Yemen, although called Arabia Felix, “Lucky Arabia” by the Romans and Al-Yemen Al-Said, “Happy Yemen” by the Arabs, the most unlucky, maybe the harshest geographic location on earth. Yemen, which is located at the Southwestern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has been at the focus of turmoil all along history because it made transits easier, and was the first line of defense for the threats from the south against the Holy Lands. Sultan Selim I tried to add Yemen to the Ottoman Empire, but his work only came to fruition during the reign of his son, Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman Pasha, coming back from his Indian campaign, was the first commander to raise the Ottoman flag in Yemen.
There are multiple dates, actually multiple conquests of Yemen by the Ottomans. The first one was in Selim I’s era, the second one in Suleiman the Magnificent’s era, the third in Abdulmejid I’s era and the fourth in 1871, which is Sultan Abdulaziz’s era. The fact that there have been 4 different conquests is part of the evidence that shows what a problematic region Yemen was. Looking from this perspective, we should see that there were always problems in Yemen, and that it has constantly occupied the Ottoman State’s mind. Today, Yemen is mentioned in the world with armed conflicts. During almost 400 years that it was under Ottoman reign, it was home to many denominational conflicts and riots.
Meawnhile, Sultan Selim I, also known as Selim the Grim or Selim the Resolute and he was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1512 to 1520. Suleiman the Magnificent, he was the tenth and longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 until his death in 1566. Abdulmejid I, he was the 31st Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. And Abdulaziz, he was the 32nd Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Against all aid, investment and military power from the Empire, the Zeydi imams’ claims to local authority were the most important causes of these riots. The Ottoman Empire also had to struggle with imperialist nations in 18th and 19th centuries, in addition to local uprisings. Especially following the construction of the Suez Canal, Yemen became a waypoint on the route to India. A nexus. The British prefer Aden as the most prominent spot. Because they conduct serious research. Research about the geographical, historical and sociological aspects of the region. They become convinced that Aden may be a very suitable center for them. That is why they sign an agreement with the city of Aden in 1838: A friendship and concessions agreement.
According to that agreement, the city of Aden will provide an area to the British to use as a coal depot in one year, and receive money for the service. And the British will help their trade. However, the city of Aden sees through the British plan, and goes back on the deal. Moreover, they plunder a British steamer on its way to India. A kind of piracy. The British do not stay quiet and reach Aden with an army of two hundred people that they have equipped in India, and capture the city of Aden in 1839.
The nations trying to assert their dominance in the area, including the British, have chosen to provoke riots in the area instead of facing the Ottoman soldiers. The holy ties of the Yemeni to their Imams and Sheikhs, was fertile ground for this endeavor. The British have started building their imperialist interests on that ground with simple footwork. The Ottoman Soldiers running towards unknown lands in order to stand against the European states who saw this as a diplomatic success would find themselves in the middle of a great disaster, and the Ottoman Empire living out the last years of its life would have to abandon one of its most strategic possessions.
The British have made friendship pacts with the neighboring tribes to be able to protect Aden and its Town Center after capturing it. There is a very important part to these friendship pacts. They call the tribe sheikhs or leaders “Sultan” there and they flatter those “Sultans” by claiming that they are signing agreements with the King and Queen. Later, they allocate monthly or annual fees to these tribe leaders, and as these tribe leaders become ‘friends’ with the British, it naturally follows that their thousands of followers become subject to this friendship.
These regional leaders came to see themselves as indispensable for the region have grown apart from the banner of Islam that was waving in the region and became pawns of diplomatic games. And of course, when your aids are channeled towards health, education and of course, the pockets of those with influence; it means that you have started to plant serious roots in the region That’s why the British did. They have supported the tribes. The important tribes. Then they supported the tribal federation.
Then, they tried to deal with the Ottomans, with “See, we’re not against you, we are together, we have peaceful goals, see, there’s Russia up there. What if they try to come down to reach warmer seas? Let’s get together!” and similar nonsense, they nicely integrated themselves in Yemen. They didn’t spend much money. Especially espionage was one of the most efficient methods of infiltration. The British Associations picked up 30-40 kids from the Middle East every year, and sent them to consulates in different areas. These kids were dispersed to all strategic areas including Istanbul, and they engaged in acts in concordance with British embassies and consulates.
