The ancient history of Yemen (South Arabia) is especially important because Yemen is one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East. Its relatively fertile land and adequate rainfall in a moister climate helped sustain a stable population, a feature recognized by the ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy, who described Yemen as Eudaimon Arabia (better known in its Latin translation, Arabia Felix) meaning Fortunate Arabia or Happy Arabia. Between the 8th century BCE and the 6th century CE, it was dominated by six main states which rivaled each other, or were allied with each other and controlled the lucrative spice trade: Saba, Ma'in, Qataban, Hadhramaut, Awsan, and Himyar. Islam arrived in 630 CE, and Yemen became part of the Muslim realm.
Pre Dynastic Qahtan (3rd millennium BC - 8th century BC)
• The oldest •
According to some hypotheses, in the 3rd millennium BC the Arabs of the southern Arabian peninsula united under the leadership of Qahtan. The Qahtanis began building simple earth dams and canals in the Marib area in the Sayhad desert. This area would later become the site of the Dam of Marib. A trade route began to flourish along the Red Sea coasts of Tihama. An order of high priests appeared in South Arabian culture who are referred to as the Mujjaribs of the "Sabeans" represented by local tribal leaders who came to rule South Arabia and some parts of East Africa. This period witnessed the reign of the legendary Queen Bilqis mentioned in the Bible/Quran. This period ended with the arrival of the alphabet in the 9th century BC. A variant of the Phoenician script, this will lead to the recording of the South Arabian history.
Kingdom of Saba (8th century BCE - 275 CE)
• The Sabaeans •
During Sabaean rule, trade and agriculture flourished generating much wealth and prosperity. The Sabaean kingdom is located in what is now the Aseer region in southwestern Yemen, and its capital, Ma'rib, is located near what is now Yemen's modern capital, Sana'a. According to Arab tradition, the eldest son of Noah, Shem, founded the city of Ma'rib.
During Sabaean rule, Yemen was called "Arabia Felix" by the Romans who were impressed by its wealth and prosperity. The Roman emperor Augustus sent a military expedition to conquer the "Arabia Felix", under the orders of Aelius Gallus. After an unsuccessful siege of Ma'rib, the Roman general retreated to Egypt, while his fleet destroyed the port of Aden in order to guarantee the Roman merchant route to India.
The success of the Kingdom was based on the cultivation and trade of spices and aromatics including frankincense and myrrh. These were exported to the Mediterranean, India, and Abyssinia where they were greatly prized by many cultures, using camels on routes through Arabia, and to India by sea.
Agriculture in Yemen thrived during this time due to an advanced irrigation system which consisted of large water tunnels in mountains, and dams. The most impressive of these earthworks, known as the Ma'rib Dam was built ca. 700 BCE, provided irrigation for about 25,000 acres (101 km²) of land and stood for over a millennium, finally collapsing in 570 CE after centuries of neglect. The final destruction of the dam is noted in the Qur'an and the consequent failure of the irrigation system provoked the migration of up to 50,000 people.
The Sabaean kingdom, with its capital at Ma'rib where the remains of a large temple can still be seen, thrived for almost 14 centuries. Some have argued that this kingdom was the Sheba described in the Old Testament.
Kingdom of Hadhramaut (8th century BCE - 300 CE)
• Ancient Kingdoms. •
The first known inscriptions of Hadramaut are known from the 8th century BCE. It was first referenced by an outside civilization in an Old Sabaic inscription of Karab'il Watar from the early 7th century BCE, in which the King of Hadramaut, Yada`'il, is mentioned as being one of his allies. When the Minaeans took control of the caravan routes in the 4th century BCE, however, Hadramaut became one of its confederates, probably because of commercial interests. It later became independent and was invaded by the growing kingdom of Himyar toward the end of the 1st century BCE, but it was able to repel the attack. Hadramaut annexed Qataban in the second half of the 2nd century AD, reaching its greatest size. During this period, Hadramaut was continuously at war with Himyar and Saba', and the Sabaean king Sha`irum Awtar was even able to take its capital, Shabwa, in 225. During this period the Kingdom of Aksum began to interfere in South Arabian affairs. King GDRT of Aksum acted by dispatching troops under his son, BYGT, sending them from the western coast to occupy Thifar, the Himyarite capital, as well as from the southern coast against Hadramaut as Sabaean allies. The kingdom of Hadramaut was eventually conquered by the Himyarite king Shammar Yuhar`ish around 300 CE, unifying all of the south Arabic kingdoms.
