YEMEN, 1894-1994

by Shirley W. Madany

There is something special about Yemen, the fabled land of the Queen of Sheba. The seaport of Aden, strategically located at the entrance to the Red Sea, and for many years a British colony, has always been well known. Not so the inland cities or the northern region which was under Ottoman Turkish rule. After independence, Aden and the surrounding areas went through a period of keen attraction to Marxism. This created two Yemens--the southern one called the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen and the other simply the Yemen Arab Republic. In recent times the two Yemens united and that is when remarkable things began to happen.

Located in the southwestern corner of the Arabian peninsula, the Yemen enjoys a fertile soil making it a unique kind of topography surrounded by either sea or sand. The classical name for this part of the globe was Arabic Felix. Always one wonders about her future. Will union survive and will the moderates persevere? What is the strength of the radicals? Just as we write this piece we get word that trouble is brewing in the southern, more desert region. It will be a sad day if this part of the Arab world has to suffer the same fate as the North African countries like Algeria where the populace is living in terror because of Islamic radicalism and its quest for political power.

Various missions opened up medical work Yemen. Some years ago, how encouraged we were to receive a letter from one of these missionary doctors who said that often he found we had reached his patient before he arrived.(by radio) He just wanted to thank us for laying the foundation upon which he could work.

Mail continues to come from this remarkable and beautiful land and a letter from the city of Sana'a sent me searching among the treasures on our bookshelves. We have at least 17 volumes of the writings of the late Dr. Samuel Zwemer, the famous missionary to the Arabian world. at the turn of the century. I knew that somewhere in those volumes I had read a colorful description of Dr. Zwemer's first impressions of the countryside of Yemen and its intriguing cities. Specially his impressions of Sana'a. I searched indexes until I found what I was looking for. It was a chapter in THE GOLDEN MILESTONE, a history compiled by the two men Samuel Zwemer and James Cantine, the founders of "The Arabian Mission " on the Gulf.

Lowell Thomas, well known author and traveller, in writing the introduction to the book, described it as a story of "dauntless courage and high adventure." . The chapter I was looking "Two Trips to Sana'a."

Zwemer's first visit (1891) had its own adventures. He had sailed to the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea. Finding that there was great unrest in the area and that he would have to get the permission of the Turkish Government if he wanted to go inland, he simply hired a muleteer and set out at his own risk. Yemen is mountainous. He describes the scenery as extremely beautiful. They quickly left the unbearable heat of the seaport of Hodeidah at 104 degrees and relished the fresh morning air of 58 degrees enroute. He only stayed five days and though he was able to move about rather freely he noticed that each time he was someone's guest they were eager for him to leave the next day! Then he would take refuge in a kahwah (coffee shop). He was so taken with the place that he resolved to see Arabia Felix again and if possible to go further.

Thus in 1894 when the Mildmay Mission to the Jews in London, heard of his willingness to venture in again, he was asked to take in two cases of New Testaments for the Jews of Yemen. There was a considerable Jewish population until recent times. And prior to the birth of Islam there was definitely a Christian history also. We often think of the church disappearing in North Africa, but that was not the only place. The Nubian church of northern Sudan and the one in Yemen were also totally lost. But that is another story.

So, on July 2nd, 1894 Samuel Zwemer started his second journey to Sana'a by an entirely different route. He set out overland from Aden, with the towns of Taiz, Ibb, Yerim and Dhamar to be visited enroute. He hoped that he would have an easier time with customs between the British and Turkish border points. He was quite, quite wrong.

These were days when all such travellers had to be on the lookout for marauding bandits. This was normal for travel in Syria and most parts of the eastern Mediterranean. At one place he found out that there had been a discussion over holding him as hostage in order to obtain money from the English! Suddenly, long before he expected it they stumbled on a Turkish custom house. The Mudeer of customs looked out of a port-hole and demanded that he come up.

