A Great Book on al-Yaman al-Kubra

Yemen Update 34(1994):45

The year 1962 is a watershed date in the history of Yemen. While the date of September 26, 1962 is marked in the political genealogy of the north, late in the same year there appeared a remarkable book by Husayn ibn 'Ali al-Waysi. This was his al-Yaman al-Kubra (Cairo: Matba'at al-Nahda al-'Arabiyya, 298 pp., maps, numerous poorly reproduced photographs, but unfortunately no index!), which is still available in the Sanaa bookstores. This is a most informative book and it is a pity that no one has yet translated it into English.

The author was born in the village of Ways in 1910. During the period of the imamate he had the opportunity to accompany a scientific team which came to Yemen in search of minerals. This explains the subtitle of the book, translated as "Geography, Geology and History." The book is introduced by the Egyptian archeologist Ahmad Fakhri, who at one time visited Ma'rib.

Al-Waysi set out with an ambitious plan to write an up-to-date (as of 1962) history and geographical portrait of his country. He is familiar with "classic" Yemeni sources, but was also exposed to the results of modern scholarship. The tone of the work is set by beginning with a map of the globe with latitides and longitudes indicated for Yemen. There are general discussions on the areas of the Empty Quarter, Oman, Mahra and the Hadramawt before a district-by-district account of North Yemen just prior to the revolution. He provides details of the geology and climate of Yemen, including diagrams of geological strata with notes in Arabic and English. Of particular interest is the publication of a chart of the Yemeni star calendar known as the ma'alim al-zira'a, although there is no discussion of this important element of folklore in the text.

One of the interests al-Waysi brings is the penchant for tribal genealogy. He tackles the ancient tribal history, even including a literal genealogical tree for the descendants of Himyar. There is a valuable lexicon of tribal names (as well as names of Yemeni kings and heroes), which is taken primarily from the Shams al-'Ulum of Nashwan ibn Sa'id al-Himyari. The book concludes with a sketchy discussion of the history of the region, primarily the ancient South Arabian kingdoms before the coming of Islam. Dynasty lists are provided for the various sets of rulers, including the Zaydi imams. All of this is derivative and of little value compared to the original texts, but it does have the merit of being in one location.

What makes al-Yaman al-Kubra most valuable is the geographical discussion. Here is a very accessible breakdown of the main provinces and districts for the entire country on the eve of the revolution. Each of the main governorates is treated with details on the major wadis, mountains, administrative units, main towns, and the like. The author mercifully provides voweling for a number of obscure placenames, if we can trust the printer (which, of course, we cannot in some cases!). He also adds comments where appropriate on local agriculture and terrain. The photos, although of very poor value, are still of interest. One can only wonder where the originals are located? If you are looking for a place name, then check out al-Waysi's text. He has a great deal to say... And if you have the time to attempt a translation of this important text, please let me know.

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