The Pre-Islamic History of Yemen

By Zaid Al-Alaya’a
Jun 25, 2005 - Vol. VIII Issue 25

The rich history of Yemen before Islam traces the roots of the Arabs as a people. The Arabs are a nation descended from Sam, the son of Noah, hence the fact that Arabs are termed a Semitic people. The Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula were divided into two main groups: The first being the Qahtanis and the second the Adnanis.

Yemen obtained its name because it was located to the right of the Ka’abah (The Holy House), and the word Yemen also contains the meanings “grace”, “wealth”, and “an abundance of resources.” The history of Ancient Yemen dates back to the second millennium B.C. with the emergence of a written script and the appearance of the states of Saba, Maien, Humair and others. This period ended in the year 525 A.D. with the fall of Yemen to the Abyssinians. It was during this period that social classes and private and state owned properties first emerged.

The Arabs that settled Yemen were called the Qahtanis, and they went on to creat great civilizations throughout the country. The first king of the Qahtani State was Ya’arb bin Qahtan who defeated the Aad nation in Yemen and the so-called “Giants” in Hejaz. He gave positions of leadership to his brother Hadhramawt bin Qahtan, who ruled in the Al-Shaher Mountains, and his sons Yashjeb and Abd Shames, also know as “Saba”. It was Abd Shames that built the famous Marib Dam, and among his sons were Kuhlan and Humair, the latter being the founder of the Humairian State.

However, for reasons such as war, draught, and tribal conflict, the Qahtanis were scattered all over the Arabian Peninsula from the Hejaz to Iraq, and on throughout Arabia.

Yemen was subsequently ruled by several states in the pre-Islamic period. The Ma’aeeni State began in 3000 B.C., with its capital in Qarnaw; the Sheba State, from 1000 to 115 B.C., had its capital in Sorwah, and finally came the Humairian State.

The Humairian State was divided into two parts: The Humair State and Tabab’ah. The Humair State ruled from 5 B.C. until 300 A.D. and the second part lasted from then until 525 A.D.

This is in addition to other states that had great civilizations such as the Hadhramout State, Qatban State, and Osan State.

According to the division generally applied to the Arab nation, historians divide Arabs into three categories. The first is the long-disappeared ancient Arabs, those whose history was passed down unwritten from generation to generation through oral traditions. Some of these Arabs were mentioned in the Holy Qura’an, like Aad and Thamoud.

The second category is the Aarebah, which includes the Yemenis that belong to Yemen Ya’arub bin Qahtan and are found in the Bible under the name Yareh bin Yaqtan. They are thought to be the origin of all Arabs. Among these Yemenis were subdivisions from several tribes such as the Humair tribes like the Zaid, Qotha’ah, and Sakasek, and the Kuhlan tribes which include the Hamdan, Taiy, Madhej, and Kendah. The Humair were the leaders of pre-Islamic tribal Yemen.

The third class is the Semi-Arabs (Must’arebah) who were the offspring of Ishmael, the prophet that settled in the Hejaz in the 19th century B.C. Ishmael married into the family of Jerhem kings and his sons were so widely dispersed that the only son known with any degree of certainty by historians is Adnan. The most famous of the Semi-Arab tribes are the Rabea’ah and Anmar.

The main periods of ancient Arab history are generally divided by historians into five distinct eras:

First is the Jahli era, which began with the independence of the Adnanis from the Yemenis in the middle of the fifth century A.D and ended with the emergence of Islam in the year 622.

The second period includes the Islamic and the Amawi eras. It began with Islam and ended with rising of the Abbassi State in the year 132 of the Hejri Calendar. The Abbassi State ended in 656 with the fall of Baghdad to the Tatars.

The fourth period, the Turkish era, began in 656 and ended in the period of the modern Renaissance in the Hejri year of 1220.

Lastly, the Modern Era, which began in 1220 with Mohammed Ali Basha taking control of Egypt.

When referring to Yemen historians mean the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula that stretches from the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea in the east, and from the middle of the Arabian Peninsula north to the Arabian Sea and south to the Indian Ocean. Modern day Oman is considered by historians to have been part of ancient Yemen. According to Greek and Arab historians, Yemen included Asseer and Najran, now part of Saudi Arabia, the western and eastern governorates of Yemen, Musqat, Oman, Dhafar, and other governorates. Ancient Greek historians often referred to Yemen as Arabia Felix.

The Arabs were renowned for their discoveries and innovations, and the inhabitants of Yemen were no exception.

Yemen had advanced governmental infrastructures before all other nations in the ancient age. This was evident when the Queen of Sheba Balqis called upon consultants to advise her on how to handle her affairs after her first contact with Solomon. They also had their own laws that regulating behavior and contracts.

They employed monetary currencies and measuring scales, and were famous for their architecture. Yemen still has hundreds of palaces from the ancient period, although most are now ruins. There are also the dams, with Marib being the most famous one.

They built in each of the different geographical regions, including the harsh conditions of the mountains. They used different materials depending on the climate and available resources.

Perhaps the ancient Yemenis were most famous for their agricultural terraces. Regardless of the inhospitability of the environment, the Yemenis managed to adapt.

Nothing seemed to be capable of preventing them from inhabiting the lands they chose.


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