Another work conducted by the British in the Middle East was to provoke the Islamic World against the Ottoman Caliph, Abdul Hamid II (the 34th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire), and to pose as the real protector of the Muslims. The British were trying to push the Sherif of Mecca as the caliph. This supported the Zeydis’ view that only someone from the Prophet’s lineage is eligible to be a caliph, and created a very convenient cause for riots. The sheikhs and imams who were on the British payroll were also receiving weapons aid to protect their interests.
In the 19th century, It was also possible to see the Jews conduct missionary activities in Yemen, including the Rabbi of Jerusalem. Although the Ottoman Empire in its last years, the Zeydis don’t respect this. Because the Zeydis believe that, the caliph must be someone from the Prophet’s lineage. That’s their belief. And that is why they riot constantly against the Ottoman administrators. Thus, we can divide the riot movements in two: Those based on religious reasons, and those based on imperialist reasons. As a consequence of these provocations, the Ottoman Empire had to constantly push its troops to Yemen.
The fragmenting state wasn’t giving up on Yemen, and despite the taxes that can’t be collected and the administrators that struggle with impossibilities, it was continuing its cultural, architectural, social and military activities in the region. Nobody could imagine that Yemen would become the greatest Turkish martyr memorial in a short while. Because Yemen was the southern gates to the holy land, it was unthinkable to abandon it.
Since protecting Mecca was only possible by controlling the Babul Mendeb Strait and Yemen, the city of Aden, the Ottoman State has always shown great interest in the region. The last conquest by the Ottomans came about through the 1870-1872 campaign. This new era beginning in 1870, went on until 1918, when the Ottoman State has abandoned the region. It is a period of 48 years and its exceedingly important. All these events that became the themes of laments and epics have happened during those 48 years. Following Egypt’s occupation by Napoleon, his project to connect the Mediterranean and the Red Sea through a canal located west of the Sinai Peninsula was executed by the British in 1869.
It was a huge venture that changed the map of the Middle East. 164km long and 8 meters deep, the Suez Canal has triggered a great riot that required the mobilization of more than 22,000 soldiers to Yemen in the short time period between 1870 and 1873. A navy was equipped under Mehmet Redif Pasha in 1870 and sent to Yemen. We also see Ahmet Muhtar Pasha in the Yemen Campaign. He is also known as Gazi (Veteran) Ahmet Muhtar Pasha in his later days. They fight with Ahmet Muhtar Pasha for almost two years to take Yemen back. In 1871, Sana’a is recaptured, but Redif Pasha takes ill and has to go back.
Ahmet Muhtar Pasha has to face the challenge of setting up the District Administration and the military establishment on his own. The Ottoman State starts serious military operations as soon as Ahmet Muhtar Pasha sets up the District Administration of Yemen, and the Seventh Army in Sana’a. He sent letters in Arabic and Turkish to tribe leaders, and invited them to Sana’a. He tells them that the Ottoman State has set up its rule in the region again, and asks them to submit.
Some tribe leaders comply. But to what extent? The areas, especially interior areas up to Tayiz, and to the area called Sheikh Osman near the Babul Mendeb strait swear allegiance to the Ottoman State. However, there are problems with tribes who are allied with, and under the control of the British. In 1871, a serious power struggle starts between the Ottoman State and Britain. The first great loss in Yemen started with the riot under Mohammad. Mohammad Bin Ays in 1871, causing 22,000 soldiers to be mobilized.
Yemen, which sent coffee to Anatolia for centuries, was now sending death knells. Only 360 of the 4000 dead were fallen in battle. The martyrdom news that resonated in Anatolia was only the beginning. The fact that 1800 soldiers were lost to cholera, and 2000 were lost to the harsh climate and supply problems just in one campaign, goes to show the harsh environment that is Yemen. Most of the martyrs between 1871 and 1918 have fallen without seeing a single enemy. The hardships started before leaving Anatolia. Soldiers drafted from various regions in Anatolia were transferred to ports and harbors around Anatolia and had to wait for days.
