This is one of the most important works on Yemen from the critical period leading up World War I. It comes in the form of lengthy ‘letter’, or direct narrative, written by İbnü’l-Hatib Cemaleddin, a popular Turkish author, whose lively works were nevertheless well informed by historical research and a keen analysis of current affairs. The work appeared in the same year as the signing of the Treaty of Da’an (1911), which ended a seven year-long war between the Ottomans and the forces of Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din, the leader of the Shi‘a Zaidi movement, based in Sana’a, which had been fighting the Sublime Porte on-and-off for 300 years. The accord left the Ottomans as sovereigns over all of North Yemen (South Yemen was the British Protectorate of Aden), although the Zaidi imam was guaranteed extensive autonomy over his lands.
In this ‘Letter’, İbnü’l-Hatib Cemaleddin calls upon the Ottoman people to pay more “attention” to Yemen, a country with a rich culture and immense economic potential. He decries the destruction that was wrought upon the Yemen during the Ottoman-Zaidi conflict, and holds out hope that peace will lead to a brighter future. While he assumes a pro-Ottoman bias, his narrative is thoughtful and rich with insight.
As it turned out, the Ottomans joined World War I (1914-18) against Britain, with Imam Yayha supporting the Sublime Porte. During the early period of conflict, the Sultan’s forces had the British on the backfoot, nearly taking Aden. While the Arab Revolt further north forced the Ottoman-Zaidi side to retreat into the interior, the war in Yemen remained a tense contest until the final defeat of the Sublime Porte. In the wake of the war, the Zaidis came to rule North Yemen for many years.
The present work is an invaluable source for anyone who seeks to understand the modern history of Yemen. While several examples are held by libraries, it very seldom appears on the market.
In addition to the present work on Yemen, İbnü’l-Hatib Cemaleddin was the author of several books, including an almanac on the Adana Vilayet, Salname-i vilayeti Adana (Adana, circa 1905); a work on affairs in Arabia, Hakikat-i Arab‘ın Nazariyeleri Şükri Ganem ve Tanin (1326 / 1910); and a literary work, Kalem Damlaları (1327 / 1911).
A Brief History of Ottoman Yemen
Yemen is one of the most ancient and culturally rich lands in the Middle East. It was traditionally also the source of great wealth; its interior produced coffee and silver, while its coastal ports were for millennia great marts of trade. Its strategic location often ensured that control of Yemen led to naval dominance of the Red Sea, a vital maritime link between South and East Asia and Europe.
Yemen has also been closely associated with the regions of Asir, Jizan and Al Bahah (today in Saudi Arabia), located immediately to the north. At times these areas were parts of the political entity of Yemen, although they had their own distinct cultural identities. Asir was a valuable territory, as its relatively well-watered highlands were the most productive agricultural area in the entire Arabian Peninsula, capable of producing large yields of grains and fruits.
Importantly, as in most many other parts of Arabia, practical power on a day to day basis was exercised by local tribal or village leaders, under the loose suzerainty of regional or imperial masters. Nobody ever comprehensively controlled Yemen and Asir on the ground, that was not the nature of region and its socities.
For some generations up until the early 16th Century, much of Yemen and Asir was loosely ruled by the Mameluke Sultanate, which was based in Cairo. After the Ottomans vanquished the Mamelukes in 1517, a power vacuum ensued in Southern Arabia, leading to intense conflict between local powers.
The Zaidi Imams were a dynasty led by scholar-warriors who representing a large Shia community in the Yemeni highlands, based in the great city of Sana’a. They were the leading power in the region, although their position was contested by local rivals.
Meanwhile, The Ottomans secured Hejaz, with the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which allowed the Ottoman Sultan to possess the title of Caliph, the defender of Islam.
In 1538, the Zaidi Imamate, seeking protection from their regional rivals, invited the Ottoman army to come to Yemen, and to make the region a de jure part of the Ottoman Empire, while permitting the imam to maintain his internal autonomy. The Ottomans established the Eyelet of Yemen, and proceeded to extend their control along the tihama, while keeping a small garrison in Sana’a. For some decades, the Ottoman presence succeeded in buttressing the Zaidi regime, although the Sublime Porte’s authority over much of the country outside of main centres was weak. It is important to note that the Ottomans and the Zaidis were not natural allies; their outlooks differed greatly, starting with their conflicting Sunni-Shia theological identities.
