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The Founding of AIYS

and Subsequent Times in Yemen

by McGuire Gibson, Oriental Institute

University of Chicago

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The American Institute for Yemeni Studies came into being because the late Selma al-Radi had taken a job as an advisor to the Department of Antiquities, as part of Dutch aid.  In 1977, I was in Riyadh, working on some finds from the survey that the Oriental Institute had done in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. All the foreigners I met insisted that, since I was so close, I should go to visit Yemen, which was “marvelous.”  Finishing my work a couple of weeks early, I sent a wire to Selma, asking if it would be possible to visit.  A week later, I arrived at the Sanaa airport, paid $12 for a visa, and was driven into the city by Selma in her Suzuki, Flosi.  Within two hours, we were having lunch at the top of the American ambassador’s house, one of the finest tall houses in the city.  Tom Scotes, the ambassador, and his wife had also invited Dr. Abdul Karim el-Eryani and Marjorie Ransom, the Public Affairs officer of the embassy.   Much of the conversation was an attempt to convince me to start archaeological work in Yemen.  Being already fully engaged in Iraq, with a small remaining commitment to the Saudi project, it looked unrealistic to begin research on a country I knew nothing about, except for the snippets learned in Arabian Seminar meetings in Britain.  (Although there were serious academic talks based on inscriptions, real archaeology had barely begun at that time, and the presentations were more often than not: “When I was leading the X rifles in Aden, we chanced on a dam and some buildings in Y valley.”)

Dr. Abdul Karim stated that he had previously been the Minister of Planning, but had decided that you could not plan anything without basic data, and therefore he had become Minister of Education and had pushed for the admission of foreign researchers to help in the gathering of information on which to develop the country. I had already been told by Selma about the dozens of American researchers in Yemen, studying development projects, doing medical research, and carrying out dissertation projects in anthropology.  I told the group at the table that what was really needed was an American Institute, similar to the one in Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan, which would foster more research, make it easier for scholars to find cheaper housing and a library, and would become a center for the exchange of ideas.  By the time we got up from the table, the ambassador, Dr. Abdul Karim, and I had signed a note of intent to form an institute, and the ambassador promised $40,000 as a seed grant while Dr. Abdul Karim promised either a house or land at the new University of Sana’a, on which to build.  And I promised that I would try to mount an archaeological project, even if I did not carry it out myself.


On my return to Chicago, I phoned a couple of people who, I knew, had an interest in Yemen, and, in a few days, I had the names of about 20 scholars across the U.S.  I sent out a letter inviting them to Chicago for a one-day planning meeting, without funding to cover their costs. Yemen was enough of a draw that more than 15 people attended at their own expense. The disciplines of the participants included pre-Islamic and Islamic inscriptions, architecture, archaeology, anthropology, political science, history, and geography. I agreed to be the president of the organization and we formed a small committee to draft by-laws and incorporate the institute.  A lawyer friend of mine in Chicago, Jack Beam, fine-tuned the by-laws and did the incorporation, pro bono.  Another friend, Howard Hallengren, an international banker, took on the position of Treasurer, and in three years he quadrupled our small amount of non-governmental funding (dues and a couple of donations) by clever shifting of money to various investments.

John Mandaville agreed to be the first Resident Director, and in the fall of 1978, he was in place in Sanaa. He rented an apartment with funding from the Yemeni government.  As it happened, Dr. Abdul Karim could not deliver on the promised house or land, and due to a shift in power relations in Yemen, he had to leave the country for a couple of years, going to work for the Kuwait Fund.  Before he left, however, he had installed the Institute under the aegis of the Yemen Center for Research and Studies and had arranged for the payment of rent.  (The rental payments became a problem after a couple of years, so we did not press for it after a bit.)

Very important during the year in which the Institute was born was the work of Marjorie Ransom, who pushed papers, reminded officials to sign agreements, and generally midwifed the operation.  What she did not push through, Selma did.

On my first visit to Yemen, I watched Selma work to re-install objects in the national museum in what had been a palace of the Imam (later to become the Folklore Museum).  I was struck by how interested Yemenis of all classes were in their history, some even being able to read the Sabean and Himyarite inscriptions in the displays.  One Friday, Selma and I joined Dr. Yusuf Abdullah, a professor at Sanaa, on a trip to inspect an inscription on a dam.  We drove as far up the wadi as we could, and then began to walk, talking the whole way.  Coming down the wadi toward us was a Yemeni with his AK 47 across his shoulders.   When he got within a hundred feet, he shouted:  “Hey, man, what’s happening?”  This guy had just returned from Detroit, where he worked on the Ford assembly line.  Like many Yemenis, during re-tooling periods, he would return to Yemen to work on his house.  When we reached the dam, we found that, like all high ancient dams in Yemen, it had failed during a flash flood. The inscription, high up on a rock face, was a long one that had been seen, as far as anyone knew, by only one other scholar, a German, who could not get close enough to it to copy it or photograph it.  Dr. Yusuf intended to return with a ladder.

