Click here to get started today!
A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography
Elesbaan, a King, Hermit, and Saint of Ethiopia
Elesbaan , a king, hermit, and saint of Ethiopia during the 6th cent. (Rome, Oct. 27; Ethiopia, Ginbot, xx. May 15; cf. Ludolphus, p. 415), whose exact story is difficult to trace. (Cf. Ludolphus, History of Ethiopia , ed. 1684, p. 167; Lebeau, Histoire du Bas Empire , ed. 1827 viii. 47, note 4; Walch, in Novi Commentarii Soc. Reg. GÃ¶ttingen. t. iv.; Historia Rerum in Homeritide Saec. vi. Gestarum , p. 4.) The importance of the crusades on which his fame rests is attested by Gibbon, who asserts that, had their purpose been attained, "Mahomet must have been crushed in his cradle, and Abyssinia would have prevented a revolution which has changed the civil and religious state of the world" (Decline and Fall , c. xlii. sub fin. ). The details of the saint's wars and character are drawn from the Acta S. Arethae , extant in two forms: the earlier and more authentic, found by Lequien in the Colbert Library (Oriens Christianus , ii. 428), is referred by the Jesuit author of the Acta Sanctorum to the 7th cent. at latest; the later is, at best, but the recension of Simeon Metaphrastes, in the 10th cent.
It was probably during the later years of Anastasius's reign that Elesbaan succeeded his father Tazena on the throne of Ethiopia. His kingdom was greatly dependent for its welfare upon the goodwill and good order of the people of Yemen, the Homeritae, from whom it was separated by the narrow strait of Bab-el-Mandeb: for through the territory of the Homeritae the merchants of Syria and of Rome came to the great port of Adulis (cf. Assemani Bibl. Orientalis , i. p. 360), near whose ruins in Annesley Bay the Arabian traders still unlade their ships (cf. Henry Salt, A Voyage to Abyssinia , c. ix. p. 451). When Elesbaan succeeded, the Homeritae had greatly obscured the Christianity which they had received in the reign of Constantius, but the language of Cosmas Indicopleustes (Migne, Patr. Gk. vol. lxxxviii. p. 170) shews that it was not wholly extinct. The name of their king is variously written Dunaan and Dhu Nowas; by John of Asia as Dimion; by Theophanes as Damian. He had been made king c. 490, by the people whom he had freed from their gross tyrant Laknia Dhu Sjenatir; and having shortly after his accession forsworn idolatry and embraced Judaism, determined to enforce his new creed with the sword (cf. Acta Sanctorum , Oct. vol. x, p. 693). In retaliation for the sufferings of the Jews throughout the Christian empire, he exacted heavy tolls from all Christian merchants who came through his territory to the port of Aden and the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, and, according to John of Asia (cf. Assemani, Bibl. Orientalis , i. 360), put many Christians to death. Such action was injurious to the commerce of all the neighbouring peoples, but especially of Ethiopia; and Elesbaan soon after his accession sent a useless remonstrance, and then prepared for war. About a.d. 519 he crossed the straits, utterly defeated the Arabian forces, and driving the Jew to refuge in the hills, left a viceroy to bear Christian rule over the Homeritae and returned to Ethiopia (ib. p. 362). The time of this expedition is incidentally and approximately marked by Cosmas Indicopleustes, who tells us that he was at Adulis " ἐν τῇ ἀρχῇ τῆς βασιλείας Ἰουστίνου τοῦ Ῥωμαίων βασίλεως " (a.d. 518-527), when the king of the people of Axum, being about to war against the Homeritae, sent to ask the governor of Adulis for a copy of a certain inscription; which copy Cosmas and another monk were charged to make (Migne, Patr. Gk. vol. lxxxviii. p. 102).
