Historical Figures

Arwa al-Sulayhi, Queen of Yemen for 40 years

Arwa al-Sulayhi (in Arabic:أروى بنت أحمد بن محمد بن بن بن موسى الصليحي الإسماعية), or Arwa Bint Ahmed (around 1048 - 1138), of the Sulayhide dynasty, is the sovereign having reigned over Yemen . After the death of her husband, she ruled alone for forty years.

A young queen

Niece of Ali al-Sulayhi, founder and first leader of the Ismaili dynasty (current of Shiite Islam) of the Sulayhide, Arwa was born around 1048 in Yemen, in the region of Haraz. Orphaned at a young age, she was adopted by her uncle and aunt Asma bint Shihab [English] who installed her with them at the palace in Sanaa. The queen had her adopted daughter, renowned for her quick wit and excellent memory, teach poetry, history and theology.

In 1066, aged approximately 17, Arwa married her cousin, the heir to the throne Ahmad al-Mukarram bin Ali (bin Muhammad As Sulaihi) [English], with whom she had four children. She receives as mahr (gift from husband to wife) the city of Aden.

The following year, the Najahid ruler Sa'id ibn Najar had Ali al-Sulayhi assassinated and his wife captured on the way to Mecca. Ahmad becomes sovereign of Yemen, but his physical condition does not allow him to lead the kingdom for long:paralyzed, he is forced to stay in bed and can no longer appear in public. From 1086, it is therefore Arwa who assumes power. For her first decision, the young queen moves the capital from Sanaa to Jibla, in southern Yemen, so as to place herself in a better strategic position to destroy Sa'id ibn Najar and avenge her father-in-law; it will achieve this in 1088.

A builder queen

In Jibla, Arwa al-Sulayhi had a new palace built while the old one was transformed into a large mosque. Queen builder, she built roads, schools and mosques, developing the economy of the kingdom and supporting its agriculture. Pious, she sent missionaries to India where she encouraged the establishment of Ismaili communities, particularly in Gujarat. After the death of her husband in 1091, the queen was advised to remarry and she accepted, not without reluctance. The same year, Arwa married a cousin of her late husband, Saba ibn Ahmad. She continues to govern and, after the death of her husband in 1101, she does not remarry and reigns alone.

Arwa al-Sulayhi remained in power until his death in 1138, in a reign of more than forty years marked by peace, the development of the economy, schools and infrastructure of the kingdom. She is buried in the mosque she had built in Jibla. Popular with the people, she is also known as as-Sayyidah al-Ḥurrah "the noble lady" (not to be confused with the pirate queen Sayyida al-Hurra bint Ali ibn Rashid), al-Malika al-Hurra "the noble queen" or "the little queen of Sheba".