My second visit to Sanaa was in the summer of 1978.  On the morning of 24 June, Selma and I were standing in the museum room she used for registration, when we heard a loud noise.  A bit later, one of the museum employees came in to say that there had been a bomb.  We looked out into the street and saw trucks with soldiers patrolling.  We had witnessed the sound of the assassination of President Al-Ghashmi and the beginning of the rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.  From what I saw, the transfer of power seemed to be relatively easy.

By the fall of 1978, I was back in Yemen with a field crew to begin a survey of the Dhamar Plain.  I had a prior commitment to dig in Iraq, so the leader of the group was Raymond Tindel, with Dr. Stephen Lintner, a geomorphologist, as a key member of the team.  We chose Dhamar because it was the most thoroughly studied physical environment in Yemen.  As the largest parcel of agricultural land in the mountains, it was viewed by Dutch agronomists as the best candidate for modern agricultural techniques.  The Dutch had prepared a set of technical reports on water, soil, and other aspects of the area, which we were able to buy and make use of.  We were also allowed to buy air photographs of the entire area, as well as very good, modern, detailed maps, all of which made survey possible.  One of the first objectives of the project was to try to create a history of the terraces in the area, trying to determine when they had begun.  We decided to start the survey in Zafar, the Himyarite capital, which we knew was surrounded by important ancient water-control features.  But we also chose it because Selma wanted to re-do the small museum on the site, which we could also use as a base. Having established the team at Zafar, I went back to Sanaa and flew to Baghdad. The team at Zafar got bogged down on the site of Zafar itself, which was essentially a quarry for local villagers and very difficult to make sense of.  Out of this effort came a dissertation by Tindel.

We did not return to resume the Dhamar Survey until the early 1990s, when Tony Wilkinson came with me to do the kind of magic he could do even in a landscape as difficult as the Yemeni highlands. During the 1990s, we not only gained detailed information on the collapse of high dams but also an appreciation for the millennia-long use of low-lying dams and diversion devices in some areas, as well as the continuity of place names and tribal designations that appear in early Muslim sources and are still in use today.  We excavated at a number of sites, and we recorded dozens of inscriptions.  We also determined, through C-14 samples, the earliest terraces, at about 3,000 BC, when the Neolithic began in Yemen.  We owed a lot of our success to the local Antiquities head, Ali Sanabani, who knew the area intimately and was so respected that we were allowed to go into areas in which tribes were at war.  He could arrange a truce so that we could see a few sites. At one, there was a Himyarite house (c. 300 BC?) that was still being lived in, as well as an obvious temple that had its upright supports sticking out of the ground by more than a meter.  At the edge of the village was a howitzer.

One year, we were given permission to stay at the Potato Seed project in Dhamar in the spring of 1994.  The unification of Yemen (1990) and the first elections (1993) had resulted in odd arrangements of politics and the military, which were reflected in Dhamar.  There was a northern army camp at the north of the city and a southern camp at the south.  There were some reports of tension within the government, but nothing major.  One night, we had gone to bed at about 9 PM, and were not quite asleep when we heard gunfire.  Assuming it was a wedding, we lay back down.  But the firing increased in volume, and when we went outside, we became aware that there was firing of artillery from each of the camps to the other.  The director of the Potato Project came and asked us to join everyone in a large room, where we were told that it looked like war.  But when they turned on the radio, there was no report of anything going on in the country.  A phone call to Sanaa also yielded no news.  Our team went back to our room and packed, assuming we were leaving in the morning.  When Ali Sanabani came with our car and driver at the usual time, he told us that nothing was happening and we could go out to continue our work to the southeast of the city.  As we passed by the southern camp, it looked as it normally did, with soldiers coming out and crossing the road to buy bread.

We continued to work for a few days more and finished the areas we had scheduled.  The last night we were in Dhamar, we once again heard gunfire.  Thinking the fighting was on again, we went out and found that the sound was from only one direction.  This time, it was a wedding.  The next morning, we drove to Sanaa to find the city in an uproar.  That morning, the southern troops has gotten into their vehicles and had swung around to the west and north, knocking out the electrical substation at Ma’bar and continuing to the east and then south, to return to South Yemen.  This was the start of the civil war.  We flew out the next morning, on schedule.

