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About Yemen

The Republic of Yemen occupies the south-western corner of the vast Arabian Peninsula. Despite its oil reserves, it is the poorest nation in the peninsula, and one of the poorest in the world. Its population numbers 24 million, 2.2 million of which live in the capital, Sana'a.
Until 1990, Yemen was divided. North Yemen, with Sana'a as its capital, was and still remains a strongly tribal society ruled by powerful religious leaders. Its legal system is a mix of Islamic law, British jurisprudence and the Turkish legal code. In the 19th century, the British Empire was attracted by the strategic advantages of South Yemen, which dominates the straits of Bab el-Mandab at the southern end of the Red Sea and has access to the Indian Ocean. Britain occupied South Yemen in 1839.

The great port of Aden became a way-station for British ships sailing between England and India, and the territory eventually became a British protectorate. The local economy quickly deteriorated after the British withdrawal from South Yemen in 1967. Turning to the Communist bloc for aid, South Yemen nationalized a considerable part of its economy. The two Yemens were united in 1990, with Ali Abdullah Salah as president. Popular agitation for democracy and riots against his regime climaxed in an assassination attempt in May 2011, and the wounded president left Yemen for treatment and safety in neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Remains of the past

Yemen was settled over 3,000 years ago. Its kingdoms in antiquity traded, in turn, with Egypt, Greece and Rome. The strongest of these ancient kingdoms was Saba (Sheba), which lasted for some 1,000 years, from the 10th century BCE until the 1st century CE, when the Romans discovered that it was possible to sail from Yemen to India. Yemen was invaded by the Persians in the 6th century, and Islam, which reached Yemen in the 7th century, has since been its official religion. Despite Yemen's rapid development in recent decades, it retains much of its old Arab culture, from the spice markets to sumptuous sultans' palaces, beautiful mosques and remote mountain villages. A special feature of the country's remarkable architecture is the eight-story "skyscrapers" of stone and mud. Livestock is housed at the bottom, while its residents enjoy sweeping panoramic views from the upper floors. Some of these images appear in the current exhibition.

Sana'a – "World Heritage site"

Sana'a, the capital city, dates back to the 2nd century CE. Only in 1962 did it begin to expand beyond its old walls. In 1986, UNESCO recognized the Old Town as a World Heritage site. Its fine restoration won it the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The façades of buildings are decorated with complex friezes, and the windows display mosaics of colored glass fragments. Traditional male garb includes a short dagger worn at the front of the belt, but many modern Yemenis have added an AK-47 ("Kalashnikov") automatic rifle to their outfit. Afternoons, for most Yemenis, are spent in company chewing qat, the leaves of a plant that can be both a stimulant and a relaxant.

The Jews of Yemen

Jews began to settle in Yemen after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the Yemenite community is considered to be descended from the Biblical tribe of Judah. Over the years, the Jews of Yemen have had to endure violence, arbitrary decrees and blood libel. The great medieval Jewish sage, Maimonides, sent the Yemenite Jewish community a letter of support, known as "Igeret Teiman." Yemenite Jews began migrating to Israel at the end of the 19th century, but most of the community – about 50,000 – were airlifted to the newly independent state "on Eagles' Wings" in 1949. A minuscule Jewish community still remains in Yemen.

Through the lens of photographer Naftali Hilger, the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art is proud to present snapshots of this fascinating land, particularly its remarkable architecture and its inhabitants, among them the few remaining Jews.


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