The Sulayhid dynasty was founded in the northern highlands around 1040; at the time, Yemen was ruled by different local dynasties. In 1060, Ali ibn Muhammad Al-Sulayhi conquered Zabid and killed its ruler Al-Najah, founder of the Najahid dynasty. His sons were forced to flee to Dahlak. Hadramawt fell into Sulayhid hands after their capture of Aden in 1162.
By 1063, Ali had subjugated Greater Yemen. He then marched toward Hejaz and occupied Makkah. Ali was married to Asma bint Shihab, who governed Yemen with her husband. The Khutba during Friday prayers was proclaimed in both her husband’s name and hers. No other Arab woman had this honor since the advent of Islam.
Ali al-Sulayhi was killed by Najah’s sons on his way to Mecca in 1084. His son Ahmed Al-Mukarram led an army to Zabid and killed 8,000 of its inhabitants. He later installed the Zurayids to govern Aden. al-Mukarram, who had been afflicted with facial paralysis resulting from war injuries, retired in 1087 and handed over power to his wife Arwa al-Sulayhi. Queen Arwa moved the seat of the Sulayhid dynasty from Sana’a to Jibla, a small town in central Yemen near Ibb. Jibla was strategically near the Sulayhid dynasty source of wealth, the agricultural central highlands. It was also within easy reach of the southern portion of the country, especially Aden. She sent Ismaili missionaries to India, where a significant Ismaili community was formed that exists to this day. Queen Arwa continued to rule securely until her death in 1138.
Arwa al-Sulayhi is still remembered as a great and much-loved sovereign, as attested in Yemeni historiography, literature, and popular lore, where she is referred to as Balqis al-sughra (“the junior queen of Sheba”). Although the Sulayhids were Ismaili, they never tried to impose their beliefs on the public. Shortly after Queen Arwa’s death, the country was split between five competing petty dynasties along religious lines. The Ayyubid dynasty overthrew the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. A few years after their rise to power, Saladin dispatched his brother Turan Shah to conquer Yemen in 1174.
Ayyubid conquest (1171–1260):
Turan Shah conquered Zabid from the Mahdids in May 1174, then marched toward Aden in June and captured it from the Zurayids. The Hamdanid sultans of Sana’a resisted the Ayyubid in 1175, and the Ayyubids did not manage to secure Sana’a until 1189. The Ayyubid rule was stable in southern and central Yemen, where they succeeded in eliminating the ministates of that region, while Ismaili and Zaidi tribesmen continued to hold out in several fortresses.
The Ayyubids failed to capture the Zaydis stronghold in northern Yemen. In 1191, Zaydis of Shibam Kawkaban rebelled and killed 700 Ayyubid soldiers. Imam Abdullah bin Hamza proclaimed the imamate in 1197 and fought al-Mu’izz Ismail, the Ayyubid Sultan of Yemen. Imam Abdullah was defeated at first but was able to conquer Sana’a and Dhamar in 1198, and al-Mu’izz Ismail was assassinated in 1202.
Abdullah bin Hamza carried on the struggle against the Ayyubid until his death in 1217. After his demise, the Zaidi community was split between two rival imams. The Zaydis were dispersed and a truce was signed with the Ayyubid in 1219. The Ayyubid army was defeated in Dhamar in 1226. Ayyubid Sultan Mas’ud Yusuf left for Mecca in 1228, never to return. Other sources suggest that he was forced to leave for Egypt instead in 1123.