Sanaa: History & Civilization [Archives:1998/08/Last Page]

February 23 1998

Sanaa is the oldest city in the Arabian Peninsula, dating back to around 500 BC. Ancient inscriptions indicate that it was founded by the Sabaa King, Dhu Raydan Karib. It lies in the middle of the Yemeni plateau – 2,200m above sea level – by the Noqom Mountain, which towers 600m above Sanaa.

Sanaa has several names. It is Shem’s City; Shem being Noah’s son who built the city following the Biblical deluge. It is also Azal, as mentioned in the bible, and San’o (the well-fortified position) in the ancient Yemeni language – Al-Musnad. Sanaa served as the capital and seat of government of a unified Yemen since the second century AD. It was the flourishing capital of the famous Himyarite King Dhu Nouas and the greatest King of Sabaa, Yasser Bahanaam.
Being a major town on the ancient myrrh route from Aden to Mecca, Sanaa was one of the most important pre-Islamic marketplaces for Arab merchants.
The Ethiopians built the Qollays church in AD 525 in Sanaa at the height of the Christian fervor in the region, which was fueled by the Byzantine king who sent a missionary expedition to convert people to Christianity and consolidate ties with the Himyarite state.

When King Saif Bin Dhi Yazin succeeded in driving the Ethiopians out of Yemen, Sanaa became the capital of all Yemen and the Ghamdan Palace became the residence of the monarch. King Saif later received Abdulmutallib, the Prophet’s (P) grandfather, who specially came from Mecca to congratulate him on his resounding victory.
The people of Yemen converted to Islam in the sixth year after hijra (AH), the Prophet’s fleeing from Mecca to Medina, or AD 628. Yemen was later divided into three ‘wilaiats’ or provinces – Sanaa, Hadhramaut, and Al-Janad. It is said that Imam Ali (Mohammed’s son-in-law and the fourth caliph following the Prophet’s death) visited Sanaa and stayed in a house which was later converted into a mosque. The people of Sanaa supported Imam Ali in his conflict with Moawia Bin Abi Sofian, who was attempting to take over the caliphate.

Sanaa is home to one of the greatest and most important Islamic monuments – the Grand Mosque. It was built by Moadh Bin Jabal Al- Ansari, one of the Prophet’s most cherished disciples, in the Ghamdan Palace garden following Mohammed’s orders when the Yemeni people converted to Islam. The mosque was extended and renovated several times during the reign of the Ummyad and Abbasyd dynasties. The Sulaihyd Queen Arwa Bint Ahmed built the eastern side of the mosque in 525 AH.
In the old city of Sanaa, there are 50 mosques, each with its own water well and garden where crops like onions and herbs are planted. The revenue of this garden goes to the upkeep of the mosque as part of the social, cultural and economic relations set up by Islam.
Up to the ’50s of this century, the old city was also home to 40 traditional markets selling a wide and exotic spectrum of goods. There are now only 28 markets left where people practice traditional handicrafts handed down through the centuries. There are 14 public baths in old Sanaa, some of which are pre-Islamic.
The famous Sanaa “samaser,” the equivalent of the modern shopping centers, serve as places of trading, money exchange, storage, and accommodation for travelers. There are complete sets of rules regulating commercial dealings such prices, wages, costs, rents within these 11 samasers in the old city of Sanaa.

Yemenis mined gold, silver and other metals. They also made glass, sculpted marble statues, and fashioned silver and precious stones such as the famous Yemeni agate. Other traditional Yemeni handicrafts include weaving, woodwork, tannery, pottery, etc. About 31% of the old Sanaa inhabitants work as craftsmen.
The fabled wall of ancient Sanaa was said to be wide enough for 8 horses to move abreast on top of it. It was built by the Sabaa King Shaaram Awtar, and was later renovated after Islam. It has four main gates and several other side ones. It was also renovated in the 1880s during the Ottoman presence in Yemen. Ancient inscriptions indicate that San’o had a heavily fortified wall with strong towers, some of which still exist. Up until the September 26 Revolution, the four main gates of Sanaa were opened every morning before the sunrise prayers and closed just after the evening prayers at around 8 PM.