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The Bank Notes of Yemen

By Peter Symes, Murray Hanewich and Keith Street

Extracted with permission from The Bank Notes of Yemen (Canberra, 1997)

Part one: North Yemen and Unified Yemen

For hundreds of years, the principal form of currency in Yemen has been base metal coins, usually silver, and by the first half of the 20th century the main unit of currency was the Maria Theresa Dollar (MTD). The MTD was a coin containing four parts silver and one part copper, and had originally been issued by the Austrian Empire. It had gained great acceptance in the Arabian peninsula, as its high silver content satisfied the Arabs’ desire for base coins. Such was the popularity of this coin that the Yemeni currency units were made to be the same value as the MTD. The Imadi Riyal (as it was known during the Reign of Imam Yaha) and the Ahmadi Riyal (as it became known during the reign of Imam Ahmad) were equivalent to one MTD. The MTD was broken into 40 buqshas and when the republican "Yemeni rial" was introduced it also became worth 40 buqshas.

However, the use of the MTD and its local equivalents was not the most favourable arrangement for the economy of Yemen. The Maria Theresa Dollars were minted by foreign countries and private firms who sold them to Yemen when there was profit to be made, the locally produced equivalents never being minted in sufficient quantities to make them an effective coin in circulation. In addition, the fluctuating markets which made it profitable for foreigners to sell silver coins in Yemen also allowed at other times for profit to be reaped through the purchase of these coins for their bullion value. Lower value coins of silver and copper were produced in Yemen at the local mint in Sana’a, and sufficient quantities of these coins were produced by the mint to support the needs of the economy. This mint remained active after the revolution, with reports indicating that at one stage buqshas were being minted from the fuselages of crashed aircraft.

Following the revolution in 1962, the republicans embarked on a strategy aimed at modernizing the economy, with two institutions being created to support the thrust: the Yemen Bank of Reconstruction and Development (YBRD), and the Yemen Currency Board. The establishment of the YBRD on 17 November 1962 was achieved by nationalizing the Saudi National Commercial Bank, which had commenced operations in Yemen in 1959. Established as a public sector bank with minority private Yemeni interests, the day-to-day machinations of the YBRD immediately after the revolution were observed by Peter Somerville-Large in his book Tribes and Tribulations:

"It was run as a storehouse for money, giving no interest on deposits, adhering to the strict Moslem teaching which regards all systems and rates as immoral ... The bank office consisted of a small courtyard, where three men squatted beside a pile of sacks: I watched them emptying each one and arranging the coins that fell out of them in heaps, scooping them up with wooden shovels. The director, with his trim efficiency and European clothes, tried unsuccessfully to impart a business-like air to the leisurely task of moving silver round the little yard."

Due to the Islamic traditions of Yemen, banking as it is known in the West had not been a viable option, since earning and paying interest go against the teachings of the Koran. Until the revolution, and probably for some time afterwards, people had deposited their money with certain families who undertook to protect it, for a fee. It was one of the disappointments of the revolution that the sanctity of the houses belonging to these families was not always honoured and during the turmoil of the revolt in 1962 some houses were looted.

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In the years prior to the revolution several studies had been made into the monetary affairs of Yemen - one by the United Nations (1953), one by an expert from Saudi Arabia, and one by the National Bank of Egypt (1959). All reports from these studies recommended the introduction of a national currency for Yemen which should be supervised by a state issuing authority. The recommendations of the earlier reports gained momentum in 1958 after the federation between Egypt, Syria and Yemen was formed. The charter, signed by the three nations, included provision for the re-organization of the monetary system in each of the states of the Federation. Subsequently Federal Law No.3 (March 1958) was promulgated, empowering the Central Bank of the U.A.R. to establish a currency authority in Yemen. Federal Law No.4 was introduced at the same time, providing for the introduction of Yemeni bank notes and coins. However these laws were never implemented.

After the revolution in 1962, Egyptian advisers again investigated the monetary situation in Yemen and their recommendations saw the promulgation of a Republican law in July 1963. This law allowed for the introduction of a new silver Yemeni rial, as well as the smaller denominations of 20-, 10- and 5-buqsha coins in silver, and 1-buqsha and 1/2-buqsha coins in copper. Under the law which introduced the new currency, the coins were declared legal tender for amounts up to 20 rials.

The next step in the development of the republican currency was the introduction of Law No.6 on 3 February 1964 whereby the Yemen Currency Board was established and provision was made for the issuing of bank notes. The law was obviously a rubber stamp on the proceedings which were largely controlled by the Egyptians, as the first bank notes were issued on 8 February 1964, just five days after the law authorizing their introduction was passed. The bank notes were declared to be legal tender for all debts, public and private for any amount.

