Fortress in the Sky: Buried Christian Empire Casts New Light on Early Islam

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Matthias Schulz, Dec. 21, 2012.

Archeologists are studying the ruins of a buried Christian empire in the highlands of Yemen. The sites have sparked a number of questions about the early history of Islam. Was there once a church in Mecca?

  • The commandment “Make yourself no graven image” has long been strictly followed in the Arab world. There are very few statues of the caliphs and ancient kings of the region. The pagan gods in the desert were usually worshipped in an “aniconic” way, that is, as beings without form.  
  • But now a narcissistic work of human self-portrayal has turned up in Yemen. It is a figure, chiseled in stone, which apparently stems from the era of the Prophet.
  • Paul Yule, an archeologist from the southwestern German city of Heidelberg, has studied the relief, which is 1.70 meters (5′7″) tall, in Zafar, some 930 kilometers (581 miles) south of Mecca. It depicts a man with chains of jewelry, curls and spherical eyes. Yule dates the image to the time around 530 AD.
  • The German archeologist excavated sites in the rocky highlands of Yemen, an occupation that turned quite dangerous recently because of political circumstances in the country. On his last mission, Yule lost 8 kilograms (18 lbs.) and his equipment was confiscated.
  • Nevertheless, he is pleased, because he was able to bring notes, bits of debris and bones back to Heidelberg. Yule has concluded that Zafar was the center of an Arab tribal confederation, a realm that was two million square kilometers (about 772,000 square miles) large and exerted its influence all the way to Mecca.
  • Even more astonishing is his conclusion that kings who invoked the Bible lived in the highland settlement. The “crowned man” depicted on the relief was also a Christian.

Conquerers from Ancient Ethiopia:

  • Yule has analyzed the mysterious, robed figure in a report for the academic journal Antiquity. He is barefoot, which is typical of Coptic saints. He is holding a bundle of twigs, a symbol of peace, in his left hand. There is a crossbar on his staff, giving it the appearance of a cross. In addition, he is wearing a crown on his head like the ones worn by the Christian rulers of ancient Ethiopia.
  • All of this suggests that the man with a strange, round face is a descendant of the conquerors from Africa who succeeded in making one of the boldest landing operations in ancient times.
  • In 525 AD, the Negus, or king, of Aksum dispatched a fleet across the Red Sea. Soldiers and fighting elephants were ferried across the water to the East on un-tarred, raft-like ships to spread the gospel. In the ensuing decades, his army captured large parts of Arabia.
  • The first spearhead was targeted at the capital Zafar. Like a fortress in the sky, the town was perched on an extinct volcano, at an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,184 feet) above sea level. Its walls, riddled with towers and alarm bells, were four-and-a-half kilometers long. About 25,000 people lived in Zafar.
  • According to Yule, between the 3rd and the 5th century the confederation managed to complete a “meteoric rise” and become a superpower. Its merchants traded in sandalwood from Ceylon and valerian from Persia. The state controlled the port of Aden, where the ships of spice traders from India docked. Frankincense, which was made in Arabia, was also traded. It was a place of luxury. Yule found wine amphorae, the remains of precious fish condiments and palaces decorated with sphinxes and lions.

A Peaceful Multi-Cultural Community: … //

… A Puppet King:

  • Now the spiral of violence began turning more rapidly. The furious Byzantines and their allies from Africa were out for revenge. Kaleb, the Aksumite king of Ethiopia (who wore gold jewelry in his hair and had himself driven around in an elephant carriage) went on the counter-offensive.
  • If the sources are correct, his first naval maneuver was a miserable failure. In 525 AD, with the help of additional warships provided by the Byzantines, he successfully completed the crossing to the other side of the Red Sea.
  • The relief of the “crowned man” from Zafar was apparently created during this period of invasion. Yule interprets it as a representation of the Christian “puppet king” of the Ethiopians.
  • The invaders continued their attacks. Southern Arabia’s holy warrior, Abraha, had taken control of large areas before long. He even attempted to free bishops being held prisoner by the Persian enemy in Nisibis (in modern-day Turkey), some 2,500 kilometers away.
  • The man embarked on a religious crusade at the same time. He rebuilt the churches that had been destroyed in Najran, and he had new ones built in Marib and Aden.
  • His most beautiful church was in Sanaa. It had gilded doors and a throne made of ebony and ivory. In the morning, the rays of the sun shone through an alabaster panel in the dome. The Byzantines supported the project, sending craftsmen, marble and mosaics.
  • The result was an architectural miracle, the likes of which all of Arabia had never seen before.

Year of the Elephant: … //

… Hard Times:

  • There are indications that this could be true. For instance, a Christian cemetery is mentioned in the oldest history of Mecca, written by the Arab historian Asraki.
  • What a mess. In ancient Arabia, the three Abrahamic world religions intersected in confusing ways. But the Koran prevailed in the end.
  • But many things are still unclear. Our perspective is complicated by the fact that the birth of Islam occurred at a time of severe hardship. Climate data obtained from limestone caves in Oman prove that there was a terrible drought in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula in the middle of the 6th century. There was also a plague epidemic that began in 541 and afflicted the entire Orient. Other, smaller epidemics followed, causing thousands upon thousands of deaths.
  • It was these horrors that probably triggered the demise of Zafar. Yule suspects that the drought devastated the “fragile ecology of the highlands.” Cattle died of thirst and barns remained empty.
  • Are the archeologist’s suspicions correct? Even Muhammad, as a young child, was threatened by disease and hunger. According to Ibn Ishak, his wet nurse was deeply concerned when she was told to bring the little boy back to his native city.
  • The reason, he writes, was the plague in Mecca.

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