From the eyelet’s capital, the port of Mocha, the Ottomans derived considerable revenue from trading in the region’s commodities and slaves, while their presence in Yemen anchored their control of the Red Sea. However, the Ottomans eventually faced effective resistance from communities in the interior. Notably, the Zaidi imam Qasim the Great (ruled 1597-1620), came to resent the Ottoman presence in his country. He expelled the Ottomans from Sana’a and mounted a brutally effective guerrilla war against them. This cause was carried on by his son, Muhammad, and the Ottomans withdrew from Yemen altogether in 1636. The Zaidis then proceeded to conquer almost all of Yemen and Asir, creating one of the Middle East’s largest and most prosperous states.
During the 18th Century Zaidi rule over most of the Yemen and Asir gradually collapsed. While the imamate retained control of Sana’a and its vicinity, the country fragmented under into the rule of numerous local potentates. The Ottomans, facing crises in the Caucuses and Balkans, showed little interest the region.
In 1805, the religiously arch-conservative Wahhabis sprang with shocking speed and force out of their homeland in the deserts of the Nejd to conquer the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. This was a catastrophe for the Sublime Porte, as the loss of the holy cities undermined the Sultans’ claim to the Caliphate, which was, in many cases, the only thing that legitimized his rule over non-Turkish Muslims.
Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, was tasked with regaining control of the holy cities in the name of the sultan. This was achieved in 1811, after which he meted out harsh justice upon the Wahhabis. Nevertheless, the, albeit temporary, loss of Mecca and left the Sublime Porte rattled.
Meanwhile, the situation in Yemen and Asir remained quite unstable, with the lobal powers likewise shaken by the Wahhabi surge into nearby Hejaz (the Shai Zaidi Imams held a special antipathy towards the Wahabis).
During the First Ottoman Egyptian War (1831-3), Muhammed Ali rebelled against Ottoman rule and successfully took over Egypt, the Levant and Hejaz. He also managed to extend his authority along the tihama of Azir and Yemen, although his influence there was never strong. The Viceroy’s forces almost caused the collapse of the Sublime Porte in Turkey, before being convinced to back down. The Egyptians agreed to recognize the Sultan as their overlord, but only in the most technical sense; much of the Middle East would be, for all practical purposes, ruled from Cairo.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s strategic location, guarding the Bab-el-Mandeb, the nexus between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, came to the forefront of global geopolitics. Britain was alarmed by Muhammed Ali’s expansion, fearing that it could threaten Britain’s all-important interests in the Indian Ocean. In 1839, they founded a naval base at Aden, a stellar natural harbour on the Indian Ocean coast of Yemen.
Following the Second Egyptian–Ottoman War (1840-1), Britain pressured Muhammed Ali into backing down. He agreed to essentially become the head of an autonomous dynasty in Egypt and Sudan in return for restoring Ottoman rule over the Levant and Hejaz. Egyptian forces where withdrawn from the tihama of Asir and Yemen, creating a power vacuum that added to the region’s instability.
Even as the Egyptian thereat had been neutralized, the Sublime Porte was concerned that the growing British presence around Aden and the instability in Yemen and Asir (which bordered the Mecca region) endangered their hold on the holy cities. While initially reluctant to mount what would be a technically difficult and expensive campaign, in the late 1840s, the Ottomans decided to reclaim Asir and Yemen to shore up the empire’s position in Hejaz and Red Sea.
It must be noted that this new ‘proactive’ Ottoman policy must be seen within the greater context of the Tanzimat Era (1839-76), whereupon the Sublime Porte’s comprehensive regime of reforms, including the modernisation of the military and renewed impetus to re-assert central authority in the empire’s peripheral regions.
