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Volume 32, Number 3May/June 1981

In This Issue

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Written by Jon Mandaville
Photographed by Norman MacDonald

In the same way that Egypt has been called the "Gift of the Nile" so Yemen might be called the gift of the monsoon. More than anything else, rainfallregular and sufficient rainfallexplains why the country of Yemen is different from its neighbors; it accounts for terraced fields, green pastures and forests, for special architecture, and for an economy and history that is distinctive.

For this issue of Aramco World, however, Mandaville did not attempt to examine Yemen's history or economics. Instead, he has filled his notebook with simple observations on Yemeni life todaythe odd fact, the offhand comments, the memorable bit of color seen or heard as he trekked the coastal plain near the Red Sea and climbed the slopes of the Arabian Peninsula's highest ranges. Ignoring both statistics and headlines, and glancing but lightly at history, he wrote of stonemasons and beekeepers, the vistas at the end of valleys, the sights and sounds of salt mines, fishing villages and the market places. "These are not studies" he said. "They're impressions"

Norman MacDonald, the illustrator, did much the same thing. Into his sketchbook, he put the reportorial realism that fascinates him, along with the mix of bold, primary colors and delicate tints that delight hima mix that lets the look and feel of Yemen come through to the printed page.

He and Mandaville traveled together some of the time, and worked alone on other occasions. But even when they were together they were not always seeing the same things or talking to the same people. Their impressions, therefore, are quite different, yet together they add up to a better overall sketch of Yemen than could otherwise be achieved.

What they didn't touch on, of course, and never intended to touch on, was the long and complicated history of this mountainous anduntil recentlyisolated corner of the Arabian Peninsula, a history that goes back not only to the famous Queen of Sheba, but far beyond her era.

Yemen was not always isolated. Historically and geographically, this soaring slice of Arabia extended far beyond the boundaries of the present state explored by Mandaville and MacDonald. To the Greeks and Romans, and to medieval Arab geographers, "Yemen" designated the whole of southern or southwestern Arabia, from about latitude 20 degrees N. southward to the Arabian Sea, and from the Red Sea coast eastward to the edges of the vast sand desert of the Rub' al-Khali, the Empty Quarter, and, as the historical record shows, it played a prominent role in the ancient world.

From about the ninth century B.C. to A.D. 520, two successive and famous civilizations, called Sabean and Himyarite respectively, dominated ancient Yemen and created there civilizations so impressive that the ancient Greeks called Yemen Eudaimon Arabia, and later the Romans called it Arabia Felix — Fortunate Arabiaa reference to its wealth.

During this long period, Yemen grew rich from its role as a trans-shipment center for luxury goodsparticularly spicesoriginating in India and points farther east. Such goods were unloaded from sailing vessels and ultimately carried overland in caravans up the Arabian Peninsula to markets in Egypt, Roman dominions along the Eastern Mediterranean coast, inland and even across the peninsula to the Fertile Crescenttoday's Iraq and Syria. To get them to market, historians today credit these people of southwestern Arabia with laying out what was, in their day, the longest trade route in the world.

The Sabeans and Himyarites also collected and sold two rare, aromatic resinsfrankincense and myrrhfor which the ancient world, particularly the Romans, had an insatiable appetite.

Yemen, during most of these 14 centuries, was a cooperative federation of small states rather than a truly unified realm, but a strong orientation to business and a materialistic focus bound the region together just as the highlands set it apart from the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. Behind their success as traders was still another skill. Certainly then, as now, monsoon rains fell on the land, but it took wisdom and skill to utilize this bounty. This the ancient Yemenis did by constructing a marvelous irrigation and water storage system, including the famous Marib Dam, a structure built in the seventh century B.C. across the Wadi Adhana (See Aramco World, March-April 1978). This system permitted extensive and fruitful agricultural effortsthe broad base of the economyand helped indirectly to support a dense population.

The waning of Yemeni influence occurred graduallyfrom about A. D. 200 to A. D. 520. Historians ascribe this change to both internal causes and external forces. Internally, political feuding sapped the energies of the various city states and political alignments within the country. Externally, new empires and people, particularly the revived Persians under Sassanid rule and the Byzantine Greeks and, earlier, the Romans, developed their own trade routes to Eastern markets. New routes, of course, diverted trade goods which formerly had passed through Yemeni hands and caused a decline in commercial activity.

Another factor was the disintegration of Yemen's hydrological marvelsincluding the famous Marib Damand with them agricultural production and the economy's ability to support a sedentary, stable population. A final blow was a Christian-Ethiopian army which, with the blessing of the Byzantines in Constantinople, invaded Yemen in A. D. 520 and destroyed the power of the Himyari king. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century, and the ultimate absorption by the Muslims, Yemen, as a relatively minor part of a dynamic and expanding Islamic world, slipped into the backwaters of history for some 1,300 years.

In recent years, however, the conflicts of the modern world have intruded. Southwestern Arabia today actually comprises two Yemensthe Yemen Arab Republic in the north, the country which Mandaville and MacDonald have tried to describe, and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen to the south with its coast on the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden. From 1918 to 1962, Yemen's ruling imams resolutely kept the country free of outside interference, but starting in 1962 coups, civil war and regional upheavals have brought Yemen into the political battles of the world. The British, for example, who had occupied Aden in 1839 and subsequently built it into a major port and trade entrepot, withdrew from the region in the 1960's and the political balance they had helped maintain crumbled.

Needless to say, the events of the 1960's and 70's are characterized by great complexity. Yet, paradoxically, Mandaville's and MacDonald's excursions in the Yemen Arab Republic reveal that despite its problems, Yemen today in many respects is no less "fortunate" than it was in ancient times. It is certainly true that the two Yemens are relatively poor countries today; so far, neither has found oil or gas, industry is small scale; agriculture employs 70 percent of the population mid, at least in the Yemen Arab Republic, 19 percent of a total population of 6.5 million have left the country to work elsewhere on the Peninsula. These specific economic and political concerns, though, arc not really the point of their work. What they sought was the spirit of Yemen today; a spirit that Mandaville caught in this lyrical description:

"Frost crusts the stubble of Yemen's high mountain farm fields... and, 50 miles west of the fields — down 2,700-meter cliffs (9,000 feet) and rockslide canyonsthe outwash plains of the seven great wadis run in the hot sunshine out towards the Red Seastrips of green corn and fields clustered with watermelons.

"This is the Arabia of waterfalls and floods, of vineyards and coffee trees, banana groves, pomegranates and apricots: Arabia Felix to the ancient Roman geographers, al-Yaman al-Sa'ida —"Happy Yemen"to the Arabs.

It's also High rise Country. Because in Yemen they've been making skyscrapers 10 stories highout of energy-efficient stone and adobefor 1,000 years and more, and the latest fashion in European coffee table books is Yemeni architecture, views of cities of closely packed tower houses, fine tracery of gypsum plaster and warm lighted stained glass windows against mountains misted green. Yemen, indeed, is picturesque. But photographs, for all their intensified color, show only the leading edge of the Yemen story. For every crashing waterfall, every rocky peak, the people themselves have a more exciting story to tellYemenis rich and poor, farmers and businessmen, mountaineers and plainsmen, different in life style and accent from region to region, yet all of them fiercely proud to be Yemeni and Arab. In the end, this is the Yemen that matters".

--The Editors

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the May/June 1981 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

See Also: YEMEN

Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1981 images.