The Port of Iskenderun, which was the major port of dispatch, was not a suitable place for waiting. The soldiers had to sleep over bare ground in uncompleted barracks, lacking flooring and windowpanes. Not having anything to cover them or spread underneath them caused the soldiers who arrived on foot from their villages to fall ill. Unfortunately, 1613 of the 8269 soldiers who arrived to the Port of Iskenderun to be dispatched to Yemen have deserted because of the conditions, and 27 of them have died.
Another problem for the soldiers who have waited for a ship for days, even weeks, was the conditions on the ship. The soldiers were generally shipped on boats leased from foreign companies. Extravagant prices were paid for those inadequate boats that were usually commissioned for transporting animals. The greatest price for these inadequate boats was paid by the lives of soldiers. There are two ways that these soldiers were transported over sea. Some of them were transported on boats belonging to the special administration under the Ottoman State’s Ministry of Navy, while others were transported on leased boats.
The first had serious problems. Usually, two battalions are loaded on each boat. That means about 2500 – 3000 people. These are old boats. Boats of the special administration. These boats are actually commissioned as cargo carriers and are not suitable for transporting humans at all. They consist of rooms, stockrooms. 2000-2500 soldiers are packed like sardines in a can, for a voyage of ten, eleven days. So the losses begin here. On the boat. As it is calculated that there will be rationing problems in Yemen, their food supplies for the trip and their first three or five months are also sent on the boat. These supplies are on the boat.
Worse, the pack animals that will carry those supplies in Yemen are on the boat. These are usually mules. So the boat is the perfect setting for an epidemic. If the officers and battalion commanders are not experts on water rationing, it is not possible for the water to last until the end of the voyage. The water may run out at the middle of the voyage. And that’s another problem. Another matter is that the boats wait at Suez until the money arrives. This is not just one or two days as might be expected. Waits of fifteen days, even one month are common.
“In 321 (1905), I have seen two thousand bags of rotten sea biscuits sent from Adana in the Westbound Boat in Iskenderun I have no doubt that the soldiers would eat these biscuits, if the ship’s captain and Major Ilhami Beg, the port officer in Iskenderun hadn’t reported the situation to me. The situation reflected the level of neglect and indifference for the individuals’ health.
These bags also contained breadcrumbs, even cheese and pitta bread slices gathered from bakeries and restaurants. I had the doctors in Iskenderun examine them. They concluded that not even animals should eat them, let alone humans. I took these out of the boat. I sent them to the I sent them to the Governor of Adana, the Payas District Governor Fuad Beg. They have sent the bags and the bakers who have baked the biscuits to Adana. I don’t know who has compensated for the damage that was about 2000 liras. But the soldiers were saved from the hazardous biscuits. The biscuits were bought at the price of first quality sea biscuits.”
Meanwhile, Adana is a major city in southern Turkey. And Iskenderun is a city and the largest district in Hatay Province on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.
The bodies of the fallen during the voyage were dumped to the sea for sanitary reasons. It is not known how many brave men have been dumped to the sea but we have to add the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and even Mediterranean to the largest memorial, which is Yemen. The memoirs by one of Yemen’s Governors, Mehmet Tevfik Beg about the matter are interesting:
“It was obvious that Doctor Kemal had a problem in his heart. He looked prone to such a disease because of his fat body. One day, I asked him to inspect the quarantine station in Karaman (a city in south central Turkey and located in Central Anatolia) together. However he told me to go there on my own since he was not feeling well, and that he’d be alright until I came back. I didn’t hesitate after he encouraged me to go and I immediately got off the boat, quickly walked through the quarantine station and came back in a hurry.
Doctor Kemal had passed away. The boat left the port in five minutes. We were directly headed for Suez. After a little while, the captain started saying that the corpse would stink in this weather and it was unavoidable that we would have to dump the corpse in the sea. In the end, they have dumped the poor doctor’s corpse to the sea, with my night robe on him.”
