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55. Blue in Yemen during 700 to 800

JUL. 7, 2022


It’s off to the Middle-Eastern nation of Yemen in this episode. Ryan discovers why the blue-eyed can’t be trusted, why blue is so sexy to certain lizards, plays the Yemeni Blues and learns about an aquatic psychopath!

This episode sees Ryan uncover the Republic of Yemen. This is a country found at the crossroads of Africa, the middle east and Asia, on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

It has a coastline which stretches for about 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) - off of which are over 200 islands, including Socotra Island.

Yemen is the second-largest Arab state, occupying 550,000 sq kms (214,000 sq miles) with a capital at Sana’a (Sa-nah) - one of the world’s most ancient cities that is still inhabited with 4million people still living there.

Yemen’s flag, adopted in 1990, is horizontally-striped red, white and black. The red represents the blood of the struggle to achieve independence and unity, white signifies a bright future and black represents the dark days of the past.

In Yemen, people like to chew Khat, a type of plant which when chewed gives a juice that provides effects which include euphoria and excitement. In fact 90% of adult men chew khat several times a day, traditionally in the afternoon.

Yemen is also home to the world’s oldest skyscraper city. Built in the 16th Century, Shibam is known as the ‘Manhattan of the desert’.

It is a city of about 7,000 people who live in about 500 mudbrick high-rise buildings, some of which are as high as 11 stories tall (30m or 98ft).

Yemen is also considered the birthplace of coffee! from the 15th to the 18th centuries, Yemen served as the international hub for coffee when all the coffee consumed anywhere in the world was grown in Yemen.

The name ‘coffee’ in fact comes from the Arabian word quawah a name also used interchangeably for ‘wine’.

According to one account, an Islamic Scholar and mystic discovered that if he boiled the seeds of a certain fruit, the water turned muddy brown. Drinking this water, it lifted his spirit, awakened his senses, and allowed him to pray and study throughout the night
He shared this with his friends, and now everyone in the world is in on the gig.

Coffee beans were principally sold around the world from the city of Mocha and in fact, for many years, coffee was only known as Mocha.

History of Yemen

About 25,000 years ago we see the first known rulers start Yemen’s history, which defines it as one of the oldest centres of civilization in the world.

Over 15,000 years a people called the Qahtanis (descendants of Joktan from the Bible and the Koran) call the land home, establish trade routes, build dams to control flash-flooding, and are the first to start writing down Arabic.

They removed the bark from certain trees, extruded the resin and allow it to harden and started producing the exotic spices of frankincense and myrrh, which became hugely popular.

A trading industry booms and caravans of camels export frankincense and myrrh all over the middle east and the Mediterranean, raking in the cash for the Qahtanis.

Between 1000 BCE and 500 CE, a series of small kingdoms pop up and each take their turn at controlling the spice trade. The Romans called Yemen ‘Arabia Felix’, or ‘Happy Arabia’ - they even tried to take it for themselves – but failed. Then in 520CE, the Egyptians had a go - and were successful, but by this time Yemen was no longer the only trader in spices, with the Greeks and the Romans each picking up much of the business for themselves.

As a result, the Egyptians only stayed in charge for about fifty years.

By 570, the Persians arrived in the form of the Sassanid Dynasty. For two hundred years the Sassanids dominated Yemen until the 8th century, our time period, when the Islamic caliphates arrive.

The first to arrive is the Umayyad - the second caliphate to emerge after the death of Muhammad and then in 750CE, the Abbasids took over and reigned until 1258 when the Mongols invaded.

In the 9th century, we find the introduction of the Zaydī sect from Iraq — a group of Shiʿi Muslims who accepted Zayd ibn ʿAlī, a direct descendant and therefore legitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed. Much of Yemeni culture for the next 1,000 years bears the stamp of Zaydī Islam.

Eventually the smell of coffee puts Yemen back on the global map, and the Egyptians, the Ottomans, and various other European powers soon arrive looking to control this emerging market.

Conflict between these powers goes on for nearly 100 years until the sixteenth century when the Ottoman Empire wins out, steps in as leaders, but are almost immediately driven out
In 1839, the British occupy the port of Aden in South-East Yemen, making it a colony.

Then the Ottomans return in the 1850s and occupy land in the north of Yemeni, causing the Ottoman and British empires to clash.

They solve this in 1904 with a peace treaty which splits Yemen across the middle - creating a North-South divide.

In 1918, at the end of WW1, North Yemen becomes independent from the Ottomans and establish themselves as a kingdom. North Yemen goes on to dispute the British claims on South Yemen.

