Buried Christian Empire Casts New Light on Early Islam

After the triumph of Islam in the 7th century, the church was torn down and stripped of its treasures, and a mosque was built on the site. As Barbara Finster, an archeologist from the Bavarian city of Bamberg, discovered, some of the columns in the mosque came from the wrecked church, while some of the church's magnificent mosaics were sent to Mecca, essentially as booty.

The enmity between Sanaa and Mecca apparently smoldered from the start. Medieval Koran scholars report that Abraha built his magnificent church to lure the pilgrims away from the Kaaba, Islam's most sacred site.

Another Islamic source describes how the dispute eventually escalated: An angry native of Mecca relieved himself in the Sanaa church, prompting the furious Abraha to dispatch his warriors, mounted on elephants, to destroy the Kaaba. In the interpretation of Sura 105 of the Koran, the only reason he was unsuccessful was that Allah had armed a flock of birds with clay balls that rained down on the Christian army like bullets.

Are these nothing but religious myths? There is historical evidence, in the form of a rock inscription, that Abraha conducted large-scale raids against defiant Arab tribes near Mecca in 552 AD. A few Western historians consider this to be the true year of Muhammad's birth. The scholar Ibn Ishak, who wrote the first biography of the Prophet, states that the proclaimer of the Koran was born "in the year of the elephant."

Oddly enough, the scrawled rock inscription could be interpreted to mean that the tribe of the Kuraish, to which the Prophet belonged, sometimes fought for the Christians. Were they allies? Was Muhammad born in a city that stood under the banner of the cross?

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." Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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