Unfortunately, these were not all the troubles. While disembarking, it was common to find out that some of the animals were dead, and some ate each other’s leashes and tails out of hunger. Another problem was to adapt to sudden temperature changes on the way from Yemeni ports to the destination points. Yemen is not all flatlands and deserts. It has a mountainous region with steep rocks, harsh winds and harsher cold weather. Troops have been sent in summer clothes, but halfway through, the mountains begin and a very cold, windy weather waits for them.
This is the second point where great losses occur. We’re not talking about soldiers who die in battle. We are talking about the soldiers who fall before even meeting the enemy soldiers or rioters, before realizing what’s going on. The 96 station, 1320 km Hijaz Railroad built by Sultan Abdul Hamid II as an alternative to the Suez Canal, was completed in 1908 and mitigated most of the problems associated with sea travel. However, although works to extend the line to Yemen have started, they had to be abandoned because of the bombing of the Port of Cibane by Italian war ships in 1912.
Yemen was the Ottoman region that buckled under despair and bravery, faith and resignation, fearlessness and death. A region where soldiers fought not only against the rioting locals but also to the whole world. A region where those who went didn’t come back, and those who didn’t come back, immortalized. Soldiers were dispatched to the relevant units the moment they reached Yemen.
Death row convicts released on condition that they would go to Yemen, the middle aged brave veterans who were conscripted again leaving their old parents, wives and children even though they’ve served in the military before, officers who were almost exiled to the midst of fire zones. They had to fight hunger, disease and lack of equipment before they faced the enemy. It is clearly seen in records that supplying our troops was a major problem. This document from 1906 states that 4 battalions under the 5th Army had no shoes.
Malnutrition added to long sea voyages caused scurvy wounds on the soldiers’ bodies, and these turned to gangrene as a consequence of wrong shoe selection.
“It is hard for those who suffer from scurvy to get better, for the wounds to close in Yemeni ports. It is common to see cases of gangrene caused by shoe-chafed foot sores in Tihame. As it is obvious that a simple chafed foot causes the death of a soldier, 2641 of 4324 soldiers who came from Hudeyde were sent with cut-off shoes. How will the soldier engage in military action with this cut-off shoe? The losses that will occur because of this are not appreciated. Is it enough to say that shoes were given?”
The fuse of the greatest riot that forced soldiers to defeat was lit by the end of 1904. This is the riot in which Imam Yahya, who would later become a true friend of the Turks; the founder of independent Yemen first showed his face. This was a great tragedy and source of sorrow for our soldiers in Yemen. The rioting army of Imam Yahya has used the insurmountably steep passes of Shaharah as a shield and killed off Ottoman soldiers who didn’t know the topography and who were fighting in narrow passes and paths, as if hunting game.
Then they reached Sana’a and circled Ottoman soldiers. This defeat turned to disaster in a very short time. Some telegraph lines were cut, and the entry and exit of food supplies were blocked in the besieged city. Ottoman soldiers, who resisted against all odds, were now being tested with absolute hunger. As the camels and oxen used to draw water from wells were consumed, it was the mules’ turn to be eaten. As the mules also have been consumed in a short while, no food could be found except small breads made of 30 grams of flour. Encrypted messages sent by Governor Mehmet Tevfik lay open the horrible truth:
“To Riza Pasha, the General Commander of Yemen…
The donkeys, mules and horses that belong to the officers, people, artillery and cavalry battalions, and those belonging to foot soldier and supply battalions that have been kept in waiting for 20 days are about to be totally consumed. Our soldiers are under extreme duress because of hunger. The daily death toll has reached 50. There are many deserters. If extreme rationing measures are implemented, the soldiers have food for at most 10 days, and in case help arrives presently, it is certain that Sana’a will be lost.”
March 26, 1905
“To the Esteemed Attention of the Great Minister…
The humble, modest soldiers in Sana’a have struggled to partially meet their nutritional needs without bread, slaughtering their animals, but as the situation is far from the nutrition methods specified by our army, our soldiers have gradually fallen ill. About one hundred soldiers are dying daily and what little is left from the previous force is under terrible duress.
The soldiers can barely stand up and hold their rifles. They have to keep guard duty on the walls sitting, even lying down and the number of deserters is increasing with each day. They have started to surrender themselves and their weapons to the bandits willingly during their guard duties. If the backup forces that have been established do not come to our help, it will be unavoidable to lose the city of Sana’a. It is expected that the backup forces will show up as soon as possible to prevent the loss.”
