Aksum
An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity


Stuart Munro-Hay


Dedicated to the late H. Neville Chittick


Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity was first published in 1991. Some errors have been corrected in this edition.

© Stuart Munro-Hay 1991
[courtesy Alan Light, <alight@vnet.net>]

 

British Library Cataloguing
  in Publication Data
Munro-Hay, S. C. (Stuart C), 1947-
  Aksum: an African civilization of late antiquity.
  1. Axumite Kingdom, history
  I. Title
  963.4


Contents


Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity


 

Preface


Perhaps the most frequently quoted remark about Ethiopia occurs in a brief excursus on the Ethiopian church which Edward Gibbon included in his monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written at the end of the eighteenth century; `Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion the Æthiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten'. Gibbon further accorded brief mention to those few events in Aksumite Ethiopia's history which touched the larger theme of the history of the Roman empire. In this he still remains relatively unusual, for however one might nowadays view the Ethiopians' `sleep', Gibbon's last phrases still ring true. Of all the important ancient civilisations of the past, that of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum still remains perhaps the least known.

When this book was in preparation, I wrote to the archaeology editor of one of Britain's most prominent history and archaeology publishers about its prospects. He replied that, although he had a degree in archaeology, he had never heard of Aksum, and didn't think it would arouse much interest. If anything, this points the more strongly to the need for an introductory history to one of Africa's most fascinating civilisations. In most of the recent general histories of Africa or of the Roman world, Aksum is either not mentioned at all, or is noted in brief summaries culled from earlier works. Only in Connah's 1987 book African Civilisations does Aksum, though still dealt with in one brief chapter, begin to take its proper place as an important part of Africa's history. Certainly there have been books on Aksum, or on Ethiopian civilisation in general, mainly in German, French, Italian and Russian; but since the last of these was published much new work has been done, and a well-illustrated and up-to-date general coverage of Aksumite Ethiopia is now the more urgently required.

It is hoped that this book, the result of nearly fifteen years study of Aksumite history and civilisation, will at least partly fill the gap, and encourage interest in Aksumite studies. Ancient Ethiopia is a fertile field for future researchers, and if this book attracts the attention of even a few towards this neglected but richly rewarding subject, it will have served its purpose adequately. It is worth adding that Ethiopia, and especially Aksumite Ethiopia, is an elusive entity, and I cannot hope to have always plumped for the correct interpretation in some of the more debated themes of its history. Theories and arguments which I may seem to have left aside could prove to be of great importance to future study. In most cases where a choice between opposing theories has been made, it is nevertheless with a profound consciousness of the stimulation afforded by the points-of-view of colleagues who share the opposite opinion, and with the certainty that the last word has not yet been said, that I have leaned towards certain conclusions. I have not infrequently drawn on my own earlier publications for certain sections of this book, sometimes with radically different results; alterations indicative of the progress made by more recent research.

I am extremely grateful, as the dedication indicates, to the late Dr. H. Neville Chittick for introducing me to Aksumite studies during the important excavations which he directed at Aksum between 1972 and 1974, and for his continued subsequent encouragement. His excavations at Aksum completely altered many concepts about Aksumite Ethiopia, clarifying certain points and, inevitably, raising new questions. In 1985 I was invited by the British Institute in Eastern Africa, under whose auspices Neville Chittick had worked, to publish in their Memoir series the excavation report his death prevented him from undertaking; and it was during this work that the idea of the present book, less specialist and wider-ranging, was suggested to me by Glen Kania. The British Institute in Eastern Africa also kindly gave permission for the reproduction of some of the photographs taken during the excavations. A number of friends and colleagues helped in the preparation of the book; I would particularly like to thank Dr. Bent Juel-Jensen and Dr. David Phillipson for reading and commenting on the typescript at different stages, and for supplying illustrations; Roger Brereton and the late Ruth Plant for other illustrations; Chris Tsielepi for information from the Horniman Museum; Michael Grogan for the maps and Glen Kania for his usual patience and assistance in editing and word-processing, for the fourth time, a book on an Aksumite theme.

Aksum's obscurity, and the impossibility of visiting the site at present, seem to have had a discouraging effect on funding institutions. However, awards which have greatly helped me in the writing of this book, and in my Aksumite studies in general, came from the Twenty-Seven Foundation and the Spalding Trust; to these organisations I am extremely grateful, particularly since they have both assisted my work in other fields as well.

 
 
Stuart Munro-Hay
 
St. Orens-Pouy-Petit, France. December 1988.
 
 

1. Introduction


 

This book is designed to introduce the ancient African civilisation of Aksum to a wider readership than has been catered for by specialist publications currently available. The Ethiopian kingdom centred on Aksum in the northern province of Tigray during the first six or seven hundred years of our era, is still very little known in general terms. Its history and civilisation has been largely ignored, or at most accorded only brief mention, in the majority of recent books purporting to deal at large with ancient African civilisations, or with the world of late antiquity. Perhaps, considering the paucity of published material, authors of such syntheses can hardly be blamed for omitting it; those who do include it generally merely repeat the same vague outlines of Aksumite history as are found in much older works. The excavations of the 1950s-70s in Ethiopia, and the studies of a few scholars in recent years, have increased the scope of our information about the country's history and civilisation, and the time has now come when a general introduction to Aksum should be of value to interested readers and students of ancient history alike.

The Aksumite state bordered one of the ancient world's great arteries of commerce, the Red Sea, and through its port of Adulis Aksum participated actively in contemporary events. Its links with other countries, whether through military campaigns, trading enterprise, or cultural and ideological exchange, made Aksum part and parcel of the international community of the time, peripheral perhaps from the Romano-centric point-of-view, but directly involved with the nations of the southern and eastern spheres, both within the Roman empire and beyond. Aksum's position in the international trade and diplomatic activity which connected the Roman provinces around the Mediterranean via the Red Sea with South Arabia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and even China, tied it too firmly into the network of commerce to be simply ignored (Ch. 3: 6).

Whether or not Aksum, as is sometimes claimed (Ch. 4: 5), gave the final coup-de-grâce to the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Meroë in the modern republic of Sudan, it nevertheless had an important influence on the peoples of the Nile valley, and also on the South Arabian kingdoms across the Red Sea (Ch. 3: 6). As far as the history of civilisation in Africa is concerned, the position of Aksum in international terms followed directly on to that of Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt and Meroë; each was, before its eclipse, the only internationally recognised independent African monarchy of important power status in its age. Aksumite Ethiopia, however, differs from the previous two in many ways. Its economy was not based on the agricultural wealth of the Nile Valley, but on the exploitation of the Ethiopian highland environment (Ch. 8) and the Red Sea trade; unlike Egypt and Meroë, Aksumite Ethiopia depended for its communications not on the relatively easy flow along a great river, but on the maintenance of considerably more arduous routes across the highlands and steep river valleys. For its international trade, it depended on sea lanes which required vigilant policing. Most important, Aksum was sufficiently remote never to have come into open conflict with either Rome or Persia, and was neither conquered by these contemporary super-powers, nor suffered from punitive expeditions like Egypt, South Arabia or Meroë. Even the tremendous changes in the balance of power in the Red Sea and neighbouring regions caused by the rise of Islam (Ch. 4: 8) owed something to Aksum. It was an Ethiopian ruler of late Aksumite times who gave protection and shelter to the early followers of the prophet Muhammad, allowing the new religious movement the respite it needed (Ch. 15: 4). Ethiopia, the kingdom of the `najashi of Habashat' as the Arabs called the ruler, survived the eclipse of the pre-Islamic political and commercial system, but one of the casualties of the upheaval was the ancient capital, Aksum, itself; various factors removed the government of the country from Aksum to other centres. The Ethiopian kingdom remained independent even though the consolidation of the Muslim empire now made it the direct neighbour of this latest militant imperial power. But eventually Ethiopia lost its hold on the coastal regions as Islam spread across the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the Aksumite kingdom's direct successors in Ethiopia, though at times in desperate straits, retained that independence, and with it even managed to preserve some of the characteristics of the ancient way of life until the present day.

The Aksumites developed a civilisation of considerable sophistication, knowledge of which has been much increased by recent excavations (Ch. 16). Aksum's contribution in such fields as architecture (Ch. 5: 4-6) and ceramics (Ch. 12: 1) is both original and impressive. Their development of the vocalisation of the Ge`ez or Ethiopic script allowed them to leave, alone of ancient African states except Egypt and Meroë, a legacy of written material (Ch. 13: 1, Ch. 11: 5) from which we can gain some impression of Aksumite ideas and policies from their own records. In addition, uniquely for Africa, they produced a coinage, remarkable for several features, especially the inlay of gold on silver and bronze coins (Ch. 9). This coinage, whose very existence speaks for a progressive economic and ambitious political outlook, bore legends in both Greek and Ge`ez, which name the successive kings of Aksum for some three hundred years. The coinage can accordingly be used as a foundation for a chronology of the kingdom's history (Ch. 4: 2).

It may be as well to outline briefly here Aksumite historical development, and Aksum's position in the contemporary world, discussed in detail in later chapters (Chs. 4 & 3: 6). Aksumite origins are still uncertain, but a strong South Arabian (Sabaean) influence in architecture, religion, and cultural features can be detected in the pre-Aksumite period from about the fifth century BC, and it is clear that contacts across the Red Sea were at one time very close (Ch. 4: 1). A kingdom called D`MT (perhaps to be read Da`mot or Di`amat) is attested in Ethiopian inscriptions at this early date, and, though the period between this and the development of Aksum around the beginning of the Christian era is an Ethiopian `Dark Age' for us at present, it may be surmised that the D`MT monarchy and its successors, and other Ethiopian chiefdoms, continued something of the same `Ethio-Sabaean' civilisation until eventually subordinated by Aksum. A certain linguistic and religious continuity may be observed between the two periods, though many features of Aksumite civilisation differ considerably from the earlier material.

The Aksumite period in Northern Ethiopia covers some six or seven centuries from around the beginning of our era, and was ancestral to the rather better known mediaeval Ethiopian kingdoms, successively based further south in Lasta and Shewa. The Semitic-speaking people called Aksumites or Habash (Abyssinians), centred at their capital city Aksum (Ch. 5) in the western part of the province of Tigray, from there came to control both the highland and coastal regions of northern Ethiopia. They were able to exploit a series of favourable situations, some of which we can only guess at at this stage, to become the dominant power group in the region and to develop their very characteristic civilisation in an area now represented by the province of Tigray, with Eritrea to the north where they gained access to the Red Sea coast at the port of Adulis (Ch. 3: 2).