The death of the viceroy, probably in a.d. 522 or 523, whom Elesbaan had left in Yemen, encouraged Dhu Nowas to come down from his hiding-place in the hills ("tanquam daemon carne indutus," Acta Sanctorum , Oct. xii. 316), and reassert himself as king of the Homeritae and champion of Judaism. Choosing a season when the Arabian Gulf would be an impassable barrier to the intervention of Elesbaan, he gathered a force which presently numbered 120,000 men and, having put to death all Christians whom he could find and turned their church into a synagogue, pressed on to Negran, the head-quarters of the Ethiopian vice-royalty, then held by Arethas the phylarch. He found the garrison forewarned and the gates closed; nor were they opened at his threats, when coming to the wall and holding up a wooden cross he swore that all who would not blaspheme the Crucified and insult the sign of His suffering should die. At last by treachery Dhu Nowas won an entrance, promising to hurt none of the citizens and only demanding an exorbitant tribute; but having entered, he began at once the reckless massacre which has left its mark even in the Koran (cf. Walch's paper in the GÃ¶ttingen Commentarii , p. 25). Arethas and Ruma his wife died with a defiant confession on their lips; more than 4,000 Christian men, women, and children were killed (commemorated in the Roman calendar on Oct. 24); and from the fiery dyke into which the victims were thrown, Dhu Nowas received the name Saheb-el-Okhdud ("Lord of the Trench"). At this time, probably in Jan. 524, Simeon, bp. of Beth-Arsam, had been sent by the emperor Justin, together with Abraham, a priest of Constantinople, to gain the alliance of Mundhir III., king of the Arabians of Hira, a friend valuable alike for reasons of commerce and in regard to the war with Persia. As the ambassadors drew near the king (the story is told by Simeon in a letter to the abbat of Gabula), they were met by a crowd of Arabs crying that Christ was driven out of Rome and Persia and Homeritis; and they learnt that messengers were present from Dhu Nowas with letters to king Mundhir, in which they heard the long recital of the treachery by which Negran had been taken, of the insult to the bishop's tomb, of the slaughter of the Christians and the triumph of Judaism, the confession of the martyr Arethas, and the speech of Ruma urging the women of Negran to follow her to the abiding city of the divine Bridegroom, praying that the blood of the martyrs might be the wall of Negran while it continued in the faith, and that she might be forgiven for that Arethas had died first. They heard of her brutal murder, and the appeal of Dhu Nowas that Mundhir should at once enact a like massacre throughout his kingdom. Their own end must have seemed very near; but the courage of a soldier who stood forth as spokesman of the many Christians in Mundhir's army decided the hesitation of the king, and the ambassadors went away unhurt (but apparently unanswered) to Naaman, a port in the Arabian Gulf. There they heard more fully the story of the massacre, and especially of the constancy of a boy, who was afterwards known to the bp. of Asia at Justinian's court. Simeon of Beth-Arsam thus closes his letter, praying that the news may be spread throughout the church and the martyrs receive the honour of commemoration, and that the king of Ethiopia may be urged to help the Homeritae against the oppression of the Jew (cf. Assemani, Bibl. Or. i. 364-379). When this message reached Elesbaan, it was reinforced by a letter from Justin, elicited by the entreaties of Dous Ibn Dzi Thaleban, one of the few Christians who had escaped Dhu Nowas (cf. Wright, Early Christianity in Arabia , p. 56). This letter is given in the Acta S. Arethae; where also it is told how the patriarch of Alexandria, at the request of Justin, urged Elesbaan to invade Yemen, offering up a litany and appointing a vigil on his behalf, and sending to him the Eucharist in a silver vessel. Without delay Elesbaan collected a great army, which he divided into two parts; 15,000 men he sent southwards to cross at Bab-el-Mandeb and, marching through Yemen, divert the strength of Dhu Nowas's forces from the main body of the Ethiopians, which Elesbaan intended to send by sea to some place on the S. coast of Arabia. For the transport of these latter he appropriated 60 merchant vessels then anchored in his ports, adding ten more, built after the native fashion, the planks being held together by ropes. On the eve of the enterprise he went in procession to the great church of Axum, and there, laying aside his royalty, sued in formÃ¢ pauperis for the favour of Him Whose war he dared to wage; praying that his sins might be visited on himself, and not on his people. Then he sought the blessing, counsel, and prayers of St. Pantaleon; and received from within the doorless and windowless tower, where the hermit had lived for 45 years, the answer: " Ἔστω σὺν σοι ὁ συμβασιλεύων σοι ." Thus the army was sent on its twofold route.