April 01, 1905
Eventually, on April 5, 1905, the Governor of Yemen Tevfik, met with the Commander of the Army Izzet and Inspector Riza Pasha, and they have issued a report stating that defending Sana’a was not possible anymore. They had to state that the soldiers were deserting in groups; had started looting in the city because of hunger and didn’t leave any fruits on the trees; that they have sold their Mauser rifles to the Arabs for a piece of bread even though they knew that the penalty is death; and have opened holes in the walls to be able to do all these in their report.
Following this report, an unavoidable peace treaty was signed with Imam Yahya and 12 cannons, numerous ammunitions and about 20,000 rifles that the rioters have confiscated would be written off as losses. The same year, Ahmed Feyzi Pasha would reestablish Ottoman reign in Sana’a and turn the tables.
“Hunger caused many calamities. The lack of foresight caused 5,000 of the Sultan’s soldiers to die. To be dumped in wells and holes. I am writing these letters not in ink, but in tears. I may be misjudging some events. But I have listened to nothing else but the voice of my conscience while writing on events that I saw with my own eyes“…
Hunger, harsh climate, inadequate equipment and helpless death. And Yemen, which is nevertheless not abandoned… But why? We can see retrospectively, that the Ottoman Empire’s insistence about Yemen was stemming from the fact that Yemen was seen as a strategic soft spot. The Hijaz area, the holy lands of Mecca and Medina, and the risk of losing Mecca and Medina which symbolized the dominion of the Ottoman Empire in the Islamic world, the fear of such a thought, caused the struggle to try and keep Yemen under Ottoman rule.
As the war against invading forces went on throughout the dying Ottoman State, the Yildiz Palace was looking for solutions concerning Yemen and the Middle East. The requests of Imam Yahya who sent out emissaries to Sultan Abdul Hamid II went unanswered because of government changes and political depression, and although the situation in Yemen changed in Ottoman’s favor from time to time, this time, the uncertainties were causing riots in their very ranks.
1909 was a dark year for the soldiers stationed in Yemen. As the flames of riot started by Sheikh Idrisi in Asir were fanned by the reemerging uprising of Imam Yahya, the Ottoman Empire had to take immediate measures in Yemen. Sana’a was under siege, again. Ahmed Izzet Pasha who came to Yemen with the Hamidiye cruiser lifted the Sana’a siege with 50,000 soldiers he has drafted from various Ottoman districts. Although the conditions turned in favor of the Turkish soldiers, Sana’a and the mountain areas where the Zeydi lived were left to Imam Yahya with the Dean Agreement of October 13, 1911.
Imam Yahya promised not to deal with foreign states in the 22 clause Agreement. The Agreement that led to the recognition of Imam Yahya by the Ottoman Empire was the first and most important step in the road that led to the abandonment of this piece of imperial land, leaving thousands of martyrs behind. Imam Yahya who stood against the state, declared his loyalty to the Ottoman State until 1918, and even until 22-30s. He even has written letters stating his allegiance to the Turkish Republic after the 1930s. And he wants to send a congressional representative.
However, the Turks, they reply that they have forfeited their rights on the region with the Mondros armistice and subsequent agreements and open the road to the future King of Yemen by advising him to establish his own country.
Imam Yahya who caused the deaths of thousands of Ottoman soldiers, will appear as the greatest friend of Turks following 1911, and supply food and weapons aids to Ottoman soldiers in the region. Following the retreat of the Ottoman Empire from the region, soldiers who were left there acted as the founders of independent Yemen. Imam Yahya named soldiers who have survived against all odds his children, and enlisted them in his newly founded army.
Soldiers who couldn’t risk the journey and road conditions have stayed there, married and founded lasting families. Imam Yahya thought that he’d need this force if Yemen is to be his. First, as fighting people, and second, as instructors. He thought that he could use these people as military experts. And he kept them. Told them that they could stay. That he’d feed them. We’ll pay for the weapons we took in this manner. That’s what he thought.
