Yemeni community in Ethiopia: A history of integration

By Mahmoud Assamiee

(Yemeni Times) — Yemeni-Ethiopian relations date back to ancient times. References such as wall inscriptions confirm that the kingdom of Saba extended throughout Yemen to Ethiopia, known at that time as the kingdom of Axum, which later ruled Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) and the southern Arabian Peninsula.

The Axumite kingdom’s rule continued until Himyarite King Saif Bin Dhi Yazan drove the Axumites out of southern Arabia. However, despite this upheaval, some relations remained between the two kingdoms.

Because of the two civilizations’ integration over the years, intermarriage resulted in Yemeni and Ethiopian mixed blood.

Yemen and Ethiopia enjoyed extensive trade relations during medieval times. Yemeni merchants exported incense, luban (natural frankincense), gemstones and animal skins to Ethiopia, while Ethiopians exported clothing, farm equipment, weapons, spices and cattle to Yemen. Trade relations between Yemen and the African Horn at that time were stronger than those between Yemen and other Gulf countries.

In times of crisis, Yemen provided a safe haven for Ethiopian refugees and Ethiopia in turn accepted Yemeni immigrants during times of political upheaval.

Dr. Hussein Fouly, an Ethiopian researcher specializing in Yemeni-Ethiopian relations, noted at a lecture this past February in Sana’a that there is a rich but under-explored history between the two countries.

Because he had a difficult time obtaining information about Yemeni-Ethiopian relations, Fouly did his own research based on a few fragments of information and much personal effort.

He explained that Yemenis and Ethiopians intermixed for two main reasons: first, because of Yemenis’ ability to integrate and second, because of the Ethiopian civilization’s welcoming attitude toward foreigners in their land throughout the 20th century.

Yemenis became the largest Arab community in Ethiopia, boasting the most speakers of Ethiopian languages such as Amharic. Yemenis rooted themselves in the country during the 1920s by becoming shopkeepers, sweet sellers, launderers and butchers. Additionally, the Yemeni community founded Arab schools that graduated scholars like Sheikh Abdullah Taher, who later was appointed governor of Jijiga and eventually led a military coup in eastern Ethiopia in the 1930s.

Fouly also mentioned those Yemenis who had a role in spreading Islam in Ethiopia, like Abdulrahman Ba-Wazir, who financed building Addis Ababa’s oldest mosque, Al-Noor Mosque.

During Italy’s 1936 invasion of Ethiopia, the Italians brought in numerous Yemenis to work as builders. Yemenis became rich through trade during this time. One of them, Sheikh Hussein Al-Amoudi, was the first to bring the qat trade to Ethiopia.

Yemeni people’s departure from Ethiopia is attributable to two specific incidents, the first of which occurred in 1969 when a bomb was discovered on an Ethiopian plane, which had been placed there by Ethiopian liberation forces in Syria. Arab communities were blamed for the bomb, which led to a wave of anti-Arab sentiment.

The second incident was the 1974 Ethiopian revolution, which implemented a program of nationalization that seized private assets and companies, turning them into state-owned enterprises. Because of this, Yemenis were forced to exit the country, leaving their possessions to the Ethiopian regime.

Despite this, Yemeni immigrants who have returned from Ethiopia still have positive memories of the nation where they were treated as citizens.

Sana’a University history professor Abdullah Fadhl says the Yemeni community was forced out of Ethiopia in the 1970s for political reasons because they were spreading Islam among the Ethiopians against the wishes of the new regime.

However, these Yemeni-Ethiopian mixed peoples who returned to Yemen face discrimination, either because of their Arabic or their skin color, and locals of both countries treat them as outsiders. For example, Yemenis call them Ahbush, the plural of the Arabic word Habashi or Ethiopian, while they are called Arabco, or Arabs, in Ethiopia.

These mixed Yemeni-Ethiopians sometimes are denied identity cards because of their darker skin and imperfect Arabic, a matter that causes them many problems.

Because Yemen’s history is intertwined with that of Ethiopia’s, these so-called Yemeni-Ethiopian ‘newcomers’ actually aren’t new at all; rather, they share our lineage and they deserve to be recognized as such.

12 thoughts on “Yemeni community in Ethiopia: A history of integration

    • sheppard on

      I’m an African-American Muslim in the west follower of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And I am grateful for the comments that I posted her on this site. That was a wonderful book called The African presence in early Asia and it talks about how the Ethiopian Empire extended all the way to India. But I never knew the Nigerians were of Ethiopian descent.

