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The Black African men who helped change world history, pt1

HISTORY: King Kaleb and Abreha The Great

THE TERRAIN between the two ancient Middle-Eastern cities of Sanaa and Mecca is one of the harshest on earth. On one side are the forbidding mountains of Southern Arabia where vertical jagged edges stab thousands of metres high into dark Arabian skies and temperature can fall to -10 Celsius.

Any weary traveller who survives the freezing cold nights, the dizzying altitudes, the razor-sharp lacerating rocks and treacherous gullies, face 500 miles of parched desert landscape where biblical sandstorms rage for days on end, burning, blinding and disorientating man and beast alike. Mirage lakes torture and tantalise men till they go mad with thirst.

Yet a remarkable Ethiopian commander and his elephant mounted men crossed the forbidding mountains and searing deserts of Arabia 1,500 years ago and changed world history forever. Driven by religious fervour and single-minded ambition to Christianise pagan Arabs, Abraha and his men accomplished military and logistical feat at least on bar with Hannibal crossing the Alps few centuries earlier. Yet unlike his North African counterpart, Abraha the Great and his epochal expedition is almost lost to history.

It began 40 years earlier when King Kaleb of Aksum, who ruled present day Ethiopia and Eritrea, heard disturbing stories about a Jewish ruler oppressing Yemen’s Christians. The powerful Ethiopian Kingdom had long-standing trade links with its Middle-Eastern neighbours across the Red Sea but viewed them as primitive warring heathens and avoided getting embroiled in their quarrels.

The Aksumites, probably the earliest Christian Kingdom in the world, reserved particular contempt to desert tribes of Arabia for their polytheism. However, this disdain for their ‘unchristian’ behaviour did not stop Aksumites from trading with them. It even had diplomatic relations with the more powerful Asiatic kingdoms like Persia where friezes depicting Ethiopian diplomats bearing gifts for a Persian King are still visible on the ruins of Persepolis, the capital of the Achaeminid Empire sacked and burnt by Alexander The Great in 330 BC.

In 530 AD King Kaleb launched a massive naval armada said to consist of at least 100,000 men, hundreds of battle trained war elephants, thousands of heads of cattle and sheep to sustain the troops during the long journey across the Red Sea and the 225 mile inland trek to Sanaa, the Himyarite capital.

The expedition was so big that he rented additional boats from Byzantium, the other pre-eminent Christian empire of the time. The King chose a young ambitious commander to lead the force. Abraha (his surname is unknown) would’ve been in his twenties when he was made the leader of this first and only known Black African force to ever cross seas and invade lands and peoples on another continent.

Abraha’s orders were to subdue and defeat all the Jewish and Pagan statelets in Arabia, protect the small Christina community there and establish Ethiopian colony in Arabia to civilise the locals by converting them into Christians.

Sana’a, the headquarters of the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom and the capital of Yemen to this day, was the ultimate prize but not the only one. It is unclear which port on the Asian side of the Red Sea the Ethiopian fleet landed, but it’s likely to have been around present day Hodeidah - still major port in Yemen.

Once the force disembarked they would’ve moved inland for hundreds of miles fighting all the way with local warlords and martial tribes. To the Yemenis, the sight of these thousands of black soldiers mounted on huge elephants charging at them would’ve been awe-inspiring and terrifying sight to behold. San’a fell to Abraha’s force shortly after the invasion.


He quickly went about subduing local tribes throughout Southern Arabia and consolidated his power through massive engineering projects. He built dams, repaired ancient caravan routes, imposed taxes and erected magnificent churches including Al-Kulays whose ruins are still visible in San’aa today.

He soon gained the Epithet ‘Abreha Al Muattam’(Abraha The Great’) after putting down numerous uprisings against his rule including some engineered from his home country of Ethiopia after a fall out with Negus Kaleb. He was legendary in the way he personally dispatched his enemies in duels although one such duel inevitably led to facial injury which gave him another epithet ‘Abreha Al-ashram (“Scarface Abreha”)

After successfully ruling Southern Arabia for quarter of century, he decided to attack the then pagan city of Mecca, 520 miles north of San’aa. Tales of polytheism human sacrifices and debauchery in Mecca outraged the devout Christian Ethiopian and he decided to do something about it.

He would’ve been in his 60s by then, very old to wield a sword and command a battle in those days. No one knows how long it took his huge, lumbering force with war elephants and mile-long camel caravans snaking through desert passes to reach the desolate holy city.

They would’ve mounted lightning raids before vanishing into desert or mountain redoubts. To the Ethiopians who come from the lush, cool mountains of their homeland, the desert terrain of Arabia would’ve been as alien and scary to them as the surface of the moon.

Many would’ve died not only from the constant skirmishes with brigands and hostile locals but from exhaustion, heat strokes and exposure to elements. Despite all the hardships we know Abreha and his expeditionary force made it to the outskirts of Mecca sometime around 570 AD.

They immediately went about besieging the town from all sides. Why Abreha decided to surround Mecca rather than attack it head on, as he did to dozens of other towns and cities up and down the Arabian peninsula remains a mystery. Perhaps he was getting mellow in his old age and wanted to spare the lives of the local population.

More likely his force was so exhausted and depleted by their epic trek through mountains and waterless deserts that by the time they reached Mecca, he just did not feel strong enough to launch a major full-on assault on the fortified town whose defenders would’ve known of the impending attack and had plenty of time to prepare their defences.

Instead the wily Ethiopian general decided to use another popular tactic in traditional Arab warfare: seizing the camels and water resources from the enemy and forcing them to surrender or die through hunger and thirst. And this is exactly what he did. His forces captured thousands of camels belonging to the town’s ruling clans including those of the Mayor, Mr Abdul Mutallib.

Read part two of The Black African men who helped change world history on Friday 8 November

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