For the 15,000 Bab-el-Mandeb was indeed a gate of tears: they died of hunger, wandering in the desert. The main body was safely embarked, and sailed S. down the Gulf of Arabia towards the straits; which Dhu Nowas had barred by a huge chain, stretched across the space of two furlongs from side to side. Over this, however, first ten ships and then seven more, including that of the Ethiopian admiral, were lifted by the waves; the rest were driven back by stress of weather, but presently, the chain being, according to one account, broken, forced the passage, and passing the other seventeen, cast anchor farther along the coast. Meanwhile Dhu Nowas, having first encamped on the W. shore, where he thought his chain would force the Ethiopians to land, hurried from his position, and leaving but a few men to resist the smaller fleet, watched with his main army the movements of the rest. Those on the 17 ships under the Ethiopian admiral easily effected a landing near Aden, and defeating the troops opposed to them, pressed on to the chief city, Taphar, or Taphran, which surrendered immediately (cf. Wright, op. cit. 58-60). Discouraged by this disaster, the main body of the Arabians offered a feeble resistance; and Dhu Nowas saw that his downfall was very near. According to the Arabian historians, he threw himself from the cliff and died in the waves; according to the Acta S. Arethae , he bound his seven kinsmen in chains, and fastened them to his throne, lest they should fail to share his fate; and so awaited death at Elesbaan's own hand. The Arabic writers are unsupported in their story of the useless resistance of a successor Dhu Giadan; it was probably at the death of Dhu Nowas that the kingdom of the Homeritae ended, and Yemen became a province of Ethiopia. At Taphar Elesbaan is said to have built a church, digging the foundations for seven days with his own hands; and from Taphar he wrote of his victory to the patriarch of Alexandria. A bishop was sent from Alexandria and appointed to the see of Negran, but there are doubts as to both the orthodoxy and identity of this bishop. The king restored Negran, entrusting it to Arethas's son, rebuilding and endowing the great church, and granting perpetual right of asylum to the place where the bodies of the martyrs had lain, and then returned to Ethiopia (Boll. Acta SS. Oct. xii. 322), leaving a Christian Arab named Esimiphaeus or Ariathus, to be his viceroy over the conquered people. A part of Elesbaan's army, however, refused to leave the luxury of Arabia Felix, and not long after set up as rival to Esimiphaeus one Abrahah or Abraham, the Christian slave of a Roman merchant, who was strong enough to shut up the viceroy in a fort and seize the throne of Yemen. A force of 3,000 men was sent by Elesbaan, under a prince of his house, whom some call Aryates or Arethas, to depose the usurper; and it seems that Abrahah, like Dhu Nowas, sought safety among the mountains. But he soon ( c. 540) came down and confronted the representative of Elesbaan; and at the critical moment the Ethiopian troops deserted and murdered their general. To maintain his supremacy and avenge his kinsman, Elesbaan sent a second army; but this, loyally fighting with Abrahah, was utterly defeated, and only a handful of men returned to Ethiopia. The Arabic historians record that Elesbaan swore to yet lay hold of the land of the Homeritae, both mountain and plain, pluck the forelock from the rebel's head, and take his blood as the price of Aryates's death; and they tell of the mixed cunning and cowardice by which Abrahah satisfied the Ethiopian's oath, and evaded his anger, winning at last a recognition of his dignity. Procopius adds that Abrahah paid tribute to Elesbaan's successor; and the Homeritae remained in free subjection to Ethiopia almost to the end of the century.
Records are extant, almost in the very words of the ambassadors, of two embassies from Justinian to Elesbaan. Joannes Malala, in writing of the first, had the autograph of the envoy whom Procopius (de Bello Persico , i. 20) calls Julian; Photius has preserved, in the third codex of his Bibliotheca , Nonnosus's story of his experience in the second mission. Julian must have been sent before 531, for Cabades was still living, and, according to Procopius, Esimiphaeus was viceroy of Homeritis. He was received by Elesbaan, according to his own account, with the silence of an intense joy; for the alliance of Rome had long been the great desire of the Ethiopians. The king was seated on a high chariot, drawn by four elephants caparisoned with gold; he wore a loose robe studded with pearls, and round his loins a covering of linen embroidered with gold. He received Justinian's letter with every sign of respect, and began to prepare his forces to take part in the Persian war even before Julian was dismissed from his court with the kiss of peace (Johannis Malalae, Chronographia , xviii. Bonn. ed. pp. 457, 458). Malala records no sequel of these preparations; Procopius complains that none occurred.
The second embassy was sent primarily to Kaisus or Imrulcays, the prince of the Chindini and Maaddeni, and only secondarily to the Homeritae and Ethiopians, probably in the last years of Elesbaan's reign. Nonnosus the envoy belonged to a family of diplomatists. But Photius does not state the purpose or result of this journey; only telling of the great herd of 5,000 elephants which Nonnosus saw between Adulis and Axum, and the pigmy negroes who met him on an island as he sailed away from Pharsan (Photii, Bibliotheca , Bekker's ed. pp. 2, 3).
The story of Elesbaan's abdication and seclusion is told in the Acta S. Arethae . Having accepted the fealty and recognized the royalty of Abrahah, and having confirmed the faith of Christ in Homeritis, he laid aside his crown and assumed the garb of a solitary. His cell is still shewn to the traveller; it was visited in 1805 by Henry Salt, and has been elaborately described by Mendez and Lefevre. There the king remained in solitude and great asceticism; and the year of his death is unknown. His crown he sent to Jerusalem, praying that it might be hung "in conspectu januae vivifici sepulchri."
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Elesbaan, a King, Hermit, and Saint of Ethiopia'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hwd/e/elesbaan-a-king-hermit-and-saint-of-ethiopia.html. 1911.