For this week’s flag of the week, let’s turn back the clock and dive into Yemen’s rich historical past.
Yemen is located in the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula with a population of almost 30 million people. Yemen is bordered by Sauda Arabia to the north, Oman to the east, as well as the Red Sea to the west and the Gulf of Aden to the south, which empties into the Indian Ocean. Sana’a is the capital city of Yemen, and it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Local legends claim that this ancient city was established by Shem, one of Noah’s sons. In addition to being one of the world’s oldest cities, Sana’a is also one of the highest capital cities with an average elevation of 7,300 ft. above sea level. Yemen’s population is ethnically Arab, and Islam is the major religion, including both Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Arabic is the official language of Yemen.
While the rest of the world grapples with the pandemic, Yemen continues to be wrought with a civil war that began in 2014 when popular uprisings spiraled into a full-blown armed conflict between Houthi rebels (a minority Shia group from Northern Yemen) and a coalition of states headed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The forced displacement of almost 4 millions Yemenis from their homes, as well as the 24 million Yemenis who are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, has launched Yemen into the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
Although Yemen is presently burdened by economic, political, and social strife, it was once a wealthy Arab kingdom. Yemen’s history stretches over 3000 years and its strategic location at the crossroads of East Africa, Arabia, and Asia allowed the nation to flourish into a great center of civilization. In the ancient world, its fertile lands and economic prosperity earned Yemen the Roman nickname “Arabia Felix,” which is Latin for “Fortunate Arabia.”
The region of modern-day Yemen was once the ancient kingdom of Saba, which emerged around the 11th century BCE. According to modern historians, this ancient arabian kingdom was home to the Queen of Sheba, a figure that has been mentioned in the Quran and Hebrew Bible. One of the greatest accomplishments of the Sabean kingdom was building the oldest dam in the world. Constructed circa 940 BCE, the Great Dam of Ma’rib blocked seasonal floods and provided irrigation for Yemen’s once fertile plains. Impressive architectural feats were not restricted to ancient times, however. In the 1930s, for example, the Dar al-Hajar palace was carved out of one massive rock by Yahya Muhamman Hamid, an Islamic spiritual leader who ruled Yemen.
After a thousand years of prosperity, the Sabean Kingdom was conquered by the Jewish-influenced Himyarites. What was left of the Sabean Kingdom in terms of history and culture was wiped away when the Ma’rib dam failed and flooded the region c. 550 CE. The Sabean Kingdom was further obscured during the seventh century when Arab invasions facilitated the spread of Islam. The governance of Yemen continued to be difficult, with the emergence of at least three different dynasties between the 9th and 16th century, the intrusion of the Ottoman and British Empire in the early 20th century, and the modern-day political crisis going on in Yemen today.
Given its prominence in the region, Islam heavily influences Yemeni culture, as do Yemen’s historical ties with other Arab, African, and Asian countries. For example, chewing the narcotic khat plant that is native to Ethiopia is a prominent part of Yemeni culture, particularly in business encounters. The euphoric feeling this plant induces is thought to enhance decision-making abilities. South Asian influences are seen in the form of Indian architecture and Hindu temples in cities like Aden.
Yemeni culture is also distinct in terms of its cuisine. Saltah is the national dish, though it varies across regions. This dish consists of maraq (brown meat stew), fenugreek froth, sahawiq (spicy salsa), along with rice, potatoes, scrambled eggs, and vegetables. Saltah, and other dishes, are traditionally eaten by hand using flatbread to scoop up the food. Yemen also has an intimate connection to coffee, as caffe mocha is named for the Yemeni city of Mocha. Located on the coast of the Red Sea, this city was a major coffee trade hub and its mocha beans were known for their characteristic flavor.
Yemen’s traditional folk music is a form of sung poetry called homayni. It’s played during festivals and ceremonies or it can be performed casually at home. Homayni is usually accompanied by drums and the performers may even chew some khat beforehand to stimulate creativity. Although homayni remains popular today, hip-hop, rap, and pop music have also gained popularity. In fact, the emergence of politically-charged Yemeni hip-hop music is what helped galvanize youth into participating in the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.