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October 24, 2015

Saint Arethas the Great Martyr and the Christian Martyrs of Najran

St. Arethas the Great Martyr and Those With Him (Feast Day - October 24)


To Arethas
Beheaded, Arethas the Martyr rushed towards God,
And many Martyrs likewise were also beheaded.
On the twenty-fourth Arethas and those with him were beheaded.

To the Woman and Child
The mother led to the fire is quietly burnt to ashes,
While the child speaks with inarticulate sounds.

These Martyrs contested for piety's sake in the year 524 in Najran, a city of Arabia Felix (present-day Yemen). When Dhu Nuwas, ruler of the Himyarite tribe in south Arabia, and a Judaizer (convert to Judaism), took power over King Elesbaan of Ethiopia who ruled in that area, he sought to blot out Christianity, especially at Najran, a Christian city. Against the counsels of Arethas, Governor of Najran, the city surrendered to Dhu Nuwas, who immediately broke the word that he would come in peace which he had given and sought to compel the city to renounce Christ.

The tyrant first wreaked his wrath on the holy bishop Paul, who had died two years before. He had his tomb opened and ordered his holy and much venerated relics to be burnt. He went on to burn all the priests, monks, nuns and clergy in the city, to the number of 477 persons. Then he beheaded 127 pious layfolk who offered their life to Christ. He had a rich widow, a noblewoman, brought before him. When persuasion failed its purpose, he threatened dreadful tortures if she would not deny her Christian faith. Her daughter, seeing her mother insulted by the tyrant and ill-treated by his soldiers, ran to Dhu Nuwas and spat in his face. He was enraged and had the twelve year old girl immediately beheaded. Then, in the height of cruelty, he made the mother drink a cup of her daughter's blood, before beheading her in turn.

Then, led by Saint Arethas, 340 Christians were brought before the tyrant. Arethas had to be carried to the place of judgement, for so distressed was he at seeing in his old age such torments raining down upon his fellow-citizens, that his strength left him. Yet he still showed confidence and courage before the King, and meekly and calmly he encouraged his companions to reach perfection by way of martyrdom and to do so joyfully in the name of the Lord that they may enter into His joy in glory. The people wept at his speech and all embraced one another with tears, giving each other a holy kiss. Arethas was beheaded first, and after all the people anointed their foreheads with his blood, they met their death with joy.

After the men had been slain, all the free-born Christian women of Najran were brought before the tyrant and commanded to abjure Christ or die; yet they rebuked the persecutor with such boldness that he said even the men had not insulted him so contemptuously. So great was their faith that not one woman was found to deny Christ in all Najran, although some of them suffered torments more bitter than most of the men.

A woman with a five year old boy approached the place of martyrdom, and after anointing herself with the blood of Arethas she was seized and ordered by the tyrant to be burnt alive. This made the little boy cry, so the King took him to his lap and tried to comfort him. He asked the child what he wanted most of all, and was very surprised to hear the little one say that he wanted to be a martyr like his mother. "But what does being a martyr mean?" he asked him. "It means dying for Christ so as to come alive again," the child replied. "But have you any idea who this Christ is?" "Come to church and I'll show you," the child responded with confidence, showing himself to be wiser than the aged of this world. When he saw them throwing his mother into the fire, he suddenly freed himself from the embrace of the King, ran up to the fire and, without hesitation, plunged into the flames to be united with her in Christ.

The notoriety of the massacre at Najran reached the ears of Emperor Justin at Constantinople. He wrote to Asterios, the Patriarch of Alexandria, asking him to urge King Elesbaan of Ethiopia to mount an expedition against Dhu Nuwas. In alliance with Byzantium, King Elesbaan liberated Najran from Dhu Nuwas soon after and raised up churches in honor of the Martyrs. Najran became a place of pilgrimage until the rise of Islam a century later. At the end of his life King Elesbaan, who was also called Kaleb, retired into solitude as a hermit; he sent his crown to Jerusalem as an offering to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. He also is commemorated on this day as a saint. Saint Arethas' name in Arabic, Harith, means "plowman, tiller," much the same as "George" does in Greek.

The Christian Martyrs of Najran

Christianity must have been introduced into Najrān, as in the rest of South Arabia, in the 5th century AD or perhaps a century earlier. According to the Arab Muslim historian Ibn Isḥāq, Najran was the first place where Christianity took root in South Arabia. According to the contemporary sources, after seizing the throne of the Himyarites, in ca. 518 or 523, Dhū Nuwās, a convert to Judaism, attacked the Aksumite (mainly Ethiopian Christian) garrison at Zafar, capturing them and burning their churches. He then moved against Najrān, a Christian and Aksumite stronghold. After accepting the city's capitulation, he massacred those inhabitants who would not renounce Christianity. Estimates of the death toll from this event range up to 20,000 in some sources; a surviving letter (where he is called Dimnon) written by Symeon, the bishop of Beth Arsham in 524 AD, recounts Dhū Nuwās's persecution in Najrān (modern al-Ukhdūd in Saudi Arabia). The persecution is apparently described and condemned in the Qur'an (Surat al-Buruj 85:4–8).

In his 524 AD letter describing the Najran persecutions in detail, the West-Syrian debater Symeon, the bishop of Beth Arsham, describes how female martyrs rushed in to join "our parents and brothers and sisters who have died for the sake of Christ our Lord."

Symeon of Beth Arsham's second letter preserves yet another memorably gruesome episode. After seeing her Christian kinsmen burned alive, Ruhm, a great noblewoman of Najran, brings her daughter before the Himyarite king and instructs him: "Cut off our heads, so that we may go join our brothers and my daughter's father." The executioners comply, slaughtering her daughter and granddaughter before Ruhm's eyes and forcing her to drink her blood. The king then asks, "How does your daughter's blood taste to you?" The martyr replies, "Like a pure spotless offering: that is what it tasted like in my mouth and in my soul."

Under the reign of the Caliph Umar, the Christian community of Najrān was deported to Mesopotamia, on the grounds that no non-Muslims were to live in the Arabian Peninsula.


Portions of the sacred relic of Saint Arethas are found in Dionysiou Monastery at Mount Athos, Agathonos Monastery in Fthiotidos, Archangels Monastery in Aigialeia, Phaneromeni Monastery in Salaminos, and Koutloumousiou Skete at Mount Athos.

Apolytikion in the First Tone
You were glorified magnificently by your struggle for piety, and through your steadfastness you deposed the evil of the Christ-killers, and you therefore offered to Christ immovable ranks of Martyrs, as a divine teacher and guide, O all-blessed Arethas. Glory to Him Who gave you strength, glory to Him Who crowned you, glory to Him Who grants through you healings for all.

Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
The feast of the passion-bearers hath dawned upon us today as the harbinger of gladness; and celebrating it, we glorify the Lord who liveth in the highest.