploration area along their undefined border, to demilitarize the border, and to allow Yemenis unrestricted border passage on the basis of only a national identification card.
The Republic of Yemen (ROY) was declared on 22 May 1990 with Saleh becoming President and al-Baidh Vice President. For the first time in centuries, much of Greater Yemen was politically united. A 30-month transitional period for completing the unification of the two political and economic systems was set. A presidential council was jointly elected by the 26-member YAR advisory council and the 17-member PDRY presidium. The presidential council appointed a Prime Minister, who formed a Cabinet. There was also a 301-seat provisional unified parliament, consisting of 159 members from the north, 111 members from the south, and 31 independent members appointed by the chairman of the council.
A unity constitution was agreed upon in May 1990 and ratified by the populace in May 1991. It affirmed Yemen's commitment to free elections, a multiparty political system, the right to own private property, equality under the law, and respect of basic human rights. Parliamentary elections were held on 27 April 1993. International groups assisted in the organization of the elections and observed actual balloting. The resulting Parliament included 143 GPC, 69 YSP, 63 Islaah (Yemeni grouping for reform, a party composed of various tribal and religious groups), six Baathis, three Nasserists, two Al Haq, and 15 independents. The head of Islaah, Paramount Hashid Sheik Abdallah Bin Husayn Al-Ahmar, is the speaker of Parliament.
Islaah was invited into the ruling coalition, and the presidential council was altered to include one Islaah member. Conflicts within the coalition resulted in the self-imposed exile of Vice President Ali Salim Al-Bidh to Aden beginning in August 1993 and a deterioration in the general security situation as political rivals settled scores and tribal elements took advantage of the unsettled situation.
Almost all of the actual fighting in the 1994 civil war occurred in the southern part of the country despite air and missile attacks against cities and major installations in the north. Southerners sought support from neighboring states and received billions of dollars of equipment and financial assistance, mostly from Saudi Arabia, which felt threatened by a united Yemen. The United States strongly supported Yemeni unity, but repeatedly called for a cease-fire and a return to the negotiating table. Various attempts, including by a UN special envoy, were unsuccessful to effect a cease-fire.
Southern leaders declared secession and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY) on 21 May 1994, but the DRY was not recognized by the international community. Ali Nasir Muhammad supporters greatly assisted military operations against the secessionists and Aden was captured on 7 July 1994. Other resistance quickly collapsed and thousands of southern leaders and military went into exile. Early during the fighting, President Ali Abdallah Salih announced a general amnesty which applied to everyone except a list of 16 persons. Most southerners returned to Yemen after a short exile.
An armed opposition was announced from Saudi Arabia, but no significant incidents within Yemen materialized. The government prepared legal cases against four southern leaders--Ali Salim al-Baidh, Haydar Abu Bakr Al-Attas, Abd Al-Rahman Ali Al-Jifri, and Salih Munassar Al-Siyali -- for misappropriation of official funds. Others on the list of 16 were told informally they could return to take advantage of the amnesty, but most remained outside Yemen. Although many of Ali Nasir Muhammad's followers were appointed to senior governmental positions (including Vice President, Chief of Staff, and Governor of Aden), Ali Nasir Muhammad himself remained abroad in Syria.
In the aftermath of the civil war, YSP leaders within Yemen reorganized the party and elected a new politburo in July 1994. However, the party remained disheartened and without its former influence. Islaah held a party convention in September 1994. The GPC did the same in June 1995.
In 1994, amendments to the unity constitution eliminated the presidential council. President Ali Abdallah Salih was elected by Parliament on 1 October 1994 to a 5-year term. The constitution provides that henceforth the President will be elected by popular vote from at least two candidates selected by the legislature. Yemen held its first direct presidential elections in September 1999, electing President Ali Abdallah Salih to a 5-year term in what were generally considered free and fair elections. Yemen held its second multiparty parliamentary elections in April 1997.