Kingdom of Awsan (800 BCE - 500 BCE)
• Ancient Kingdoms. •
The ancient Kingdom of Awsan in South Arabia (modern Yemen), with a capital at Bisgog Yahirr in the wadi Markha, to the south of the wadi Bayhan, is now marked by a tell or artificial mound, which is locally named Hagar Asfal in Shabwa. Once it was one of the most important small kingdoms of South Arabia. The city seems to have been destroyed in the 7th century BCE by the king and mukarrib of Saba Karib'il Watar, according to a Sabaean text that reports the victory in terms that attest to its significance for the Sabaeans.
Kingdom of Qataban (4th century BCE - 200 CE)
• Ancient Kingdoms •
Qataban was one of the ancient Yemeni kingdoms which thrived in the Baihan valley. Like the other Southern Arabian kingdoms it gained great wealth from the trade of frankincense and myrrh incense which were burned at altars. The capital of Qataban was named Timna and was located on the trade route which passed through the other kingdoms of Hadramaut, Saba and Ma'in. The chief deity of the Qatabanians was Amm, or "Uncle" and the people called themselves the "children of Amm"..
Kingdom of Ma'in (8th century BCE - 100 BCE)
• Ancient Kingdoms •
During Minaean rule the capital was at Karna (now known as Sadah). Their other important city was Yathill (now known as Baraqish). Other parts of modern Yemen include Qataban and the coastal string of watering stations known as the Hadhramaut. Though Saba' dominated in the earlier period of South Arabian history, Minaic inscriptions are of the same time period as the first Sabaic inscriptions. Note, however, that they pre-date the appearance of the Minaeans themselves, and, hence, are called now more appropriately as "Madhabic" rather than "Minaic". The Minaean Kingdom was centered in northwestern Yemen, with most of its cities laying along the Wadi Madhab. Minaic inscriptions have been found far afield of the Kingdom of Ma'in, as far away as al-`Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia and even on the island of Delos and in Egypt. It was the first of the South Arabian kingdoms to end, and the Minaic language died around 100 CE.
Kingdom of Himyar (2nd Century BCE - 525 CE)
• Ancient Kingdoms •
The Himyarites had united Southwestern Arabia, controlling the Red Sea as well as the coasts of the Gulf of Aden. From their capital city, the Himyarite Kings launched successful military campaigns, and had stretched its domain at times as far east to the Persian Gulf and as far north to the Arabian Desert.
During the 3rd century CE, the South Arabian kingdoms were in continuous conflict with one another. GDRT of Aksum began to interfere in South Arabian affairs, signing an alliance with Saba', and a Himyarite text notes that Hadramaut and Qataban were also all allied against the kingdom. As a result of this, the Kingdom of Aksum was able to capture the Himyarite capital of Thifar in the first quarter of the 3rd century. However, the alliances did not last, and Sha`ir Awtar of Saba' unexpectedly turned on Hadramaut, allying again with Aksum and taking its capital in 225. Himyar then allied with Saba' and invaded the newly taken Aksumite territories, retaking Thifar, which had been under the control of GDRT's son BYGT, and pushing Aksum back into the Tihama.
They established their capital at Thifar (now just a small village in the Ibb region) and gradually absorbed the Sabaean kingdom. They traded from the port of Mawza'a on the Red Sea. Dhu Nuwas, a Himyarite king, changed the state religion to Judaism in the beginning of the 6th century and began to massacre the Christians. Outraged, Kaleb, the Christian King of Aksum with the encouragement of the Byzantine Emperor Justin I invaded and annexed Yemen. About fifty years later, Yemen fell to Persia.
