The Year of the Elephant

by Abdassamad Clarke

The lead elephant was called Mahmud. He had belonged to the Negus of Abyssinia. Abrahah, the ruler of the Yemen, had asked for him especially because he wanted him to lead the other elephants and the army when they attacked Makkah. Some people say that the army was as big as 60,000 men and that there were thirteen elephants, although some say there were only nine.

This took place in 570 CE (of the Christian Era) at a place outside of Makkah called Dhu'l-Ghumays. Abrahah gave the army the command to attack. Mahmud's keeper, Unays, had trained him to obey some orders like 'sit!', 'go forward!', and 'turn around!' He told him to advance.

However, they had also captured an Arab chief called Nufayl. To save his life, Nufayl had been their guide across the desert. Nufayl had learnt some of Mahmud's commands and he secretly told Mahmud to kneel. That explains why at first Mahmud sat down, but it does not explain why he would not go towards the Ka'bah no matter what they did.

Whenever the army turned its face away from the Ka'bah, Mahmud too would hurry to go in that direction. When they faced in the direction of the Ka'bah, he stood still even if they beat him.

This was not a good sign. Yet, the army had nothing to fear, it seemed. Quraysh had abandoned Makkah. They had decided not to even try to defend it. One of their chief men, Abd al-Muttalib, had merely made a prayer and left it to the Lord of the Ka'bah to look after His House. The soldiers, therefore, would not even have to fight, so they did not really need the elephants, they thought.

If they could have read the signs, perhaps they might have turned around and saved themselves. But what logical reason could they have found not to attack now?

But we have gone very far ahead in our tale. Why was this army here at all? Abyssinia is the old name for Ethiopia, which is in Africa. What has Abyssinia to do with it? Why did they want to send a huge army to destroy the Ka'bah? And why had Quraysh left the most sacred House of Allah undefended?


The Abyssinians were a mighty African nation. They were ruled by the Negus. That was not his name but his title. He was called the Negus in the same way as the ruler of the Roman Empire was called the Caesar.

The Abyssinians had been ruled by the Phaorohs of Egypt, then they became independent. Later, however, Christianity came there from Egypt. It was called Coptic Christianity because the people of Egypt were called Copts. The Christians of Egypt are still called Coptic Christians and they have their own pope, the Patriarch. They are independent of the Roman Catholics and also from the Greek Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox and all the other Christians.

War and trade

However, the different Christian nations sometimes stand together in times of war and sometimes they stand together for business. Very often business is much more important than war. Very often, war was fought for reasons of business, as it still is today. Business and trade transport food, tools, cloths and clothing, gold and silver, and other essentials around the world. They also move the spices and silk, the luxuries to which people become used.

The Romans and the Persians

In the ancient world at the time we talk of, one thing blocked the business and trade of the Eastern Roman Empire: the Persian Empire. It was not Christian. It stopped trade to and from the east. When the Persians allowed Roman trade to the east, they taxed it very heavily. When the Romans and the Persians were at war, then trade stopped totally and that happened a great deal.

Trade through Arabia

The only other route for trade between east and west was through Arabia. That route went from Sham in the North to Yemen in the South. Sham today is divided into Syria, Lebanon, Palestine (which some people call Israel) and Jordan.

Some of the people of the Yemen were great sailors. They travelled down the east coast of Africa. They went to India and even to China. There they traded bringing many things back to the Yemen: silk, food and spices, and gold and silver. Many of the things they brought were needed by the Romans.

However, between the Romans and the Yemen lay a dreadful desert. A part of that desert is called ar-Rub' al-Khali Ð the Empty Quarter, one of the most dangerous deserts in the world.

The Romans were not able to travel in the desert. The Arabs however could only live in the desert. It was the most natural place in the world for them. On the other hand, genuine desert Arabs could not, and cannot, really survive in the rich agricultural lands and great cities of the world.

This situation gave a great opportunity to any enterprising person among the Arabs. Someone could carry goods between Sham and the Yemen. If they did that they would connect the east and the west. They would take the things the west produced to the east and sell them there. Then they would take the things the east produced to the west and sell them there.