bas-relief of a crowned Christian figure speculated to be Sumyafa Ashwa but could possibly be Abraha [1]
Diedlatest by 570 CE
Years activeFrom approximately 535 to no later than 570 CE
OrganizationKingdom of Aksum

Abraha (Ge’ez: አብርሃ) (also spelled Abreha, died presumably in 570 CE), also known as Abrahah al-Ashram (Arabic: أَبْرَهَة ٱلْأَشْرَم), was a viceroy for the Kingdom of Aksum who ruled Yemen and much of modern Saudi Arabia in the 6th century CE. He is famous for his attempt to destroy the Kaaba, a revered religious site in Mecca, using an army that included war elephants. An event known as Year of the Elephant


The Byzantine historian Procopius identified Abraha as the former slave of a Roman merchant who conducted business in Adulis, while the Muslim historian al-Tabari says that he was related to the Aksumite royal family.[2] 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.[3] In al-Tabari's history, Abraha is said to have been the commander of the second army sent by Kaleb of Axum after the first, led by 'Ariat, failed.

Abraha was reported to have led his army of 100,000 men to successfully crush all resistance by the Yemeni army and then, following the suicide of Dhu Nuwas, seized power and established himself at Sanaa. He aroused the wrath of Kaleb, however, by withholding tribute. In response, Kaleb sent his general 'Ariat to take over the governorship of Yemen. One version of what then happened was that Abraha fought a duel with 'Ariat which resulted in 'Ariat being killed and Abraha suffering the injury which earned him the sobriquet of al-Asräm, "scar-face."[4] It was also said that Abraha's nose had either been lost in battle or had been severely damaged due to a disease.[5]

According to Procopius, Abraha seized control of Yemen from Sumyafa Ashwa, the Christian viceroy appointed by Kaleb, with the support of dissident elements within the Aksumite soldiers who were eager to settle in the Yemen, then a rich and fertile land. An army sent by Kaleb to subdue Abraha decided instead to join his ranks and killed the commander (this is perhaps a reference to 'Ariat) and a second army was defeated. After this Kaleb had to accord Abraha de facto recognition before Abraha earned more formal recognition under Kaleb's successor in return for a nominal tribute.[4][2] Stuart Munro-Hay, who proposes a 518 date for the rise of Dhu Nuwas, dates this event to 525,[6] while by the chronology based on Dhu Nuwas coming to power in 523, this event would have happened about 530, although a date as late as 543 has been postulated by Jacques Ryckmans.[4]

The reign of Abraha is documented in six inscriptions, four of which were recorded by the king himself. The most detailed commemorates the suppression of a rebellion by the governor of Kinda, Yazid, and Sabaean and Himyarite princes, as well as the restoration of the Marib Dam, and the hosting of an international conference in which delegations from Aksum, Persia, Rome, Lakhmids, and Ghassanids came to Marib. The reason for this conference is not known.[7]

The second inscription by Abraha mentions military campaigns in central Arabia Two columns of Arab auxiliaries tasked with quelling a rebellion by Banu Amir, while Abraha himself went to Haliban, approximately 300 km southwest of al-Riyadh. The Ma‘add tribe was defeated, and they pledged allegiance and handed over hostages. While, Nasrid ‘Amr, son of al-Mundhir, offered his own son, who had previously served as the governor of Ma‘add.[8] The inscriptions reads as:

Murayghān 3 found in modern day Saudi Arabia. The inscription of Abraha commemorating the consolidation of power throughout the Arabian Peninsula

Abraha's last notable inscription celebrates the consolidation of power over a large portion of the Arabian Peninsula and enumerates the various regions and tribes that submitted to him. This inscription, known as Murayghān 3, is believed to have been created after the previous inscription (Ry 506). Two significant facts are stated in this inscription. Firstly, it indicates that Abraha had lost control of the great tribal confederation of Ma'add. Abraha commends himself for successfully reconquering Ma'add. Secondly, it highlights the conquest of a substantial portion of the Arabian Peninsula.[10] The inscription reads as:

