Queens of Arabia Felix (The Happy Yemen)
By: Noor Almohsin, Arab America Contributing Writer
The Yemen Republic today was a piece of heaven on earth. Historically, the southern of the Arabian Peninsula was known as Al-Yemen Al Saeed (The Happy Yemen). It was called so because of its geographic and climate nature: rainfall, valleys, and rivers. Yemen was a fertile ground capable for productive vegetation. It was the greenest area that ancient Romans called it Arabia Felix as fertile, productive, and happy land.
Unfortunately, today Yemen is facing one of the worse famine threats worldwide due to war, siege, and blockade. In addition, Yemen is facing civil conflicts and foreign interest to dominate and sovereign the country. All that resulted in rupturing the social, moral, and civic fabric of Yemenis. Let alone the alarming devastated humanitarian condition of civilians facing famine, epidemics and the fire of arms that are killing innocent people.
Despite the hardship Yemenis have gone through, Yemeni women proved their resilience. The Yemeni community is one of the ancient and most complicated communities worldwide for its tribal social structure. However, Arabia Felix had eternally glorified women who have been outstanding throughout Yemen’s modern and ancient history. Despite all the hardship and changes, women of Yemen proved their strong stance.
Historically, the following three exceptional queens have managed to rule Yemen: Balqees, Asma, and Arwa.
The Queen of Sheba “Balqees”
History has not reported many stories about female leaders. However, Balqees, the Queen of Sheba was immortal in the text work of the three divine religions, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.
For thousands of years, Balqees has been in the tale of Turkish, Persian, African and Arab cultures, symbolizing divine wisdom and faith. She appeared in artistic work of different beliefs.
The famous tale of Prophet Solomon and the Queen of Sheba created mythologies in modern states. Even with different narration in the holy books, the story about her visit to Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Solomon, carrying gifts of precious gems, gold, and spices from her home reveals the rich and civilized country she came from.
Historian disputed where the Queen of Sheba came from; some argued she was Ethiopian, Egyptian and others believed she was Syrian. A few even denied her existence; however, archaeology proved the presence of the great kingdom of Sheba in Yemen. This is so because of her temple known as, “the Mahram Bilqis” in the Yemeni town of Marib.
After 3,000 years, remnants of the civilization of Sheba Kingdom include: Queen Balqees throne, a temple dedicated to Almaqah, courtyard, annexes, and fence. There is a platform behind six columns, where historians think her throne was. In addition, the Great Dam of Marib was also constructed in the Sabaean capital of Marib. Unfortunately, part of it was damaged in an airstrike during the current war in Yemen.
Queen Asma Al-Sulaihi
Under Fatimid sovereign of Egypt, Asma bint Shihab was married to her cousin Ali Al-Sulayhi, who took over the mountainous region of Haraz in Yemen in 1047 with the support of the Hamdani, Himyari, and other Yemenite tribes. He united Yemen, established the Sulayhid Dynasty, and became the sultan and founder of the Sulayhid dynasty. He named his wife a “queen”, not only figuratively, but as a co-ruler.
Queen Asma actively governed and supported her husband, and she was the first queen ever to be proclaimed along with her husband in khutbah (Friday sermon) in Yemen, which is a traditional privilege of a sovereign in a Muslim state. It’s also reported that she used to attend councils with unveiled face.
Queen Asma was famous for being a strong, generous, and outspoken poet. Her husband highly respected her; he depended on her to manage the state and did not make decisions without her consultation. In the literature, he was praised for having her.
When the couple went to perform pilgrim to Makkah, they were attacked by the prince of Zubayd, another province in Yemen. Ali Al-Sulayhi was killed and Queen Asma was imprisoned. After a year, she was able to deliver a message to her son Ahmad Al-Mukarram in Sana’a, who fought Zubayd leader and freed her.
Queen Asma returned and she confirmed her son to become his father’s successor. When her son became too ill, she took over and managed the state with her daughter in law, Arwa Al-Sulayhi, till she died in 1074.
In the Yemeni tradition, Queen Asma was referred to as the Little Queen of Sheba, and Almalika hazima, which translate to “the queen of resolution” for her ultimate wisdom.
Queen Arwa: Al-Sayyida Al-Hurra (the noble free lady)
After the death of Queen Asma, Arwa, who was co-ruler took over. She was raised and educated under the supervision of her mother in law, Queen Asma, who greatly influenced her.
Arwa was mostly famous for her intelligence, courage, independence, piety, integrity, and beauty. She was educated in Qur’an, Hadith, history, poetry, and other fields of life. She was a fine writer and captivated academic life for her assumed responsibility of rule.
For her character and knowledge, the Fatimid caliph Al-Mustanṣir-billah granted Queen Arwa the title of Hujja, which is the highest rank in Yemeni Fatimid religious hierarchy. She was the first woman in history to gain such authority and title. Thus, she was also proclaimed in khutba immediately after the Fatimid caliph Al- Mustanṣir-billah.
Unlike queen Asma, queen Arwa did not appear unveiled. She attended councils and mixed with men with a covered face because she was much younger than queen Asma, and as reported, she was very beautiful.
When queen Asma died, Arwa consolidated the reins of the Sulayhid state and became the ruler. Although she was single, she was very independent and was able to have remarkable improvements in Yemen’s infrastructure and contributed in integrating it with the Muslim world.
Queen Arwa sent Ismaili missionaries to western India in Gujrat, where Ismaili Bohra faith was established under her responsibility.
Queen Arwa moved her capital from Sana’a to Jibla because people of Jibla in Ibb were more peaceful than the people in Sana’a. There, she was able to lure Zubayd’s leader, who killed her father in law, by leading him into a trap. Habeeb Salloum, an Arab America contributing writer, wrote more in-depth about Jibla, the capital of Queen Arwa.
During her reign, much of the Ismaili literature was produced and preserved because she was devoted to Ismailism.
Queen Arwa was called Al-Sayyida Al-Hurra (the noble lady), Al-Malika Al-Hurra (The noble Queen), also the little queen of Sheba. In 1138, Queen Arwa passed away after she ruled for decades. Her death marked the end of Sulayhid dynasty in Yemen.
The legendary queen was buried in a palace that she transformed into a mosque in Jibla. Her tomb chamber is decorated with beautiful Quranic verses, and it was a place of pilgrimage for Ismaili Muslims.
Throughout human history, many men ruled, and a few women did and became iconic role models. With the prevalence of well-educated and capable women in Arab nations, it is very likely to see a female leader for an Arab state in the near future.