11 Facts About Yemen You Probably Didn’t Know
By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer
With the current civil war in Yemen, all the media focuses on is the negative. Yet, there is so much more to Yemen than the war. Conflict aside, the country has a rich and deep history that goes back to biblical times. It is home to some of the most unique stories, architecture, and culture. Because of its location, Yemen has almost always been a crossroads between the East and the West, contributing to its strong culture. The following are just a few facts that make Yemen (and its people) very special.
1. Yemen was known as the “Happy Land”.
In the past, Yemen was called “Arabia Felix” in Latin. The meaning of the phrase is “Happy Land”. At the time, Yemen had this nickname because of its fertile land. However, Yemen’s land (along with much of the land in the Arabian Peninsula) has turned to desert and isn’t very fertile anymore.
2. Shibam, Yemen is the world’s oldest skyscraper city.
Located in the Hadhramaut Governorate in Yemen in the middle of the country, Shibam is an incredibly old city. The buildings are from the 16th century and made from mud bricks. In 1982, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site, as the city demonstrates early urban planning with vertical construction. For this reason, the city has been given the nickname: “Manhattan of the Desert”. A wall surrounds the entire city to protect it. Currently, the city is in danger of being lost because of the conflict.
3. The Dragon Blood Tree grows on Yemen’s island of Socotra.
Known for the red resin it produces, the Dragon Blood Tree only grows in harsh and dry climates (Socotra’s climate) and in areas with a lot of limestone (also Socotra). The tree is classified as an evergreen tree. There are a few local stories for how the tree came about. One is that two brothers were fighting to the death, and the Dragon Blood Tree grew from the blood on the ground. The other local legend is that the tree grew from the blood of a dragon, which was injured when fighting an elephant.
4. The Queen of Sheba, or Balqees, lived in Yemen.
The Queen of Sheba is in the Bible visiting King Solomon. Her kingdom is in what is now Yemen, although some people say that she ruled and lived in Ethiopia. Archaeological evidence shows that at the time that she was alive, Ethiopia and Yemen were ruled by the same empire: the Axumite Empire. The Axumite Empire was believed to be based in Yemen. Yemen’s claim to Queen of Sheba is also related to the kingdom of Saba, a kingdom in Yemen. Some historians say the name “Saba” is “Sheba”.
5. “Mocha” coffee is named after the city of Mokha in Yemen, where coffee was first sold.
Yemen is the first country that drank coffee, starting in the 15th century. By the next century, coffee was spread to the Middle East. Coffee from Mokha is believed to be the most authentic, rather than the mocha coffee mixed with chocolate. Mokha is a port city, and for 200 years, it monopolized the trade of coffee.
6. One-third of the plants found on Socotra are not found anywhere else on Earth.
Socotra’s climate (harsh, dry, and desert-like) favors very few plants, animals, and reptiles, making the wildlife population very unique. It is so unique that UNESCO declared it a place with Outstanding Universal Value in 2008. In total, there are about 825 plant species on the island, and 37% of those species are found only on Socotra. There are also many endangered species on the island, flagging the island for extra protection and conservation efforts.
7. Dar al-Hajar was built onto one rock.
Built in the 1930s, Dar al-Hajar was intended to be the summer home of Yahya Muhammad Hamiddin, an Islamic spiritual leader in Yemen. He built the house on top of a large, natural rock tower. After Hamiddin’s assassination, the building was turned into a museum that people can pay a fee to tour.
8. People have inhabited the Old City of Sana’a for more than 2,500 years.
Sana’a is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world because of the Old City, which has had residents for more than 2,500 years. Legend says that one of Noah’s sons, Shem, founded the city. The entire city boasts more than 6,000 houses with over 100 mosques and 14 hammams, all built before 1000 CE. Everything before the Islamic period in Yemen was destroyed, and then rebuilt. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986.
9. Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
Tawakkol Karman is a human rights activist, politician, and journalist. She won the Nobel Peace Prize because of her advocating for women’s rights and safety using nonviolence. Karman also participated in the peacebuilding efforts in Yemen. After being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, Karman became the first person from Yemen, the first Arab woman, and the youngest awardee. She has been arrested multiple times because of her work.
10. Out of all of the countries in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen was the first to give women the right to vote.
Make no mistake, Yemen is not an easy place to be a woman. There are many limitations for women, politically, socially, and economically. However, Yemen was the first country in the Gulf to give women the right to vote in 1967. Many women still find it hard to exercise their right to vote, as well as many of the other rights that they have under the Yemeni government.
11. Yemen’s past inhabitants were well-known for silversmithing.
Before the Nakba, many of Yemen’s citizens were Jewish, who then moved out of Yemen. The Jewish and Muslim communities in Yemen co-existed, with many Jewish artisans silversmithing for everyone, regardless of religion. Their craft was characterized by elaborate details, granulation, and ornamentation. Word about their expertise spread beyond Yemen, garnering the artisans a reputation for fine silversmithing throughout the Arab world.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!