Aden, a Tale of a Cosmopolitan City in South Yemen

 July 18, 2022

Ali Mahmood

Aden is located at the southwest tip of the Arabian Peninsula, on the crater of an extinct volcano. It is a port city with a natural harbor protected from the sea's waves; thus, throughout its history, it was a trading hub and a welcoming city.

We spoke to history experts and people who had a personal connection to Aden to get their thoughts on this beautiful city and learn about its history. 

"Aden has its earliest mention in the Old Testament's Book of Ezekiel as one of the places Tyre had trading connections," said Nagmi AbdulMajid, a historian from Aden. "It was the principal spice trade center of Arabia. Spice traders from across the region, including merchants from India, Pakistan, Somalia, and Ethiopia, used it as a trading hub for more than a millennium", Mr. AbdulMajid added.


The cosmopolitan city still hosts a bizarre cultural mash-up reflecting a bigger picture of the days when Aden sat at the world's crossroads. Hindu temples, Christian churches, and synagogues stand the test of time to survive as a striking testimony to Aden's culture of tolerance and coexistence.

Aden was a unique city in the Middle East. "All different religious and sectarian rites and beliefs were practiced in Aden throughout its historical periods. Mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches, and Jewish synagogues were built in Aden. Many still survive today as witnesses to the religious diversity and tolerance of the cosmopolitan city", said Dr. Jacklin Al Bitani, head of the My identity Initiative for Heritage Protection.

  • The Dubai of the 19th century and the second busiest harbor after New York until 1950.  

"Aden was the Dubai of the 19th and the early 20th centuries. It was a global entrepot swarming with expatriates from all over the world and a duty-free shopper's paradise as well," Scott MacMillan wrote in a travel piece in 2009 for the National News.

As late as 1960, Aden was the second busiest port in the world after New York until the revolution against the British colonization erupted on October 14, 1963.

A City of Tolerance and Coexistence 

The history of Aden chronicles the peaceful life the city experienced for hundreds of years. The port city hosted millions of people from different walks and clans of life. Migrants from India, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland, Parisians, and Europeans lived in the city for centuries. They practiced their religious rites and beliefs in a peaceful environment. 

"Aden of the late 19th century to mid-20th century was probably the most cosmopolitan city in Arabia, with only Beirut a possible competition. It had huge Indian and Somaliland communities. Churches, mosques, and temples easily sat side by side," said Ebrahim Eslander, a migrant from Somaliland whose parents lived in Aden for decades.

"The Somaliland community was huge; it had influenced the very fabric of the city. Fishermen used to sell their fresh catch in Ma'allah, Tawahi, Sheikh Othman, Bureiqa, and Qallo'ah. They used to call out "Samak, Kallun." Kallun means fish in Somali, so new Somalilanders who did not yet speak Arabic can understand the calls. But the cultural impact Aden had on Somaliland was even bigger and more profound. The Adenese traditional dress for women of 'direa or diri' became Somaliland's coolest dress for ladies. 'Sugar,' a spicy Adenese Indian fusion dish, became a standard in Somaliland. However, not all Adeni culture was accepted by Somalilanders. For example, Fatta Mowz with Hulbah, dish chefs mash Indian bread called 'Sabayah' with bananas, never got popular in Somaliland's intrinsically nomadic culture. They disliked the 'gooey' end product," Eslander explained. 

"The Marxist rule of Aden, although brief, had a profound cultural impact, particularly on social attitudes. Almost all the public bus drivers were female. Racism towards Somalilanders or Indians was almost non-existent, and intermarriage was common," Eslander recalled. 

A City of Resistance 

Although Aden was a city of tolerance and coexistence, it was a city of resistance. People in the historic southern port city weren't less patriotic than those hailing from the hinterlands of the South. The struggle against the British colonization began from the mountainous chain of Radfan in Lahj province; however, the fire of the revolution was dramatically transferred to Aden by patriotic Adenis. They devoted themselves to resisting the British using "hit and run" tactics in their struggle.

Richard Viner, a Briton whose father was serving as a British battalion commander in the Aden protectorate, talked to the ACSYS about his memories in Aden as a child of a British commander. He recalls the gloomy days of the conflict with the resistance groups which fought for South independence. "Aden, for me, in the 1960s will live in my mind as a place of great joy and sadness. A joy because I would visit my parents three times a year from private school and sad because of the many friends that my family lost due to the conflict. My father had two tours of duty in the Aden Protectorate. First as a battalion commander with the Aden Protectorate Levies and secondly with the renamed Federal Regular Army as brigade commander. My younger brother, Roland, recently told me about the time he was watching a film at the cinema in Steamer Point when the BBC building next door was shelled by a bazooka. Hearing the loud explosion, everyone hit the floor, and luckily nobody was injured. Roland was most disappointed that he could not stay to see the end of the film, as it was his final treat before leaving for the UK and going back to school. He remembers the film- James Coburn in 'Charade'. Mr. Richard Viner is now an entertainer living in North Wales in the UK. 

Aden After Unification 

After signing the unification agreement between the People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic, the adverse political and social developments that followed unification have left severe scars on the Southerners, especially on the residents of Aden who were greatly affected by the unjust practices of the northern regime. The city's cadres were assassinated, and the city's infrastructures were tremendously devastated by unlawful practices conducted by the northern officials. 

Aden, the cosmopolitan city of a great civilization, was embroiled in chaos after unification, and unity's ramifications are still present today as Aden tries to recover from the seven-year war in Yemen.

Ali Mahmood 

Ali is a journalist based in Aden covering the war in Yemen for the National and other foreign media organizations.