African-Ethiopian Suzeranity over Arabia

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Aksum and Yemen in Ancient and Medieval Times

By Richard Pankhurst

Aksum Stelae, and Sabaean and Ge‘ez Inscriptions

The close cultural connection between Aksum and Yemen in ancient times may be surmised from the three largest stalae of Aksum. These remarkable monolithic obelisks, cut from the living rock, are thought to have been erected in the late third or early fourth century A.D. They depict or represent multi-storied buildings, complete with doors and windows. This decorative device is reminiscent of the tall traditional structures found in Yemen, and may have been inspired by their predecessors, on which side of the Red Sea we cannot, however, tell.

The Yemeni-Aksum connection is further apparent in the existence of inscriptions, in the South Arabian language and lettering, many of them written during the Aksum’s Christian period, i.e. after around 330 A.D.

Trilingual Texts

Notable among such inscriptions are two trilingual texts, in epigraphic South Arabian, or Sabaean, unvocalised Ge‘ez, and Greek, erected by the great Aksumite ruler King Ezana, apparently shortly after his adoption of Christianity.

Also of interest in this context are two inscriptions of Ezana in South Arabian script, and one of a slightly earlier monarch King Wazeba, written in Ge‘ez, but in South Arabian characters.

Glimpse of the great standing obelisk of Aksum representing a multi-story building as seen to this day in Yemen

The Aksumite Conquests of Yemen

The proximity of the Aksumite Kingdom to Yemen led to periodical armed conflicts between the two states on either side of the Red Sea.

The Aksumites, who by the beginning of the third century AD held a position of paramountcy in the area, at around that time undertook several expeditions to South Arabia. This resulted in a somewhat shadowy Aksumite occupation of parts of South Arabia. The British Arabist Spencer Trimingham, discussing Aksumite control of Yemen in this period, observes:

“The date and duration of this conquest is uncertain, but the interruption in the series of royal inscriptions in South Arabia from c. AD 300 to 378 and especially the trilingual inscription [of Aksum, [mentioned above] seems to show that a little before the accession of ‘Ezana [i.e. around 330 AD] the Arabs of Yemen had come under Axumite rule”.

More recent archaeological research, at Marib in Yemen, and elsewhere in South Arabia, has identified a number of Sabaean inscriptions actually mentioning the coming, or presence, of Aksumites in the area. This has enabled a more recent British historian, Stuart Munro-Hay, to write of this period, in 1991, as “Aksum’s first ‘South Arabian’ period”. The Aksumite rulers of this time are referred to in the inscriptions as “nagasi of Habashat [i.e. king of Abyssinia] and of Aksum[an]”.

Several of these monarchs are mentioned by name, in unvocalised form, as GDRY, ‘ADBH, ZQRNS, and DTWNS.

The authors of such inscriptions were, however, opponents of the Aksumites, and, being naturally reluctant to record the victories of their enemies, as Munro-Hay has argued, wrote little about the Ethiopian occupation.

King Kaleb

The most important, and best documented, struggle between Aksum and Yemen took place around 520 AD, when the renowned Aksumite king Kaleb invaded Yemen. The monarch, who was later canonised by the Ethiopian Church, did so, ostensibly, to oust a Jewish Himyarite king, Yusuf Asar Yathar. The latter monarch was accused of persecuting his Christian subjects, and of massacring many of them at Najran, a major settlement in the interior of what is now southern Saudi Arabia.

Kaleb subsequently set up a viceroyalty in Yemen, but his viceroy was soon deposed. The country, though independent, remained, however, for some time under strong Aksumite influence. The new Yemeni king, Abraha, who, according to some accounts, was actually a member of Kaleb’s family, seems to have accepted Aksumite suzerainty. He subsequently erected an inscription, in 543, recording the arrival of several embassies. The first, and presumably the most important, on the list came, significantly enough, from Aksum.

The Church at San’a

One of the consequences of Aksum’s control over Yemen was the erection, in San‘a, of an important church. The Arab historian P.K. Hitti has described this building as “one of the most magnificent cathedrals of the age”. The structure, which was destroyed some two centuries later, was known to the Arabs as Al-Qaalis, after eklesia, the Greek word for a church.


Another result of the advent of the Aksumites in Yemen is that many Aksumite coins, mostly made of gold, have been unearthed in South Arabia. Struck mainly at the time of Ezana and Kaleb, the two rulers primarily involved in campaigns across the Red Sea, they may well have been used for the payment of troops in the area, as Munro-Hay has postulated.

Some coins, found in Yemen, but not in Aksum itself, may on the other hand have actually been minted in Aksumite-occupied Arabia.

The Aksumite Kingdom and Yemen in Early Christian, and Muslim, Times

The Aksumite kingdom and much of Yemen had by the late fifth or early sixth century both accepted Christianity. This is clearly illustrated in the Christian Topography, written early in the early sixth century by Kosmas Indikopleutes, a Graeco-Egyptian merchant-cum-monk.