Aksumite inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5), an important, and for Africa this far south, very unusual source of information, mention a number of subordinate kings or chiefs, and it seems that the developing state gradually absorbed its weaker neighbours, but frequently retained traditional rulers as administrators (Ch. 6) under a tribute system. The title negusa nagast, or king of kings, used by Aksumite and successive Ethiopian rulers until the death of the late emperor Haile Sellassie, is a reflection of the sort of loose federation under their own monarchy (Ch. 7) which the Aksumites achieved throughout a large part of Ethiopia and neighbouring lands.

In the early centuries AD the Aksumites had already managed, presumably by a combination of such factors as military superiority, access to resources, and wealth resulting from their convenient situation astride trade routes leading from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea, to extend their hegemony over many peoples of northern Ethiopia. The process arouses a certain amount of admiration; anyone familiar with the terrain of that region can readily envisage the difficulties of mastering the various tribal groups scattered from the Red Sea coastal lowlands to the mountains and valleys of the Semien range south-west of Aksum. One Aksumite inscription, the so-called Monumentum Adulitanum (Ch. 11: 5) details campaigns undertaken in environments which, in a range of only some 250 km across Ethiopia, varied from the snow and frost of the Semien mountains to the waterless salt plains of the eastern lowlands. The highest point in the mountains reaches about 4620 m and the lowest, in the Danakil desert, is about 110 m below sea level, and although the campaigns would not have touched quite these extremes, the diversity of the country the Aksumites attempted to subdue is well illustrated. The same series of campaigns continued to police the roads leading to the Egyptian frontier region and over the sea to what are now the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian coastlands.

The Aksumite rulers became sufficiently Hellenized to employ the Greek language, as noted quite early on by the Greek shipping guide called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Ch. 2: 2), a document variously dated between the mid-first and third centuries AD with a consensus of modern opinion favouring the first or early second centuries. Somewhat later, Greek became one of the customary languages for Aksumite inscriptions and coins, since it was the lingua franca of the countries with which they traded.

The Aksumites grew strong enough to expand their military activity into South Arabia by the end of the second or early third century AD, where their control over a considerable area is attested by their Arabian enemies' own inscriptions (Ch. 4: 3 & 4); a direct reversal of the earlier process of South Arabian influence in Ethiopia already mentioned.

As the consolidated Aksumite kingdom grew more prosperous, the monuments and archaeological finds at Aksum and other sites attest to the development of a number of urban centres (Chs. 4 & 5) with many indigenous arts and crafts (Chs. 12 & 13: 3) demonstrating high technological skills, and a vigorous internal and overseas trade (Ch. 8). The inscriptions and other sources imply a rising position for Aksum in the African and overseas political concerns of the period. In the towns, the lack of walls even at Aksum seems to hint at relatively peaceful internal conditions, though the inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5) do mention occasional revolts among the subordinate tribes. Exploitation of the agricultural potential of the region (Ch. 8: 2), in places probably much higher than today and perhaps enhanced by use of irrigation, water-storage, or terracing techniques, allowed these urban communities to develop to considerable size. Perhaps the best-known symbols of the Aksumites' particular ideas and style are the great carved monoliths (Ch. 5: 6), some of which still stand, erected to commemorate their dead rulers; they also record the considerable skill of the Aksumite quarrymen, engineers, and stone-carvers, being in some cases among the largest single stones ever employed in ancient times.

The prosperity which such works bespeak came from Aksum's key position in the exploitation of certain costly luxuries, either brought from areas under Aksum's direct control, traded locally, or transhipped from afar (Ch. 8: 4). We have accounts of trade in such precious items as turtle-shell from the Dahlak Islands near Adulis, obsidian, also from Red Sea islands, ivory from across the Nile, rhino-horn, incense, and emeralds from the Beja lands in the Red Sea hills. Gold from the Sudan was paid for by salt from the Danakil desert, cattle, and iron. Other commodities such as civet, certain spices, animal skins, and hides seem also to have been among Aksum's exports. Royal titles on inscriptions attest (Ch. 7: 5) to Aksum's claim to control the catchment area of some of these exports, including parts of such neighbouring regions as the old Kushite or Meroitic kingdom, the lands of the Noba and Beja peoples, other now-unidentifiable African districts, and even parts of South Arabia. To some extent such claims may be wishful thinking, but the general prosperity and reputation of the country led the Persian religious leader Mani to label Aksum as the third of the kingdoms of the world in the later third century; and something of this reputation is substantiated by the production of an independent coinage (Ch. 9) at about this time. It paralleled the country with the few other contemporary states with the wealth and political status to issue gold coinage; Rome, Persia (to a lesser degree), and, into the third century, the Kushana kingdom in northern India.

Aksum's considerable imports (Ch. 8), ranging from wines and olive oil to cloth, iron, glass and objects of precious metals, are reported by various ancient writers, but containers for the foodstuffs and examples of some of the others have also been found in tombs and domestic buildings excavated at the capital and other towns. From such discoveries some ideas can be suggested concerning the social structure and way of life of the Aksumites (Ch. 14), while the tombs reveal something of their attitude to death and expectations of an afterlife. There was a radical change in this sphere in the second quarter of the fourth century, when the Aksumite king Ezana, previously a worshipper of gods identified with such Greek deities as Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares, was converted to Christianity (Ch. 10). From then on the coins and inscriptions show royal support for the new religion by replacing the old disc and crescent motifs of the former gods with the cross, though it may have taken a considerable time for Christianity to spread into the remoter regions under Aksumite control. Aksumite inscriptions from this period are in three scripts and two languages; Ge`ez, the local language, written both in its own cursive script and in the South Arabian monumental script (Epigraphic South Arabian, or ESA), and Greek, the international language of the Red Sea trade and the Hellenized Orient.

The adoption of Christianity must have aligned the kingdom to some extent towards the Roman empire, but this seems not to have been a slavish obedience for political ends. The Alexandrian patriarch Athanasius appointed, about 330AD, a Tyrian called Frumentius, who had lived in Aksum for some years, as Aksum's first bishop (Ch. 10: 2), and this apparently founded a tradition of Alexandrian appointments to the see of Aksum. In about 356AD the emperor Constantius II wrote to Ezana trying to persuade him to submit Frumentius to doctrinal examination by his own appointee to Alexandria, the bishop George of Cappadocia, who, with the emperor, subscribed to the Arian heresy. In such matters of church politics, Aksum seems to have followed Alexandria's lead, and refused to adopt Constantius' proposed changes. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the international church was divided, and Aksum, with Egypt and much of the east, split from the so-called melkite or imperial church and followed the monophysite interpretation of Christ's nature which Ethiopia still retains.

Little is known about fifth century Aksum, but in the sixth century king Kaleb (Ch. 4: 6 & 7) reiterated Aksumite claims to some sort of control in the Yemen by mounting an invasion. This was ostensibly undertaken to prevent continued persecution there of the Christians by the recently emerged Jewish ruler, Yusuf Asar, though interference with foreign traders, and perhaps fears of a new pro-Persian policy in Arabia, may have been strong incentives for Aksum, with Constantinople in the background, to interfere. The invasion succeeded, and Kaleb appointed a new ruler. However, Aksum does not seem to have been able to maintain its overseas conquests, and a military coup soon deposed Kaleb's client king, who was replaced by a certain Abreha. The latter maintained himself against subsequent Aksumite invasion forces, and is said by the contemporary historian Procopius to have come to terms with Kaleb's successor.

In any event, as the sixth and seventh centuries progressed Aksum's position grew more difficult. The independence of the Yemen was followed by its conquest by Persia during the reign of the Sassanian king Khusro I (531-579), and further Persian disruption of the Roman east followed with the conquest of Syria and Egypt under Khusro II. This seems to have dried up some of Aksum's flow of trade, and the kingdom's expansionist days were over. Arab conquests followed in the mid-seventh century, and the whole economic system which had maintained Aksum's prosperity came to an end. Christian Ethiopia retained its control of the highlands, but seems to have turned away from the sea in the centuries after the advent of Islam and begun to look more southwards than eastwards during the following centuries.

The centre of the kingdom being moved from Aksum, the city became a politically unimportant backwater (Ch. 15). In the archaeological excavations conducted there (Ch. 16), nothing significant was found in the tombs or buildings which could certainly be attributed to a later date, and it seems that by about 630 the town had been abandoned as a capital, although it continued on a much reduced scale as a religious centre and occasional coronation place for later dynasties. The large residences in the town were first occupied or built around by squatters, in some cases, apparently, even during the reigns of the last coin-issuing kings, then gradually covered by material brought down by run-off from the deforested hills. The exhausted state of the land, and climatic changes (Ch. 15) combined with a number of other factors must have compelled the rulers finally to shift their capital elsewhere. Ge`ez accounts suggest that the najashi (negus or king) whose death is noted by Arab records in 630, and who was a contemporary with Muhammad, had already done this. He is said to have been buried at Weqro (Wiqro, Wuqro) south-east of Aksum rather than in the ancient royal cemetery. The names of other Ethiopian capitals begin to be mentioned by Arab authors from about this time (Ch. 4: 8).

It seems, therefore, that the city of Aksum probably lasted as an important centre from about the first to the seventh centuries AD. The wealth it gained from its control of much of highland Ethiopia, and its rich trade with the Roman world maintained it until the late sixth century, but after that first Persian and then later Arab conquests first disrupted this commerce and then prevented any re-establishment of the Red Sea route from Adulis to the Roman world. Though a powerful Ethiopian state continued in the highlands, the old centre of Aksum, its trading advantages gone, and its hinterland no longer able to support a large population, shrank to small town or village status, with only the particularly sacred precincts of the cathedral of Mary of Zion, the stelae, mostly fallen, and a vast store of local legends about its history (Ch. 2: 1) to preserve its memory.

 
 

2. Legend, Literature, and Archaeological Discovery


 

1. The Legends of Aksum


The town of Aksum is today only a small district centre, not even the capital of the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray in which it is situated. However, despite this relative unimportance in modern times, Aksum's past position is reflected by the prime place it occupies in the fabric of legends which make up traditional Ethiopian history. For the people of Ethiopia, it is even now regarded as the ancient residence and capital city of the queen of Sheba, the second Jerusalem, and the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. One text calls the city the `royal throne of the kings of Zion, mother of all lands, pride of the entire universe, jewel of kings' (Levine 1974: 111). The cathedral of Maryam Tseyon, or Mary of Zion, called Gabaza Aksum, was the holiest place in the Ethiopian Christian kingdom, and is still said to house the Ark, supposedly brought from Jerusalem by the first emperor, Menelik. Tradition says that he was the son of king Solomon of Israel and the queen of Sheba conceived during the queen's famous visit to Jerusalem. Although no information survives in the legends about the ancient Aksumite rulers who really built the palaces and erected the giant stone obelisks or stelae which still stand in several places around the town, these monuments are locally attributed in many instances to Menelik or to Makeda, the queen of Sheba or queen of Azab (the South). Such legends are still a living force at Aksum today; for example, the mansion recently excavated in the district of Dungur, west of Aksum, has immediately been absorbed into local legends as the `palace of the queen of Sheba' (Chittick 1974: 192, n. 28).