In 1960, North Yemen has a military coup and civil war overthrows the kingdom, establishing The Yemen Arab Republic.

At the same time, Britain decides to leave South Yemen blaming ‘increasing pressure from local insurgencies’ and by 1967, they were gone.

A year later in 1968, South Yemen is now independent – and this unleashes a lot of political land grabbing, until 1990, when North and South formally unite as ‘the Republic of Yemen’

In 1990, the Gulf War starts with the invasion of Kuwait, and the new Yemen president decides to vote against any “use of force”.

This annoys the USA and in, in perhaps an unrelated event, Yemen’s neighbours and strong US ally, expels 800,000 Yemenis from their country.

In 1994, a civil war starts between North and South Yemen whose armies had never fully integrated and eventually the southern army loses.

Throughout the 1990s tension grows between a Zaidi rebel group and the Yemen government. In 2004, war breaks out which continues off and on until 2011, when an uprising forces President Saleh to hand over power to his deputy.

President Hadi then leads for four years, until 2015, when the rebels storm the capital and oust President Hadi who flees to Saudi Arabia. They, in turn, form a coalition to begin a military campaign to restore the Hadi government.

They blockade the country, attack the ports and target infrastructure and a war rages. Daily air strikes from the Saudi forces continue to cause devastation across Yemen, and rebels returning fire with drones and missiles of their own.

As of 2022, the war is getting worse and there is no real end in sight.  

Within the spectrum of visible light, the colour blue sits between both violet and green and is one of three primary colours. These are colours that you can mix in various combinations with those others to form a variety of other colours.

In modern culture, Blue is associated with cold and sadness, but also peace and tranquillity. It has been shown to lower blood pressure by slowing the heart rate and relaxing the body and it’s also the least appetizing colour, so some weight loss plans recommend eating food on a blue plate.

Today, globally, surveys regularly show that it is the most popular colour with almost half of men and women say it is their favourite.

Funnily enough, there’s not one ancient language which had a word for blue — not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. In the Greek novel, "The Odyssey" Homer describes the sea as "wine-dark".

Historically, every language had a word for black and white (or dark and light). The next colour that seems to emerge is i ‘red’, the colour of blood and wine. After this the word ‘yellow’ appears, and later, ‘green’ (although in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places).

So by this evidence, the colour blue as we understand it is a relatively modern development.

We know that people in the past had the same biology as us and could therefore see the colours that we do - but if there is no word for a colour, it suggest it was not a useful distinction to the people developing that language.

This can be seen even today in a people today who don’t see the colour Blue – the Himba tribe of Namibia. One researcher, Jules Davidoff, conducted an experiment with the tribe where he showed them a circle with 11 green squares and one blue square. He asked members of the tribe to identify the single blue square – and they couldn’t .

What Davidoff also discovered was that the Himba people have more words for types of green than we do, and that when looking at a circle of green squares with only one slightly different shade of green, they could immediately spot the difference.

Blue eyes
Humans have many different eye colours, but in reality the pigmentation of the iris (the coloured bit) only really varies from light brown to black. The colours we see are an optical effect.

People with blue eyes just have less dark melanin than those of people with brown eyes, which means they absorb less short-wave blue light, and it is those waves being reflected out that we see instead, in what is called the Tyndall Effect.
This is also why eye colour varies depending on the lighting conditions.

And this is all one person’s fault – because genetics has revealed that the mutation which gave some people a lighter pigmentation in the iris happened in one person born between 6 - 10,000 years ago!

Today, blue eyes are most common in North Europe, especially in Ireland and the area around the Baltic Sea. In Estonia, 99% of people have blue eyes and in the US, one out of every six people, or 17% of the total population .

Blue eyes are less common in the middle east, but not unknown. Possibly as a result, blue eyes tend to be seen as abnormal and strange. In the past, people in South Arabia have been especially suspicious of those with blue eyes - and a number of superstitions have appeared to help them explain the phenomenon.

The figure of ‘the blue-eyed witch’ is common in Arabic folklore, an example being the 7th century story of Zarqā’ al-Yamāma. Zarqa was a blue-eyed woman from the central Arabian region of al-Yamāma, who possessed a vision so acute that it was said she could spot a white hair in milk and was able to see into distances that would take three days to reach in person!

One story about Zarqa says that she one day she told her tribe members that she saw trees marching towards their settlement to attack. They thought she was insane and so they gouged her eyes out and sent her off into the wilderness. Eventually she was proven right, when enemy horsemen arrived disguised with leaves and ambushed the settlement .

