Hadhramaut and thereabouts


This article was published in the British Yemeni Society's journal, 1997

The Wadi Hadhramaut and its tributaries have been inhabited since the Stone Age. Small mounds of flint chippings - the debris from the manufacture of stone tools and weapons - and windblown dust can be found close to the canyon walls.

Further north and east are lines of Thamudic ‘triliths’ with a few surviving crude inscriptions, and on the fringes of the Rub al Khali north of Mahra a well-beaten but seemingly ancient track leads - according to local legend - to the lost city of ‘Ubar.

The Hazarmaveth mentioned in Genesis 10 v 26 is believed to be Hadhramaut and Joktan to be Qahtan - from whom most Yemenis are reputedly descended through Hud, a pre-Islamic prophet. Hud’s tomb, about 45 miles east of Tarim, is still a place of annual pilgrimage - mainly for townspeople from Hadhramaut.

The early importance of Hadhramaut stemmed from its part in the incense trade. The ‘authorities’ exploited their position on the overland route from Dhufar through Mahra, Hadhramaut and Shabwa to the Hejaz and Eastern Mediterranean to tax the caravans in return for safe passage. Some incense was also collected from the mountains and valleys around Hadhramaut. An obelisk was discovered at Timna (Wadi Bayhan) in 1951/52 carrying the written market regulations of that town around 100 BC. Other inscriptions too are to be found over a wide area.

Himyaritic, the ancient language of South West Arabia, has, as its closest current script Amharic, the language of Central Ethiopia. Another modern descendant is Mahri, still spoken in Eastern Yemen.

Shabwa is believed to have been the capital of Hadhramaut for most of the Himyaritic period. The kingdom of Saba had its capital at Marib. Hence the Sabatain - between whom there was a sort of love/hate relationship. The Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) could have come from either Saba, or been the Queen of the Tamim (who live today east of Tarim). The Himyaritic civilisation seems to have flourished from around 800 BC (or possibly earlier, as the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon is thought to have been around 950 BC) to around 400AD, when what remained of the incense trade was diverted to the newly opened sea route via Aden and the Red Sea.

Early in the 6th century the Ethiopians invaded Yemen, encouraged by Byzantium to protect Yemeni Christians, some of whom had been massacred by order of the ruler of Najran, a convert to Judaism. The Ethiopians appear to have converted much of the remaining population to Christianity, building a cathedral in Sana’a, on a site still known as al Qalis. It appears that there was a Bishop at Hajarain, in the lower Wadi Duan, and there was also a Bishop at Soqotra, where Christianity continued in one form or another until relatively recently.

The Yemenis did not take to Ethiopian rule and called on the Persians, then active in the Aden area, for assistance to throw the Ethiopians out. The result was that the Persians took over about 570 AD. A major casualty of the Persian-Ethiopian war was the great earth dam at Marib, destroyed yet again by an enormous flood. The irrigation system dried out and the population were dispersed throughout Arabia and beyond. The Persians appear to have been in Hadhramaut, but the only clear evidence of their presence is at Husn al Urr, a fort between Tarim and Qabr Hud.

About 625 AD, Badhan, the Persian Governor of Sana’a was converted to Islam and the rest of the country soon followed. But the Persian presence did not long survive the adoption of Islam. As part of the Great Arab Expansion, Yemenis, including many Hadhramis and Mahra, formed a major part of the Arab armies that overran North Africa and Iberia. The movement of population continued over several centuries: the Beni Hilal who still live to the South and West of Shabwa and in Central Wadi Amd, do not appear to have reached North Africa until the 10th century, but some of the Libyan Shaibani family claim to have been in Libya some two centuries before the arrival of the Beni Hilal.

The Shaibanis originate in Taiz and their Libyan relatives still speak Arabic with a near-Yemeni accent! The Meharistes of the Sahara took their fast Mahri camels with them and many of the Polisario are believed to be of Mahri descent. The people of the mountainous region of Algeria known as "Kabylie" still look like Yemenis and ex-President Chadli (Shadhli!) would have been descended from the Masheikh of that name who are still to be found in several places in both the north and south of Yemen. Yaqub al Mansur, the notorious Wazir of Cordoba in the 11th century, who promoted himself by disposing of the Emir and his family, was born in Yemen.

Nearly all Yemeni tribes are of Himyari origin. The exceptions are mainly of Kindi stock, originating from an invasion from the north in the 6th century. Kinda are credited (if that is the right word) with the final destruction of Shabwa when they arrived, but they subsequently settled among and intermarried with the Himyaris. The incidence of straight rather than curly hair often denotes Kindi blood and some Kindi are bigger physically than most Himyaris. Tribes of Kindi descent are the Seiar, Al Doghar (in Wadi Hajr), the Ja’ada (in Wadi Amd) and one of the sections of the Deyyin (on the plateau south of Amd).