  1. Seyoum on

    This article largely confirms about Ethio-Yemen relations and even uncovers some potential barriers that will always keep Ethiopians a bit distant regarding religion issues. Ethiopian Christians in all over the world are known as patient and welcoming that has actually resulted huge influx of islam with out any resistance even during strictly Christian Emperors but during those times, its no secret that Christians has also suffered a great deal by the expansion of islam for almost all Islam outlaws like Mohammed Gragn were supported by Turks and Yemens, even during Atse Amde Sion’s reign. The Axumite empire belonged to perfectly set Ethiopian linage and the Queen of Sheba’s palace in Ethiopia uncovered by European archaeologists is a living proof for that, Yemen was part of Ethiopia not Ethiopia part of Yemen, this must be noted. The current contamination of Ethiopian history might lead many into mistakes, like the mosque that is built in Tigray claiming King Armah was the first Ethiopian Islam King which is a flat lie and unknown even to the muslims of past, imagine an Islam King in strictly Christian Kingdom where Jesus Christ is worshiped as One and True God. This would have caused a major trouble in the Kingdom. So please refrain from making unnecessary remarks and installing unknown stories to Ethiopian History. Christian and Muslims have lived peacefully for very long, specially after the dispute during Mohammed Gragn was settled, so we should keep this with relationship spotless. Muslims owe it to Christians because Islam survived because of the Christian Kingdom of Axum and there is no need to spoil that history and create new ones that might lead into unnecessary conflicts.
    Thank You.

  2. Ahmed on

    I am in SAUDI ARABIA ,where you can find details on those hybrided from both nations.Ethiopians are still having the hospitality for ever as it is mixed with their blood , not only in 20th century. But , there is common WORD here in SAUDI related to those hybrided , they call it ” MEWELED , AYIWELED “. MEWELED is term given to those ETH-YEMEN born.I dougt the feeling of this 2 side outcome towards being partial from ethiopia , coz. in my ten years of in SAUDI I never see someone from this community on favour of our country ( even they dont want to be known as partialy form ethi.mother or father) , but they acknowledge the memorable time they have passed in this country which afford them better than their country.We learn from yesterday & lets work hard today with lesson we got to uphold ETHIPIA as we are the only one who can never be apart from this HOLY LAND with life’s up & down. GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA , GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA , GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA …!!!!!!!!

  3. Teddy on

    Ethiopian doesn’t need Semite or ha-mite bullshi third world geopolitical issue rather than how to be good neighborhoods much as Yemeni people need good friendship so do Ethiopian.

  4. UNITY on

    I have travelled around the globe and I witnessed something universal. That is, the darker the skin the greater the suffering of people. No wonder some Ethiopians deny that they are “Blacks”.

  5. Assta B. Gettu on

    Is mixed marriage a curse or a blessing?

    Thank you Mr. Mahmoud Assamiee for giving us a brief account about the relationships between the Yemeni and the Ethiopian people and the disruption of these relationships for political and religious reasons; it is true the kingdom of Saba extended throughout Ethiopia to Yemen, not the other way round. The Yemenis still claim that the Queen of Sheba was the Yemenis’ Queen, not the Ethiopians’. Is there any evidence that tells us she was the Queen of Yemen, not the Queen of Ethiopia? We Ethiopians believe she was the Queen of Ethiopia, and her father’s name was Agabos. In the Chronicles of the Ethiopian kings, her name was Makida; in the book of 1Kings, she was called the Queen of Sheba; and in the New Testament, she was mentioned as the Queen of the South. It seems that Yemen, Nubia, and Egypt were under her realm, while her head quarter was at Axum.

    What I am concerned right now is not about the past but about the present relationships between Yemen and Ethiopia; I remember very well during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, most shops in most Ethiopian cities and towns were run by the Yemenis, and these Yemenis were very friendly, especially to us Ethiopian children. As a child, whenever I went to bring something from their shops, they always offer me keremella (candy).

    For many years, the Ethiopian Christians have tolerated them, never opposed them when they marry Ethiopian women, build schools for their children and Mosques for their followers. They have been living a very happy life as traders and merchants in Ethiopia until these two incidents disrupted their lives in Ethiopia: the planting of a bomb in the Ethiopian airplane and the spreading of Islam in Ethiopia.

    Most of us Ethiopians still like the Yemenis, and, I hope, most Yemenis like the Ethiopians too; after all, most of Ethiopians and most of Yemenis look alike because there have been mixed marriages between the Yemenis and the Ethiopians. However, it is strange why the Yemenis discriminate the Yemeni-Ethiopians in Yemen and call them “Ahbush,” and deny them identity cards in their own country. I think such discrimination against a mixed marriage exists in many countries, whether it is a black or a white or an Arab country.