In fact it is thought that Shakespeare drew inspiration from the story of Zarqā’, first with the blue-eyed witch Sycorax from the Tempest, and second the witches of Macbeth who predict a marching army of trees.

Arabic literature and art is full of negative imagery about blue-eyed people – and it’s never really gone away – today, symbols like ‘the blue-eyed devil’, is a key figure in the Nation of Islam’s theology, and images of the evil eye are always rendered in blue.

Like most people at the time, the ancient Arabians didn’t have a word for blue – so they used the word zurq instead. Zurq meant ‘luster’ or ‘shine’ and was a word that they used to describe the tips of swords, stars, bubbling water and twinkling eyes.

This was not a good thing. It was an indication of a flaw or an indication of an inferior moral character. As such Zurq was also used to describe eyes which had turned white from blindness (such as cataracts or glaucoma).

They also thought that sinners eyes changed colour and even the Qur’ān talks about zurq eyes, saying that on the Day of the Resurrection: “when the trumpet is blown, We will gather the guilty, shiny-eyed”.

For most medieval Arabians, the causes of blue eyes was seen as mischievous or evil.
So, someone came up with th eidead of keeping a list to identify people with such a physical defect. One historian identified sixty-one Muslim men into five categories, zurq, blind, one-eyed, cross-eyed, and those who had protruding teeth.

In another book, written by Ibn ʿAdī, called ‘The Book of the Leprous, the Lame, the Blind, and the Cross-Eyed’ he names three zurq people.

As it happens, the author, Ibn ʿAdī, was closely aligned with the Abbasids – and by sheer coincidence, all three men identified in his book as zurq - were part of the Umayyad caliphate.

And the men named as blind and one-eyed (injuries which were seen as conveying honour) were all men who were supporters of the Abassid caliphate

This would seem to make the list an act of propaganda, but we do know that there was some truth to the Umayyad being zurq.

The Umayyad caliph and, indeed, all of his children were blond and mostly blue-eyed, as a result of many of the caliphs’ mothers being blond, blue-eyed Christian slaves from the north.

So perhaps this was why the dark-haired, dark-eyed superstitious subjects of South Arabia immediately distrusted their new Umayyad blue-eyed rulers.

Blue Reptiles

Sinai Igama is a lizard found in the deserts of the Arabian peninsula. Native to South-West Yemen, it is known in Arabic as the “judge of Sinai”, due to the way it raises itself up on its front legs and tilts its head back imperiously.

It measures 18 cm (7 in) long, with a tail which makes up two-thirds of that length. Most of the time the Sinai Agama is an especially unremarkable looking lizard. It has dull brown skin and spends most of the time basking in the sun, waiting on rocks for insects to wander past to eat.

But in the spring, in a bid to attract a female, the male Agama turns it’s skin an incredible bright blue. Once blue, the male bobs his head up and down, moves his eyes, and does push-ups with his front limbs – all in an effort to find a lady lizard friend.

The Sinai Agama can live for a long time, with an average lifespan of about 25 years

But during the 8th century, for many Agama, their life was cut short thanks to Yemeni travellers who would snack on the blue lizards as they made their way along the silk road

Blue economy

According to the European Commission, the term ‘Blue Economy’ refers to "All economic activities related to oceans, seas and coasts."

Which would definitely including fishing for Bluefish.

In the 8th century in Yemen, Blue economy was the life-blood of the nation. Southern Arabia had a huge coastline that was lined with towns, villages and ports built to exploit the seas around it.

As such, fishing was an ancient tradition, with thousands of boats looking for tuna, sardines, mackerel, sea bream, mullet, lobster, cuttlefish and more.

One of the more popular catches, is the Bluefish also known as the elf, tailor or shad fish.

It has two separated dorsal fins and a broad forked tail and is coloured, unsurprisingly, a silvery blue.

They can weigh as much as 40 lb (18 kg) - but on average they are no heavier than 20 lb (9 kg).

It’s not easy to catch them. They are fast, strong and aggressive. They have a jutting, muscular mouth which holds 40 sharp, triangular teeth which are arranged like a saw. They use these teeth to attack shoals of sardines, mullets, anchovies and other small fishes.

These teeth also work on human beings. Even experienced Yemeni fishermen remove fish hooks and losing a finger. In fact swimming among bluefish is considered very dangerous - in July 2006, a seven-year-old girl was attacked by a bluefish near Alicante in Spain– supposedly, because the bluefish had been attracted by her splashing about in the water.

All this is all why young bluefish are called “snappers” and adults are called “psychopaths”!

