IRAN IN THE YEMEN, THEN AND NOW - By Roger Lucy (Article)



lucy sept 2018

Roger Lucy

In an April 2016 interview with Der Spiegel, Iran's former foreign minister, Ali Akhbar Velayti, put the current conflict in Yemen into the context of a "2,000-year-old Iranian-Yemeni friendship" reminding his interviewer of a war that took place there 1,500 years ago, where Iran helped a local ruler defeat what he called “an Ethiopian invasion”. He predicted the Saudis would suffer a similar "complete defeat" there.

This is certainly viewing history in la longue durée. In present day Yemen, Saudi-backed forces (with some US and British support), are trying to regain control from an Iranian-backed faction with Shi’ite affiliations; meanwhile, both sides contend with local south Yemen separatists, and groups aligned with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. At play are: religious rivalries, Yemeni tribal politics, Saudi Arabia’s on-going nervousness about its poor but populous southern neighbour, and Saudi Arabia and Iran’s struggle for regional hegemony. The events to which Velayati referred took place in the 6th century AD and contained a not dissimilar mixture of religious rivalries, great power politics and a struggle to control Yemen’s spice and aromatics trade and the commercially vital straits at the mouth of the Red Sea, the Bab al Mendab (the gate of tears).

Yemen, then known as Happy or Blessed Arabia (Arabia Felix, or Arabia Eudaemon) was in antiquity the home of a flourishing and literate civilisation whose origins lay well back in the 1st millennium BC. King Solomon’s fabled visitor, the Queen of Sheba. symbolised the region’s wealth, based both on flourishing agriculture (centred on the Marib Dam) and its monopoly on spices and aromatics, essential to ancient religion, cuisine and medicine The Sabean culture, centred on Marib, spread across the Red Sea into what is now Ethiopia, creating links which were to endure for many centuries.

In the late 1st century BC, Emperor Augustus sent a Roman expeditionary forces down the Nile and the Red Sea. These yielded, at best, some token submissions, at the cost of heavy casualties. Augustus’ general Aelius Gallus returned empty handed, but Augustus in his Res Gestae proclaimed "At my order and under my auspices, two armies were led at almost the same time into Ethiopia and into Arabia Felix; great forces of the enemy of both races were cut down on the battle-field, and many towns were captured." Trade soon followed the eagles. The Romans sent naval squadrons o protect the very lucrative convoys that used the annual monsoons to sail from the Horn of Africa to southern India, and by the 2nd century AD, had established a garrison on the Farasan Islands near the mouth of the Red Sea. Local rulers were well rewarded with Roman wine and manufactured goods for their cooperation.

The Roman presence in the region slackened during the crisis of the 3rd century, but by then, the Ethiopian Kingdom of Axum became closely involved in this trade and had developed close commercial and cultural links with Roman Egypt. Sometime in the late 2nd or early 3rd
century, the Axumite King crossed the Bab al Mendab and established a foothold on the Yemeni side. Although the Ethiopians abandoned their bridgehead circa 270, the rulers of Axum continued to claim suzerainty in Yemen. Sometime around 340 missionaries from Roman Egypt converted the Axumite Negus (king) to Christianity, further cementing links between Rome and Ethiopia.

In Yemen, a different religious change was taking place. Judaism had been spreading through the Arabian peninsula for quite some time. The Acts of the Apostles makes reference to Jewish communities in both Ethiopia and Arabia. Archaeologists have found inscriptions that show a growing Jewish presence in the Hejaz in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and modern historians studying south Arabia, have noted the almost total disappearance of any signs of polytheism in Yemen after around AD 380, implying that the majority of its inhabitants had become either Jewish or Christian. By this period, most of Yemen and surrounding regions was ruled by the Himyarite dynasty. Originally centred in Zafar in south-west Yemen it had shifted its capital to Sana’a. The Himyarite kings, proved to be enthusiastic converts to Judaism (although there is some debate as to just how canonical this local brand of Judaism was) but, as was too much the case of that time, they believed all their subjects should share their faith.

