Yemen culture is one of the most exciting cultures in the Arab nation. With a history dating back to the time of Solomon, this country is bound to catch your curiosity. Occupying southern Arabia, Yemen has been mentioned in both the Qur’an and the Bible, making its cultural background heavily influenced by its rich history.
History of Yemen
Yemenis are known to be the descendants of Bliqis, the queen of Sheba, who in 950 B.C. built the prosperous kingdom of Saba (Sheba). The prosperity of the kingdom can be heralded due to the Queen’s great wisdom and the trade of a luxury Incense called Frankincense.
This specialized incense was made from trees endemic to southern Arabia. It was known for cleansing the body and soul with its sweet honey-like scent. In light of this belief, frankincense was then used as a primary incense for religious rituals, skyrocketing its trade value to that on par with gold.
How Was Yemen Involved in Sheba?
During this time, the rise of great ancient civilizations was also occurring, namely the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and those along the Mediterranean Sea. With the value of Frankincense increasing, many civilizations established trading routes to ship luxury items.
Sana’a, located in the south of Arab, was one of the trading routes used to export luxury items. This caused the settlement of various tribes along the trading route. One of these tribes was the Himyarites, who later on absorbed the kingdom of Saba.
Who Are the Himyarites?
The Himyarites hail from the tribe of Himyar, a branch of Qahtan that established the Himyarite kingdom, converting the land into Judaism in its reign. This kingdom was known for its conquest of the Sheba kingdom in 280 BCE, giving rise to their capital Zafar.
The Himyarite capital Zafar eventually moved to Sana’a in the 4th century and is now the capital of modern-day Yemen.
The Capital of Yemen: Sana’a
Sana’a, the current capital of Yemen, is said to be the oldest city in the world and is thus considered a world heritage site. It was founded by Noah’s eldest son, Shem, who later became the forefather of the Qahtanites.
The term “Qahtanite” refers to Arabs originating from Yemen, who, according to original Islamic tradition, are known as the true Arabs. In opposition, the Arabs of the north were called Adnanites, the “Arabized Arabs” named as such for being the descendants of Ishmael through Adnan.
This contributes to its rich history.
The Rich History of Sana’a
Shem, the eldest son of Noah, had stumbled upon Sana’a and built the city in a valley west of Mount Nuqum. The city, in ancient times, was called “Azal,” after one of Shem’s descendants, and was known to be a “fortified place.”
This fortified place is known for its historic buildings, most of which were firsts of the time; these include:
- The Ghumdan palace – the very first castle in the world. With a feature of 20 stories, the Ghumdan palace is also considered the first skyscraper ever made.
- The Great Mosque of Sana’a – One of the first Mosques built outside of Mecca and Medina and was made from the remnants of the Ghumdan palace.
The country’s rich history paved the way for its current customs, tradition, and even culture. This is evident in how they still structure their buildings and make them out of the materials such as mud.
The Yemeni culture and traditions date back its customs back to the Sheba kingdom. Like most of the Arab world, the culture of Yemen is very patriarchal, with extended families living within one compound or building.
They exercise the practice of appointing the eldest male of each family to make all critical decisions for them. The women, on the other hand, hold a secondary role in the household. They are to give birth to children, especially males, and to raise them to be proud of their culture, heritage, and their flag.
Like every other country in the world, Yemen has its distinct flag and the meaning behind it. Currently, the flag of Yemen consists of three horizontal stripes with different colors: Red at the top, white in the middle, and black at the bottom.
- Red – signifies the unification of South and North Yemen. This symbolizes the blood that was shed by the martyrs fighting for freedom.
- White – symbolizes the bright future of the nation.
- Black – symbolizes the dark history of the country.
Gender in Yemen
The country is severely male-dominated, giving importance to males above females. They dominate the workplace as very few women in Yemen are educated. Male and females alone together are frowned upon, and any public display of affection is forbidden.
Females are also prohibited from showing skin in public. The majority of their body must be covered, and only minimal skin should be seen.
Clothing in Yemen
Yemenis traditionally wear long garments that cover the majority of their body. Females usually wear long black tight-fitting garments that cover their bodies from head to toe.
For men they have a variety of garments to wear on a daily basis, namely:
- Thobe – traditionally known as a Dishdasha is a long, white long sleeve that ends around the calf area and is part of the traditional suit in Yemen.
- Kasheeda – a silk long-sleeved embroidered top
- Foutah – also known as Izar, is a traditional Yemeni loincloth worn in the areas of Aden, Tihama, and Taez
- Turban – A Yemeni headdress
Clothing plays a major role in their customs, giving emphasis to what interactions are frowned upon.