Kosmas reports, in general terms, that “in Ethiopia and Axum, and in all the country about it”, and “among the people of Happy Arabia”, i.e. Yaman, there were “everywhere churches of the Christians, and bishops, martyrs, monks and recluses, where the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed”.

Easy Access

Yemen and the Aksumite kingdom, it should be emphasised, were then, as later, within fairly easy access of each other. This is evident from a statement by the Byzantine historian Procopius. He states, in his History of the Wars, that the voyage from Arabia to Adulis took only five days and nights – far less, we may comment, than many an overland journey of the time.

The Prophet Muhammad

The subsequent coming of Islam to Yemen, in the early seventh century, and the Prophet Muhammad’s failure to convert the people of the Ethiopian highlands, marked a major “turning point” in relations between the two countries. Most of the inhabitants were thereafter divided by adherence to different, and in large measure antagonistic, religions, which were to prove a far greater obstacle to friendly intercourse than the intervening sea.

Early Medieval Times

Contacts between Ethiopia and Yemen, as evident from Arab sources, continued to be important in the early medieval period.

Al-Mas’udi, writing around 935 A.D., tells of a treaty between Habasha, i.e. Abyssinia, and Ibrahim ibn Ziyad, also known as Sahib al-Harmalay, the ruler of the of Zabid, an important town in the Yemeni coastal plain. Yemeni ships, as a result of this agreement, were able, he says, to sail freely to Habasha, i.e. Abyssinia, with their traders and merchandise.

Ibn Hawqal, whose work was completed in 977-8, went further. He stated that the Queen of Habasha had established friendly relations with the Ziyade ruler of Yemen. “The queen of Habasha”, he wrote, “sends him presents of good will, presents which are always offered to him”.

Further evidence that the two countries were then in close relationship is provided by the Kitab al-dah-ir wa l-tuhaf’, an Arab text written by an unknown writer in Egypt. He states that Isaq ibn Ziyad, a Yemeni ruler, sent to the king of Iraq, in 969-70, a female zebra, which he had previously received as a gift from a queen of Habasha, or Abyssinia.

Contacts between Habasha and Yemen at this time centred largely on two major ports: Aden and Zayla‘, the trade of both of which can be traced back to the period of the Periplus (and discussed in these pages last week) For both of these ports abundant historical documentation is available.


Aden, one of the principal commercial centres of the East, was in trading contact with countries far and wide. Al-Yaq‘ubi noted, as early as the ninth century, that the town imported goods from China, while the Venetian traveller Marco Polo, in the late thirteenth century, called it “an excellent port, frequented by ships from India”.


Zayla‘, though by comparison only a local Horn of Africa port, was nevertheless a place of considerable commercial significance. In the second half of the tenth century, al-Istakhri stated that it was used by Abyssinians trading with Yemen. Ibn Hawqal agreed that the port served as the place of embarkation for Christian Abyssinians travelling to Yemen and Hijaz, and added that Yemen imported ox-hides and panther skins from the Abyssinian side of the sea. Al-Idrisi, writing before 1154, noted that the exports of Zayla‘, three days’ sailing time from Yemen, included gold, as well as slaves, which were taken to a great slave depot at Zabid. The town, according to modern Yemeni historian, Huseyn ibn ‘Abdullah al-Amri, had for many centuries “a large population of Abyssinian slaves”.

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3 thoughts on “African-Ethiopian Suzeranity over Arabia”

  1. Sovereignty and suzerainty are to be considered not in a limited sense but in a more wider range. Every part of the world had been under the rule of different nations but for how long? Abraha had a limited sovereignty in Yemen and southern part of Arabian peninsula only. But for how long? Moreover it should not be forgotten that most of the Ethiopians royal houses before Abraha actually belonged to Southern Arabia i.e. Yemen, who were rulers of both these countries, i.e. Yemen and Ethipia. But it is history now! One sided mind set up of most of the so-called literate Europeans, who do not know any thing about anything in under the sky except to loot , to cheat, to lie and to kill. Be kind enough and do not claim what is not true. It is accepted that Abraha had ruled for some time in Southern Arabia i.e. Yemen but not the entire Arabian Peninsula. Kindly do not use such words which have wider sense.

  2. Rifat the article states southern arabia hence southern present Saudia Arabia such at the present city of Najran which was an Axumite city that was an important Christion holy place before the jews of Yemen attacked it and the Mohameddians kicked the Habeshas back into mainland Ethiopia. Wether you like it or not Yemen is the ancient home of the Ethiopians and just because it has been invaded by arab clans and former jewish Himaraites who converted to Islam over time who call it home now does not make them the original people. Have a look at the ancient Sabean language and the Ethiopian alphabet I rest my case, there is all the evidence you need I dont know why ignorant people like you refuse to believe that black people rulled over Arabia and Egypt. We were Kings and Pharoahs before Your Arabs and whites ransacked and sold our people accross the continant. The truth is coming out Aricans are no longer brainwashed and are uniting and will get their former glory.

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