The capital and largest city of Yemen, Sana’a is located on a plateau 2,350 m. above sea level in the mountainous western region of the country, about 100 km from the Red Sea coast. It is one of Arabia’s oldest settlements, supposedly founded according to folklore by Noah’s son Shem in biblical times. Its name literally means `fortified place’, the remains of the city walls dating back to the first century AD in pre-Islamic times.
By the fourth century AD Sana’a was an important centre and citadel in the kingdom of the Himyarites (which superseded the Sabaean kingdom around 115 BC) in southwest Arabia. Himyarite power came to an end in the early sixth century, and was followed by Abyssinian and then Persian rule until the advent of Islam in AD 628. Thereafter, Sana’a’s fortunes reflected the fluctuating power of the Imams (kings and spiritual leaders) of the Zaidi sect—who built the theocratic political structure of Yemen that largely endured from 860 to 1962—and rival dynasties and conquerors. These included the Fatamid caliphs of Egypt, the Ayyubids and, from the early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman Empire exercised nominal sovereignty until the end of the First World War (when Yemen became independent), although conflict with the Imams was frequent. Sana’a periodically lost its capital status to other cities over the centuries, most recently to Ta’iz from 1948–62 during the rule of Imam Ahmad. It then became the capital of the Yemen Arab Republic on that entity’s establishment in 1962 following a military revolution, and of the unified Republic of Yemen in 1990.
Since the political and military upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s, Sana’a has expanded rapidly in area and population. However, the eastern section of the capital, comprising the old walled city, has not been affected by modern construction activity. Its architectural and archaeological significance has been recognized by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sana’a is the seat of government and administration. Economically, it is the commercial and marketing centre of an important fruit-growing region. There is an international airport about 20 km west of the city. Sana’a University was founded in 1970.
Places of Interest
The old walled city provides the principal attractions, with its squares (such as Maydan at-Tahrir), gates (notably Bab al-Yaman), numerous mosques (particularly the Al-Jami al-Kebir or Great Mosque, one of the oldest in the Muslim world) and the Souk al-Milh (central market). The National Museum is housed in Dar as-Sa’d or House of Good Luck, a former royal palace built in the 1930s.