Thursday, February 16, 2012

Abraha: Story of the Year of the Elephant.

At the beginning of 570 CE, Abraha al-Ashram, the Ethiopian governor of Yemen with his great army came nearer to Kaaba and set tent. There are some Elephants in Abrahas Battalion. And as Arabs never seen an Elephant before, the year 570 CE recalled by them as the Year of the Elephant later.

'Abraha's accounts of origin differs. He was an Ethiopian general then the viceroy of southern Arabia for the Kingdom of Aksum, and later declared himself an independent King of Himyar and ruled much of present-day Yemen and Hijaz.

Dhu Nuwas, the Jewish Himyarite ruler of Yemen, launched military operations against the Aksumite Christians and their local Arab Christian allies. The Aksumites in Zafar were killed, their fortresses in the Yemeni highlands destroyed, and Najran sacked.

Najran fell and many members of the Himyarite Christian community were put to death evoking great sympathy throughout the Christian regions of the Orient and prompting an Aksumite military intervention aided by a Byzantine fleet.

According to al-Tabari's history, Abraha was one of the commanders of one of the armies led by King Kaleb of Axum against Dhu Nuwas and is said to have been the commander of the second army sent by Kaléb after the first, led by 'Ariat, had been annihilated by Dhü Nuwäs through a ruse.

This second army of 100,000 men with hundreds of elephants to successfully crush all resistance of the Yemeni army and then, following the suicide of Dhu Nuwas, seized power and established himself at Sana‘a. He aroused the wrath of Kaléb, however, by withholding tribute who then sent his general 'Ariat to take over the governorship of Yemen. 'Abraha rid himself of the latter by a subterfuge in a duel resulting in 'Ariat being killed and 'Abraha suffering the injury which earned him the sobriquet of al-Asräm, "scar-face."

According to Procopius, 'Abraha seized the control of Yemen from Esimiphaeus (Sumuafa' Ashawa'), the Christian Himyarite viceroy appointed by Kaléb, with the support of dissident elements within the Aksum occupation force who were eager to settle in the Yemen, then a rich and fertile land. This event would have happened about 543  [postulated by Jacques Ryckmans].

An army sent by Kaléb to subdue 'Abraha joined his ranks and killed the ruler sent to replace him and a second army was defeated. After this Kaléb had to accord him de facto recognition before earning recognition under Kaleb's successor for a nominal tribute.

Abraha is seen as then becoming a prominent figure in Yemen's history, promoting the cause of Christianity in the face of the prevalent Judaism and the paganism of Central Arabia.

The royal title adopted by 'Abraha "King of Saba' and dhü-Raydän and Hadhramaut and Yamanat and of their Arabs on the plateau and the lowland." was of the Himyarites. Abraha was zealous observing the Glory of Ka'ba, so he built a great church at San'a'

Abraha with a military expedition against Mecca in an invasion of Hejaz in 570 and set tent near the holy city. Later a small contingent of Abraha move towards Mecca and captured domestic animals. Among those 200 camels were belongs to Abdul Muttalib. When Abdul Muttalib informed this news, he moved forward accompanied with Amr ibn Lu'aba to meet with Abraha and set free his camels.

Meanwhile, a representative of Abraha was sent to Quraish to inform them that Abraha have no intension to fight with them, he came only to demolish Ka'ba. But if the Quraish try to resist him, he will surely crush them all, and followed a frightening description of his well armed huge army.

This representative meets Abdul Muttalib on the way. So he came back with them and informed Abraha that a Quraish leader wants to meet with him. Abraha thought the Quraish leader comes to compromise with him.
When Abdul Muttalib represents to Abraha in his tent, he said, ‘O Abdul Muttalib, what’s the proposal you brings to me?’
He said, ‘I came to you with a request to release my camels those captured by your troops.’

Abraha was astonished hearing this request. He laughed loudly, and then said, "Abdul Muttalib, I was impressed to see you. But now, I have no respect for you. Here I have come to demolish your religious center which is the foundation of your prestige and respect in Arab and you say nothing of it; instead, you request me to return your few camels back!"
Abdul-Muttalib said boldly, "I am the owner of the camels, so, I came to save them and that House has an Owner too, He will decided whether it is necessary to protect the house or not."
Abraha stunned with this reply. However, he ordered to release the camels.

Abraha al-Ashram, envied the reverence in which the Ka'ba was held by the Arabs. Being a staunch Christian, he built a huge cathedral in Sana, tall and beautifully crafted and decorated on all sides. ie such a cathedral had never been built before. The Arabs called it Al-Qullays because of its great height, and because if one looked at it, his cap would be in danger of falling off as he tilted his head back. Then Abrahah Al-Ashram decided to force the Arabs to make their pilgrimage to this magnificent cathedral, just as they had performed pilgrimage to the Ka'ba in Mecca. He announced this in Yemen, but it was rejected by the Arab tribes of Adnan and Qahtan. Actually Arabians showed no interest to perform their pilgrimage to the cathedral. So Abraha was looking for a way to demolish Ka'ba.

Once, a Meccan trade group set their tent closer to that Cathedral. And at night, during the cooking, the cathedral set fired by the wind. The trade group leaves the place at that night in fear. Hearing this, the wrath of Abraha knew no bounds. And he founds a way to avenge it. In a short time he prepared himself and advanced towards Mecca with a large army to destroy Ka'ba.

The next day, Abraha moves with his troops towards Kaaba. He was on the cart on his Elephant. It’s a bright sunny morning. The Meccan leaved the city and seek refuge in the surrounding hills. And they hope and pray that their gods will save their houses and Ka'ba. And when they saw the big animal in the middle of a large Battalion, they were too surprised as they never saw an animal like that before.

No sooner had the army reached near the Ka'ba, the sky covered with dark cloud that appeared from the western side. Actually it was the flock of small birds, Ababil. And those birds overshadowed quickly the entire army of Abraha that looks like dark cloud. Each bird had three pebbles- two in its claws and one in its beak. Thus a rain of the pebbles poured down from the sky, and in a few minutes, the whole army was destroyed. Abraha himself was seriously wounded. He fled to Yemen and died in a short time.

Now we will see, what Qur'an says- Have you not seen how your Lord dealt with the companions of the Elephant? Did He not make their treacherous plan go astray? And He sent against them birds in flocks, striking them with stones of baked clay and He made them like eaten straw.(105: 1-5)


Stuart Munro-Hay, "Abraha" in Siegbert Uhlig, ed., Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003)
S. C. Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), p. 87
The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity; edited by Scott Fitzgerald Johnson; p. 287
Muhammad and the Origins of Islam; by Francis E. Peters; p. 88
"Abraha." Dictionary of African Christian Biographies. 2007. (last accessed 11 April 2007)
Walter W. Müller, "Outline of the History of Ancient Southern Arabia," in Werner Daum (ed.), Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix. 1987.
Scott Fitzgerald Johnson The Oxford Handbook of Late Antiquity p.285
Qur'an, al-Fil

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