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Early Christianity in Arabia/Section 6


The revolution in southern Arabia was agreeable to Justinian on more accounts than one; for, though the conquest of Yaman might be regarded as the triumph of Christianity over its opponents, he hoped to reap more solid advantages from the friendly professions of the conquerors. In the sanguinary wars with the Persian monarch the Arabs of the Syrian frontiers had been faithful and effective allies. By an alliance with the kings of Abyssinia and Hamyar, he might, if necessary, call off the attentions of the Persians to another quarter. A simultaneous attack of the Hamyarites in Irak, and of the Romans and their more northern allies in Mesopotamia, would have divided and weakened their strength.

One of the most necessary luxuries of the Byzantine court was the silken produce of the worms of Serica or China. The value of this merchandise was sufficient to induce the caravans to consume a period of two hundred and forty days in traversing the interior of Asia from Syria to China.[1] But the trade in silk and the commodities of the east was now entirely monopolised by the Persian merchants; during hostilities the supply was necessarily stopped, and in time of peace the emperor beheld with grief the wealth of Rome passing into the hands of its enemies. By a coincidence of commercial interests he hoped to turn the trade of India and China into its ancient course, through the hands of the merchants of Hamyar and Adulis.

An embassy to Auxuma and Hamyar was conducted by Nonnosus,[2] who ascended the Nile from Alexandria, crossed the Red Sea,[3] and landed on the Arabian coast, where he visited the district occupied by the tribes of Maad and Kendah, which were then ruled by Kaisus, or Amru'l Keis,[4] and were tributary to Hamyar.[5] Kaisus willingly contracted an alliance with the emperor, and delivered his son Mavia to the Romans as a hostage.[6] He afterwards joined the other Saracens in the invasion[7] of Hirah. During his stay among the Arabians, Nonnosus had an opportunity of learning many of their peculiar customs and manners, and amongst other particulars, he left it on record that they had a sacred place, where, during certain months of the year they repaired in great numbers for religious worship, during which time was kept universal peace.[8] The Hamyarite port, from which he sailed to Adulis, was named Bulicas.[9] Between Adulis and Auxuma, which he described as a great city, was a journey of twelve days,[10] and in the intermediate region called Aueen, he saw not less than a thousand elephants.[11]

At Auxuma the embassy was received with every possible mark of friendship. The nadjash gave audience in the open field. He was seated on a lofty chariot, supported on four wheels, and drawn by as many elephants, caparisoned in plates of gold. From his middle a linen garment, interwoven with gold, descended below his thighs, and a loose tunic, covered with pearls and precious stones, hung from his shoulders. On his head he wore a linen cap, also covered with gold, from which descended four chains. His arms and neck were adorned with bracelets and chains of the same metal. He carried a small gilt shield and two spears in his hands, and was surrounded by his nobles in similar arms, and attended by a band of musicians. The ambassador and his presents were received with respect, and when he had read the letters of the emperor urging him to make war on the Persians, and to send his merchants to the Roman ports, the Abyssinian prince brandished his weapons, and proclaimed incessant hostility against Kobad and the idolatrous Persians.[12]

The preparations of the Hamyarites and Abyssinians for the invasion of Persia were however never completed; for the reign and life of Aryat were shortened by civil discord. The spoils of Hamyar had, it is said, been divided among the Abyssinian chiefs to the entire exclusion of the soldiery, who, disappointed in their expectations of the reward due to their services, soon began to manifest their discontent. They were restrained only from actual rebellion, whilst they were engaged in seeking and punishing those participators and encouragers of the crimes of the preceding reign who had been marked out for their vengeance but when peace had been restored in Arabia by their destruction, the general indignation could be no longer repressed. The standard of rebellion was set up, Aryat was deposed, and Abrahah proclaimed king of Yaman.[13] Abrahah was a Christian, and had been once the slave of a Roman merchant[14] of the city of Adulis, but had afterwards risen to rank in the Abyssinian army.[15] Aryat was assisted with fresh supplies from the king of Auxuma,[16] and the opposing armies were preparing to engage, when it was proposed to decide the quarrel by single combat. Abrahah was short and corpulent, his antagonist tall and strong. The latter aimed a spear at his head; but it only slightly wounded his forehead and nose, and the scar which remained procured for him afterwards the surname of Al Ashram, or the split-nosed. Abrahah had with him an attendant called Abûda, who, when he saw his master wounded, flew to his assistance and slew Aryat, and the whole army embraced the cause of his rival.[17]

After the death of Aryat the new king of Hamyar solicited a reconciliation with the nadjash. The latter, if we credit the Arabian histories, had vowed, in the first moments of his rage against the usurper, that he would not lay aside his arms till he had trampled under his feet the land of Abrahah, both mountain and vale, till he had stained his hand in his blood, and dragged him by the hair of the head. To appease the anger of the indignant monarch, Abrahah caused two sacks to be filled with earth collected from the mountains and vales of Hamyar, he suffered himself also to be bled, and filled a small bottle with his blood; to these he added some locks of hair which he had cut from his head. "O king," he said in his letter to the nadjash, "I and Aryat were both thy servants. He merited his death by his tyranny and injustice. Empty the earth out of the sacks and tread it beneath thy feet; it is the land of Hamyar; stain thy hands in my blood, which is contained in the bottle; and drag with thy hand the hair which I have myself cut from my forehead. Thus having fulfilled thy oath, turn away from me thine anger; for I am still one of thy servants, and am but an offending tributary amongst thy tributaries."[18] The nadjash was appeased, and Abrahah was confirmed in the kingdom of Hamyar, after having promised faithfully to continue for ever his tribute to the crown of Abyssinia.[19]

  1. On the silk trade, consult Gibbon, Decline and Fall, c. xl. and Procopius, c. 20.
  2. Photius, Biblioth. cod. iii. p. 6. The grandfather of Nonnosus had been employed as ambassador to the king of Kendah, and his father had been sent on an embassy to the mondar, to negociate the delivery of prisoners. Nonnosus published an account of his travels in Arabia and Abyssinia during the embassy.
  3. Jo. Malala, pars altera, p. 193.
  4. Photius, cod. iii. Procopius de Bel. Pers. c. 19.—Μααδδηνοι—Χινδινων. Kaisus was, according to Photius, an exile from his country, and was made phylarch of the Maadites by the Hamyarites. Procop. c. 20.
  5. Procopius, c. 19.
  6. Photius, p. 7.
  7. Procopius, de B. Pers. c. 20.
  8. Photius, ibid.
  9. Βουλικας, Procop. c. 19.
  10. Procopius, ib.
  11. Αυην. Photius, p. 7.
  12. Jo. Malala, p. 194-6. Besides the authors already cited, this embassy is related, though briefly and very confusedly, by Theophanes, Chronograph, p. 206, 207.
  13. Nuweir, p. 81. Tabeir, p. 108. Mesoud, p. 142. Procopius de Bell. Pers. c. 20.
  14. Procopius, ib.
  15. Nuweir, p. 84.
  16. Procopius, ib.
  17. Tabeir, p. 110.
  18. Nuweir, p. 34. Tabeir, p. 110. Mesoud, p. 142.
  19. The outlines of the history of this event are given by Procopius, de Bel. Pers. c. 20. The details by the Arabian writers just cited.