Illustration 1. Painted miniature from a XVth century Ethiopic Psalter depicting king Solomon, reputed ancestor of the Ethiopian monarchy. Photo B. Juel-Jensen.

In the tales describing life in Ethiopia before the reign of the queen of Sheba, Aksum holds an important place. A tale about a local saint, Marqorewos, states that Aksum was formerly called Atsabo (Conti Rossini 1904: 32). The Matshafa Aksum, or `Book of Aksum' (Conti Rossini 1910: 3; Beckingham and Huntingford 1961: 521ff), a short Ge`ez (Ethiopic) work of the seventeenth century or a little earlier, says that the town was formerly built at Mazeber (`ruin') where was the tomb of Ityopis (Ethiopis), son of Kush, son of Ham, son of Noah. A structure called the `tomb of Ethiopis' (Littmann 1913: II, taf. XXVII) is still shown near Aksum, a little to the west of the modern town in an area where the ruins of many large structures of the ancient capital still lie buried. Makeda next moved the city to the territory called `Aseba, from whence she is said to have gained her name queen of Saba (Sheba). The third building of the city is stated to have been accomplished by the kings Abreha and Atsbeha (Ch. 10: 3). An Arab writer of the sixteenth century, describing how the tabot or Ark was removed from the cathedral of Aksum to a safe place when the Muslim armies approached, says of Aksum `it is not known who built it: some say it was Dhu al-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great). God alone knows best'! (from the Futuh al-Habasha, or `History of the Conquest of Abyssinia' by Arab-Faqih; de Villard 1938: 61-2).

Several modern authors (eg. Doresse 1956, 1971; Kitchen 1971) have speculated as to whether Tigray or the Ethiopian-Sudanese borderlands, instead of Arabia or the Horn of Africa, may have been the legendary `God's Land' of the ancient Egyptians. This land of Punt, producer of incense and other exotic treasures, where the pharaohs sent their ships, may at least have been one of the regions included at some time in the Aksumites' extended kingdom. Egyptian expeditions to Punt are known from as far back as Old Kingdom times in Egypt, in the third millenium BC, but the best-known report comes from the New Kingdom period, during the reign of queen Hatshepsut, in the fifteenth century BC. She was so proud of her great foreign trading expedition that she had detailed reliefs of it carved on the walls of her funerary temple at Dayr al-Bahri across the Nile from the old Egyptian capital of Thebes. The surviving reliefs show that the region was organised even then under chiefly rule, with a population eager to trade the recognisably African products of their lands with the visitors. Aksum is still today a sorting and distribution centre for the frankincense produced in the region, and it is not unlikely that the coastal stations visited by the ancient Egyptians acquired their incense from the same sources. Punt is suggested to have been inland from the Sawakin-north Eritrean coast (Kitchen 1971; Fattovich 1988, 1989i), and, apart from the great similarity of its products with those of the Sudan-Ethiopia border region, an Egyptian hieroglyphic text seems to confirm its identity with the Ethiopian highland region by reference to a downpour in the land of Punt which caused the Nile to flood (Petrie 1888: p. 107). The inscription dates to the twenty-sixth Egyptian dynasty, and knowledge of Punt seems to have continued even into the Persian period in Egypt, when king Darius in an inscription of 486-5BC mentions, or at least claims, that the Puntites sent tribute (Fattovich 1989ii: 92). One extremely interesting Egyptian record from an 18th Dynasty tomb at Thebes actually shows Puntite trading boats or rafts with triangular sails (Säve-Söderbergh 1946: 24), for transporting the products of Punt, indicating that the commerce was not exclusively Egyptian-carried, and that local Red Sea peoples were already seafaring — or at least conveying goods some distance by water (Sleeswyk 1983) — for themselves.

Returning to more specifically Aksumite matters, the Book of Aksum states that Aksumawi, son of Ityopis (Ethiopis), and great-grandson of Noah, was the founder of the city, and the names of his descendants (the `fathers of Aksum') gave rise to the various district names. His son was Malakya-Aksum, and his grandsons Sum, Nafas, Bagi'o, Kuduki, Akhoro and Fasheba (Littmann 1913: I, 38). In other legends (Littmann 1947), it is said that once a serpent-king, Arwe or Waynaba, ruled over the land, exacting a tribute of a young girl each year. It may be that the tale reflects memory of a serpent-cult in the region. Eventually a stranger, Angabo, arrived, and rescued the chosen girl, killing the monster at the same time. Angabo was duly elected king by the people, and one of his successors was Makeda. Sometimes the legends say that it was Makeda herself who was the intended sacrifice and inheritor of the kingdom. The essential element of all this was to appropriate for Aksum, one way or another, the legends which referred to the remote origins of Ethiopian history. The Englishman Nathaniel Pearce, who lived in Ethiopia in the early nineteenth century, related (Pearce 1831) how these stories were still current amongst the Ethiopians; `In the evening, while sitting with Ozoro, she told me a number of silly tales about Axum, among others a long story about a large snake which ruled the country . . . which sometimes resided at Temben, though Axum was the favourite residence of the two'. Pearce was later shown what seems to have been a fruit press, but which he interpreted as being `made by the ancients to prepare some kind of cement in for building'; his Ethiopian friend told him that this had actually been designed as a container for the snake's food.

The origins of these legends hark back to some unknown time after the conversion of the kingdom to Christianity in the reign of king Ezana of Aksum in the fourth century AD, or in some cases perhaps to an even earlier period when some Jewish traditions had entered the country. Such legends had their political use in providing pedigrees for national institutions. It was believed in later times that the state offices from the king downwards were descended from the company which had brought the Ark to Aksum from Jerusalem (Budge 1922: 61). Doubtless the Christian priests, searching for a longer pedigree for their religion to impress pagans and unbelievers, would have been interested in developing these tales which connected Ethiopia with Solomon and Sheba. The Ethiopian kings themselves, anxious to acquire the prestige of ancient and venerable dynastic ancestors, could scarcely have hoped for a more august couple as their reputed progenitors. Even in the official Ethiopian Constitution, up to the time of the end of the reign of emperor Haile Selassie, the dynasty was held to have descended directly from Solomon and the queen of Sheba through their mythical son, the emperor Menelik I.

The real events in Ethiopia's history before the present two millenia are lost in the mists of antiquity, but valiant attempts were made by Ethiopian chroniclers to fill in the immense gap between the reign of Menelik I and the time of the kings of Aksum. The king lists they developed (all those now surviving are of comparatively recent date), name a long line of rulers, covering the whole span from Menelik through the Aksumite period and on to the later Zagwé and `Solomonic' dynasties (Conti Rossini 1909). There is little point in reciting the majority of these names, but some of the most important of the reputed successors of Menelik I are worth noting for their importance in Ethiopian tradition.

Illustration 2. Built into one of the walls of the cathedral of Maryam Tseyon at Aksum, the so-called Stone of Bazen, surmounted by the Stele of the Lances.

The legendary king Bazen was supposed to have been reigning at the time of the birth of Christ in his eighth year (one modern interpretation even depicts him as one of the Three Kings who came to Bethlehem). A tomb is attributed to him in the south-eastern necropolis of Aksum, at the entrance to the modern town on the Adwa road. Near the cathedral is a stone on which is written in Ge`ez `This is the sepulchral stone of Bazen', but when this inscription was actually carved is unknown (Littmann 1913: IV, 49); evidently after the arrival of Christianity in Ethiopia, since it begins and ends with a cross. Two rulers preeminent in Ethiopian tradition were Abreha and Atsbeha (Ch. 10: 3), brothers who are said to have ruled jointly. They were converted to Christianity by the missionary Frumentius, and their example was eventually followed by the entire nation. Another hero in Aksumite legend was king Kaleb, also called Ella Atsbeha (Ch. 4: 7). He was regarded as a great conqueror and Christian hero whose expedition to suppress the persecution of his co-religionists in the Yemen by the Jewish king there caused his name to be famous throughout the Christian world. He is recognised as a saint in several church calendars. Two sons of Kaleb, called Gabra Masqal and Israel, are said to have succeeded him, and their rule is supposed to have encompassed both the physical and the spiritual worlds. Local legend in Aksum attributes an unusual double tomb structure to Gabra Masqal and his father Kaleb (Littmann 1913: II, 127ff); but Gabra Masqal is also supposed to be buried at his monastic foundation, Dabra Damo, to the north-east of Aksum. Finally among the legendary accounts come Degnajan, Anbessa Wedem and Dil Na'od, the kings in whose reigns, according to tradition, the collapse of Aksum eventually occurred (Sergew 1972, 203ff). It seems that in reality the stories about these three rulers refer to a time after Aksum had ceased to be the capital, and the traditions, interestingly, associate all of these theoretical `kings of Aksum' with activities in Shewa, Amhara, and other southern regions, even mentioning details implying a shift of the capital.

Much of this legendary literature is, of course, based very broadly on actual events and personalities. The story of Kaleb's conquest of the Yemen is at least a genuine historical occurrence (Ch. 4: 7), and, although there seem to be various distortions, the main theme of the conversion of the kingdom to Christianity by Frumentius also has independent historical confirmation (Ch. 10: 2). When more information is available about Ethiopian history in the period of Aksum's zenith and decline, it is very probable that the reality behind many other legends will be decoded into more prosaic form.

Legendary accounts for the fifth century are particularly rich, since it was then that the so-called Nine Saints (Sergew 1972, 115ff) and other foreign missionaries arrived in Ethiopia. Some of these would appear to have been Roman subjects from the Syrian provinces, probably seeking safe exile from the persecutions suffered by followers of the monophysite interpretation of the nature of Christ. They settled in various districts of the Aksumite kingdom, and began, it seems, the real Christianisation of the Ethiopian countryside population as apart from the official, royal, conversion of the fourth century, whose influence was no doubt somewhat limited. Around the missionaries' work a large and fascinating cycle of legends, full of miraculous happenings, developed, and is reported by the various gadlan (`lives', literally `struggles') of the saints. Their arrival and activities are set in the reigns of the fifth and sixth century kings Sa`aldoba, Ella Amida, Tazena, Kaleb and Gabra Masqal. The legendary accounts certainly contain elements of truth, and it seems that the missionaries who worked to convert the Aksumite population left traces of themselves in the Ge`ez language itself, since they used certain Aramaic/Syriac words in their translation of the Bible which remained in use ever afterwards (Ullendorff 1967).