I served as president of AIYS for a couple of terms, and returned for another term in the 1990s. Over the years, each time I went to Sanaa, I found AIYS in yet another house.  I don’t know if anyone can trace the succession of buildings, but the final success in gaining permission to buy a property and even to build a second building marked a real turning point.  I have discrete memories from various trips in to see how things were going.  I was with Selma, once again, in the museum, when the first pickup truck full of gunny sacks with inscribed twigs was brought in by a man from the Jawf.  The museum bought that truckload, but others found their way outside the country.  I went with Selma and Remy Audouin (French Institute) to visit the site of Sawda, where the twigs had been found.  Remy was digging at that time at Marib, at a place where a machine had hit a building below the surface in the middle of a field. For some reason, the Jawf was accessible at that time, and we visited several sites besides Sawda.  The most impressive was Barraqish, with its high walls and the alabaster roof of a temple sticking out of the ground about a meter.

One of the most vivid memories I have of Yemen was the election process of 1993. I arrived in Sana’a about five days before the election.  The AIYS house was full of scholars coming to witness the elections.  Within hours of my arrival, Sheila Carapico, Selma and I went to a gathering in a very large room on the ground floor of a grand house belonging to a major supporter of the Congress party.  I was just taking off my shoes, when Dr. Abdul Karim came running down the length of the room to greet me and take me to the platform at the head of the room.  Dr. Abdul Karim was obviously the chair of this discussion. Later, I was told that there were the spokesmen/chairmen of about six political parties, including one that consisted entirely of a man, his wife, and brother.  There were also about a dozen journalists and several young Americans with no Arabic at all, but sent by the Republican and Democratic parties to observe the elections.  Sitting on my feet between two government ministers, I was soon aware of aches in my legs and back. But then, the minister on my right passed me some qat, which I had avoided trying until then.  But when a minister offers it, you don’t refuse. My reaction was to think “This is doing nothing. It tastes sort of like hedge, but that is all.” But then, I noticed that I was no longer aching, and that I was understanding much more of the Arabic than I normally do.  I was actually following the arguments.  What became apparent was that this meeting was meant to gain from the heads of all the parties there a pledge to accept the results of the elections.  And they gave the promises.

The next day, a group of us went to another gathering, this time at the headquarters of the Baath party.  We were in a mafraj of a modest building.  We sat and drank soft drinks, waiting for about half an hour. The host was there, and representatives of several other parties, including Islah.  The puzzling wait was explained when Dr. Abdul Karim came rushing in apologizing for being late. He sat and was once again the chair of the session.  Qat was passed and discussion began.  And once again the four parties represented there promised to abide by the election results.

The next day, I think it was the one before the election day, we attended a session at the Socialist headquarters.  This one was much smaller, just the leaders of the party, and there was no appearance of Dr. Abdul Karim. The group, assuming that they would lose badly in the election, discussed whether to go into opposition or join a grand coalition. During one of those days leading up to the election, we went to a political rally in a tent in the old city, where a female candidate was trying to gain votes.  She did not win, but she was one of a group of women running for election.

On election day, we went out to see what was happening. Of course, the US embassy had sent warnings about being out in the streets, but we ignored them. The city was absolutely calm.  Hundreds of men stood in one line and hundreds of women stood in another line at each polling station, entering through different doors, but knowing that their votes would be counted. This was as honest an election as any I have ever seen.  Of course, there was some horse-trading (“We will not put up someone against you in X if you will not put up someone against our guy in Y. “), but there was no violence except in one village in the north, and that was minor. And all the parties accepted the results.

For an archive of documents regarding the origin of AIYS in 1978-1979,
click here.

AIYS after 40

The American Institute for Yemeni Studies (AIYS) celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2018. Founded in 1977, the first office in Ṣan‘ā' was opened in 1978 under the directorship of Dr. Jon Mandaville. During its 40 years AIYS has supported American, other foreign and Yemeni researchers with fellowships and assistance for research permission through its Yemeni counterpart, the Center for Research and Studies.

Several reflections and photographs from former AIYS officers, resident directors and fellows have been written. The list of contributors is noted below. Click on the name to go to the individual's writing.


We encourage anyone who has used the facilities of AIYS or benefited from assistance to send their reflections and photographs for inclusion, as AIYS goes forward to assist our colleagues in Yemen. This can be in English or Arabic.

Please send these to

In Memoriam

AIYS honors the memory of past members and Yemeni scholars who have passed away. If you know of anyone whose memory should be preserved here, please send information to the webshaykh. This can be in English or Arabic.

To to the In Memoriam Page, click here.

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