Yemeni fisherman would catch Bluefish using simple hand lines and nets and in our time period it was said that every year 500 tons of bluefish would be caught.

Unlike other fish which was sold and exported, Bluefish was mostly eaten by local Yemenites because the bluefish goes rancid quickly due to it’s high fat content. So it would be cooked, often marinated in vinegar and wine, then baked in upright terracotta ovens or poached or smoked.

Today, Bluefish is still caught by Yemeni fishermen, but due to the war, the fishing industry is sadly a shadow of its former glory.

Warning - if you want to try bluefish, the recommendation is to limit yourself to one or two a year because they contain a larger than normal amount of mercury due to their being near the top of the food chain

Blue and White pottery
But Blue Economy didn’t just mean fishing to Yemenites in the 8th century as trading was a huge part of it too.

The seaport of Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea and the West Indian Ocean was (and still is) a natural harbour which lies in the crater of a dormant volcano.

Aden was a famous port, with local legend saying that it may be as old as human history itself. Aden was a distribution centre for surrounding countries who would travel there and sell their spices, precious stones, gold, and pearls.

During the 8th century, the Abassid and Umayyad dynasties both used Aden and much of the coast as a key location on their sea routes from Iraq to India, Malaysia, Indonesia - and even China!

In fact, despite the huge distance involved (6219 nautical miles ≠ 5588 miles), there is evidence of contact between Muslims and the Chinese as early the 3rd–4th century BCE

Direct contact between Muslims and the Chinese began in the year 751 when Abassids fought the Chinese Tang dynasty in the Battle of Tala. After that battle, Muslim communities started to grow in China, and by the end of the 700s, over 100,000 Arabs, Persians and Jews were living in South China - each having voyaged across the oceans on Muslim ships.

Especially important to the Yemenite traders were Chinese blue and white porcelain that the Chinese eventually referred to it as "Muslim blue.

So popular was the porcelain that Caliphs gave orders for their local potters to try and replicate the pottery so as to be able to get more for cheaper.

In Yemen, the medieval university town of Zabid, which is 25 km inland, half-way between the Red Sea and the Yemeni highlands, archaeological digs have revealed 2,400 pottery shards across 73 sites dating to as early as 700CE.

Almost all of the pottery is considered locally made, and includes blue-and-white porcelain – and analysis of the pottery shows that there was a viable ceramic industry for many centuries in Yemen, with a relatively wide variety of different decorative types being produced.

Tang dynasty blue and white pottery almost entirely disappeared for centuries. A few shards have been uncovered, but it wasn’t until 1985 that three complete pieces of "Tang blue and white" pottery were recovered - from a shipwreck in Indonesia

At the end of the 8th century, an Arabian dhow ship completed it’s outward journey from Arabia to China, but sank on it’s return journey, approx 1.6 kms (1 mi) off the coast of Belitung in Indonesia

The wreck provided two major discoveries: the biggest single collection of Tang dynasty artefacts found in one location outside of China, and the Arabian dhow itself, which gives an intriguing insight into the trade routes between China and the Middle East during that period.

Yemen Blues

Arabic music existed in the pre-Islamic period between the 5th and 7th centuries in the form of oral poetry accompanied by a drum or oud.

When Islam arrived, they used holy scripture from the Quaran as poetic verses.

Over the centuries, a tradition emerged for Yemeni music to be performed in the home, in a window-lined room at the top of the house, in which the performers chew Khat and sing poetry.

Religious restrictions limits the use of musical instruments, but the Yemenite oud (a type of lute or lyre) is allowed.

Another example of traditional Yemenite music is from the Zafat, which means wedding. The Zafat is a public ceremony in Yemen, where music is played as a procession of the groom and his guests head down the street to the wedding house.

More recently, the music of Yemen is primarily known abroad for a series of pan-Arab popular stars and the Yemenite Jews who became musical stars in Israel during the 20th century.

Which brings us to Yemen Blues. Founded in Israel in 2010 by lead singer Ravid Kahalani Yemen Blues started as a band of nine people who mixed sounds from different parts of the world like Yemenite, Jazz, Blues, Latino, and African beats to create a sound which is described as ‘traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary funk’.

Ravid calls it, “New Culture Music” and describes himself as a ‘musical missionary’

“A lot of people take music as entertainment or something that will make them feel a certain way. But music is actually a reminder of how to behave in front of each other. Music shows us how to be a human being in this world”

Ravid has spent ten years touring the world and says that his music has been embraced by young Muslims.

In 2018, Ravid played at the Brooklyn Bowl in New York where he was joined by Ahmed Alshaiba, a Muslim oud player from Yemen

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