The Year of the Elephant (570 C.E.)
the respect and esteem which makkah and her holy house enjoyed suggested to some distant provinces in arabia that they should construct holy houses in order to attract some of the people away from makkah. the ghassanis built such a house at al hirah. abrahah al ashram built another in yaman. neither of them succeeded, however, in drawing the arabs away from makkah and its holy house. indeed, abrahah took a special care to decorate the house in yaman and filled it with such beautiful furniture and statues that he thought that he could draw thereto not only the arabs but the makkans themselves. when later he found out that the arabs were still going to the ancient house, that the inhabitants of yaman were leaving behind the newly built house in their own territory and did not regard the pilgrimage valid except in makkah, he came to the conclusion that there was no escape from destroying the house of ibrahim and isma'il. the viceroy of the negus therefore prepared for war and brought a great army for that purpose from abyssinia equipped with a great elephant on which he rode. when the arabs heard of his war preparations, they became quite upset and feared the impending doom of makkah, the ka'bah, its statues, and the institution of pilgrimage. dhu nafar, a nobleman from yaman, appealed to his fellow countrymen to revolt and fight abrahah and thus prevent him from the destruction of god's house. abrahah, however, was too strong to be fought with such tactics: dhu nafar as well as nufayl ibn habib al khath'ami, leader of the two tribes of shahran and nahis, were taken prisoners after a brief but gallant fight. on the other hand, the people of al ta'if, when they learned that it was not their house that he intended to destroy, cooperated with abrahah and sent a guide with him to show him the way to makkah.
abrahah and the ka'bah
upon approaching makkah, abrahah sent a number of horsemen to seize whatever there was of quraysh's animal wealth in the outskirts. the horsemen returned with some cattle and a hundred camels belonging to `abd al muttalib. the quraysh and other makkans first thought of holding their ground and fighting abrahah, but they soon realized that his power was far superior to theirs. abrahah sent one of his men, hunatah al himyari to inform `abd al muttalib, chief of makkah, that abrahah had not come to make war against the makkans but only to destroy the house and that should the makkans not stand in his way, he would not fight them at all. when 'abd al muttalib declared the intention of makkah not to fight abrahah, hunatah invited `abd al muttalib and his sons and some of the leaders of makkah to abrahah's encampment in order to talk to abrahah directly. abrahah received `abd al muttalib well and returned his seized camels. but he refused to entertain any suggestion of saving the ka'bah from destruction as well as the makkans' offer to pay him one-third of the yearly crop of the tihamah province. the conference therefore came to no conclusion, and `abd al muttalib returned to makkah. he immediately advised the makkans to evacuate the city and withdraw to the mountains and thus save their own persons.
it was certainly a grave day on which the makkans decided to evacuate their town and leave it an open city for destruction by abrahah. `abd al muttalib and the leaders of the quraysh grasped the lock of the door of the ka'bah and prayed to their gods to stop this aggression against the house of god. as they left makkah, and abrahah prepared to send his terrifying and formidable army into the city to destroy the house, smallpox spread within its ranks and began to take its toll. the epidemic attacked the army with unheard of fury. perhaps the microbes of the disease were carried there by the wind from the west. abrahah himself was not spared; and terrified by what he saw, he ordered the army to return to yaman. attacked by death and desertion, abrahah's army dwindled to almost nothing, and, by the time he reached san'a', his capital in yaman, he himself succumbed to the disease. this phenomenon was so extraordinary that the makkans reckoned time with it by calling that year "the year of the elephant." the qur'an had made this event immortal when it said,
"consider what your lord had done to the people of the elephant. did he not undo their evil plotting? and send upon them wave after wave of flying stones of fire? and made their ranks like a harvested cornfield trodden by herds of hungry cattle?” [qur'an, 105:1-5]
the position of makkah after the year of the elephant
this extraordinary event enhanced the religious position of makkah as well as her trade. her people became more committed than ever to the preservation of their exalted city and to resist every attempt at reducing it.