In the African Ethiopian kingdom of Axum (or Aksum) in 340 CE the monarch declared Christianity would be the new state religion and all must convert. A civil work broke out between those eager to do so – Beta Kristiyan (House of Christianity) – and those who refused to give up their ancient faith and traditions – Beta Israel (House of Israel). These 4th century Hebrew faithful were the ancestors of today’s Ethiopian Jewry, whether born in Ethiopia, Israel, or the United States.
Far to the south of Jerusalem, but just across the Red Sea from Aksum, in what is now Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the royal family of the Himyar kingdom converted to the Hebrew faith around 380 CE. It may have been a true act of devotion or it may have been politically expedient: the Eastern Roman Empire sought more power in the Arabian peninsula, and even Christian Axum might want to make a protectorate of Himyar. The Zoroastrian Sassanid Persians were more tolerant of minority faith practices, but still sought dominance in the region.
By the early sixth century, Himyar had become a tributary of Axum. In 519 CE Axum’s chosen Christian puppet was made the king of Himyar. A Jewish Himyarite warlord of rose up to lead a rebellion and take the throne. His name was Yosef Dhu Nawas. He ruled for three years, raining down terror and retribution on Christians and Axumites for their suppression of his people. Yosef claimed his acts were retaliation for the persecution of Hebrews in Axum and Byzantine/the Eastern Roman Empire. Dhu Nawas marched on the city of Narjan, burning churches and slaying those who would not renounce Christianity.
In a version of the story that made its way back to Justin I, Eastern Roman Emperor, Dhu Nawas was said to have burned the Christians alive inside their churches. According to Arab historians Dhu Nawas wrote letters to the kings of Persia and Lakhmid, urging them to likewise persecute Christians in their realm, but such letters have not been discovered. At Justin’s urging, Axum invaded Himyar, bringing Dhu Nawas’ reign and Jewish rule in the Arab peninsula to an abrupt end in 525 CE. History conflicts on whether he died in battle or suicided by riding his horse into the Red Sea.
Himyar fell and Aksum overtook it, conquering Assyrian forces to the east and taking the northern cities of Mecca and Medina. In the early sixth century it seemed as if nothing could stop Christianity’s inexorable march across the Arabian peninsula and then all of Africa. Zoroastrianism, Hellenistic paganism, and Judaism had militarily lost to the combined might of Roman and Ethiopian forces. But Islam and Muhammad had not happened yet.