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Abraha (also spelled Abreha) (died after AD 553; r. 525—at least 553S. C. Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: University Press, 1991), p.87) also known as Abraha al-Ashram (in Arabic أبرهة الأشرم) or Abraha b. as-Saba'h, was an Aksumite Christian viceroy in southern Arabia for the Kingdom of Aksum, and later self styled King of Saba' (Yemenmarker).


Procopius records that Abraha was once the slave of a Roman merchant at Adulis, while al-Tabari says that he was related to the Axumite royal family.


Dhu Nuwas, the Jewish Himyarite ruler of Yemen, in the period c. 523-525 or c. 518-20 launched military operations against the Aksumites in Southern Arabia along and their local Arab Christian allies. The Aksumites in Zafarmarker were killed, their fortresses in the Yemeni highlands destroyed, and the coastal regions reconquered and Najranmarker sacked.

Nagran fell in 518 or 523 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 first made in 518/523.

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, led by 'Ariat.

Abraha was reported to have led his army of 100,000 men to successfully crush all resistance and then following the suicide of Dhu Nuwas, seized power and establishing himself at San‘a’marker. 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 (Histories 1.20), '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. 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.


A reference map of the empire of Kaleb of Axum.
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' and to have repaired the principal irrigation dam at the Sabaean capital of Ma'ribmarker. Abraha is chiefly famous, however, for the military…

Epigraphic sources chronicling 'Abraha's career include an inscription on the Marib Dammarker recording the quelling of an insurrection backed by a son of the deposed ruler, Esimiphaeus, 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 Harith b. Djabalat, the phylarch of Arabia; and the completion of repairs to the dam in the following year, followed by a great feast of rejoicing.

The royal title adopted by 'Abraha is similar to that of his immediate predecessors and to that of Emperor Kaléb, "King of Saba' and dhü-Raydän and Hadhramaut and Yamanat and of their Arabs on the plateau and the lowland." A further text discovered at Murayghän records a defeat inflicted by 'Abraha on the North Arabian tribe of Ma'add in the year 662 of the Sabaean era.

Islamic tradition

Abraha however is chiefly famous for his military expedition towards the close of his career against the Quraysh of Meccamarker in an invasion of Hejaz in 570, as recounted in the Islamic tradition - in particular, the tafsir (exegesis) of the surat al-Fil - states that he perished, known as the Year of the Elephant.

The traditions also say that Abraha is said to have built a cathedral at San'a' known as "al-Qulays" (from the Greek Ekklesia) to rival the Kaabamarker at Mecca and specifically came with his forces of elephants to destroy the Kaaba.


Historic tradition holds that he perished of illness contracted shortly after the failure of his expedition to the Hejaz. Munro-Hay dates his death to some time after 553 based on an inscription.

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-Hirahmarker. 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.

See also


  1. Stuart Munro-Hay, "Abraha" in Siegbert von Uhlig, ed., Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003)
  2. "Abraha." Dictionary of African Christian Biographies. 2007. (last accessed 11 Apr. 2007)
  3. 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.
  4. Edward Ullendorff, The Ethiopians: an Introduction to Country and People, second edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 56.

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