Christianity, however, had also been making major inroads into Arabia, spreading south through the Hejaz from Roman Syria and Arabia, and down the Persian Gulf coast from the growing Christian community in Mesopotamia, then part of the Iranian Sassanid Empire. There are numerous accounts of Christian missionaries and merchants active in Yemen between the 3rd and 5th centuries, and by AD 500 a substantial Christian community had grown up around Najaran – now in Saudi Arabia, just a SCUD’s throw away from the modern Yemeni border. In the late 5th century a Himyarite king, who took a particularly muscular approach to his faith, executed almost 40 members of the Christian clergy in Najaran, including its bishop, ostensibly because of Roman persecution of Jews. In turn this provoked an Ethiopian intervention into Yemen – doubtless with tacit or explicit Roman support. The Ethiopians captured Najran and the old Himyarite capital of Zafar, and installed a puppet Christiant king Ma'dikarib Yafur (518-522), as well as establishing a bishop and building a number of churches in Zafar. Ma'dikarib Yafur, however, was soon overthrown in a coup by a new Himyarite king,Yusuf, also known as known as Dhu Nuwas (“curly”), who retook Zafar, massacring its Ethiopian garrison and burning the churches. He then secured the Yemeni side of the Bab-al-Mendab before proceeding north to retake Najran. There, Yusuf perpetrated a particularly gruesome massacre of Christians, allegedly killing 20,000, many of whom were reportedly burnt in a trench.

As such acts would likely have consequences, Yusuf sought Iranian support to fend off any punitive actions likely to come from Ethiopia and possibly their Roman allies. Iran had strong political and commercial interests in the Arabian peninsula. Directly or indirectly it controlled the entire south shore of the Persian Gulf, and had established alliances with many of the tribes in the Arabian interior. Iranian merchants even exploited silver mines in the Nejd. Iran’s chief Arab clients were the Lakhamids (also called the Nasirids) centred on Hira in southern Iraq on the right bank of the Euphrates. This web of alliances grew out of the intensifying rivalry between the Romans and Sassanid Iran. The main focus of their conflict was control of the the heavily-fortified cities which guard the upper Tigris and Euphrates and the escarpment separating the Anatolian plateau from the Mesopotamian plain. Despite a series of ever more intense wars through the 6th century neither power was able to make significant gains here. Each tried to out-flank the other, seeking clients both among the small kingdoms and principalities of the Caucasus, and the Arab tribes of the desert fringe and the Arabian interior. Increasingly each power outsourced the defence of their southern desert frontiers to Arab clients. In the 6th century, the Romans’main clients were the Ghassanids (or Jafnids) centred in north-eastern Syria. Ghassanids and Lakhmids raided one another and the territories of their sponsors, even when the Romans and Persians were technically at peace. Armed and funded by their sponsors, these Arab client kingdoms grew in military power and political cohesion. The relationship between clients and sponsors was not always an easy one. Both the Romans and the Iranians sought to develop links with tribes deeper in the interior, to extend their influence and provide a check to their clients’ growing aspirations. Needless to say, the Himyarites, militantly anti-Christian and potentially able to block the Bab-al Mendab, the Romans’ outlet to the Indian Ocean, were a potentially attractive client to Iran. Yusuf clearly thought so.

Yusuf wrote to the Shah of Iran, Kavadh, through the Shah’s Lakhmid ally, al-Mundhir, boasting of his misdeeds, and encouraging them to do likewise. This backfired, as while the Lakhamid king was himself a pagan, many of his subjects were Christian and at the time , an envoy from Constantinople was visiting his capital at Hira to negotiate the release (for a very hefty ransom) of two senior Roman officers whom he had captured. Shah Kavadh himself was also engaged in some tricky negotiations with Constantinople over Roman recognition of his younger son Khushro as his heir and does not seem to have responded.
Al-Mundhir showed Nonnosus, the Roman envoy Yusuf’s letter, which made no effort to cover up the atrocities he had committed. The news of the massacre soon spread throughout the churches of the near east, leading to pressure on both the Roman Emperor, Justin I and the Ethiopian Negus Kaleb, to intervene. Intervene they did. In 525 the Ethiopians assembled a large army (reportedly 120,000 men – almost certainly an exaggeration) while the Romans sent a fleet from their base at Aila (Aqaba) at the head of the Red Sea to help convoy it over the difficult waters of the Bab al-Mendab.

Yusuf’s attempt to block the passage of the Roman fleet into his main harbour with a large chain failed. The coaltion’s combined arms shock and awe had its desired effect, Yusuf either fell in battle or was last seen urging his horse into the Red Sea (which does not seem to have parted to let him through). A Christian Himyarite, Sumyafa Ashwa, was set up as viceroy, and a archbishop, Gregentius, was appointed by the Patriarch of Alexandria. Within a couple of years the viceroy was deposed by Abrahah (Abraham), an Ethiopian general, supported by his disgruntled soldiers (recruited from convicts and ex-slaves). Kaleb reportedly sent a punitive expedition of of 3,000 men led by one of his relatives, but they mutinied, killed their commander and defected to Abrahah. Finally after Kaleb had decided to abdicate and enter a monastery (sending his crown to be hung in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem). Abrahah came to terms with his successor, Alla Amidas, and accepted Axum’s nominal suzerainty.