It is no joke that each country has its shared customs and ways of greeting, some stricter than most. Yemen, in particular, is very strict when it comes to greeting, touches, and personal space.
- Personal Space – The acceptable space between persons greatly depends on who you are greeting. Men may greet men with a handshake at arm’s length, and the same goes for women. On the other hand, men greeting women require a wider gap between the two genders; touching is prohibited unless the woman stretches out her hand for a shake, then and only then may the man touch the covered wrist of the woman to shake.
- Hand Holding – men may hold another man’s hand as a sign of great friendship in public. The same goes for women. Men are prohibited from touching women or being alone with them.
- Eye Contact – Yemenis favor eye contact in conversations; this signifies respect during idle chats but has its stipulations. Foreign men, for example, are advised not to look directly at Yemeni women, as it is seen as disrespectful. The same goes for foreign women. Women usually avoid eye contact with men in public unless they are familiar with the man.
These customs are heavily influenced by both religion and the great respect they hold for the Queen of Sheba, who, during her reign, led the nation to great prosperity and riches.
Food in Yemen
Traditionally, cuisine in Yemen is similar to that of its surrounding nations. Their diet primarily consists of meat from goat, sheep, or chicken served on top of rice. But the meat is prepared differently than that of the western world.
The animal must be killed in a specific manner following Islamic tradition. The religion also prevents practicing Muslims in the country from ingesting pork. The country’s national dish, Saltah, is a well-known hearty stew usually eaten for lunch and is quite easy to prepare.
Food in Yemen is usually served on the floor where the whole family enjoys a meal. The most common dessert, Bint Al Sahn, is made of bread topped with honey. This is also served on the floor for everyone to enjoy.
Yemeni tea and Yemeni cherry coffee are very common in Yemen, while alcoholic drinks are considered inappropriate but are available in the country. Yemeni men and even some women also enjoy chewing a plant called Qat in the afternoon.
What Is a Qat?
Qat is a flowering evergreen plant grown in Yemen. The juice of the plant has an amphetamine-like effect and is said to gravely help in the decision-making of the chewer. The plant contains cathinone, which triggers euphoria and excitement.Qat is unquestionably the widest form of recreation in Yemen, with most Yemenis chewing this plant after lunch up to the early evening hours.
This is now considered a tradition in Yemen.
Traditions in Yemen
Yemeni men carry around a curved dagger around their waist as an ancestral tradition. This practice has been in place since the early Sheba period and is considered an identity card for the men of Yemen. The Jambia, a curved dagger, reveals various information about the carrier. It can indicate tribal origins, jobs, and even social rankings.
How Does the Jambia Show Social Status?
The curved dagger waste of Yemeni men is encased in either green or brown casings. The quality of the Jambia and the material for its handle show the wealth and social standing of the wearer.
Because most Yemenis are impoverished, cheap wooden Jambias are commonly seen among the men. But that does not mean you can only see Jambias with wooden handles around. Others who are very aware of the social significance of a Jambia do anything necessary to get a well-made one, going as far as having one made from a Rhino horn.
Religion in Yemen
Yemen is a strict nation of Islam. This has heavily influenced the culture, laws, and families of the people. With Islam as its primary religion, the majority of the people are practicing Muslims. I
ts Islamic origins can be traced back to the time of the great prophet Mohammad. But before its conversion to Islam, the country first practiced Paganism turned Christianity under the Sheba kingdom, and then Judaism under the Himyarite kingdom.
We have covered Yemen’s rich history, how it helped shape the culture, traditions, food, religion, and even clothing of the country.
Let’s go over the main points:
- Yemenis are the Descendants of Bilqis, the queen of Sheba.
- Yemen was used as a trade route for the export of Frankincense.
- Frankincense was a luxury item said to cleanse the body and soul and thus was used in religious rituals.
- The Sheba kingdom was prosperous due to the Frankincense.
- Himyarites absorbed Sheba and is presently Yemen.
- The Himyarite capital was Zafar, then moved to Sana’a.
- Sana’a is mentioned in both the Bible and the Qur’an.
- Sana’a, the current capital of Yemen, is the oldest city in the world, making it a world heritage site.
- The flag of Yemen has three horizontal stripes: red, white, and black.
- Yemen is heavily patriarchal.
- Personal space, hand-holding, and eye contact all have strict rules for males and females.
- Yemenis cover their bodies with cloth from head to toe.
- Yemen’s tradition of carrying Jambias dates back to the Sheba kingdom.
- Jambia’s are used to define one’s social standing, job, and tribal origins.
- Yemenis are proud of their tradition, heritage, and country.
- Yemen’s main religion is Islam and has heavily influenced the country.
So there you have it — an informative guide to Yemen’s history and how their culture, customs, religion, and tradition came about to what it is today.