A Trip To Jibla - The Home Of Yemen's Second Legendary Queen
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
It is a rare person who has not heard of the famous Biblical Queen of Sheba, known to the Arabs as Queen Balqis. An almost mythical person, she ruled in the Yemen over the mighty Sabaean trading kingdom and left her mark in literature, history and religion. Perhaps, to a lesser extent was Queen Arwa, the second of Yemen’s legendary women. For the Yemenis, however, she is the most famous. In the 12th century, she was appointed and given the respected title of Hujja of Yemen.
In the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, especially in Jibla, her capital, she is affectionately remembered in popular folklore for her statesmanship and affection for her subjects. During my sojourn in the Yemen, the praise of this woman ruler who stood out in a man controlled world spurred me to visit her capital.
Leaving the wide dusty streets of New Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, our party of six made its way southward on an excellent two-lane highway heading for Jibla, near Taiz – the country’s second largest city. On both sides of the road barren mountains dominated the landscape, but our route followed a fertile valley crowded with tiny fields and villages, some perched atop or climbing the mountain cliffs.
Soon we were driving through majestic mountains. Up and up we climbed until Sumara Pass, 2,700 m (8,856 ft) above sea level. Hundreds of feet below, the terraced fields and rich-looking green valleys overflowed with crops and flowers. In places it appeared that some of the mountains were cultivated to their loftiest peaks.
Continuing our journey, I was enjoying the captivating beauty of the terraced mountain landscape when we turned right. Before us stood Jibla atop a basalt hill, edged by two valleys – 10 km (6 mi) from Ibb. With its commanding view one could see why al-Sayyida al-Hurra Arwa bint Ahmed al- Sulayhi chose it as her capital.
Ali al-Sulayhi, the first of the Sulayhid Dynasty, and his wife Asma, united the Yemen, beginning from the Haraz Mountains, bringing it under the rule of the Fatimids of Egypt. When he was waylaid and killed in 1067 A. D., his son Ahmad al-Mukarram became the new ruler. However, he was soon struck with paraplegia and entrusted his government into the hands of his wife Arwa. Nevertheless, even after his death, she did not effectively govern until her mother-in-law Asma passed away. In 1086 A.D., Queen Arwa took real power and ruled for over half a century until she died in 1138 at the age of 92.
Chroniclers have described Arwa as a cultured and modest woman who worked within the framework allowed by society in her time. She is reported to have told her husband when he asked her to take his place that ‘a woman’s place is in bed, not running a country’. This in spite of the fact that she had an intellectual up- bringing – the best in her age.
The Sulayhid families educated their daughters to the same standards as their sons and Arwa was no exception. Historians have written that she was fully versed in all fields and arts, especially in history and poetry. It is said that Arwa, who was a fine writer, became so engrossed with academic life that she assumed her responsibilities of rule rather reluctantly. Being a peaceful person by nature, one of her first acts is reported to have been the moving of the country’s capital from Sana’a to Jibla because the people of the latter city were peaceful and those of Sana’a turbulent and warlike. Her rich background and gifts of statesmanship enabled her to rule for 52 years one of the most tempestuous countries in the world of that age.
An energetic and firm woman, she sought to win the loyalties of her subjects, not by force but through honesty and sound administration. She spent great amounts of money for public causes and improved the local economy immensely. It is reported that she spent the entire budget of one year to improve and construct new terraces. Many aqueducts, markets, a good number of mosques, schools and roads connecting most towns, were constructed during her reign. Arwa’s patronage of architects is responsible for the countless fine structures, dating from the time of her rule, that one sees today. They are a tribute to this Arab queen’s far sighted polices.
Her subjects’ public attitudes to her and her administration were a curious mixture of veneration and anomic challenge due to her adherence to the Fatimid sect – to the majority of Muslims, heretics. Yet, being honest in her rule and way of life, she always regarded herself as the servant of the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo – never wavering in her faith despite the resulting problems.
The memory of Queen Arwa has been well preserved in today’s Yemen. Not only in Jibla but in every part of the country, people are proud of her and she is remembered for her wise rule. To the inhabitants of her city, a significant market town, she is an ideal Muslim woman, fondly remembered.
Our first stop was the mosque built by al-Sayyida Arwa. We examined for some time this historic religious edifice, which, with its Qur’anic school, is fully functional. After dallying here and there by some of its attractive architectural features, we rested by Arwa’s tomb in the prayer hall, not far from an exquisite mihrab. On the other side of the mausoleum, was a door that led to a library of ancient manuscripts. I would have liked to examine some of these books, but time was pressing.
On our way out, at the entrance to what some consider being one of the most remarkable and beautiful mosques in Yemen, I stood surveying al-Sayyida Arwa’s town, considered one of the most picturesque in the country. The half- ruined palace of this remarkable woman, located on the highest spot of Jibla’s hill, dominated the scene. It appeared to be an impressive structure, needing renovation. In Arwa’s time it was a luxurious palace supplied by water through an aqueduct, which today remains operational.
Walking back to our car, we were followed by a legion of friendly children. One told us that many of the town’s girls carry Arwa’s name. The good deeds of this legendary Yemeni queen had made her name everlasting from one generation to the next. I thought of this legacy as we made our way out of Jibla in a blinding rainstorm, reminding us why this area in the Yemen is always green.