    For example, in Ethiopia, a child born of a mixed marriage is dubbed “killis” or “Keit” or “dibilik,” and it is a kind of stigma to grow up with such a name called killis throughout one’s life. In other countries, a child born out of a mixed marriage is called “zebra” or “biracial.” As it turned out though those children born out of mixed marriages have beautiful looks and can easily survive in the country that discriminates them, so mixed marriages can be a blessing and a curse; a blessing, the child born from a mixed marriage will have two nationalities; a curse, such a child of two nationalities, when he grew up, must pay taxes for the two governments.

    Ethiopia always accepts foreigners, and it is my hope the Yemenis will do the same thing to the Yemeni-Ethiopians. May the good Lord bless the two countries!

  6. Satenaw on

    The Yemeni government is giving Ethiopian refugees to Woyane security people. What kind of unity are we expected to form with these haters ? let them go to hell !!

  7. Fikre Tolossa on

    Ethiopia’s Empire extended from Ethiopia proper to Arabia, Asia (by the way the word “Asia” is derivative of Emperor Asia of Ethiopia who conquered that part of the world and called it “Asia” after his name. Queen Sheba whose real name is “Ethiael”, was his sucessor.),India, Nubia, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Moretaina (Moretanians are Moretes of Ethiopia,and Nigerians were Ethiopians originally. There were many Ethiopian Pharaohs including women).

    When Queen Sheba left for Jerusalem to meet Solomon, she had with her two queens under her. One was Sahoy, her relative, who was the queen of Afar land, and Bilkis, who was ruling Arabia including Yemen as an apointee of Sheba. Bilkis was born in Northern Ethiopia (Hamassien), and was appointed by Sheba to rule Yemen and Arabia on her behalf. Solomon fathered a child from each of these women. He was the greatest womenizer in history. Smile! So much on Ethiopian history. More, another time, should the need arise.


  8. Abdo Ali. on

    Yemen and Ethiopia are neghbouring countries, also they will remain like that. So the best thing is to have strong enough wide bridege (on the red sea) between the two countries. Then people can travell easily like Europes.

    Therefore, the mentality of people can be changed positively also will be very good for both countries devolopments.

    From my side I love both countries, becuase they have their owen good honorable and great civilization history.
    Best regards.

  9. Sost on

    So I am an Ethiopian Muslim and I found some of the comments by the Ethiopians quite interesting.

    It seems that some Ethiopians have forgotten that there were many of us who were intolerant to the yemenis. Especially Christians at my school used to beat the Yemeni kids because they were arab. In fact “arab” is a insult word in ethiopia so please my fellow Ethiopians let us not pretend and say we are a tolerant people. Second, I recall that Ethiopians rioted in Gondor and Dessie against yemenis at one point because of the Israeli arab war. In Gonder they kicked all the yemenis out.

    to the first commentator (seyoum) about Islam in ethiopia, it is not because Christians are tolerant that Islam exists in ethiopia. islam exists in Ethiopia despite all efforts by the old Ethiopian amhara kings to try and stamp it out in eastern and southern ethiopia. Ahmed Grangn was the response to these kings to stop them-read your history objectively. you christians need to understand that you do not decide for others what religion they want to follow, and no you are not giving permission for Islam to exist. you had no choice in the matter. Also, there is no proof that the queen of sheba was Ethiopian Just because some ethiopian priest wrote it in a book when he felt like it. If an ambitious man like Haile Sellassie claims he descended from solomon does not mean it is true either. Stop making fools of yourselves with these myths. you sound like rasta tafarians.

    Anyway, I hope the relationship between yeman and ethiopia improves and goes stronger.

    Ethiopian Christians are not a patient and tolerant people at all-let us not kid ourselves. In fact, Amhara/Tigray Chrsitians are quite xenophobic in general. however, people change and learn and progress, and since the downfall of haile Sellasie, all communities have had a more equal realtionship.

  10. sara on

    to the writer, Please who wants to read your personal essay. you really need to do your research point to point with no discrimination. i see you favoring one side but you need to see from different prespective. you need to get out from the box. and visualiz the world from the sky. when does Yemen appear in history? what country was here first. did the aksumite exist before yemen. off course the exist –the aksumite civilization was the abyissina-ethiopian. the aksumite were there before the islam. so there was aksmuite that conquered south arabia/pensuila.

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