By April 1849, Ottoman expeditionary forces had taken control of the tihama of both Asir and much of Yemen, including the key port of Hodeida. Echoing the situation three centuries earlier, in July 1839, the Zaidi Imam Mohammed Yayha invited the Ottomans to come to Sana’a, where he concluded an agreement under which Zaidi lands would become subject to the Sublime Porte, while then imamate retained its local autonomy. A small Ottoman garrison was established in Sana’a, while the Sublime Porte extended its control over the tihama southwards down to the Bab-el-Mandeb, so re-establishing the Eyelet of Yemen.
Perhaps predictably, the Ottomans and the Zaidi imamate soon had a falling out and the Ottoman garrison was expelled from the Sana’a. Turkish authority completely dissolved beyond the tihama.
The Ottomans, preoccupied with grand faraway events, such as the Crimean War and conflicts in the Balkans, were unable to re-establish their authority beyond their coastal garrisons. This was not only because of a lack of manpower, but also due to the fact that the Ottomans possessed very scant knowledge of the geography of the interior of Asir and Yemen; they usually relied upon local guides even to traverse the highroads. As the Yemeni tribesmen who contested Ottoman rule were masters a guerrilla warfare, without a detailed knowledge of the terrain, even a large Turkish army would be doomed to ambush and entrapment. While decent sea charts of the coasts existed, the existing mapping of the interior was so vague as to be operationally worthless.
The opening of the Suez Canal, controlled by France and Britain, in 1869 posed a new threat to the Ottoman control of the Hejaz and their presence in Arabia. Hitherto the Red Sea would become one of the globe’s busiest shipping lanes, with routes controlled by foreign imperialist powers. The British base at Aden was to be majorly upgraded into one of the world’s largest naval bases, while the British would declare all South-eastern Yemen to be their Aden Protectorate. Moreover, France was directing covetous eyes towards Yemen’s magnificent coffee industry. The Sublime Porte knew that it had to act fast to prevent its authority in Arabia from slipping away.
In 1869, a large and well-equipped Ottoman army under Colonel Ahmed Muhtar (1839 – 1919) was sent to conquer Asir and North and Western Yemen. Ahmed Muhtar was no ordinary army commander, but a polymath scientist, writer and diplomat who while barely thirty years old had already played a critical role in modernizing the Ottoman military. The most versatile and clever Ottoman soldier of his era, he had an uncanny ability to master different battle theatres and proved to be equally adept at both guerrilla warfare in remote mountains as well as set piece field battles.
Ahmed Muhtar made short work of rebels in Asir, conquering much of the region by 1871. Moving south, he easily gained masterly of the tihama. Sultan Abdulaziz II was so impressed by his success, that Ahmed Muhtar was promoted to general and pasha and made the Vali (governor) of Yemen.
In 1872, Ahmed Muhtar turned his sights on the real trouble spot, the Yemeni highlands. He managed to outwit many of the tribes that lay between the coast and Sana’a. This show of force convinced the Zaidi Imam Ghalib, whose regime suffered from internal cleavages, to invite the Ottomans to come to Sana’a to make a deal.
Ahmed Muhtar arrived in Sana’a in April 1872, where he was greeted with great pomp and hospitality. The Zaidi imam agreed to accept the Sultan as his overlord in return for imperial protection and the maintenance of his local autonomy. However, it would later be revealed that Ahmed Muhtar and the Imam had very different interpretations of the meaning of the accord.
Ahmed Muhtar attempted to set up a modern administration in Yemen in line with the Tanzimat programme. The country became a full Ottoman vilayet (province), and was divided into four sanjaks (districts), being Sana’a, Hodeida, Asir and Taiz. Civil servants were appointed from the local tribesmen to collect taxes and customs revenues, while significant funds (at least in part derived for the local taxes) were earmarked for infrastructure development and social programs. Army units were also raised from the local population, giving steady employment to otherwise listless young men. In the key cities and some rural areas, the local people from tribal chiefs all the way on down to common peasants came to depend on the Ottoman state for their livelihoods (which was part of the Ottoman design).
