History of Sanaa, Yemen

Sana'a, Yemen

Sanaa, also known as Sana or Sanaʽa, is the most populous city in Yemen. The town is not directly a part of the Governorate but forms the separate principal district of “Amanat Al-Asemah.” Under the Yemeni law, Sanaʽa is the country’s capital. However, the Yemeni government’s seat moved to Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, in the aftermath of the bloody Houthi occupation.

History of Sanaa

Ancient period

Almost everything from the pre-Islamic era has been destroyed in Sanaa. Archeological findings have shown different idols similar to Hinduism religious idols were vividly spread across Sanaa before the Islamic invasion.

According to myth, Sanaa was founded at the Jabal Nuqum’s base by Shem, the son of Noah, after the latter’s death. It was recognized as “Azal” in ancient days, connected to Uzal, a great-grandson of Shem, a son of Qahta, in the ancient biblical accounts of Genesis. Its name is related to the Sabaic word for “well-fortified.”

Islamic era

From the Muhammad (622 CE) era until establishing independent sub-states in many parts of the Yemen Islamic Caliphate, Sanaʽa endured as the governing seat. The Caliph’s deputy ran one of Yemen’s three Makhalifs: Mikhlaf al-Janad, Mikhlaf Sanaʽa, and Mikhlaf Hadhramaut. The city of Sanaʽa regularly retrieved a vital status, and all Yemenite States competed to command it.

The Sanaʽa manuscript, found in Sanaʽa in 1972, is one of the oldest Quranic manuscripts in existence

Imam Al-Shafi’i, the 8th-century CE founder of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence and Islamic jurist, toured Sanaʽa several times. He praised the town, writing or “Sanaʽa must be seen” or La budda min Ṣanʻā.ʼ

In 1062 CE, Sanaʽa was first taken over by the Sulayhid dynasty led by Ali al-Sulayhi and his wife, the famous Queen Asma. He made the town capital of his comparatively small kingdom, which also covered the Haraz Mountains. The Sulayhids were allied with the Ismaili Muslim-leaning Fatimid Caliphate of Early Medieval Egypt, rather than the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate that most of Middle East Arabia followed. Al-Sulayhi ruled for about two decades, but he was ultimately assassinated by his principal local rivals, the Zabid-based Najahids. Following his demise, al-Sulayhi’s daughter, Arwa al-Sulayhi, took the throne. She withdrew from Sanaʽa, moving the Sulayhid capital to Jibla, where she ruled much of Yemen from 1067 CE to 1138 CE. As a result of the Sulayhid ultimately departure, the Hamdanid dynasty seized control of Sanaʽa.

In 1173 CE Saladin, the infamous and wicked Ayyubid sultan of Egypt, sent his cousin Turan-Shah to conquer modern-day Yemen. The Ayyubids gained total control of Sanaʽa in 1175 CE and united many Yemeni tribal states, except for the Zaydi imams’ northern mountains, into one kingdom.

Ottoman era

The mighty invading Ottoman Empire infiltrated Yemen in 1538 CE when Suleiman the Magnificent (Ya, that’s his name, haha) was Sultan. Under the militant leadership of Özdemir Pasha, the Ottomans captured Sanaʽa in 1547 CE. With Ottoman support, European captains based in the Yemeni port towns of Mocha and Aden frequented Sanaʽa to maintain special capitulations and privileges for their trade. In 1602 CE, the local Zaydi imams led by Imam al-Mu’ayyad reasserted their authority over the region and forced out Ottoman troops in 1629 CE. Although the Ottomans fled during al-Mu’ayyad’s infamous reign, his immediate predecessor al-Mansur al-Qasim had already largely weakened the Ottoman army in Yemen and Sana’a. Consequently, European traders were randomly stripped of their previous unfair privileges.

Ottoman map of Sanaa, 1874

The Zaydi imams secured their rule over Sanaʽa until the mid-19th-century CE when the Ottomans restarted their campaign to control the area. In 1835 CE, Ottoman troops finally arrived on the Yemeni coast under the guise of Muhammad Ali of Egypt’s armies. They did not seize Sanaʽa until 1872 CE, when their army led by Ahmed Muhtar Pasha entered the town.

North Yemen period

In 1904 CE, as Ottoman influence was fading in Yemen, Imam Yahya of the Zaydi imams took control in Sanaʽa. In a bid to defend North Yemen’s independence, Yahya started a policy of isolationism, avoiding Arab world and international politics, cracking down on early liberal movements, not contributing to the infrastructure development in Sanaʽa and elsewhere, which included closing down the famous Ottoman ladies’ school. As a result of Yahya’s measures, Sanaʽa increasingly became a center of intellectual revolt and anti-government organization.

The revolts got the upper hand in the decades following the crackdown, and Yemen was ultimately united with Sanaa as the capital. It houses the parliament, the presidential palace, the country’s government ministries, and the supreme court.

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