Kingdom of Aksum (520 - 570 CE)
• Ancient Kingdoms •
Around 517/8, a Jewish king called Yusuf Asar Yathar (also known as Dhu Nuwas) usurped the kingship of Himyar from Ma`adkarib Ya`fur. Interestingly, Pseudo-Zacharias of Mytilene (fl. late 6th century) says that Yusuf became king because the previous king had died in winter, when the Aksumites could not cross the Red Sea and appoint another king. Ma`adkarib Ya`fur's long title puts its truthfulness in doubt, however. Upon gaining power, Yusuf attacked the Aksumite garrison in Thifar, the Himyarite capital, killing many and destroying the church there. The Christian King Kaleb of Axum learned of Dhu Nuwas's persecutions of Christians and Aksumites, and, according to Procopius, was further encouraged by his ally and fellow Christian Justin I of Byzantium, who requested Aksum's help to cut off silk supplies as part of his economic war against the Persians.
Kaleb sent a fleet across the Red Sea and was able to defeat Dhu Nuwas, who was killed in battle according to an inscription from Husn al-Ghurab, while later Arab tradition has him riding his horse into the sea. Kaleb installed a native Himyarite viceroy, Sumyafa` Ashwa`, who ruled until 525, when he was deposed by the Aksumite general (or soldier and former slave) Abraha with the support of disgruntled Ethiopian soldiers. According to the later Arabic sources, Kaleb retaliated by sending a force of 3,000 men under a relative, but the troops defected and killed their leader, and a second attempt at reigning in the rebellious Abraha also failed. Later Ethiopian sources state that Kaleb abdicated to live out his years in a monastery and sent his crown to be hung in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. While uncertain, it seems to be supported by the die-links between his coins and those of his successor, Alla Amidas. An inscription of Sumyafa` Ashwa` also mentions two kings (nagaśt) of Aksum, indicating that the two may have co-ruled for a while before Kaleb abdicated in favor of Alla Amidas.
Procopius notes that Abraha later submitted to Kaleb's successor, as supported by the former's inscription in 543 stating Aksum before the territories directly under his control. During his reign, Abraha repaired the Marib Dam in 543, and received embassies from Persia and Byzantium, including a request to free some bishops who had been imprisoned at Nisbis (according to John of Epheseus's Life of Simeon). Abraha ruled until at least 547, sometime after which he was succeeded by his son, Aksum. Aksum (called "Yaksum" in Arabic sources) was perplexingly referred to as "of Ma'afir" (ḏū maʻāfir), the southwestern coast of Yemen, in Abraha's Marib dam inscription, and was succeeded by his brother, Masruq. Aksumite control in Yemen ended in 570 with the invasion of the elder Sassanid general Vahriz who, according to later legends, famously killed Masruq with his well-aimed arrow.
Later Arabic sources also say that Abraha constructed a great Church called al-Qulays at Sana'a in order to divert pilgrimage from the Kaaba and have him die in the Year of the Elephant (570) after returning from a failed attack on Mecca (though he is thought to have died before this time). The exact chronology of the early wars are uncertain, as a 525 inscription mentions the death of a King of Himyar, which could refer either to the Himyarite viceroy of Aksum, Sumyafa` Ashwa`, or to Yusuf Asar Yathar. The later Arabic histories also mention a conflict between Abraha and another Aksumite general named Aryat occurring in 525 as leading to the rebellion.
Sassanid period (570 - 630 CE)
• Ancient Kingdoms •
The Persian king Khosrau I, sent troops under the command of Vahriz, who helped the semi-legendary Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan to drive the Ethiopian Aksumites out of Yemen. Southern Arabia became a Persian dominion under a Yemenite vassal and thus came within the sphere of influence of the Sassanid Empire. Later another army was sent to Yemen, and in 597/8 Southern Arabia became a province of the Sassanid Empire under a Persian satrap. It was a Persian province by name but after the Persians assassinated Dhi Yazan, Yemen divided into a number of autonomous kingdoms.
This development was a consequence of the expansionary policy pursued by the Sassanian king Khosrau II Parviz (590-628), whose aim was to secure Persian border areas such as Yemen against Roman/Byzantine incursions. Following the death of Khosrau II in 628, then the Persian governor in Southern Arabia, Badhan, converted to Islam and Yemen followed the new religion.