One of the stories related about the end of Aksum, the tale of the foreign queen, called Gudit, Judith or Esato, seems also to have actual relevance to Ethiopian history in the last half of the tenth century. Gudit is said to have attacked the Aksumite kingdom, and driven the king out. Her armies harried the royal forces, destroying cities and churches as they went, and collecting plunder on a large scale. In Aksum they are said to have caused immense destruction, damaging the cathedral, smashing the altars, and even toppling some of the great stelae. Certain Arab historians corroborate parts of the tale; one, Ibn Hawqal, (Kramers and Weit 1964) states that, in the later tenth century, a foreign queen was able to take over the country, eventually killing the king. Another simply notes that a Yemeni king, sending a gift to the king of Iraq, included a female zebra previously sent to him by a queen who ruled over Habasha (Abyssinia), dating this event to AD969-70 (el-Chennafi 1976). The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria preserves a letter from an unnamed Ethiopian king to George (Girgis) II of Nubia, in which the king, attacked by the `Queen of the Bani al-Hamwiyya', bemoans his fate, attributing his distress to a rift between the monarchy and the patriarchate, and begs the Nubian king to intercede for him with the Alexandrian patriarch (Atiya et al. 1948, 171-2; Budge, 1928ii: I, 233-4). Though the origin of this queen is obscure, it is possible that she was ruler of one of the pagan kingdoms to the south, such as Damot.

The Portuguese father Francisco Alvares, whose book on Ethiopia was written by 1540 (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961), reported that Aksum (which he calls "a very good [big] town named Aquaxumo") . . . "was the city, court and residence (as they say) of the Queen Saba [whose own name was Maqueda]" . . . He also wrote that "Aquaxumo was the principal residence of Queen Candace (the title of the queens of the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Kush or Kasu, whose capital was Meroë), [whose personal name was Giudich] (Judith or Gudit), who was the beginning of the country's being Christian . . . they say that here was fulfilled the prophecy which David spoke "Ethiopia shall arise, and stretch forth her hands to God" (Psalm lxviii. 31). So they say they were the first Christians in the world". Alvares has conflated the pagan/Jewish queen Judith with Candace (Kandake) the `queen of the Ethiopians', whose eunuch treasurer was converted to Christianity by the apostle Philip (Acts, ch. 8), and whom the Ethiopians claim was actually a ruler of Ethiopia rather than of Meroë; in such ways do the legends grow more and more confused. Alvares also mentions the "large and handsome tower . . . a royal affair, all of well hewn stone" (the pre-Aksumite Sabaean temple at Yeha, Ch. 4: 1), as another edifice which "belonged to Candace".

Ethiopian Christian chroniclers have sought to connect their country with several other events and prophecies mentioned in the Bible. The kingdom was referred to in ancient documents as `Aksum' or the country `of the Aksumites', after the capital city and the ruling tribal group or clan. The people, or perhaps a group of peoples including the `Aksumites', were also called `Habasha', and the name for their country, Habashat, is that from which we derive the now out-of-fashion name `Abyssinia'. However, already by the fourth century AD the Aksumite king Ezana, in his long list of titles in a bilingual inscription (see Ch. 11: 4), uses the word `Ethiopia' in the Greek version as the translation for `Habashat'. The original use of the Greek designation `Ethiopia' was either as a general designation for the black peoples south of the Egyptian border (as the Arabs later used `al-Habasha' or its plural `Ahabish' for groups like the Zanj, Beja, and Nubians as well as the Abyssinians; Tolmacheva 1986), or more specifically as a reference to the kingdom of Kush or Kasu, with its capital at Meroë on the Sudanese Nile. But after the eclipse of this state, the kings of both Aksum and Nubia (Munro-Hay 1982-3) used the name `Ethiopia' to refer to their own countries and peoples. Thus the mentions of Kush in the Bible have been attributed to Aksumite `Ethiopia', instead of Meroitic/Kushite Ethiopia, by those Christian interpreters determined to bestow a long and prominent tradition, beginning with Kush, grandson of Noah, on their country.

By the fourth century AD Aksumite pilgrims began to appear in Jerusalem, and St. Jerome noted their presence (Cerulli 1943: I, 1). A few fourth-century Aksumite coins have been found there and in Caesarea (Barkay 1981; Meshorer 1965-6). Later the Ethiopians had a religious house at Jerusalem (Meinardus 1965) which helped to spread the growing interest in Ethiopia in subsequent centuries, and also played its part in disseminating the legendary history of Ethiopia in the west.

The Ethiopian traditional king-lists and chronicles are important in that, late as they are in their present form, they show how vital the legends concerning Aksum have been to the Ethiopians throughout their history. They are unquestionably erroneous, since there are widely differing versions both of the king-lists and the lists of metropolitan bishops of Aksum starting with Frumentius. They also fail to name those kings and bishops who are known from inscriptions, coins, and other sources except in a very few cases. Although it has been suggested that, in the case of the kings, this could be in part due to the Ethiopian rulers' custom of employing several names (as, for example, a personal name, a throne name, a `tribal' name and so on; see Ch. 7: 5), the differences in the lists are not to be so simply explained. Nevertheless, the compilation of the lists, the collection of anecdotes and chronicles, and the attempts to root Ethiopian tradition in the remote past connected with eminent persons, places and events, clearly indicates the importance of the country's past history to mediaeval and even to more modern Ethiopians. Such texts remain a testimony, whether their contents be partly legendary or not, to the efforts of Ethiopian scholars over the centuries to understand and interpret their own history.

 

2. Aksum in Ancient Sources


Some details about the political and military history of Aksum have been preserved in ancient documentary sources, some Aksumite and some foreign. A number of Greek and Roman geographers and scholars noted small snippets of information about contemporary Aksum, and certain travellers, merchants, ecclesiastics and ambassadors added various facts about the country in their writings. None of them seems to have acquired any really substantial knowledge about the kingdom — certainly no-one appears to have left us more than the briefest accounts — but at least we are afforded some slight glimpses from time to time.

The Roman writer Gaius Plinius Secundus — Pliny the Younger — whose notes on Ethiopia in his Naturalis Historia were probably completed in their present form in AD77 (Rackham 1948: 467-9), mentions only Aksum's `window on the world', the Red Sea port of Adulis, through which the kingdom's international trade passed. Another document, called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, notes the `city of the people called Auxumites' (Schoff 1912: 23) or `the metropolis called the Axomite' (Huntingford 1980: 20), or `the metropolis itself, which is called Axômitês' (Casson 1989: 53), and gives details of the trade goods imported and exported. This anonymous report, which modern scholars view as either an official report, or a merchants' and sailors' guide to the known Red Sea and Indian Ocean ports, dating perhaps somewhere between the mid-first and the early second century AD, also describes the ruler of this region. This monarch, almost certainly the Aksumite king himself (but see Cerulli 1960: 7, 11; Huntingford 1980: 60, 149-50; Chittick 1981: 186; Casson 1989: 109-10), was called Zoskales; he is represented as a miserly man, but of good character, who had some acquaintance with Greek literature. The famous Greek astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolomaeus — Ptolemy — of Alexandria, describes Aksum in the middle of the second century AD as the seat of the king's palace (Stevenson 1932: 108); and the existence of a prospering trading centre at Aksum at about this time is confirmed by the latest archaeological investigations (Munro-Hay 1989).

The Persian religious leader Mani, founder of the Manichaean religion, who died in 276 or 277AD, is reported by his followers to have described the four most important kingdoms of the world as comprising Persia, Rome, Aksum and Sileos, the latter possibly China (Polotsky 1940: 188-9). This remark shows that Aksum's repute was spreading in the contemporary world. It was about this time that the Aksumites produced their own coinage, an excellent way of bringing their country into prominence abroad, since only the greatest of contemporary states issued a gold coinage.

Around 356AD, the Roman emperor Constantius II wrote a letter to Ezana, king of Aksum, and his brother Sazana, on an ecclesiastical matter. The letter has been preserved in the Apologia ad Constantium Imperatorem of the famous Alexandrian patriarch Athanasius (Szymusiak 1958). Aksum is also mentioned in the account (Philostorgius; ed. Migne 1864: 482ff.) of the travels of an Arian bishop, Theophilus `the Indian', who was sent by Constantius to try to convert the Arabian kingdoms; he later seems to have visited Aksum. It has been suggested that possibly it was he who carried the letter from Constantius to the Aksumite rulers, but Schneider (1984: 156) points out that according to Philostorgius Theophilus returned from his mission not long after 344AD. The ecclesiastical historian Rufinus (ed. Migne 1849: 478-9), writing at the end of the fourth century, gives an account of the conversion of the country, apparently taken directly from bishop Frumentius of Aksum's erstwhile companion, Aedesius of Tyre.

Very little is known of the fifth century history of Aksum, but in the sixth century the dramatic events following upon king Kaleb of Aksum's expedition to the Yemen greatly interested the Christian world. Several ambassadors from Constantinople, sent by the emperor Justinian to propose various trading and military arrangements, have left accounts of their embassies. One ambassador described the king's appearance at an audience (Malalas, ed. Migne 1860: 670). Another Greek-speaking visitor, Kosmas, called `Indikopleustes', who was in Ethiopia just before Kaleb's expedition, was asked by the king's governor at Adulis to copy an inscription so that it could be sent to the king at Aksum. He complied, and preserved the contents of the inscription, together with various other interesting details about Aksumite life, in his Christian Topography (Wolska-Conus 1968, 1973).

After the time of Kaleb, foreign reports about Ethiopia grow much sparser. The Byzantine historian Procopius mentions (ed. Dewing 1961: 191) that Kaleb's successor had to acknowledge the virtual independence of the Yemeni ruler Abreha, but all the rest of our information on the later Aksumite kings comes from inferences drawn from their coinage. For the followers of the recently-arisen prophet Muhammad, the Muslims, the country was important because the reigning najashi gave asylum to the prophet's early followers (Guillaume 1955: 146ff). Muhammad is said to have mourned when he heard of this king's death. However, the najashi, Ashama ibn Abjar, though he was the ruler of the territories of the Aksumite kingdom, may no longer have used that city as his capital. There is reason for thinking that by the time of Ashama's death in 630AD, the centre of the kingdom may have shifted elsewhere. If this is so, the portrait of a najashi or nigos (the picture is labelled in both Greek and Arabic), preserved on the walls of a hunting lodge at Qusayr `Amra in Jordan, built and decorated at the command of the Caliph al-Walid (705-715AD), would be of one of the successors of Ashama ibn Abjar who was no longer resident at Aksum (Almagro et al 1975: 165 & pl. XVII).

