The city wall of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen Photographs by Audie Abdullah


What comes to mind when you think about Yemen? Perhaps you envision a barren land, a desert with camels—that’s how most Americans perceive the Middle East where Yemen is located.

On the contrary, most of Yemen is mountainous and verdant, getting rain from the monsoons that originate in India and sweep across the central highlands. About twenty- three million people call themselves Yemenis. They are Arabs, which implies they speak Arabic (specifically a Yemeni dialect) and identify with the traditions and mores associated with other Arabs from the twenty-two countries that comprise the Arab League and span a vast stretch from Morocco to Iraq.

Yemen is an ancient land known to many from the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba. The frankincense and myrrh trees grown in Yemen and used to produce perfumes and fragrances were renowned throughout the ancient world. In antiquity, Yemen lay along the spice route and was a conduit of trade and commerce that connected the lands and peoples of East Asia with the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean basin. Yemenis were the first to embrace Islam during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad and most belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. While the capital Sana’a and the cities of Ta'izz, Al Hudaydah, Sa’dah, Zabid, Ibb, and Aden all have long histories, nearly seventy percent of Yemen’s population lives in small towns and thousands of villages perched on mountaintops, overlooking fertile valleys and the elaborate hillside terraces where food is grown. Yemen’s spectacular landscape, architecture and its moderate climate make it a popular point of destination for visitors.   

Yemeni countryside

Yemen has coasts on both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden—the waterways that connect, via the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. At one time, Yemen enjoyed a brisk and lucrative coffee trade with the rest of the world.   However, the introduction and cultivation of Arabica coffee in South and Central America in the seventeenth century forced Yemen off the world market, relegating it to the backwaters of history. For more than 500 years until the early part of the twentieth century, Yemen was ruled by the Ottoman Empire (although the interior was largely controlled by fiercely independent tribes and local dynasties) and then by an indigenous monarchy (Imamate) that was overthrown in 1962 and replaced by the Yemen Arab Republic.

Even though petroleum was discovered in Yemen in 1984, it remains a relatively poor country with few resources to support its growing population. One of Yemen’s resources is its people who have sought to find work overseas. The decision to emigrate impacted the entire family, tribe, village, or even region, and expectations were high. Many émigrés sent money (remittances) back home to aid their families--perhaps to expand, remodel or modernize their village home or to start a business. Young men saved money earned overseas to secure the dowries needed for marriage. And although the U.S. has long been a preferred destination, over time the prohibitive cost of coming to and living in America, the hardships caused by prolonged separation, the spiraling inflation in Yemen, and a recession in the United States have made migration impractical and many Yemeni workers have decided to return to their beloved homeland. Today Yemen remains a close ally of the United States.

   Classroom Resources and Ideas

For teaching resources and classroom ideas consult
From the Queen of Sheba to the Republic of Yemen authored by Marta Colburn with illustrations by Maha al-Hibshi and Bruce Paluck. Published by The American Institute for Yemeni Studies.

   Further Reading

The Yemeni Immigrant Experience Learn more about migration as a rite of passage in Yemen. Article by Thomas B. Stevenson. From Sojourners and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience edited by Jonathan Friedlander. 

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♦ Retrospectives

♦ Celebrating Ethnicity