(St Elesbaan painting, [Public Domain] circa 1750 oil on canvas, 110 by 75 cm (original in Museu de Arte Sacra, Arouca, Portugal)
The conquering Ethiopian Emperor-King of Axum
A common mental-image of a Christian saint depicts a kind-hearted and charitable person who does good deeds all day long until he retires back to his cloister for the night. While people like this often make up the long list of saints, there are quite a few anomalous people that break the saintly mold. This is one startling saint that stands out among the saintly and may not be commonly known—Saint Elesbaan of Ethiopia.
This saint lived in the 6th century, which makes the names of historically relevant places and people complicated. Different cultures and historians recorded the life of this saint in various ways. Saint Elesbaan is also known as Ella Asheha, or simply as Caleb or Kaleb. Elesbaan’s kingdom in Ethiopia can be referred to as either Axum or Aksum. Elesbaan invaded a Yemeni Kingdom of the Himyarites or Homerites. Finally, the King of the Himyar Kingdom was known as either Dunaan or Dhu Nowas. Phew, all that is over. For the purpose of this article, we will continue the story using the names Elesbaan and Dunaan, in their respective kingdoms of Axum and Himyar. That concludes the bland scholarly portion of this article. On to the life and events of Saint Elesbaan.
Elesbaan became king of Axum in the early 6th century, likely somewhere between 514 and 518. Axum was a powerful Christian kingdom that extended from modern Ethiopia down into Somalia. The Kingdom of Axum was a major economic power in Africa and the Middle East, and it also had friendly relations with the Eastern Roman-Byzantine Empire. Suffice it to say; Elesbaan had significant power and influence.
The Beginnings of a Feud
Across the Red Sea, a new king was on the rise in Yemen. King Dunaan likely gained the Himyar throne in the last decade of the 5th century. Dunaan was a Jewish King and led a Jewish Kingdom, however, Yemen was also the home of a large Christian population. As happens too often in history when cultures and religions collide, the Himyar Kingdom persecuted its religious minorities—which, in this case, included Christians.
Elesbaan soon heard of the Himyar persecution of Christians and mobilized the powerful Kingdom of Axum for war. At some time before 520, the Axumite forces crossed the Red Sea, invaded Yemen and forced the Himyar King Dunaan into hiding. King Elesbaan instituted an Axumite viceroy to rule Yemen and, shortly thereafter, sailed back to Ethiopia.
Elesbaan may have defeated the Himyar Kingdom, but he had not captured King Dunaan. The Himyar king bid his time, slowly regaining Yemini support and rebuilding his army. By the early 520s, King Dunaan was ready to make his move.
King Dunaan struck quickly against the Axumite Viceroyalty and massacred the Christian population in the city of Negran. Christian leaders, like Bishop Simeon of Beth Arsham, quickly and efficiently spread news of the massacre, eventually reaching most of the major Christian powers—including the Byzantine Empire and the Kingdom of Axum.
The Final Showdown
King Elesbaan received multiple letters from clergymen urging another war against King Dunaan. He even received a message from the Byzantine Emperor, Justin I, promising the assistance of around 60 Byzantine ships to help ferry Axumite troops across the Red Sea to Yemen.
Elesbaan quickly seized the opportunity to finally rid himself of his old foe. In 523, Axum again invaded Yemen and crushed the forces of King Dunaan. Dunaan’s fate differs depending on the source. Some accounts claim King Dunaan committed suicide. Others report that he was killed in battle, or executed by King Elesbaan. Nonetheless, Dunaan did not survive the second Axumite invasion.
With Yemen once more under his control, King Elesbaan imposed another viceroyalty in the region. Elesbaan returned again to his homeland of Ethiopia, likely believing that the rest of his reign would be peaceful. One of his own military officers, however, proved him wrong.
War and Peace
Abraha, one of Elesbaan’s officers who participated in the war that overthrew King Dunaan, was unimpressed with Elesbaan’s choice for the viceroyalty. With the backing of his own military supporters, Abraha usurped the position of viceroy for himself.
Elesbaan could not let this insubordination go unanswered. He, again, called on his military to invade Yemen. Abraha was able to fend off two invasions from Elesbaan’s forces, the conflict continuing into the 540s. Eventually, Elesbaan recognized Abraha as the viceroy of Yemen and the two coexisted peacefully.
Shortly after he accepted Abraha, Elesbaan decided he wanted nothing more to do with power and warfare. He resigned from his position as the King of Axum, became an ascetic monk and disappeared from the records of history. It is likely that Elesbaan died in the mid-550s.
For his numerous efforts to aid the Christian population in Yemen, Elesbaan was recognized as a saint quickly after his death. He remains, to this day, among the lists of saints in the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Ethiopian Churches.
Written by C. Keith Hansley