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Arab historians still noted the vast extent of the territories of the reigning najashi see (Ch. 4: 8), but situated the capital at a place called Ku`bar or Ka`bar, a large and prosperous trading town. Where this was, we do not know at present, but presumably it was situated in a place more favourable for the exploitation of trade and for participating in current political events than was Aksum. The legends about the fall of Aksum to Gudit, which seem, from the accounts of the Arab authors, to have derived from events in the later tenth century, do not really militate against this. Aksum, as Ethiopia's pre-eminent ecclesiastical centre, and perhaps coronation city, (a function restored to it in later times), may have suffered from Gudit's armies, but was not necessarily the country's administrative capital at the time. The great wealth of its cathedral, the ruins of its palaces, and the giant funerary monuments of its former kings, might well have attracted the attention of invaders in search of loot. Several of the kings mentioned in Ethiopian historical texts are said to have moved their capitals, doubtless reflecting the memory of a real event, unless they were already by that time nomadic tented capitals as was customary later in Ethiopian history.

 

3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times


Whatever was the cause of the end of the former Aksumite kingdom, a new centre eventually appeared in the province of Lasta to the south under a dynasty, apparently of Cushitic (Agaw) origin, later regarded as usurpers, called the Zagwé (Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 53ff; Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 200ff). The existence of a long and a short chronology for this dynasty indicates that the Ge`ez chroniclers were in some confusion as to the precise events occurring at the end of the `Aksumite' period until the advent of the Zagwé. The Zagwé capital, surely one of the world's most remarkable sights with its marvellous rock-cut churches, was at Roha, later renamed after the most famous of the Zagwé kings, Lalibela, who seems to have died around 1225. It still bears his name.

The Zagwé dynasty was eventually superseded by the so-called `Solomonic Restoration' in 1270, under king Yekuno Amlak. This new dynasty held to the legalistic fiction that Yekuno Amlak was a direct heir to the old Aksumite kings, whose line had been preserved in exile in the province of Amhara until strong enough to regain their inheritance by ousting the Zagwé monarchs. By the time of this restoration, and for a long period afterwards, the highland kingdom was involved in struggles with the constantly encroaching power of the Muslim states which had become established along the seaboard, and were pushing inland and up onto the Ethiopian plateau. In spite of some successes, the kingdom was in great distress when the first westerners began to renew the old contacts formerly maintained with the Ethiopian highlands by Greek, Roman, Indian and Arab traders.

Though there is a mention of Aksum (Chaxum) in a Venetian merchant itinerary (Crawford 1958: 28) of the late fourteenth century (which specifically notes Aksum's status as a coronation city and the magnificence of its basilica, richly ornamented with gold plates), it was, in fact, the Portuguese who first made real contact. A number of Ethiopian kings, such as Widim Ar`ad (1297-1312), Yeshaq (1414-1429), and Zara Ya`qob (1434-1468), had previously tried to communicate by sending missions to Europe, and as a result a certain interest was aroused.

In the early fourteenth century the now-lost treatise written by Giovanni da Carignano, who obtained his information from an Ethiopian embassy which stopped at Genoa in 1306 while returning from Avignon and Rome, had declared that the legendary Christian king Prester John was to be found in Ethiopia (Beckingham 1980). It is, of course, possible that Jacopo Filippo Foresti of Bergamo, who summarised Carignano's work in 1483, interpolated this idea, but a map of 1339 already shows Prester John in Ethiopia. Aksum appears on a map by Pizzigani in 1367 as Civitas Syone, the City of Zion, appropriately enough in view of its cathedral dedicated to Mary of Zion. At the end of the fourteenth century Antonio Bartoli of Florence was in Ethiopia, and in 1407 Pietro Rombulo arrived there, remaining for a very long time. Envoys of Yeshaq reached Valencia with letters from the king to Alfonso of Aragon in 1428. In 1441 Ethiopian monks from Jerusalem attended the Council of Florence (Tedeschi 1988) and some of their remarks about their country, recorded through an Arab-speaking interpreter by Poggio Bracciolini, constitute the first more or less credible description of Ethiopia printed in Europe (1492). Embassies sent by Zara Ya`qob to Cairo in 1443 and 1447 were also reported in Europe. In 1450 Rombulo went to Italy as ambassador for Zara Ya`qob to Alfonso of Aragon, and met Pietro Ranzano, who recorded some of his account in his very muddled description of the land of Prester John (this work is still unpublished). Alfonso replied, mentioning that on a previous occasion the artisans and envoys he had sent had all died. Ethiopian maps were produced, such as the Egyptus Novelo of c.1454 (which does not include Aksum) and that of Fra Mauro, 1460, which shows it under the name `Hacsum'. From 1470-1524 the Venetian Alessandro Zorzi was collecting his Ethiopian Itineraries (Crawford 1958), some of which mention Aksum or Axon (`great city of Davit, prete Jani of Ethiopia').

The Portuguese, beginning their expansion in the East, envisaged allying with Prester John against the Muslims, who were natural enemies of Portuguese trading development. Portuguese sailors, soldiers, and priests began to penetrate into Ethiopia in the later fifteenth century, and their accounts renewed interest in the history and legends of the country, and also brought to notice the ruins of the ancient capital of Aksum (Rey 1929; Caraman 1985; de Villard 1938). This was a fascinating period in the history of Ethiopia. The tales told by the Portuguese missionaries and envoys, and the absolutely extraordinary journeys, made willingly or not, which they undertook, are well worth the reading; but they are not, alas, within the compass of a work purely on Aksum. It was they, however, who reintroduced the ancient Ethiopian capital to the world, and some of them described the ruined town with a certain amount of detail. The best of these accounts are quoted in extenso below, Ch. 5: 3.

In the last years of the emperor Eskender (1478-1494) Pero de Covilhã, the first of the Portuguese envoys, who had been sent to the east by his king João II, reached the country. He was never allowed to leave, and he remained in Ethiopia until he died. By 1502 king Manoel I of Portugal had adopted the resounding title `Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, India, Arabia and Persia', a manifesto of intentions towards Ethiopia which were never to be realised. Perhaps the conquest of Goa and Ormuz had raised expectations elsewhere. In 1507 Covilhã was joined by João Gomes, a priest sent by Tristão da Cunha. Both of them were still there when the priest Francisco Alvares, to whom we owe a great debt for his description of the Ethiopia of his day (Alvares, ed. Beckingham and Huntingford 1961), arrived with the Portuguese fleet bringing the ambassador Rodrigo de Lima in 1520 (Thomas and Cortesão 1938). In 1512, the first reply to these embassies was sent by the Ethiopian queen-regent Eleni (Helena), through a certain Matthew, apparently an Armenian, who eventually managed to get to Portugal and return with the 1520 embassy, dying just afterwards. The military successes of the emperors Na`od (1494-1508) and Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) led the Ethiopians to make little of the opportunity for alliance offered by Rodrigo de Lima's embassy, a grave error since almost immediately after the embassy's departure in 1526 the attacks of the amir of Adal, Ahmad Gragn (or Grañ; `the left-handed'), began to wreak havoc in the kingdom. This continued until 1542, but already in 1541, in response to renewed appeals, the Portuguese soldier Cristovão da Gama, son of Vasco da Gama, had arrived with his troops. The Portuguese (though da Gama himself was killed in 1542) helped the new emperor Galawdewos or Claudius (1540-1559) to rescue his country from the depredations of the amir of Adal, who eventually died as a result of wounds inflicted in battle. Galawdewos himself later perished in battle, but the Ethiopian Christian state was from this time on in less danger from its Muslim enemies than before.

During his campaigns Gragn, like queen Gudit, had sacked Aksum and it was probably he who burnt the famous cathedral of `our Lady Mary Zion, the Mother of God'. Sartsa Dengel (1563-1597) was the next king after Zara Ya`qob to celebrate his coronation at Aksum, and perhaps at this time he built a small church in the ruins, which probably perished in its turn during the Galla war of 1611. There may have been some restoration of this structure, before the present church was constructed by the emperor Fasiladas (1632-1667) with Portuguese or Indian influenced architects; it seems to have been dedicated in 1655. Though the ancient cathedral disappeared as a result of Gragn's destruction, there is preserved among the Portuguese records Francisco Alvares' description of its appearance a decade or two before (Ch. 5: 3).

In spite of the harmony of purpose between Ethiopians and Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century, the latter's influence in Ethiopia was brief. By the time of the emperor Susenyos (1608-1632), religious disputes had grown up between the Catholics and the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and Jesuit arrogance destroyed the atmosphere of trust. As a result the Portuguese were expelled from the country by Susenyos' son Fasiladas. It was, however, this Portuguese episode in Ethiopia which first revealed the remains of the Aksumite civilisation to the outside world, through the writings and travels of the Portuguese ecclesiastics.

Francisco Alvares, the chaplain accompanying the embassy which arrived in 1520, left an interesting account in his book The Prester John of the Indies, published in Portuguese in Lisbon in 1540 (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961). Apart from the description of the great five-aisled basilica of Maryam Tseyon, he mentioned the stone thrones nearby, and a reservoir which does not seem to be the well-known one called Mai Shum (Ch. 5: 1). He described some of the stelae, and visited the `Tomb of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal', which he mentioned was supposed by some to contain the treasure chests of the Queen of Sheba. He also noted some information about Abba Pantelewon and Abba Liqanos, both churches on small hills near Aksum.

Illustration 2a. The title page of Francisco Alvares 1540 book on Ethiopia. Though the book itself is rich in information about Ethiopia, including a valuable section on Aksum and its ruins, the illustrator has shown `Prester John' with all the trappings of a contemporary European monarch.

In 1603, the Spaniard Pedro Paez (Pero Pais) arrived in Ethiopia after extraordinary adventures in the Yemen, where he was a prisoner for seven years. He wrote a History of Ethiopia (Pais 1945-6), and also mentioned Aksum in his letters to a friend, Thomas Iturén, with whom he corresponded every year (Caraman 1985). Through João Gabriel, captain of the Portuguese in Ethiopia, who was present at the time, he was able to describe the coronation of Susenyos at Aksum on 18 March 1608 (Ch. 7: 6). He also mentions the thrones, the stelae, and the church, though he comments that this latter could not be compared with the ancient one. Paez even prepared a measured drawing of the `Tomb of Kaleb' (Monneret de Villard 1938: 68).

Two years after Paez' death in 1622, Manoel de Almeida arrived. His History of Ethiopia (Huntingford 1954), which contained revised material from Paez' work, noted that about twenty stelae were still standing, and seven or eight fallen and broken ones were visible (Ch. 5: 3). He commented that it was said that these were overthrown by the Turks during the war of Sartsa Dengel with the viceroy Yeshaq (1578). Such an incident is not mentioned in the Ge`ez chronicles.