The different locations have all been positively identified, except for "Guzam," which Christian Robin believes is a reference to the Judham tribe.[12]

The final two inscriptions from Abraha's reign discuss the last repairs to the Marib Dam, and potentially the building of the famous Al-Qalis Church, although this is uncertain and may have been construction work at Ghumdan palace.[13] It is dated to 559/60, making it the last known dated Himyarite text.[14]

Hisham ibn al-Kalbi mentions one of the Quraysh, al-Ḥarith ibn Alqama, who was a hostage of the Quraysh was handed over to Abraha the Abyssinian. The Quraysh surrendered him to Abraha, who agreed in return not to sever the commercial relations between his kingdom and Mecca. The need for the surrender of hostages arose after some merchants from Abraha's country had been robbed in Mecca. Another hostage with Abraha, ʿUtbān b. Mālik of the Thaqif tribe, was from Taif, east-southeast of Mecca. Al-Kalbi also provides some details about Abraha's offspring. Rayhana, "daughter of al-Ashram al-Ḥabashī [the Abyssinian]," is said to have given birth to Abraha ibn al-Ṣabbāḥ, "king of Tihamah [along the Red Sea coast]." His brother was Khayr ibn al-Ṣabbāḥ. Another daughter of Abraha, sister of Masruq, was Basbāsa. A nephew of al-Ashram, named Yaksūm, is said to have given the Prophet Muhammad some kind of weapon as a gift.[15]

Year of the Elephant

Main article: Year of the Elephant

Islamic view

Rock carvings from Najran, southern Arabia. The dating of the patina confirms that they are old but the precise date of the carving cannot be established. The carving depicts elephants with their mahouts.[16]
14th-century Persian illustration of Abraha on his attempted destruction of the Kaaba, taken from a "Tarikhnama" (history book).
Abyssinian rout at Mecca in the Year of the Elephant, as depicted in Tareekh Al-Islam Al-Musawwar (published 1964)

Abraha is best known in Islamic accounts for his infamous attempt to attack the Kaaba in Mecca. He aimed to replace the Kaaba by constructing a grand church named the Al-Qullays (from the Greek Ekklesia) in Sanaa.[17][18] He also built a church 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. To counter the decline of Mecca as a pilgrimage center, the people of North Arabian tribes, specifically the Kināna and the nasaʾa (those responsible for intercalation) desecrated Abraha's church. In response to this act, Abraha resolved to launch an assault on Mecca with the aid of an elephant, with the intention of destroying the Kaaba. The elephant was supposedly provided by the Negus. Abraha's army is said to have included forces from South Arabian tribes, including the 'Akk, al-Ashʿar, and Khath'am.

On his way north, Abraha is said to have passed through the settlements of various Arab tribes from which he took prisoners who were forced to act as his guides. Abraha's army is reported to have eventually crossed through Taif, where the Banu Thaqif provided a guide named Abū Righāl to accompany him. As they approached al-Mughammas, a short distance from Mecca, Abū Righāl died and was laid to rest there and his grave would later be stoned by the Arabs (who were mostly pagans at the time) after the failure of Abraha's expedition.

The memory of the Mecca campaign is encapsulated in "The Year of the Elephant," typically dated to 570 CE, which serves as the starting point for Mecca's pre-Islamic history chronology. Some traditions link Muhammad's birth (usually stated as 570 CE) with this year, while others place his birth either 23 or 40 years after the Year of the Elephant, suggesting a date range between about 530 and 547 CE. Scholars Ibrahim Zein and Ahmed el-Wakil state that the week of the attack according to the Muslim commentaries began Sunday, 14 February 572 (13 Muḥarram 51 Before Hijrah) and the birth of Muhammad was on Monday, 11 April 572 (12 Rabī‘ al-Awwal 51 BH).[19]

