National Geographic : 1947 Nov
Yemen-Southern Arabia's Mountain Wonderland BY HARLAN B. CLARK " NSHALLAH-if Allah is willing-you Scan make the journey," the bearded Arab Emissaries of the Imam Yahya, priest king of Yemen, gently replied when I told them I should like to visit His Majesty in his capital, high in the mountains of southwestern Arabia. We were speaking, in the American Consu late in the British colony of Aden, Arabia, where I was then serving as consul of the United States. I knew that in this polite manner my dignified guests were saying that they would report my wishes to their sovereign and let me know his pleasure in due course. Aden, a strategic prize of the seaways through the centuries, seems to belong more to the tempestuous seas than to the brooding hinterland behind it.* But not so. Aden is an ancient gateway to the wonderland now known as Yemen, once famous for other ports, such as Mocha on the Red Sea, and even more so for the flourishing centers of population and culture on its mountain plateaus (map, page 634). Some of these cities, like its present capital, San'a, still flourish with traces of their by gone splendor; others, such as fabulous Marib, lie moldering in the shifting sands that cover vast areas formerly green with crops watered from mighty dams. The rulers of Marib, capital of Saba, as Yemen was then known, were monarchs whose sway at times extended over much of the Arabian Peninsula and probably over part of East Africa as well. Land of the Queen of Sheba Out of their wealth the kings of old Yemen built huge irrigation dams and supported a civilization in which trades and the arts at tained a high order, and one of the earliest written languages recorded the Arabian mon archs' prowess and devotion to their gods. When the Queen of Saba, or Sheba, as we now call it, paid her celebrated visit to King Solomon, she probably saw few wonders in the north that her southern realm could not equal in majesty. Sculptured and inscribed stones in some of the ancient palaces and many-storied "sky scrapers" still to be seen in Yemen bear mute testimony to the vanished glory of the Sabaean, Minaean, Himyaritic, and other civilizations which succeeded them. But the overland spice routes had their day, and, once the Red Sea routes were opened up for peaceful commerce, the source of the old Yemen's wealth was shut off. The great Marib dam went untended and finally burst in a disastrous flood about the middle of the fifth century after Christ. The Yemen kings henceforth ruled their shrinking domains from other capitals to the west, finally centralizing their power at San'a. Although Yemen today is a nation of per haps 4,000,000 people occupying some 75,000 square miles, not many Westerners know more of it than that the Romans called it Arabia Felix-"Happy Arabia." From the country's high plateaus come sheep and goat skins, and from its steep valleys the rich coffee to which the port of Mocha gave its name before it, too, fell into disuse. Yahya Has Ruled for 43 Years The present Imam, Yahya bin Mohammed bin Hamidadin, succeeded his father in 1904, and by steadfast endeavors won from the Turks a large measure of autonomy before World War I. When they withdrew after the war, he ambitiously set out to win back the ancient domain his ancestors once ruled. His claims clashed both with those of the British to the south, whose legal position in the Aden Protectorate had been formally ac knowledged by the Turks as early as 1902, and with those of King Ibn Saud to the north, who had annexed certain provinces disputed by the Imam. Intermittent warfare prevailed on both these borders until 1934, when Yemen entered into treaties with Saudi Arabia and Great Britain regulating the contested nqrthern and southern borders of Yemen. By the Treaty of San'a in 1934 the British for the first time recognized the independence of Yemen, and when World War II broke out the Imam had treaties with nearly all the leading powers except the United States. Relations between the United States and Yemen have been conducted on a friendly but informal basis through the American Con sulate at Aden, and in 1928 Vice Consul James Loder Park made a goodwill visit to San'a, where he was cordially received by the Imam. * See "Rock of Aden," by H. G . C. Swayne, NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1935.