Emmanuel Barradas, who accompanied de Almeida's mission, also left some notes (de Villard 1938: 68-71) on Aksum's monuments, some of which were `very large and of notable majesty', including `high and beautiful columns or pyramids', evidently the stelae, which bore comparison with the biggest and best at Rome. He also mentions an inscription with letters on one side in `Amharic' of an ancient style, and on the other letters which appeared to be Greek or Latin. The thrones are described, and also the `Tomb of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal'.

In 1625, the new catholic patriarch Alfonso Mendes reached Ethiopia, bringing with him from Diu the Jesuit father Jerónimo Lobo, who had gone there after a courageous but abortive attempt to enter the country via Malindi, on the Indian Ocean coast (now in Kenya). Lobo remained nine years in Ethiopia; his account of his travels, the Itinerário, was first published in 1728 in a French translation by Le Grand, and later appeared in English translated by Samuel Johnson (1735). All he says of Aksum is

"and the place where she (the Queen of Sheba) had her court still exists today, with monuments of remarkable magnificence, as well as the town where they say she was born and which still today preserves her name, the land being called Saba by the Abyssinians, all of which I saw and traversed on several occasions".
When James Bruce, (who detested the Jesuits, and who referred to Lobo as `a grovelling fanatic priest') launched into one of his denunciations of Lobo's inaccuracy, he made the mistake of assuming that Lobo's `Caxume' was Aksum, and ridiculed his geographical understanding (Bruce 1790). Actually, Lobo was referring to Qishn in Arabia.a grovelling fanatic priest

Finally, in 1660 the Jesuit Balthasar Telles or Tellez published his Historia geral de Ethiopia a alta, at Coimbra in Portugal. This was an abridgement and revision of de Almeida's (unpublished) book, just as the latter depended to some extent on Paez. Translated into English, Tellez' The Travels of the Jesuits in Ethiopia was published in London in 1710. It contained a brief account of Aksum and its monuments (Ch. 5: 3).

The information imparted by the various missionaries who worked in Ethiopia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though full of semi-legendary material, allowed Job Ludolf, or Ludolphus, in 1681, to publish at Frankfurt the first full History of Abyssinia, (excluding the fabulous `history' written by Tellez' `Chimerical author', Luis de Urreta, published at Valencia in 1610 — a book about which Geddes (1696: 467ff), quoting an extract about vast and mythical Dominican convents in Ethiopia, noted `though it is an octavo of 1130 odd pages, and a small print, there is not one syllable of truth from the beginning to the end'). Ludolf's work was translated and printed in English the next year. It included, in Book II, a chapter (XI) entitled "Of the Royal City of Axuma: and the Inauguration of their Kings". Ludolf has very little to add, beyond a number of sighs at the transience of material things, to the Jesuit reports, merely saying that

"of old this city was adorn'd with most beautiful structures, a fair palace, and a cathedral proudly vaunting her obelisks, sculptures, and several sumptuous edifices. Some of the pillars are still to be seen, with inscriptions of unknown letters, remaining arguments of their antiquity, now demolish'd by the wars, or defac'd with age. The city itself, now totally ruin'd, looks more like a village, than a town of note . . . only the ruins still remain to testify that once it was great and populous".
The next additions to our knowledge about the country came from travellers who for one reason or another managed to penetrate through what is now the Sudan or from the inhospitable coastlands and climb through the passes to the high Ethiopian plateau. The French doctor, Charles Poncet, journeyed to Aksum (which he called Heleni) in 1699, but limited himself to describing three pyramidal and triangular granite needles, covered with hieroglyphs, in the square in front of the church. He noted that they had bolts represented on them, which surprised him, since the Ethiopians did not employ them. However inaccurate the description, it is evident that he refers to the three largest stelae.

The Scottish explorer, James Bruce, arrived in 1769 and stayed in the country until 1772. In his book, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, he devoted some pages to the description of the antiquities of Aksum. He mentioned forty obelisks "none of which have any hieroglyphs upon them", discussed Poncet's bolts, and suggested that the three largest stelae were the work of Ptolemy Euergetes. He also illustrated this part with a "geometrical elevation, servilely copied, without shading or perspective, that all kind of readers may understand it". This illustration is very inaccurate, but does give an impression of the stelae. Bruce also mentioned one hundred and thirty three pedestals with the marks of statues on top; some of these pedestals still remain visible today. Bruce claimed that two of them still bore the statues of "Syrius the Latrator Anubis, or Dog Star". These were `much mutilated, but of a taste easily distinguished to be Egyptian". What these actually were is, alas, now a mystery, but his evidence, with that of Alvares, leads one to think that there must have been many more pedestals or thrones visible than can be seen today. He also saw other pedestals "whereon the figures of the Sphinx had been placed". He commented on the "magnificent flights of steps" of the platform of the former church "probably the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy Euergetes, if not of a time more remote", and dismissed the cathedral as a "mean, small building, very ill kept, and full of pigeons dung". He also added that the king himself told him that the Ark of the Covenant had been destroyed by Gragn with the church, "though pretended falsely to subsist there still". He saw the various pillars and thrones (or at least so one supposes from his description of "three small square inclosures, all of granite, with small octagon pillars in the angles, apparently Egyptian; on the top of which formerly were small images of the dog-star, probably of metal"). Bruce found, below the coronation stone, another stone with a defaced inscription which, naturally, he announced "may safely be restored" with the Greek letters reading `King Ptolemy Euergetes'. He further alludes to the Mai Shum reservoir, and estimates the town to have amounted in his time to some six hundred houses. Oddly enough, in view of his particular desire to see most of the monuments as Egyptian, Bruce was, while in Tigray, actually presented with a late Egyptian (possibly XXXth Dynasty or Ptolemaic) cippus (a small stele bearing magical texts) of Horus, which he illustrates in two engravings. This is one of the very rare Egyptian or Meroitic objects known from Ethiopia, but a standing figure of the same deity shown on the cippus, Horus-the-Child or Harpokrates, is also known from a cornaline amuletic figure found at Matara (Leclant 1965).

Illustrations 3 & 4. Prints after one of Bruce's sketches, showing the Egyptian Cippus of Horus given to him in Ethiopia.

In spite of Bruce's curious interpretations of the Aksumite monuments visible in his time, his publication, though a certain amount of incredulity greeted his account of what he had seen and done, attracted interest in Ethiopian history and antiquities. He was soon followed by Henry Salt, who travelled to Ethiopia with George Annesley, viscount Valentia, in 1805, and again as British envoy in 1809. In the last volume of Valentia's three-volume account (1809), Salt contributed a chapter on Aksum, and first published Ezana's inscription as well as other antiquities; the folio acquatint companion volume to Valentia's work contained a picture of the stelae, the first nineteenth-century illustration of Aksumite antiquities. Salt also published A Voyage to Abyssinia in 1814, illustrating it with a copy of Ezana's famous trilingual inscription. With Salt, who cleared the base of this inscription, we may say that archaeology had arrived at Aksum, although it was not until 1868 that a deliberately planned excavation, amateurish though it seems to us today, was undertaken. This occurred when soldiers accompanying the British military expedition, sent to relieve the prisoners kept by the emperor Tewodros (Theodore) at Magdala, opened some trenches at the site of the port of Adulis. They were theoretically under the distant supervision of R. R. Holmes, the British Museum's agent, who actually remained up-country endeavouring, unsuccessfully as it transpired, to obtain permission to visit Aksum (Munro-Hay, 1989). Other visitors of various nationalities followed, including Theodore Bent who, in 1893, was able to add a certain amount to the description of Aksum and its surroundings in his Sacred City of the Abyssinians (1896). The Italian archaeologist Paribeni, in 1906, and the Swede Sundström, also excavated at Adulis and found impressive ruined structures, with a number of coins and other objects (Paribeni 1907: Sundström 1907).

Illustration 5. The Greek version of the trilingual inscription of king Ezana of Aksum first published by Salt. Photo BIEA.

With the beginning of archaeology in the country, the potential for discovering more about the Aksumites' way of life was immensely increased. Details about technological and agricultural affairs, or urbanisation, not available from any other source, now began to emerge. The major event in Ethiopian archaeology until the excavations of modern times, was the arrival of the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, led by Enno Littmann, in 1906 (Littmann et al. 1913). The German team explored Aksumite sites along their route across Ethiopia, and surveyed the whole Aksum region; they dug for the plans of major structures, and meticulously planned, drew or photographed whatever they cleared. Almost immediately after their return a preliminary report appeared (Littmann and Krencker 1906). The German team also presented, in their copiously-illustrated four-volume publication in 1913, sketches, photographs and descriptions of everything of interest both ancient and modern. This included a number of Aksumite inscriptions, which were translated and so offered some primary material for speculations about chronology and other aspects of Aksumite history.

The foundation which they laid has been built upon, though very modestly in comparison to work in other countries, by subsequent expeditions. Archaeological and survey work has been done by Italian, French, American and British teams, and by the Ethiopian Department of Antiquities (most of it only published in preliminary reports in the Annales d'Ethiopie, but see also Chittick 1974 and Munro-Hay 1989). The surveys and excavations have revealed numerous structures and domestic material of Aksumite date in many parts of northern Ethiopia. As a result, some idea can now be obtained as to the extraordinary civilisation developed between about the first and seventh centuries AD by the Aksumites at their capital city and other urban centres. Though the archaeological study of the kingdom is still in its infancy, the results are very impressive, and we can now put Aksum firmly into its place among the great civilisations of late antiquity.

 
 

3. The City and the State


 

1. The Landscape


A traveller arriving at Gabaza, the coast station and customs point for the port city of Adulis (Ch. 3: 4) a short distance inland, may well have looked westwards towards Aksum from the hot and humid coastal plain by the Red Sea shore with some trepidation. As James Bruce (1790) put it

"The mountains of Abyssinia have a singular aspect from this (coastal plain), as they appear in three ridges. The first is of no considerable height, but full of gullies and broken ground, thinly covered with shrubs; the second, higher and steeper, still more rugged and bare; the third is a row of sharp, uneven-edged mountains, which would be counted high in any country in Europe".
The traveller would know that Aksum lay in those highlands, several days journey from the top of the escarpment, in a different climatic zone, and to all intents and purposes in a different world.

Adulis, with its prosperous international trading community, and sizable buildings in the Aksumite style, was the first important town on the journey to the capital. It evidently became `Aksumite' in terms of architecture and government, but may well have already had a long history before that. During the Aksumite period, it was probably still rather different from the inland towns, as one would expect from a community exposed to many foreign influences. Paribeni (1907) found there many objects apparently imported from the Graeco-Roman world or even India.