The earliest Islamic reference to Abraha's attack on Mecca is found in the Al-Fil (Qur'an 105), which describes a divine intervention against the "People of the Elephant." God was said to have thwarted their wicked scheme, sending flocks of birds to rain down stones upon them, reducing them to "straw eaten up." Muslim scholars concur that the "People of the Elephant" were Abraha's troops who assaulted the Kaaba. Abraha had a troop of about 13 war elephants in the expeditionary forces.[20] Muhammad's paternal grandfather, Abd al-Muttalib, put the battle in God's hands, realising 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) 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 was hit repeatedly and slowly dismembered. By the time he reached Sanaa, he was 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.[21]

Earlier mentions appear in pre-Islamic poetry, particularly in some qaṣīdas considered of unquestionable pre-Islamic origin, such as Abū Qays Ṣayfī b. al-Aslat's. This poet praises God for His help "on the day of the elephant of the Abyssinians" and narrates the elephant's defiance when the Abyssinians tried to force it forward with hooks and knives. God sent a wind showering pebbles from above, causing them to retreat in disarray. In the verses of another poet, an "ingenuous test" is mentioned, wherein God's armies compelled the Quraysh to withdraw with regret after pelting them and covering them with dust. Only a few of them reached their homes, and Ṭufayl al-Ghanawī's poetry mentions a place near Mecca where "the elephant disobeyed his masters."[15]

Non-Islamic view

Outside of later Islamic tradition, there is no mention of Abraha's expedition at Mecca, including from Abraha's own inscriptions. Historians see the story as a later Islamic tradition designed to explain the "Men of the Elephant" in Qur'an 105:1-5.[21] However, recent findings of Himyaritic inscriptions describe an hitherto unknown expedition by Abraha, which subsequently led Iwona Gajda to identify this expedition as the failed conquest of Mecca.[22] 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, 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.[23]

Gajda accepted the dating of the expedition to 552 CE, thus not coinciding with the birth of the Prophet, traditionally dated to 570 CE. It also observed that Mecca is not mentioned in the inscription.[24] On the other hand, Daniel Beck claims that there are several issues with the story. He claimed that African war elephants hadn't been used in the region for over 600 years. It is also difficult to explain how Abraha would have obtained African war elephants in Arabia. He also claims that surah al-Fil appears to be in reference to 2 Maccabees and 3 Maccabees, and not referencing any expedition on Abraha's part.[25] However, Michael Charles published a study where he detailed how the Aksumite kingdom used elephants for war and had access to them during the 6th century when the expedition is said to have taken place.[26] It should also be noted that while 2 Maccabees mentioned elephants as war beasts and a foiled military expedition, it did not mention any flying creatures. However angels as protective flying creatures foiling an elephant army can be found in 3 Maccabees 5 and 6:18-21.[25][27][28][29]


Munro-Hay dates his death to some time after 553 based on the inscription at Murayghän.[30] Islamic tradition places his death immediately after his expedition to Mecca.

Between 570 and 575 a pro-Persian group in Yemen made contact with the Sassanid king through the Lakhmid princes in Al-Hirah. The Sassanids 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. As a result, Southern Arabia and Yemen came under the control of the Sassanid Empire.[31]