Apart from the urban settlements, Hadhramaut is still tribalised, although the tribal bonds are no longer as powerful as they were. Living among the tribes, but a little different, are the Mashaikh, who seem to be the descendants of the pre-Islamic intelligensia. Unlike the tribes, they did not raid nor were they raided - at least that was the idea! They also wore a different type of janbiya, more designed for domestic use than for gutting one's enemies. Al Buraik still supply the bulk of the population of the Shabwa area. Most are settled but some are nomads grazing with the Kurab. Other Mashaikh are dotted around among the hills and valleys. The most important are probably Al Amoodi of Budha, many of whom are successful traders throughout the Middle East and even further afield. The Saudi syndicate who supported Nelson Bunker Hunt in ramping the world silver market was organised by Mohamed Hussain al Amoodi and many of his kinfolk are involved in the currency exchange markets in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Beirut.

Most tribesmen and Mashaikh are farmers, those in the mountains and on the plateaux almost entirely so. The further east or north you go, however, the less rainfall and the more nomadic the people. The Manahil are almost entirely nomadic, except for those who have been absorbed into what passes for modern life, and the Hamum and the Mahra are mostly nomadic. On the fringes of the Rub al Khali, the people continue to graze where they can, although a surprising number of Seiar and Awamr farm on the ill-watered plateau north of the Hadhramaut.

In the middle of the 8th century AD, a preacher from Basra called Abdullah bin Yahya arrived in Hadhramaut and established the Ibadhi rite of Islam. This rite was followed there for the next 200 years or so and is still followed in Oman.

In 951 AD Seiyid Abmed bin Isa al Mohajir arrived from Iraq with a large number of followers, including other descendants of the Prophet, and established the Shafa’i rite of Sunnism, which remains the form of religion practised in Hadhramaut and the plains and southern foothills of Yemen to this day. A Robat, or University, was first of all established in Zabid, in the Tihama, and, later, in Tarim. The latter still functions.

A little before this, war had broken out between the Hashid and the Bakeel, the two most powerful tribes in the High Yemen. Sheikh Yahya bin Hussain bin Qasim ar Rassi was called from Medina to settle this affair. He was so successful that the people of the High Yemen made him their Imam and his descendants became the Hamid-ud-Din dynasty, who reigned, on and off, for nigh on 1,000 years, until the last Imam, Al Badr, was ousted by the Republicans.

Various attempts were made to extend Zeidism, the form of worship introduced by Yahya, but it remains largely confined to the Yemeni mountains, where Hashid and Bakeel remain the dominant tribes. The rest of Yemen remains Shafa’i, as do the converts in the Far Eastern countries, the Malabar Coast and those parts of East Africa to which the Hadhramis, in particular, have emigrated. Although Zeidis are Shias and Shafa’is are Sunnis, the practical religious differences are minor indeed and each will freely worship in the other’s mosque if their own is not convenient.

For several centuries Hadhramaut was ruled, from time to time, by governors sent from Sana’a, but their effectiveness was very variable and their writ seldom seems to have extended beyond the main valley. At the same time there was still a tendency for the tribes from the west to head downhill and eastwards when their area got overpopulated or when the opportunity arose for expansion. About 1488, when Henry Tudor had successfully taken over England, the Kathiris, led by Badr Abu Towairaq, invaded Hadhramaut en masse from the High Yemen and established their ‘dola’, first in Tarim and then in Saiun. (Those Kathiris are descendants of Hamdan, like the Hashid and Bakeel, and had already supplied mercenary soldiers in Hadhramaut for several generations).

The Kathiris themselves employed mercenaries, mainly Yafa’is from the mountains north-east of Aden. This was to prove their undoing. About a hundred years after their arrival, the momentum had gone out of their advance and they got slack. The Yafa’is took over the western part of the Hadhramaut, probably when the pay failed to arrive, and set up a separate ‘dola’, with its headquarters at Al Qatn. For the next 300 years a series of small wars took place and towns changed hands from time to time.

Badr’s invasion went well beyond Hadhramaut, but the numbers thinned out as they advanced. He tried to eliminate the Al Afrar Sultanate of the Mahra, the strongest obstacle in his way, and very nearly succeeded, the only survivor being an unborn child who grew up to be Sa’ad Abu Shuwairib, the greatest of the Mahri Sultans. Sa’ad successfully fought not only the Kathiris, but the Portuguese, who arrived in the early 16th century. (The Beit Jarhab, a small subsection of the Beit Azab Mahra, are said to be descended from shipwrecked sailors. Their facial features suggest the sailors were Portuguese.) Many of the Kathiris were scattered and today small pockets are to be found in the valleys south of the Wadi Hadhramaut, among the Mahra and in Omani territory, where some are nomads. Their eastward movement was probably encouraged by the horse trade which developed with India. The horses were bred in Yemen and Asir and were shipped from Dhufar. This trade was profitable until the 18th century when demand in India for ‘new’ Arab blood dried up.

In 1809, disaster overtook Hadhramaut in the form of a Wahhabi invasion. Many mosques were destroyed and many people killed. Valuable books and documents from the Robat at Tarim were destroyed by fire or by dumping in wells, but the Wahhabis did not stay. Something went wrong at home, in the shape of an expected Egyptian invasion of the Hejaz, and they swiftly returned whence they had come.