On the other hand, some tribes, especially those who were traditionally at odds with the Ottomans’ ‘friends’ the Zaidi Imams, continued to mount small scale rebellions across the Yemeni highlands. While these problems were kept in check, it was at a high cost, as 4,000 Ottoman troops died in Yemen between 1872 and 1875. Nevertheless, by the time Ahmed Muhtar Pasha left Yemen in September 1874, to assume his promotion as the Ottoman Minister of Public Works, he had largely succeeded in ensuring that Yemen had become an integrated part of the Ottoman Empire in the modern sense, something that nobody else would ever achieve.
Ottoman control over large parts of Yemen allowed military engineers to conduct the first proper surveys of the interior, while the constant army campaigns and infrastructure programmes produced many more maps that, in aggregate, began to form an accurate geographic overview of the entire country for the first time, leading to the creation of the present map.
During the 1880s, the Ottoman Treasury was desperately short of funds owing to a public debt crisis and enacted harsh budgetary cutbacks. The empire no longer had money to give financial ‘incentives’ to Yemeni tribal leaders; many native civil servants were not paid regularly; and local army detachments were disbanded. To the Yemenis the Ottomans were no longer holding up their end of the bargain, and unrest and mini-rebellions broke out across the Yemeni highlands. The Ottomans lost control of virtually all areas to the north and east of Sana’a. It also did not help that British agents were soliciting the tribes in the far south, near Taiz, to join the Aden Protectorate. When the present map was issued in 1888, the Ottoman army was constantly moving about the country ‘putting out fires’, fighting a seemingly endless struggle to regain control.
The Zaidi Imamate, hitherto the bedrock of the Ottoman regime in Yemeni highlands contemplated switching sides. The Zaidis never liked Ahmed Muhtar’s modernizing programme; they felt that creating a ‘modern’ Yemen violated their autonomy and traditions. As Shiites they also came to find many of the religious practices of the mainly Sunni Ottoman forces to be disagreeable. The Zaidi feigned a rebellion in 1891, before calling it off; however, the bloom was off the rose and relations between Constantinople and Sana’a continued to deteriorate.
In 1904, the new Zaidi Imam Yahya Muhammad Hamid ed-Din, or simply Imam Yahya (1869 – 1948) mounted a full-scale rebellion against Ottoman rule. A highly intelligent and discipled leader, his guerrilla tactics outmatched the Sultan’s overstretched forces and the Ottomans were virtually driven out of the Yemeni highlands. After years of hard fighting wore down both parties, the Imam and the Sublime Porte signed the Treaty of Da’an (1911), which settled matters largely on the Zaidi terms; essentially the Zaidis would rule much of Ottoman Yemen, with only very light Ottoman oversight.
Meanwhile, the Ottomans were also having trouble in Asir, as beginning in 1906 the local leader Muhammad ibn Ali al-Idrisi rebelled against the Sublime Porte. The Idrisids succeeding in driving the Ottomans out of much of Asir and Jizan by 1910, forming the Idrisid Emirate of Asir. The Idrisids were enemies of the Zaidis, so the new reality in Yemen was very tense.
Yemen was a key theatre in World War I, with the Zaidis supporting the Ottomans, while the British backed the Idrisids. The Ottoman Empire collapsed upon the end of the conflict in 1918, whereupon Imam Yayha declared himself ruler of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, forming a regime that would persist until 1962 (after which the country became the Yen Arab Republic, popularly known as North Yemen). After fighting an exhausting war against the Zaidis., the Idrisids lands were absorbed into Saudi Arabia in 1934. The British continued to rule their Aden Protectorate until 1967, after which point the country became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, popularly known as South Yemen. North Yemen and South Yemen were unified in 1990. Sadly, however, since 2015, Yemen’s old rivalries have retuned to fore, upon the outbreak of the ongoing Yemeni Civil War.
References: ÖZEGE 22967; OCLC: 260073345, 13073560, 122737051; Server Rifat İskit, Resemli-haritalı mufassal Osmanlı tarihi, Volume 6 (1957), p. 3670; Hulûsi Yavuz, Yemen‘de Osmanlı idâresi ve Rumûzı̂ târihi (923-1012/1517-1604), (2003), p. xxxiii; İhsan Süreyya Sirma, Osmanlı Devleti‘nin yıkılışında Yemen isyanları (1980), p. 24.