See also


  1. ^ ((cite book|title=A Late Antique Christian king from Ẓafār, southern Arabia
  2. ^ a b Procopius (1914). Procopius, with an English translation by H. B. Dewing. Vol. 1. Translated by Dewing, Henry Bronson. London: William Heinemann. p. 191.
  3. ^ Kobishchanov, Yuri M. (1990). Axum. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press. p. 91. ISBN 0271005319.
  4. ^ a b c "Abraha." Archived 2016-01-13 at the Wayback Machine Dictionary of African Christian Biographies. 2007. (last accessed 11 April 2007)
  5. ^ Brill (2019). An Azanian Trio: Three East African Arabic Historical Documents. BRILL. ISBN 9789004258600.
  6. ^ S. C. Munro-Hay (1991) Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: University Press. p. 87. ISBN 0748601066
  7. ^ Fisher Greg (2015). Arabs And Empires Before Islam By Fisher Greg.
  8. ^ Fisher Greg (2015). Arabs And Empires Before Islam By Fisher Greg.
  9. ^ Hoyland, Robert G. (2001). Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. Psychology Press. ISBN 978-0-415-19535-5.
  10. ^ Robin, Christian Julien. "2014 Robin Peoples beyond Arabian frontier.pdf": 65. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Robin, Christian Julien. "2014 Robin Peoples beyond Arabian frontier.pdf". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Robin, Christian Julien. "2014 Robin Peoples beyond Arabian frontier.pdf". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  13. ^ Hatke, George. "South Arabian Christianity: A Crossroads of Late Antique Cultures". ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. ^ Fisher Greg (2015). Arabs And Empires Before Islam By Fisher Greg.
  15. ^ a b Rubin, Uri (June 1, 2009). "Abraha". Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE – via referenceworks.brillonline.com.
  16. ^ Robin, Christian (2015). "L'Arabie dans le Coran. Réexamen de quelques termes à la lumière des inscriptions préislamiques". academia.edu. p. 47. Retrieved August 20, 2022.
  17. ^ Edward Ullendorff (1960) The Ethiopians: an Introduction to Country and People. 2nd edition. London: Oxford University Press. p. 56.
  18. ^ Abraha | viceroy of Yemen. Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  19. ^ Zein, Ibrahim; El-Wakil, Ahmed (8 January 2021). "On the Origins of the Hijrī Calendar: A Multi-Faceted Perspective Based on the Covenants of the Prophet and Specific Date Verification". Religions. 12 (1): 12. doi:10.3390/rel12010042.
  20. ^ Bosworth, C. E., ed. (1999). The History of al-Ṭabarī, Volume V: The Sāsānids, the Byzantines, the Lakhmids, and Yemen. SUNY Series in Near Eastern Studies. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-7914-4355-2.
  21. ^ a b Reynolds, Gabriel Said. The Emergence of Islam: Classical traditions in contemporary perspective. Fortress Press, 2012, 16-17.
  22. ^ Iwona Gajda: Le royaume de Ḥimyar à l'époque monothéiste. L'histoire de l'Arabie ancienne de la fin du ive siècle de l'ère chrétienne jusqu'à l'avènement de l'Islam. Paris 2009, pp. 142–146.
  23. ^ Robin, Christian Julien (2015). Fisher, Greg (ed.). Arabs and Empires Before Islam. Oxford. p. 152. ISBN 978-0-19-965452-9.
  24. ^ Retsö, Jan (2011). "Review of Iwona Gajda: Le Royaume de Himyar à l'époque monothéiste. L'histoire de l'Arabie du Sud ancienne de la fin du IVe siècl de l'ère chrétienne jusqu'à l'avènement de l'islam, Paris 2009". academia.edu. p. 479. Retrieved August 19, 2022.
  25. ^ a b Beck, Daniel. “Maccabees not Mecca: The Biblical Subtext and the Apocalyptic Context of Sūrat al-Fīl (Q 105)” in Evolution of the Early Qur’an, 2018, Peter Lang.
  26. ^ Charles, Michael (2018). "The Elephants of Aksum: In Search of the Bush Elephant in Late Antiquity". Journal of Late Antiquity. 11 (1): 166–192. doi:10.1353/jla.2018.0000. S2CID 165659027.
  27. ^ Reynolds, Gabriel Said "The Qur'an and the Bible: Text and commentary" Yale University Press, 2018, p. 929.
  28. ^ 3 Maccabees 5:1–2
  29. ^ 3 Maccabees 6:18–21
  30. ^ Stuart Munro-Hay (2003) "Abraha" in Siegbert Uhlig (ed.) Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
  31. ^ Walter W. Müller (1987) "Outline of the History of Ancient Southern Arabia," Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine in Werner Daum (ed.), Yemen: 3000 Years of Art and Civilisation in Arabia Felix. Pinguin-Verlag. ISBN 9068322133

Further reading