The second thing was that a close relationship with the Anatolian people and the Yemeni people was built. For example you live there for so many years, you interact with the public, you get to know people, you get to love girls and you get married with them. It even is in folk songs.
“You went to foreign lands to fight,
your lover was waiting for you but you
forgot about her, got married there.”,
This is a common theme in folk songs. That’s exactly how it happened. They got married there, they stayed there, they had children and became Yemeni themselves. He hired some people with his own means, married people and gave them homes, lands in some places; and employed them especially in financial and technical duties such as the telegraph service. There are still telegraph operators in Yemen.
Telegraph at that time was as important as Internet is today. And those who knew the telegraph system, the Morse code, were only the Turkish officers. Having a couple of them was a necessity, nobody else could use the telegraph. Likewise as the land registry, the whole of the finance system, major functions of the State were administered by Ottoman officials; he wanted to keep these people.
Meanwhile, Istanbul was invaded. Let’s imagine e.g. if you came to Istanbul Following World War I, it would be easy to give up. There were those who said, “No, this is not the Istanbul I know” and went back to settle in Yemen. Some others have tried but could not leave. Some went through Africa until Egypt but couldn’t pass the British controlled Egypt and came back. There are families who came back and settled.
Following the Dean Agreement, one of the officers who stayed was Captain Galip. As an experienced soldier who spoke 3 languages, Captain Galip was employed as an instructor in the Military School which was established in 1921. Galip who got married and settled in Yemen, and other educated Turkish officers have pioneered the establishment of infrastructures for transportation, finance, education, diplomacy and communications.
His daughter says:
“My Grandfather couldn’t go back to Istanbul during World War I. As he was an educated man, he stayed in Yemen upon Imam Yahya’s request. His condition was confirmed with a notice from Turkey. He didn’t swear his allegiance to Yemen before seeing that confirmation note. The lessons in the newly founded military academy were in Ottoman and French languages. As my grandfather spoke a few languages, he was stationed there in 1921.”
Those who went to Yemen didn’t come back. Couldn’t come back. Yemen, the door to Holy Lands made many Anatolians question the ones who went, the front, the war with innumerable laments. History was written in folk songs, novels and pain. How can we explain the fact that the Ottoman State didn’t want to leave Yemen, and increased its investments in the area even against uncollected taxes, squandered logistic and military power? This supports the idea that the Ottomans were not exploiters, but protectors of the region.
We don’t think that the Ottomans who built large barracks, a big hospital, a big girls’ school of art have foreseen that they would be uprooted from the region in a couple of years. They wouldn’t do these things if they did. This is some kind of survival instinct. Just like we all know that we’ll die one day, but we act as if this is not so. Just like we’ll always live. We struggle through day-to-day problems and efforts. We can guess that was how the Ottoman State lived out its last years. They didn’t realize that they were collapsing.
No doubt, one of the most important investments planned for the region was the extension of the Hijaz Railroad to Yemen. Sultan Abdul Hamid II sent a survey team to Yemen in 1898 and inspected the feasibility of the financial development project for Yemen conceived by Sultan Abdulaziz. It was really possible that the crops that would be harvested thrice a year from Yemen’s fertile soil to be transported to ports through railroads, exported and serious socio-economic improvement would ensue.
A one time, limited agricultural investment would change the fate of an impoverished people, and prevent riots caused by ignorance and bad administration. Moreover, Yemen, which already had rich iron and coal mines, also hosted natural gas reserves. Building a railroad over such a fertile land would surely cause a revolutionary development.
However, the first push towards the building of a railroad, an agreement with a French company, would end as the Italian war ships bombed the Cibane Port in 1912. The heartbreaking effects of Yemen are still carried along in scores of Anatolian folk songs composed in tears and blood.
Today, Yemen is still a special place for the Turks with its tens of thousands of citizens of Turkish origin, with the Turkish soldiers blood on every inch of its soil, its holiness that caused the Ottomans to hold on to it for 400 years in spite of 300,000 martyrs. The Yemen Epic, which is named after this friendly region, will keep its place in Turks’s hearts; forever live on in Anatolian folk songs, laments and stories.