Yemen is something of a conundrum in the Islamic world. Geographically the closest country by land to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, it was the first place outside of what is now Saudi Arabia where Islam was introduced. It then spent well over a thousand years as little more than a forgotten corner of the Muslim world. Thanks to its strangely ironic geographic isolation, the city of Sana’a has remained virtually untouched by the ravages of wars and conquerors, and has preserved some of Islam’s most ancient treasures. Foremost among these is the Great Mosque of Sana’a, one of the oldest intact functioning mosques in the world. It was here that the Sana’a Manuscripts, which include the oldest known copy of the Qur’an, were discovered in 1972. The Great Mosque of Sana’a and the House of Manuscripts are part of the Old City of Sana’a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Yemen has always been among the most mysterious places associated with the Abrahamite faiths. Tucked away at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, it was a critical center of trade between the Middle East, Africa and India, while at the same time was sheltered by geography from the ravages of wars that racked the region throughout almost the entirety of history. Religiously significant as the location of the mythical land of Sheba, Yemen has sheltered Jewish, Christian and Muslim refugees throughout its entire history.
Yemen was almost certainly the first country outside of what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia to see the introduction of Islam. It is possible that some of the followers of the Prophet Muhammad, fleeing persecution, arrived in Yemen as early as the 620s. The community founded by these earliest Muslims likely predated anything else outside of central Arabia, and is one of the oldest continually active Islamic populations in the world.
From the earliest days of Islam the small kingdoms of Yemen were ruled by an assortment of dynasties nominally loyal to whoever ruled the Caliphate but who were effectively independent for the better part of a thousand years. Only during the Mameluke and Ottoman periods did the caliphs exert greater control over Yemen, and then only in the north. Nowhere in the entire Middle East are early Muslim religious and cultural practices as well preserved. Thus it is perhaps not surprising that one of the greatest ancient caches of Qur’ans and other religious and historical documents turned up in Yemen.
The Great Mosque of Sana’a is one of the oldest continually active mosques in the world. Though it has been expanded and restored over the centuries, some of its earliest elements date back to the 7th century AD. During a routine renovation in 1972, workers came across stacks of ancient papers and manuscripts in a long-forgotten attic space. On further investigation, it was discovered that many of these documents dated to the earliest days of Islam, and included what is believed to be the oldest copy of the Qur’an in existence. Both the mosque and the manuscripts, which are now kept at the House of Manuscripts, are considered to be the country’s greatest Islamic treasures.
The bright white brickwork of the Great Mosque of Sana’a stands out starkly against the darker, sandy-colored architecture of the surrounding city which presses in closely from all sides. Laid out in the 7th century AD, the Great Mosque still roughly conforms to its original plans. The architecture bears a recognizeable resemblance, albeit on a much smaller scale, to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. While there is no dome, a pair of mismatched minarets grace two corners of the courtyard. These are about the only portions of the mosque which are visible from any distance. A prayer shrine stands in the center.
The Sana’a Manuscript collection is absolutely enormous, consisting of as many as forty-thousand documents, of which barely a third have yet been examined. Among these are many old Qur’anic writings, including pages and fragments that have been dated as far back as the mid-7th century, when the Qur’an was first committed to parchment. The collection is now kept in the House of Manuscripts, a library/research facility built specifically for the restoration and study of these ancient documents.
The Great Mosque of Sana’a is located in the very heart of the Old City. The House of Manuscripts is close by. The mosque is open to Muslims only. There is no cost of admission. As of this writing, access to the House of Manuscripts was extremely limited due to the delicate (and religiously highly sensitive) nature of its contents. No other visitor information was available. Web: www.yementourism.com (official tourism website of Yemen)
The entire city of Sana’a is an homage to the traditional Islamic culture and architecture of Southern Arabia. In addition to the Great Mosque, some of the highlights include the Bab Al-Yaman (Yemen Gate), which protects the entrance to the city’s ancient Medina; the jaw-dropping, sky-scraping Imam’s Palace; and the recently completed Masjid Saleh, which is now Yemen’s national mosque. Yemen’s other major Muslim sites are scattered throughout the country. Notable among these are the Masjid Al-Muhdhar in Tarim and the Shrine of Al-Hoteib in Al-Hkutayb.