Abraha (Ge’ez: አብርሃ) (also spelled Abreha, died after CE 570; r. 525–at least 553), also known as Abrahah al-Ashram (Arabic: أَبْرَهَة ٱلْأَشْرَم), was an Aksumite army general, then the viceroy of South Arabia for the Kingdom of Aksum, and later declared himself an independent King of Himyar. Abraha ruled much of present-day Arabia and Yemen from at least 531–547 CE to 555–570 CE.
Dhu Nuwas, the Jewish Himyarite ruler of Yemen, in the period c. 523–525 or c. 518–20 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 in 518 or 523 and many members of the Himyarite Christian community were put to death. This incident also mentioned in the Quran in Sura #85-Al-Burooj evoking great sympathy throughout the Christian regions of the Orient and prompting an intercontinental Aksumite military intervention using the massive Aksumite fleet aided by a small extra Byzantine fleet first made in 518/523.
Procopius identifies Abraha as the former slave of a Roman merchant who did business in Adulis. Later, Abraha was either one of the commanders or a member of one of the armies led by King Kaleb of Axum against Dhu Nuwas. In al-Tabari's history, 'Abraha is said to have been the commander of the second army sent by Kaléb after the first failed, led by 'Ariat.
Abraha was reported to have led his army of 100,000 men to successfully crush all resistance of the Yemeni army and then, following the suicide of Dhu Nuwas, seized power and established himself at Sanaa. 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." Abraha's nose had either been lost in battle or had fallen in owing to some disease.
According to Procopius, 'Abraha seized control of Yemen from Esimiphaios (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. Stuart Munro-Hay, who proposes a 518 date for the rise of Dhu Nuwas, dates this event to 525, while by the later chronology (in which Dhu Nuwas comes to power in 523), this event would have happened about 530, although a date as late as 543 has been postulated by Jacques Ryckmans.
An army sent by Kaléb to subdue 'Abraha joined his ranks and killed the ruler sent to replace him (this is perhaps a reference to 'Ariat) 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. A zealous Christian himself, he is said to have built a great church at San'a' (in competition of the Kaaba located in Mecca which was the most prominent religious site in all of Arabia) and to have repaired the principal irrigation dam at the Sabaean capital of Marib.
Epigraphic sources chronicling 'Abraha's career include an inscription on the Marib Dam recording the quelling of an insurrection backed by a son of the deposed ruler, Esimiphaios, in the year 657 of the Sabaean era, i.e. between 540–550; vital repairs effected to the dam later in the same year; the reception of envoys from the Negus, from Byzantium, from Persia and from Al-Harith ibn Jabalah, the phylarch of Arabia; and the completion of repairs to the dam in the following year, followed by a great feast of rejoicing.
National Museum of Saudi Arabia
According to the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, Abraha built Al-Qullays in Sana'a. He also built a similar one in Najran for Bani Al-Harith, the House of Allat in Taif for the tribe of Thaqeef, the House of Yareem and the House of Ghamdan in Yemen.
The traditions also say that Abraha is said to have built a cathedral at San'a' known as al-Qullays (from the Greek Ekklesia) to rival the Kaaba at Mecca and specifically came with his forces of elephants to destroy the Kaaba.
Munro-Hay dates his death to some time after 553 based on the inscription at Murayghän. Islamic tradition places it immediately after his expedition to Mecca. He was succeeded on the throne by two of his sons, Yaksum and Masruq, born to him by Raihäna, a Yemenite noblewoman whom 'Abraha had abducted from her husband.
Between 570 and 575 the pro-Persian group in Yemen made contact with the Sassanid king through the Lakhmid princes in Al-Hirah. The Persians then sent troops under the command of Wahriz, who helped the semi-legendary Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan drive the Aksumites from Yemen and Southern Arabia became a Persian dominion under a Yemenite vassal within the sphere of influence of the Sassanian empire.
Islamic tradition credits Abraha with a military expedition against the Quraysh of Mecca in an invasion of the Hejaz in 570, known as the Year of the Elephant. According to these Islamic traditions, Abraha was building a cathedral in the city of Sanaa to act as a centre for pilgrimage. Realizing that the Kaaba was already in use for such a purpose, Abraha set out to destroy the Kaaba in order for all the pilgrims to direct themselves to his new cathedral and maximize his profits. Abraha had a troop of about 13 war elephants in the expeditionary forces. Muhammad's paternal grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, put the favour in God's hands, realizing that he could not take on the forces of Abraha. As Abraha's forces approached the city, the story goes:
The next day, as they prepared for battle, they discovered that their elephant (called Mahmud, a good Islamic name) refused to approach Mecca. Even worse, birds came from the sea, each of which brought three small stones, which they dropped on the soldiers of Abraha. Everyone hit by these stones was killed. Abraha himself was hit repeatedly and slowly dismembered. By the time he reached Sanua, he had nothing but a miserable stump of a body. His heart burst from his chest, and he died. So the year of the War of the Elephant was a year of death. But it was also a year of life, for in that same year Muhammad was born.
Outside of later Islamic tradition, there is no mention of Abraha's expedition at Mecca, including from Abraha's own inscriptions. Historical-critical scholars see the story as a later Islamic tradition designed to explain the "Men of the Elephant" in Qur'an 105:1-5. However, recent findings of Himyaritic inscriptions describe an hitherto unknown expedition of Abraha, which subsequently led Gajda et al to identify this expedition as the failed conquest of Mecca. In addition, scholar Christian Julien Robin notes that the historicity of a failed expedition is completely plausible, given that the Quraysh, despite their small number and poverty, quickly rose to prominence in the following years, evidenced by the great fair of Quraysh, held in al-ʿUkāẓ, as well as the ḥums cultural association, which associated members of tribes of Western Arabia with the Mecca sanctuary. Gajda accepted the commonly accepted dating of the conquest as happened in the year of 552, thus not coinciding with the birth of the Prophet, traditionally dated to 570 CE. And it also observed that Mecca is not mentioned in the inscription. On the other hand, Daniel Beck claims that there are several issues with the story. He claimed that for one, African war elephants hadn't been used in the region for over 600 years. It is also difficult to explain how Abraha would have gotten a hold on African war elephants in Arabia. Furthermore, Qur'an 105 appears to be appealing to traditions from 2 Maccabees, and not referencing any expedition on Abraha's part. However, Michael Charles published a study where he went into detail about how the Aksumite kingdom used elephants for war and had access to them during the period (the 6th century AD) where the expedition is said to have taken place. It should also be noted that none of the details of the story in Surah 105 can be found in 2 Maccabees. There are no mentions of elephants, protective flying creatures or even a foiled expedition in 2 Maccabees. However the details of elephants as war beasts and angels as protective flying creatures foiling an army military expedition can be found in 3 Maccabees 5 and 6:18-21.
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- 3 Maccabees 5:1-2
- 3 Maccabees 6:18-21