"I reached his little room and stated my errand and purpose. No kind words or offered backsheesh would avail; all the baggage must be opened and all books were forbidden entrance into Yemen by a recent order, he affirmed. The boxes were critically examined by eyes that could not read and the boxes seized; then my saddle bags were searched, and every book and map found also were seized."

Empty-handed, Zwemer continued his journey. A dramatic downpour turned a narrow wady into a raging torrent which swept away his guide's donkey. They had to climb up the terraced mountainside to seek shelter at a house which was in sight, with the camels preceding them. After a vigorous climb they enjoyed the hospitality of Sheikh Ali and the drinking of plenty of kishr (special coffee) made over a charcoal fire. Not long after that he suffered a sprained ankle which made walking difficult for him. Then a frightening experience when a band of desert raiders demanded food of the coffee shop where they were resting. They stayed out of sight and listened to the owners appeasing the demands of the ruffians. The raiders had just returned from attacking a small castle. About sixty hungry men had to be fed well and this was achieved by butchering a cow belonging to a poor woman. Finally they arrived safely in Taiz.

The governor expressed his regrets that the books had been seized at Mufallis, but such was the law. He would, however, allow Zwemer to send for them for inspection. The first soldier sent never reached his destination. He was attacked and injured enroute. The second soldier was more successful. It took five days to retrieve the boxes of books which were then valued by weight. They were sent sealed. He resumed his journey to Sana'a after holding a few meetings with the Jews of Taiz. Zwemer remarked: "the Jews have been so long oppressed and taxed that they have grown content under great injustice."

After further adventures and mis-adventures Samuel Zwemer reached Sana'a on August 2nd, two months after leaving Aden. He made two observations from this trip--one was that men are more likely to prize what they pay for than what they receive freely, and the other was that the Scriptures need an interpreter.

Times have changed in many ways and the Arab world has modernized along with the rest of us. One imagines that these pioneer missionaries must be revelling in the new methods being used to bring the Gospel story to these areas which they explored for the Lord. How thrilling it is indeed to think that the Gospel is available to literate and illiterate by means of radio.

A recent letter speaks volumes and needs no more comment than to say that the Scriptures are now available, complete with interpreter:

Dear friends at Saatu'l Islah,

A hearty greeting full of appreciation and gratitude. This is my second letter having written to you a year ago; before I believed in the Messiah. I wrote to you then requesting your book, The Teachings of the Holy Bible. I was eager to learn the basic truths of the Christian faith. You promised to send me the book and said that it should reach me within three months. Your letter included a tract, Comfort in a Comfortless World. I read the tract and then laid it on a shelf in my study, but I did not receive your book. Let me now explain the reason I am so late in answering your letter.

First, I would like to inform you that I have found the light and have believed in the Lord Jesus the Messiah, to Him be the glory. I believe in him as my Redeemer and personal Savior. I believe in his atoning work which he has accomplished on the cross. Second, I would like to express to you my deep gratitude for the efforts you put forth to serve the Word of God, for your proclamation and evangelism. I lift up a warm prayer to God that He may continue to help you and give you strength, patience and endurance to go through difficulties as you continue in this ministry, a work which cannot be compared to any other work. You are doing all this for us newly born believers.

Third, I would like to inform you that I listen to you almost daily over the FEBA station in the Seychelles. I follow your daily Bible Lessons and use my personal New Testament as I listen to you. I am also listening to your sermon program on Sundays. Fourth, I would like to say that the publications of Saatu'l Islah are very important as I hear about them in your daily announcements. In fact I was very impressed by that little tract that I mentioned earlier which had such an impact on me. I want to receive all your publications. Fifth, and lastly, there must be a problem about receiving your publications. I sometimes feel that there is censorship over here and that your literature is being intercepted and destroyed. Anyhow, I would be grateful even for the smallest tracts you may send. Please don't forget to pray for me. May the grace of the Lord be with us all. Amen.

The Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of the Yemeni people!

Return to list of Articles

Return to Middle East Resources home page