Abrahah now reigned over Yemen, more or less as an independent viceroy, into the mid-550s. Alongside Archbishop Gregentius he tried by persuasion, legislation, and if necessary, force, to Christianise Yemeni society.Abrahah is credited with building a large cathedral in Sana'a, and trying to make it a pilgrimage centre. Inscriptions show that he also repaired the Ma'rib Dam in 543. He was not shy about conducting an independent foreign policy exchanging embassies with the Romans, the Persians and the chieftains of the Arabian interior.

The split between Sana’a and Axum was not altogether displeasing to the Roman Emperor Justinian, who had succeeded his uncle Justin. According to the historian Procopius, Justinian sent an ambassador, Nonnosus to Kaleb, in hope of persuading him to act as an intermediary for purchasing silk in India. While Nonnosus was splendidly received by Kaleb, enthroned on a platform balanced on the backs of four elephants, the endeavour ultimately failed, because the Persians used their greater geographic proximity to India to buy up all available silk before the Ethiopians could get there. Justinian also sought to enlist Abrahah to undermine Iran’s allies in the Arabian peninsula. He encouraged him to make common cause with another Roman client, al-Qais, head of the Ma’add confederacy (their territory lay somewhere north-east of modern-day Riaydh), to attack Persian interests in eastern Arabia. While the rulers of Ma’add were long-standing enemies of Iran’s Lakhamid clients, al-Qais, unfortunately, also had a long-standing feud with Abrahah, and the two would not co-operate. Nonetheless Abrahah did mount some expeditions into the Arabian interior, perhaps against tribes aligned with Persia, and into the Hejaz, perhaps to shore up Roman interests there.  His interventions were clearly energetic enough to become the stuff of one of the legends that passes for early Islamic history. Abrahah wanted to divert pilgrims from Mecca to his cathedral in Sana’a . To achieve this, he sent an expedition there to raze the Kab’a. Mahmud, the elephant delegated to accomplish the Kaba’s destruction, however. refused to cooperate. These events, the so-called “Year of the Elephant” are dated to 570, the traditional year of the prophet Mohammed’s birth. In any event, by 570 Abrahah was long dead and his sons Aksum and then Masruq had succeeded him.

Indeed sometime in the 570s, great power politics again imposed regime change on Yemen. A Yemeni Jewish prince Saiy ibn Dhi Yazan made contact with the Lakhmid ruler in al-Hirah to request help in overthrowing Masruq. He had more luck than Yusuf. Iran already controlled Bahrain and Oman, and Shah Khosrau I, was happy to make good his father Kavadh’s failure to intervene in Yemen. He sent his general Vahriz with a small expeditionary force of 1,800 soldiers, drawn from the troublesome mountain folk of the Caspian coast. Masruq, was ousted and replaced by ibn Dhi Yazan The coup, along with Iranian provocations in the Caucasus did provoke a declaration of war by Emperor Justin II, but initially this went very badly for the Roman side, and no attempt was made to oust Vahriz from Yemen. Around 597, Vahriz, perhaps taking advantage of the new Shah Khusro II’s preoccupation with a usurper, dispensed with ibn Dhi Yazan and ruled Yemen as a virtually independent satrap (Marzban). Soon after, Iran and the Roman Empire had become locked in a bitter war which lasted 25 years - the so-called Last Great War of Antiquity. Vahriz, and his sons, who succeeded him, were therefore left more or less to their own devices. Only belatedly, Khusro II sent an additional 4,000 men to dispose of his rebel satrap and install their commander Badhan as the new Marzban. However the tide of the War was turning, and in 628 it ended with Khosro II’s death and Emperor Heraclius’ total victory over Iran.

Abandoned, as a result of this imperial train wreck, Badhan and the Persian garrison seem to have gone native converting (according to much later Islamic historians) to Islam and joining the Arab forces sweeping through the middle east driving the Romans from Egypt and Syria and conquering the Iranian Empire itself..  So ended Iran’s first proxy war in Yemen. It was, as Velyati noted, an Iranian victory, but it was only a temporary one - Iran had lost the overall War.  And to achieve this Iran had to involve itself much more directly then, than it seems to be doing today. By contrast, the other super-power, the Roman Empire, was never involved itself directly at all, confining it interventions to providing logistical, naval and no doubt financial support to the Ethiopians, along with various diplomatic interventions. Iran’s foot-print in the 6th century Arabian peninsula was much greater than it is today. It controlled the entire Gulf coast from what is today Kuwait, down to Oman, while what is now Saudi Arabia was contested by a kaleidoscope of warring tribes some tributary to the Romans, some to Iran. Many no doubt, to both.

Tags: Roger Lucy