Saint Elesbaan‘s War With the Kingdom of Himyar

R/I ~ AA

As mentioned in a previous article the former Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum was an Africanized Jewish kingdom that had converted to Christianity under Ezana. This Christian tradition later turned more militant under King Kaleb. Kaleb, later sanctified by the Church as Saint Elesbaan, took the Ethiopian empire to its greatest heights. Under his reign the Aksumites extended their authority all the way into southern Arabia and propagated Christianity throughout Eastern Africa and Southern Arabia.

King Kaleb, named after Caleb from the Bible, ascended a throne that was already stretching its authority. He had friends from Jerusalem and the Byzantines both. He modeled himself after the holy figures of the Byzantine Church even though his own Coptic branch was not always on the best of terms with the Orthodox. He was also sometimes referred to as “Hellestheaeus” by Greek scholars.

At the beginning of the 6th century a new enemy was appearing around the horizon for the Aksumites. The Himyarites were a Jewish kingdom in the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in modern day Yemen. They had converted from previously paganistic faiths not unlike their Aksumite rivals across the Red Sea.

Only fairly recently converted to Judaism, under King Dhū Nuwās, the Himyarites began to see foreign faiths as a domestic threat. Christian and Pagan populations were actively persecuted throughout the Kingdom of Himyar.

Seeing Christian blood in the water obviously upset the Aksumites. Theologically Kaleb was horrified upon hearing stories of Christians being killed in Himyar (no word on what he thought about Pagan victims). There was however a more secular reason for Kaleb to be concerned about the religious persecution amongst the Himyarites.

Trade from around the world often made it’s way through waters that the Ethiopians controlled. Tradesmen from as far west as the Byzantines to as far east as Arabia, India, and sometimes China brought wealth into the capital at Aksum. Religious harmony enabled that trade to flow nicely.

So when just across the channel Christians began to be persecuted in masses Kaleb felt that the persecution might affect the welfare of Aksum’s extensive trade relations. From 519 to 520 C.E. he gathered together some 15,000 to 20,000 men and launched an assault into the Arabian Peninsula.

Thousands of Africans took on Himyarites in battles that took countless lives on both sides. It was a strange war that is rarely talked about today, a war in which Christianized Africans, many of whom had partial Jewish ancestry, took on a kingdom of Arabian Jews.

While Aksum and Himyar fought in the south Persia and the Byzantines watched from the north. The Persians wished for the Himyarites to win while the Byzantines rooted on the Aksumites. Both knew that the winner would determine the outlook of trade in the region.

Unfortunately for Dhū Nuwās he was cornered and defeated by the Aksumites and in 525 replaced by a Christian puppet leader. Thus marked the end of the Himyarite Kingdom. All was not well for Aksumite presence in the region however.

Almost as soon as Kaleb’s men took the region they started experiencing problems. Attempted coup d’états by Jewish rebels, infighting, eventual Persian interference and good ol’ overstretching of their own imperial power led to Aksum losing influence in the region and eventually pulling out.

The war and eventual conquest of the southern Arabian kingdom marked the final swan song of the Aksumites. It was their final and greatest act of foreign conquest. They were one of the few subsaharan powers to put fear into the hearts of the Arab world but this conquest in many ways overstretched their power and might’ve played a part in their eventual downfall.

Kaleb was later made into a Saint for his defense of Christians overseas and for a little while stretched his empire across the Red Sea into Arabia, but his success also caused Aksum to overspend and overextend. Despite this war being one of the last that the Aksumites would win it was still an example of the level of power that they could hold in their little corner of the world.

Some References:,+king,+hermit,+and+saint+of+Ethiopia

Some Questions: 

  1. Was the war more religious or was it more economic in your opinion? Why or why not?
  2. Does King Kaleb deserve to have been made into a Saint considering his association with war?

Dollarmenu Jesus