Immediately on leaving Adulis on the Aksum road, a traveller would have seen the famous monument left by an unknown Aksumite king, and a stele belonging to one of the Egyptian Ptolemies (Chs. 3: 4 and 11: 1). From here the journey to Aksum took eight days, according to the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20), or twelve days according to Procopius (Dewing 1914: 183). The difference doubtless reflected either some change in the route, or in the season of travelling, if it was not simply caused by the greater haste of merchants in comparison to ambassadors travelling in a comparatively leisurely manner. The journey took travellers through two of the three climatic zones recognised by the Ethiopians nowadays; the first is called the kwolla, below 1800 m and with a hot tropical climate (26°C or more), and the second the woina dega, from 1800-2400 m, with a sub-tropical climate and average temperatures of 22°C. Aksum itself lay at about 2100 m. The final climatic zone was the high dega, above 2400 m with an average temperature of 16°C.

The climatic extremes or differences were mentioned by ancient travellers such as Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 362), who particularly noted that it was the rainfall in Ethiopia which formed the torrents which fell into the Nile. The ambassador of Justinian, Nonnosus (Photius; ed. Freese 1920) noted the two zones;

"The climate and its successive changes between Aue and Aksum should be mentioned. It offers extreme contrasts of winter and summer. In fact, when the sun traverses Cancer, Leo and Virgo it is, as far as Aue, just as with us, summer and the dry weather reigns without cease in the air; but from Aue to Aksum and the rest of Ethiopia a rough winter reigns. It does not rage all day, but begins at midday everywhere; it fills the air with clouds and inundates the land with violent storms. It is at this moment that the Nile in flood spreads over Egypt, making a sea of it and irrigating its soil. But, when the sun crosses Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces, inversely, the sky, from the Adulitae to Aue, inundates the land with showers, and for those who live between Aue and Aksum and in all the rest of Ethiopia, it is summer and the land offers them its splendours".
Frequently, because of the possibility of the name Aue being a Greek rendition of the name Yeha, the two are identified (see for example Bent 1896: 143ff). But Nonnosus specifically says that Aue is mid-way between Adulis and Aksum, and this note, with the climatic information, seems to place it among the first towns of the highlands when the plateau is reached, possibly Qohayto, Tekondo, or Matara (if the latter is not identified with the Koloë of the Periplus). Schneider (1982) has already suggested that Aue lay on the edge of the plateau. Periplus

After following the winding rocky passes up and up into the cooler zone of the highlands the traveller would reach one of these towns, set in the broken scenery of the high Ethiopian plateau, scored by rivers and valleys sloping westwards to the Nile valley and scattered with strange-shaped mountains. Flat land is relatively rare here, but the plateaux on the tops of the mountains, called ambas, are utilised for cultivation, and also act as natural fortresses. Balthasar Telles (Tellez 1710: 31) mentioned their advantages;

"Some of these mountains, which the natives call ambas, stand by themselves apart from all others, are prodigious high, as it were in an impregnable fortress. . . ."
Vegetation and streams abound, and there must have been a considerable variety of wildlife in ancient times. Alvares, who described part of his journey as passing "through mountains and devilish jungle", populated his jungle with lions, elephants, tigers, leopards, wolves, boars, stags, tapirs and "all other beasts which can be named in the world except . . . bears and rabbits". His tigers through mountains and devilish jungleall other beasts which can be named in the world except . . . bears and rabbits
may have been hyenas, as Bruce suggested (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961: 67) or perhaps cheetahs. Telles and Alvares mention crocodiles and hippopotami in the Takaze river, as well as the electric fish, called the torpedo or cramp-fish (Tellez 1710: 20-21).

Illustration 6. The mountainous scenery of northern Ethiopia. Photo R. Brereton.

On entering the highlands of Eritrea and Tigray, the heartland of the Aksumite kingdom, it is the mountains which most impress. To quote Bruce again,

"It is not the extreme height of the mountains in Abyssinia that occasions surprise, but the number of them, and the extraordinary forms which they present to the eye. Some of them are flat, thin and square, in the shape of a hearth-stone, or slab, that scarce would seem to have base sufficient to resist the action of the winds. Some are like pyramids, others like obelisks or prisms, and some, the most extraordinary of all the rest, pyramids pitched upon their points, with the base uppermost, which, if it was possible, as it is not, they could have been so formed in the beginning, would be strong objections to our received ideas of gravity".
Telles commented that there were
"almost continual mountains of a prodigious height, and it is rare to travel a day's journey without meeting such steep, lofty and craggy hills, that they are dreadful to behold, much more to pass over".
The northern Ethiopian scenery, enhanced by the startling shapes of the imposing euphorbia candelabra trees on the slopes, is both beautiful and formidable. Nowadays, however, when the rains have not arrived, the area around Aksum can seem as desolate as a moonscape, inhospitable and without a blade of grass anywhere; the results of climatic changes and man's improvidence ( euphorbia candelabra
Ch. 15).

All along the main route south, from the head of the valleys where one finally entered the highlands, were Aksumite towns. A traveller must have passed at least one major town, Matara, and many others with impressive stone buildings, before he turned west to Aksum. From the plateau of Shire, behind the ancient capital to the west, descend two river valleys, the Marab in the north and the Takaze in the south, both doubtless used, at least in the dry season, as routes into the Sudan. Beyond the Takaze rise the Semien mountains, described in one of the Aksumite inscriptions as covered with snow and freezing mists. This inscription, the Monumentum Adulitanum (Ch. 11: 5), also describes campaigns against the tent-dwelling Beja in the inhospitable hills of the Red Sea coast, against some mountain-dwelling peoples, and against the tribes living in the immense waterless plains of the Danakil region. The account given in the inscription gives a good idea of the extreme contrasts in the geography, climate, and population groups of the area which the Aksumites controlled, and instills a certain amount of respect for the rulers who, albeit tenuously, managed to link such disparate parts into a functioning political and commercial system for several centuries.

 

2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom


Aksum was, oddly as it might seem at first, situated in the western part of the future Aksumite kingdom. This, however, must reflect the prevailing political, economic and commercial conditions long before Aksumite ambitions could have reached to an outlet on the Red Sea coast, and probably implies that the original significance of the site derived from its command over certain local resources and interior trade-routes, one important one most likely leading to the Nile Valley and using the Marab and Takaze river valleys which drained westwards towards the Nile. Eventually Aksum lay at the heart of a series of routes. One lay between the Nile and Adulis, another led to `the Cataracts' (Aswan), a journey of 30 days according to Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 356). This route leading to Egypt was also mentioned by the anonymous king who raised the Monumentum Adulitanum (Ch. 11: 5), and by Procopius (ed. Dewing 1914: 185); "From the city of Auxomis to the Aegyptian boundaries of the Roman domain, where the city called Elephantine is situated, is a journey of thirty days for an unencumbered traveller". A third route may be surmised as leading south from Aksum to the "extremities of Ethiopia", defined by Kosmas as "to the land of incense called Barbaria" (apparently the Somali coast where incense can still be found), some 30 days distant. A final route was that known for the gold trade, running through the Agaw lands towards Sasu, which took six months to go and return, including five-day stops for trading (Wolska-Conus 1968: 362).

Map
Map B. Map of Aksumite Ethiopia.

In addition to its advantageous position for trade, the site, facing the plains of Aksum and Hasabo and with the plateau of Shire behind it, enjoyed abundant rainfall, with a long rainy season from late June to early September. There were probably a number of streams and springs, and fertile soil very likely capable of producing more than one crop a year. In the environs of the future city were good agricultural areas, such as the plain of Hasabo (Hazebo, Atzabo) to the east. Michels (1988: 2-3, map 4), in a very useful survey, interviewed farmers in the Aksum-Yeha region in 1974 as to soil qualities, and studied local topography and irrigation potential. He was able to classify four ecological zones, and found that the immediate environs of Aksum and Yeha belonged in his Zone A; "low gradient, highly fertile land that is optimal for plow cultivation, requires no fertility intervention other than crop rotation, and relies upon seasonal rains".

This evidently favourable region was, it seems, already populated when Aksum was founded. Though there are earlier sites with ruins dating to the Sabaean-influenced pre-Aksumite period nearby (such as Hawelti, Melazo — with Gobochela and Enda Cherqos — and Medoge) so far no firm evidence has been found to indicate that the site of Aksum itself was occupied before about the beginning of our era. However, the pre-Aksumite `Sabaean' cultural area certainly extended along the route from Adulis and into the Aksum region.

Recent work by Italian archaeologists in the Kassala region, noted by Fattovich (1988), has hinted that certain aspects of Aksumite culture may have come from the western lowlands even before this. Fattovich observed features on pre-Aksumite pottery resembling those on pottery of the Sudanese peoples labelled by archaeologists Kerma and C— group, and suggested that even such cultural features as the stelae, so characteristic of later Ethiopian funerary customs, might perhaps have derived from early Sudanese prototypes. Some of these features date back to the late 3rd and early 2nd millenia BC, and the discovery of evidence of fairly complex societies in the region at this early date may suggest, to quote Fattovich, "a more complex reconstruction of state formation in Northern Ethiopia" (see also Ch. 4: 1).

At the moment, however, the early history of Aksum is almost unknown and there is little evidence available relating to the formation of the Aksumite state. However, we can suggest a possible course of development. It would seem that the favourable position of the future capital both from the trading point of view, and from that of local food-production and other resources, allowed increasing prosperity to come to the settlement. With this prosperity there was possibly a rise in the local population, and, concomitantly, an increase in potential military strength. Expansion to secure either new resources or various trade-routes was possible with the development of a military machine which, as we may surmise from later events, became very efficient. What other incentives may have arisen to encourage the Aksumites to exploit their new potential we do not know, but there could have been such impulses as the need to repel a possible threat from nearby peoples, or the rise of an exceptional leader. Aksum was not a great colonial power, arriving with superior weapons to fight ill-equipped locals; though they did exploit the possibilities of imported weapons, as the Periplus mentions, it was, if we can hazard a guess, increased manpower, organisational ability, speed and capable generalship which eventually gave Aksum the dominant military role in the region.

How the governmental system of the earlier polity functioned can only be suggested. Possibly it was based on some sort of tribal council, which eventually made way for a single leader, or possibly traditional organisations based on such examples as the ancient chiefs of Punt and the mukarribs and kings of the earlier South Arabian period had already left the heritage of a system of chiefly control. Aksum must have begun to take its place as an ever more important part of the local political scene, partly by the exercise of military initiative, and partly, perhaps, by developing treaty-relationships with neighbouring tribal groups and gradually assuming the position of primus inter pares. We have no idea about the Aksumites' attitudes towards these surrounding peoples until later, when they were definitely considered to be subordinate; but presumably the dominance the Aksumites eventually achieved was not easily gained, and even in the heyday of Aksum one or other of the lesser tribes occasionally made a bid for freedom, described in the official Aksumite sources as `rebellions'.

