The Yemeni countryside, a diverse landscape of desert, mountains, forests and croplands, has witnessed to the rise and fall of many civilizations. This is the land of the Queen of Sheba and was once a land of great wealth. In ancient times, its kingdoms sold gold, frankincense, myrrh and spices to the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Poised on the southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has been an important trading hub for more than 3,000 years. It was known to the Romans as "Arabia Felix" ("Happy Arabia") because of the riches its trade generated.
The people of ancient Yemen spoke a Semitic language and had their own alphabet. Centuries ago there were many Christians in Yemen, but the Muslim conquest in the 7th century led to the conversion of Yemenis to Islam. Most Yemeni are Arabs, representing more than 1,700 clans or tribes. The people of the Tihamah coastal plain are of mixed Arab and African descent. Some of Yemen’s languages reflect Yemen’s ancient African and Semitic heritages, showing a close linguistic relationship to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Yemen was once a part of the Ottoman Empire, from which the northern part of Yemen became independent in the early 1900s. In the 1960s, Great Britain withdrew its protectorate from what then became the Marxist-controlled country of South Yemen. In 1990, north and south officially united to form the Republic of Yemen.
Yemen is now one of the poorest nations in the Arab world. For hundreds of years it was closed to the outside world, but in recent years, Yemen has opened its doors to commerce with other nations. Most of Yemen’s people are employed in agriculture and/or herding. The oil industry has expanded in recent years, but foreign debt and internal problems have stifled significant productive growth.