Buried Christian Empire Casts New Light on Early Islam - Speigel
Hmmm - this was a Jewish commandment, largely ignored outside Jerusalem, as is clear from both literary sources and archaeological evidence, including excavated synagogues.The commandment "Make yourself no graven image" has long been strictly followed in the Arab world. There are very few statues of the caliphs and ancient kings of the region. The pagan gods in the desert were usually worshipped in an "aniconic" way, that is, as beings without form.
Muslims, until they came into greater contact with the Byzantine Empire which was going through a period of Iconoclasm, were far from adverse to images. Qusayr ’Amra in Jordan has plenty of frescoes with figures, from a Jewish-influenced Zodiac to naked dancing girls (photos here, academic article here). The palace-fortress was built by the man who later became the Umayyad caliph Walid Ibn Yazid (Walid II), and it is far from unique (see the statues of naked women from another Umayyad palace Qasr al-Mshatta (below); ditto the ivories that once decorated furniture in the Abbasid palace at al-Humayma, etc)
My first thought on seeing the Zafar stele was "Jewish" and a Jewish ring seal has also been found at Zafar - the name Yishak bar Hanina can be read around a Torah shrine - as have Hebrew inscriptions.
Zafar was a capital of the Himyarite Kingdom, and a port en route from the Roman Empire and Egypt to India and the East - so a few Jews were no big surprise, given many were merchants and traders. But a non-Biblical Jew depicted as a king?
A Himyarite king, Abu-Kariba Assad, converted to Judaism around AD 500, and most succeeding kings of this region of The Yemen were Jewish until they converted to Islam around the time of Mohammed. The king of Axum did intervene, as Yule notes, but he did not impose a Christian king - he removed one of the few pagan ones, who had murdered Christians in the region, circa AD 525.
The stele is very interesting, but the conclusions drawn so far are a little dramatic.
The Daily Mail went sensationally overboard with this headline, which I will try to answer: Was there a church in Mecca? Chiselled stonework with 'Christian figure' discovered at holy site in Yemen
The image above shows Mohammed praying at the Ka'ba (see), which is now the most sacred site in Islam.
Between Adam and Mohammed the history of the site is less certain, but it seems to have been a sanctuary to a variety of gods over the centuries. The Nabateans were very active in the area now covered by Saudi Arabia - although Petra is better known, Mada'in Saleh became their capital once that had been conquered by the Romans (Mada'in Saleh itself became a Roman fortress at some point, as attested by inscriptions from the time of Hadrian etc).
According to Muslims Mohammed destroyed the idols when he arrived at Mecca, as seen in this image (see) - but he didn't destroy the image of Mary and Jesus, since Jesus was a Prophet in Islamic theology. Although some claim that images are un-Islamic, most of the statements attributed to Mohammed and his followers are against depictions of false idols rather than images per se.
For our purposes today, the fact that there was an image of Mary and Jesus at Mecca suggests that there was Christian worship there.
Archaeologists have excavated several early Christian churches and religious complexes along the Gulf, including a possible Nestorian church at Jubail in Saudi Arabia (photos here).
So yes, there probably was a Christian church at Mecca.