Buried Christian Empire Casts New Light on Early Islam

The social structure in Zafar also appeared to be unique. The city had a large Jewish community, as evidenced by a seal with a Torah niche. Hebrew inscriptions were discovered. Zafar's residents also included Christians, who built a church there in 354 AD. Arabs who worshipped old idols lived in the alleys.

But this peaceful, multicultural community soon came to an end, as tensions began to mount in the 5th century, and Arabia was transformed into a front.

The Byzantine Empire, bristling with weapons, operated in the west, and its vassals kept making inroads toward the desert. They were accompanied by Christian missionaries, who brought the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to the shepherds on the edge of the Rub' al Khali, the sand desert that makes up much of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula.

These Sacred Heart imperialists confronted the Persian realm of the Sassanids, with its archers and armies of bearded soldiers clad in heavy metal armor. The Jews, who lived by the tens of thousands in the oases, were to some extent aligned with this power.

It was a confrontation between east and west, and everyone was forced to choose a side.

This also applied to Zafar. To stop the advance of Christianity, individual Arab kings initially converted to Judaism. The entire ruling class of the realm eventually followed suit. From then on, people were given names like Yehuda and Yussuf.

Then they took up arms. In approximately 520 AD, they attacked the Christian colony of Najran, where there were churches and monasteries. Countless Christians were slaughtered. The shocking news traveled all the way to Europe. 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

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