Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

EMStaD YEMEN: Early Modern State Development in Yemen

How do early modern states organize effective rule in difficult conditions? EMStaD YEMEN focuses on a country that due to its geographical, religious and social complexities is now considered a failed state – Yemen.

2022 - 2024
Ekaterina (Kate) Pukhovaia
Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions program Horizon 2020 Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions program

The history of Yemen from the middle of the 20th century until our times seems to prove that geographical, religious, and tribal divisions can only produce a failed state. But these divisions have not always been obstacles for state building in Yemen. In the 10th century, the Zaydis, a Shiʿite group, founded their own state led by an imam in Upper Yemen. Throughout its medieval history the Zaydi imamate was fragile due to the prevalent Zaydi religious-political theory that precluded the foundation of a dynasty. Nevertheless, the imamate played a key role in the regional geopolitical system, and during the reign of imam al-Mutawakkil Yaḥyā Sharaf al-Dīn (1506-1546) reached its peak geographical expansion, unifying Upper and Lower Yemen for the first time in history. When the Ottoman Empire conquered Yemen in the 16th century, the Zaydi state faced a challenge that endangered its survival. However, during a century (1538-1635) of interaction with one of the most powerful empires of its time, the Zaydi imamate did not disappear. Instead, a new imamate formed, and the first Zaydi dynasty, the Qasimids, overthrew the Ottomans and continued the new practice of ruling a united Yemen until the middle of the 20th century. EMStaD YEMEN aims to explain why despite the very same divisions that undermine the state in contemporary Yemen a stable political system existed in the early modern period.

State-building in Zaydi Yemen

How do early modern states organize effective rule in difficult conditions? EMStaD YEMEN focuses on a country that due to its geographical, religious and social complexities is now considered a failed state – Yemen. The project analyzes how this state achieved stability in the early modern period in the conditions that were similar to those hampering its contemporary development. EMStaD YEMEN brings attention to Yemen as a unique case of an Arab state gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire. Combining understudied Ottoman Turkish and Classical Arabic manuscript sources with the method of comparative study of empires, the project focuses on two main themes: 1) the legacy of the pre-Ottoman Sharaf al-Dīn imamate (1500-1580) and 2) the influence of the period of Ottoman rule (1535-1638) on the subsequent development of the state in Yemen.

View of the Old City of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen. The walls of the old city were built in the Ottoman period. Photo by Hasso Hohmann licensed under CC BY 4.0. Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sanaa,_Yemen_(41).jpg

EMStaD YEMEN offers an innovative approach to the study of the Yemeni state by applying methods of comparative study of empires, connected history, social and political history, diplomatics, and philology to a previously unstudied corpus of literary and documentary sources in Ottoman Turkish and Arabic. The project tackles the following questions:

  1. How did Zaydi administrative practices develop before the ‘Ottoman century’? What was the impact of Ottoman rule at the administrative level?
  2. How does the new, post-Ottoman Zaydi imamate compare to the pre-Ottoman Zaydi imamate? Which components of the older state survived and how did they transform?
  3. How did descendants of the Prophet, sayyids, maintain their hold over Zaydi Yemen? How were their social positions influenced by the Ottoman conquests in the region?
  4. How is this transformative period of Zaydi history in Yemen interpreted by contemporary local historians?

Academic monograph, provisionally entitled State-building in Yemen: The rise and fall of the Sharaf al-Dīn imamate (1500-1580)

Peer-reviewed journal articles on Zaydi governance, the uses of genealogy for political projects, history-writing in Zaydi Yemen, and the accommodation of Zaydi sayyids in the Ottoman Empire.

Special journal issue on sayyids as political elites across early modern Muslim empires.

International conference preliminary entitled Rulers’ biographies in the premodern Islamicate world.

Public engagement programme including blogposts on the project, an edited series of blogposts on Zaydi Studies and an exhibition in collaboration with Leiden University Library, provisionally entitled Yemen through the Dutch lens.

This section will be updated during the project

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