Kaléb, Emperor, also known as Ellä-Asbeha (Greek: Hellesthaeos or Ellesbaas), was the last important ruler of the Aksumite Empire, believed to have ruled from about 514 to about 530, or perhaps later. According to the King Lists, an inscription and his coins, which were produced in gold, silver, and bronze, Kaléb was the son of Tazén or Tazéna, who was perhaps his predecessor as Emperor. He was evidently impressed by Greek culture, for he ordered Abbas, governor of Adulis, the great maritime centre of the Aksumite period, to copy the Greek inscriptions of Ptolemy III (Ptolemy Euergetes, r. 246-221 B.C.) and of an unknown Ethiopian Emperor carved there. Abbas asked the help of Greek merchants in Adulis, and the Alexandrian traveller Cosmas Indicopleustes also preserved a copy, through which the inscriptions survive. Cosmas also tells of Aksum’s glory in architecture, art and trade. Three-story buildings were erected and Kaléb’s palace gardens were ornamented with fine bronze statues of different creatures.
An allusion in the Kebrä Nägäst (“Glory of Kings”) appears to refer to an alliance between Kaléb and Justinus I, Emperor of Byzantium (r. 518-527), to strengthen Aksum’s influence in Himyar. The resulting maltreatment of Jews in Byzantine territories was answered by the Judaized ruler of Himyar, Dhu Nuwas, with a persecution of Christian and Roman merchants in his realm, and in consequence Kaléb attacked Himyar, perhaps in 523. After a successful defense, Dhu Nuwas initiated a retaliatory massacre of the major Christian communities, particularly that in Najran. Justinus offered Kaléb ships to enable him to attack Himyar again, and after an abortive advance through present-day Somalia, aimed at the southern coast of the Yemen, Kaléb set sail in 525 with seventy ships and a large army from Gabaza (now Gaméz), south of Adulis, and landed on the Yemeni coast near Mukha. A rapid advance led to the capture of the important town of Zafar. Dhu Nuwas was either captured and killed, or committed suicide. The Patriarch of Alexandria appointed a new bishop over Himyar, and Kaléb left for Aksum, leaving Esimiphaeus as viceroy, with a large garrison. During Esimiphaeus’ time, Justinianus I, Emperor of Byzantium (r. 527-565), sent an ambassador, Julianus, to him and to Kaléb with a proposal to divert the silk trade from its old route through Persia to Aksum and Alexandria; an illuminating account of the embassy and a description of Kaléb himself have been preserved in the works of Procopius and John Malalas.
Latterly Kaléb abdicated, dedicating his crown to the Holy Sepulchre, and took up a monastic life in the monastery of Abba Päntäléwon . He was succeeded by his sons, the Emperors Bétä-‘Esra’él and Gäbrä-Mäsqäl; an inscription interpreted in 1970 shows that he had a third son, Prince Gäbrä-Krestos , while a fourth son, W’ZB , has also been recently identified from an inscription. A saint of the Ethiopian Church commemorated on 20 Genbot (28 May), Kaléb is also revered in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches. A ruin near Aksum, Endä Kaléb, is said to be his grave.
A. K. Irvine and Sergew Hable-Selassie
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This article is reproduced, with permission, from The Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography, Vol. 1 ‘From Early Times to the End of the Zagwé Dynasty c. 1270 A.D.,’ copyright © 1975, edited by Belaynesh Michael, S. Chojnacki and Richard Pankhurst, Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. All rights reserved.