The invasion gave a bad jolt to Hadhrami morale - as well as causing a great deal of economic destruction - showing up the fact that such military and political forces as there were could not cope with large-scale intrusions. As a result emigration increased greatly, and the most attractive destination for young men who fancied a military career which might lead to lucrative business was Hyderabad, where the Nizam employed a considerable army of tough Arab soldiers. (The flow of traders, colporteurs and pirates (and some who embraced two or more of those descriptions) to the Malabar Coast and much further east had already gone on for over 400 years but India was closer to hand than most and promised quicker returns!)

One such was Umar bin Awadh al Qu’aiti, a smart young soldier in the garrison of Shibam, whose departure is reputed to have been accelerated by the discovery that he had been using the oil in the mosque lamp as hair dressing. Be that as it may, he was both able and astute and rose to the rank of Jemadar, commanding some 1,500 men and in a position to amass a fortune, which he did.

He was not alone. Two other Jemadars at that time were Abdullah bin Ali al Aulaqi, of the family of the Sheikhs of Ma’an; and Ghalib bin Mohsin al Kathiri, of the ‘ruling’ family in Saiun. (The adjective ‘ruling’ must be qualified as, until the 20th century, Sultans seldom had any authority outside the main towns and what they were elsewhere was leaders in war and appeal judges in peace. Indeed the Mahri Sultans never advanced beyond that stage.) Ghalib’s promotion had been rapid, reaching Jemadar in 10 years. However he and Umar crossed swords to such an extent that an alarmed Nizam forced Ghalib, who had fewer friends, to depart. On his return to Hadhramaut Shibam became Kathiri, which went down very badly with Umar.

To cut a long story short, Umar and three of his sons spent the next 40 years sorting out their opponents inside and outside Hadhramaut. Having done so and taken possession of all the valuable bits except the area around Saiun and Tarim, they signed a treaty with the British, giving the latter control of their external affairs and pledging that they would not dispose of their lands without British permission. The British looked upon the Qu’aitis as a unifying force; and neither wanted interference from the Turks or other European powers who were seeking to establish themselves in the area. Equally, communications between the Kathiris and the British were few until 1918, when the former gave up hope of Turkish intervention to help see off the Qu’aitis.

The Qu’aitis built up an administration well in advance of anything hitherto seen in that part of the world. But Qu’aiti Sultan Saleh bin Ghalib lacked the resources to respond to the demand for modernisation initiated largely through returning emigrants from the Far East. There were other sources; the Al Kaf Seiyids of Tarim had made fortunes in Singapore and wished to spend some of their wealth in making life easier at home. Led by Bubakr bin Sheikh, they built a motor road from Tarim to Shihr and wished to make freer use of it to import goods into the Hadhramaut generally, but were frustrated by opposition from the camel-owning tribes who had a monopoly of transport between the coast and the interior.

Seiyid Bubakr was prepared to use much of his personal wealth to promote order and he financed what became known as the ‘Peace of Ingrams’ (Harold Ingrams being the first British Resident in Mukalla). This brought a degree of stability, giving the opportunity to introduce administrative, educational and development measures. But there were terrible problems still, chiefly famine in 1944 and 1948, followed by restrictions on remittances from the newly-independent Indonesian Government, who then started to deport ‘foreigners’ including many who had been born in Indonesia. These arrived in Mukalla by sea in their thousands. The early arrivals went to the places they called home. Most found little to sustain them and proceeded as fast as they could to Saudi Arabia, where the oil industry was rapidly developing and work of all sorts was available. The later arrivals seldom bothered to go ‘home’, but went straight on to Saudi. A new source of life had been found.

Back in Hadhramaut, a great deal of money, a lot of it provided by the British Government, was spent in order to increase agricultural production. An attempt to build a large earth dam at Nuqra in the Wadi Masila - to maintain the water table in Hadhramaut as well as control flood water - was destroyed by an exceptional flood before completion, but a series of smaller constructions was much more successful and some of the construction methods have been adopted in the north. The import of diesel pumping sets was encouraged in order to replace camels and leather buckets, but food still has to be imported on a large scale and will continue so for the forseeable future. Wheat and wheaten flour has replaced rice as it is cheaper on world markets and sometimes subsidised by exporting countries in the hope of long-term supply contracts.

In 1967 the British abandoned Aden and with it her Treaty obligations to the Sultans. The Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), with its capital in Aden, covered what had been the Federation of South Arabia and the rest of the Aden Protectorate. The Hadhramaut, despite being part of the communist-aligned PDRY continued to live to a great extent on remittances from abroad, which now meant mainly Saudi Arabia.

When in 1990 the Saudis ordered the repatriation of all Yemenis without a local guarantor in retaliation for the perceived anti-Saudi stance of the newly united Republic of Yemen, relatively few of the 800,000 or so deported were Hadhramis, as these were mainly involved in trade, for which a guarantor was already essential. At the same time a new oilfield (Masila) was found between the coast and the Wadi Hadhramaut and expectations of future riches were raised. Large sums of Hadhrami money came back to Hadhramaut to develop the infrastructure to support an oil boom, just as the Union, still incomplete, began to break up. Post 1994 civil war, hopes of prosperity are now based on finding and developing more oil and natural gas, as well as the development of the ports of Mukalla and Aden.

December, 1997