The Yemen Currency Board was administered by a board of six directors, consisting of the Minister of the Treasury who was also the chairman, a vice-chairman, the general manager of the Currency Board -responsible for the day-to-day administration - and three directors appointed by the President of the Republic. The capital of the Currency Board was fixed at two million rials, half of which was paid by the Yemeni government at the inception of the Board, with the other half due to be paid within a year.

Illustrations on the bank notes

The various llustrations appearing on the bank notes issued by the Yemen Currency Board and the Central Bank of Yemen can be grouped into roughly three categories - items from Southern Arabian antiquity, buildings, and panoramas. The earlier notes have an emphasis towards the illustration of items from Southern Arabian antiquity and the later notes towards buildings, and mountain and city views.

What is particularly interesting about the selection of illustrations that appear on the notes, is the source of the pictures on which they were based. The original artwork for many of the illustrations can be traced to several major sources, and it would seem that the manufacturers of the notes worked from these sources in lieu of original artwork supplied by the issuing authorities. While this is understandable for the two issues of the Yemen Currency Board which were prepared by the Egyptians while they were supporting the civil war, it is strange that steps were not taken by the authorities in Yemen to produce specific artwork for subsequent issues - although the onus is often on the bank note designer to supply designs for approval rather than the issuing authority to stipulate the design.

There are four sources which have been identified as the origin of the artwork used as the basis for many of the illustrations on the Yemeni bank notes. The four sources are:

  • Pictures from Yemen by Richard Gerlach;
  • articles by Thomas J. Abercrombie in two editions of the National Geographic magazine;
  • a number of works by Hans Helfritz, and
  • photographs of artefacts discovered by the archaeological expeditions of the American Foundation for the Study of Man, led by Wendell Phillips.

The principal source of photographs from which many of the illustrations on Yemeni bank notes were drawn is Pictures from Yemen by Richard Gerlach which was published in English in 1961 under the imprint of "Edition Leipzig", and originally published in German in 1960 by F. A. Brockhaus in Leipzig, with the title Bilder aus dem Jemen. As the title suggests, the book abounds with photographs - colour and black-and-white - and is a wonderful record of North Yemen before the revolution. Eight of the photographs were used as the original artwork for illustrations on the Yemeni notes.

The two articles in the National Geographic magazine, which provide photographs that were subsequently adapted for use as illustrations on the bank notes, were written by Thomas J. Abercrombie and published in March 1964 and October 1985. The March 1964 edition contains the article entitled Behind the Veil of Troubled Yemen, and the magnificent colour photographs by the author that accompany the article provide the original artwork. The October 1985 edition of the National Geographic magazine contains an article entitled Arabia’s Frankincense Trail, which is accompanied by photographs taken by the author and Lynn Abercrombie. This article provides a photograph of an alabaster stele.

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There are three books by Hans Helfritz which contain black and white photographs which were subsequently used as illustrations on the Yemeni notes. The first two works were Chicago der Weuste (Chicago of the Desert) and Land ohne Schatten (Land without Shade) which were originally published in German and subsequently translated into a number of languages. In 1936 the two books were published in America as one volume - Land without Shade. Helfritz then published a third work Gluckliches Arabien (Fortunate Arabia), which was originally published in Switzerland in 1956, and then two years later in England by George Allen & Unwin under the title The Yemen - A Secret Journey. A number of the photographs in the books appear in more than one publication and the selection of photographs differs in various editions. However, all three photographs which are used as the basis for the illustrations on the Yemeni notes can be found in The Yemen - A Secret Journey.

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The fourth source of illustrations is a collection of photographs of items discovered on several archaeological expeditions described in Qataban and Sheba by Wendell Phillips, published in 1955. In the years following the expeditions, some of the photographs of the antiquities discovered in Yemen were printed in numerous publications. The photograph of the Lion of Timna, which is used as the original source for illustrations on the bank notes, is printed in Qataban and Sheba and in the American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 59, 1955. The next edition of the Journal (Vol. 60, 1956) carries three illustrations of the bronze figure of Ma’adkarib, one of which is the image on which the engraving on the bank notes is based..

There is undoubtedly one other source for the illustrations used on Yemeni bank notes, but it is yet to be identified. This work would probably contain the photograph of King Dhamer Ali’s head and some of the villages and views used on the notes, although there could be two or more works used as the references for these illustrations.

Part two: Bank notes of South Yemen


In the Yemeni society section


In the Yemen section




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Last revised on 07 August, 2015