Absorption of neighbouring tribal groups seems to have followed the initial impetus for expansion, often with the traditional rulers left in power as sub-kings, until in the end the Aksumites controlled a very large area of modern Ethiopia. Under the umbrella of Aksumite control, we can envisage a number of older systems of government still functioning, and perhaps themselves in some ways influencing the Aksumites politically and culturally. The kings' titles on inscriptions list a number of regions, certainly those which constituted the most important provinces of the empire, but the many smaller polities mentioned in the body of the inscriptions, with their local kings, were evidently not considered significant enough to merit this special mention in the titularies. They may, by this time, have been subsumed under the general term `Habashat', or even, in some cases, `Aksumites', and, as it were, been transformed from foreign tribesman to Aksumite citizen. The designation `Habashat' may originally have referred to the population of the prosperous eastern area of Tigray. Probably, after their submission, levies from the various tribes or their clans would have swollen the Aksumite potential for putting armies into the field, and might even have given the names to some of the military regiments known from the inscriptions (Ch. 11: 2).

Whether the Aksumites had formed a concept of the state as comprising these communities of the central region, but excluding those particularly mentioned in the titularies, is uncertain. The primary title, negus in Ge`ez or najashi in Arabic, (signifying king or military leader) of Aksum, or `of the Aksumites', seems to refer to the nucleus of tribal groups taken in to form a single polity, quite aside from the more `foreign' peoples and regions later subordinated to Aksumite control. But the inscriptions still continue to refer to revolts in the inner territories for as long as we have records from Aksumite times, and we have little idea what was regarded as constituting the `Aksumite' ingredient of the state. The land belonging to the subordinate tribes was perhaps not considered part of `Aksumite' territorial jurisdiction, land-rights remaining vested in those tribes and the payment of tribute reserving a measure of autonomy. These neighbours did not, then, immediately become united in a political sense to the Aksumites by the merger of their lands and institutions with those of Aksum, though their eventual disappearance from the record indicates that ultimately absorption was inevitable. It would evidently have been in the interest of the security of the Aksumite crown to diminish the power of provincial authorities, eliminate provincial royalty, and reduce the provinces to the direct control of the monarchy, but only if the monarchy itself were capable of controlling the areas thus acquired; but it may well be that the continued existence of the smaller units reflects the central government's inability to do this adequately. Aksum may have been obliged by necessity to tolerate an imperfect situation for some time, until through a policy of gradual replacement by Aksumite officials of hereditary rulers with a hold on local loyalties, the separate identity of the smaller entities was slowly eroded away.

This retention of a separate identity by certain tribes for some centuries after their submission to Aksumite authority might help to explain the revolts reported in Aksumite inscriptions, since if we presume that there were neither Aksumite garrisons nor royal retainers with land in the tribal areas, such risings would have been easier to foment. It is interesting to note that Procopius (Dewing 1914: 183) still refers to Adulis as the `harbour of the Adulites' using the ethnic name Ptolemy (Stevenson 1932: 108), had used much earlier. Other writers, like Epiphanius (ed. Blake and de Vis 1934), who in the late fourth century listed nine kingdoms of the `Indians' including `Adoulites', also recognised a difference between Adulites and Aksumites, though they are subsumed together in the Latin version; "Aksumites with Adulites" (Cerulli 1960: 16-17). It may have taken a considerable time before formal incorporation into the Aksumite state altered established social patterns.

In due course there must have been changes in the Aksumites' own political outlook, too, perhaps partly resulting from the exposure of the country to Graeco-Roman and other influences, particularly after the development of the Red Sea trade and Aksum's entry into a wider network of commerce. By around AD200 the Aksumite kings were able to intervene militarily in internal struggles in South Arabia, and in the fourth century we have evidence for at least theoretical suzerainty over several groups in the Sudan, such as the Kasu, Noba, and the Northern Cushitic-speaking Beja tribes (see the titulature on the inscriptions, Ch. 11: 5). Here, Aksum had to some extent taken over the imperial role of Meroë. In the south, Agaw (Central Cushitic-speaking) peoples also became subject to the Semitic-speaking Aksumites. The expansion to the Adulite coastal region now permitted Aksum to convey goods originating in districts beyond the Nile or its tributaries to their own port on the Red Sea coast, and the rulers doubtless hoped that their projects across the Red Sea would eventually lead to control of some of the immensely rich trade of the Arabian kingdoms. With Rome as a powerful ally and trading partner, Aksum's prosperity was based on firm geographical and historical realities, and was maintained until these altered in the late sixth/ early seventh century.

The Aksumite cultural province, as far as reported sites can indicate, was centred in Eritrea and Tigray, particularly the districts of the Akkele Guzay, Agame, and the region around Aksum, Adwa, and Shire. Traces have also been found in Enderta, Hamasien, Keren, and as far as the Rore Plateau (Conti Rossini, 1931), and even in Wollo (Anfray 1970). Some of the largest extensions suggested for the kingdom seem unlikely; Doresse, for example (1971: 84), includes among `the largest Aksumite ports' not only Adulis but Deire, on the coast at the Bab al-Mandeb, and also notes (p. 90) Mathew's statement that a structure excavated at Amoud south of Berbera suggested Aksumite building work. Such ideas, probably based on the Monumentum Adulitanum account of the campaigns of an Aksumite king, cannot yet be confirmed.

The Akkele Guzay and Agame area seems to be distinguished from the western Tigray sites by differences in pottery and other elements. From the tentative observations of Francis Anfray (1974), it seems, from the cluster of sites on the north-south route from Qohayto to Agula, Degum, and even to Nazret, that this eastern `province' may have become the most prosperous in later Aksumite times. Aksum and the sites of the west, from Addi Dahno to Henzat and the Yeha region, may have enjoyed prosperity in the pre-Christian period (many stelae are associated with the sites), but this compared unfavourably with the east later on. In such a case, Aksum may, even by the fifth and sixth centuries, have retained its position more by its prestige as the royal, eponymous city of the kingdom than by any continuing special merit in its situation. Possibly the Aksumites' expansion to Adulis, opening the western region to an already-established (pre-Aksumite?) trading system between the eastern highlands and the Red Sea, reflected in trading terms more favourably on the eastern towns, and in some ways made the city's own place in the system more tenuous. Even by the beginning of the second century Koloë was `the first market for ivory', only three days from Adulis. Possibly the end result was that the eastern towns grew richer, whilst the remoter west, though the site of the capital, participated less in the new influx of wealth.

 

3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation


A different, and extremely interesting, interpretation of Aksumite history was proposed in a recent paper by Joseph Michels (1986; revised 1988), who conducted surveys in the Aksum-Yeha region in 1974. His conclusions can be compared with the historical outline proposed below (at the end of Ch. 2: 4)||huh? no 2-4||. He identified seven historical phases in the area, from the end of the Late Neolithic through the pre-Aksumite South Arabian period to Late Aksumite, c.700BC-1000AD. By studying the spatial configuration of settlements, which were classified according to size and the types of structures observed (without excavation), Michels identified periodic changes in the settlement pattern, and, assuming that these signified shifts in the political and economic spheres, endeavoured to extrapolate to the historical record. Pottery and obsidian collections were made, the latter providing Michel's dating.

As a result of his studies, Michels identified three pre-Aksumite phases (Early, Middle and Late) dating from 700/400/150 BC, and three Aksumite phases with the same divisions, dating from 150/450/800 AD, with the Post-Aksumite from 1000AD. The earliest phases are of some interest, as Michels' paper represents almost the first progress towards defining the sort of social structure in existence in Ethiopia before and during the period of South Arabian contacts. Michels found that his analyses suggested for the earliest period indigenous occupation at only village or hamlet level, with no special preference for situation in one or other of the ecological zones he identified. In contrast, the `South Arabian' settlement pattern was identifiable by stone structures on high ground in proximity to both the fertile ploughlands and the alluvial valleys susceptible of being cultivated by using South Arabian irrigation techniques. Michels sees this primary experiment in Ethiopia as developing in the second pre-Aksumite phase from 400BC to a much more dominant South Arabian character; "They were no longer simply intrusive within a predominantly indigenous political and economic environment, but had profoundly altered the economic, demographic, and political landscape". He identifies four large South Arabian centres emerging at the expense of the former hamlets — "the traditional autonomy of hamlet and village gives way to the more complex governmental systems and sociopolitical stratification associated with large, nucleated settlements, institutionalized religion, irrigation management, and long-distance trade".

It is evident that there is no place here for the pre-Aksumite Ethiopian D'MT monarchy (Ch. 4: 1). Although Michels emphasises that his first South Arabian period (in which linguistic and palaeographic studies locate the Ethiopian and South Arabian inscriptions) was not necessarily an attempt to politically dominate the region, but just to exploit it agriculturally, he does say that the colonists "did not have to confront and compete with an indigenous political adversary comparable in organizational complexity to the kind of polities then common in South Arabia". But this is just what the D'MT monarchy is suggested to have been, even though it evidently shared some South Arabian cultural tendencies. We may instead postulate that Ethiopians, under the control of the D'MT monarchy and its successors, lived in some of the communities identified in Michels' second period, rather than apart from them in the "small villages" to which he assigns them. Further, it is difficult to imagine that the second period could have lasted so long as from 400-150BC.

Whatever the case, it is easy to agree with Michels' idea that after the South Arabian colonial zenith (or that of the D'MT monarchy), the earlier pattern of scattered villages and hamlets recurs. This is scarcely surprising, since whichever dominant power was in control, it evidently disappeared, and with it all signs of its political supremacy. There are no large nucleated communities or religious sanctuaries (nor, one might add, are there any inscriptions). Michels hypothesises that in this period of decentralisation Yeha alone remained a centre for "an elite refugee community within a South Arabian cultural enclave, now largely isolated from the economic and political landscape of the region as a whole". This period is supposed to have continued until 150AD; its latter part is contemporary with some of the early material found by the latest excavations at Aksum (Munro-Hay 1989), and well post-dates the current favoured date for the evidence from the Periplus (Ch. 2: 2).

After 150AD, in Michels' Early Aksumite phase, changes in the settlement pattern are again noted. Michels suggests three levels of organisation. Small-scale chiefdoms appear, marked in the landscape by village communities with masonry structures representing chiefly dwellings, and there are also district-scale `kingdoms' of c. 150-200 sq. km. denoted by very large nucleated communities with one or more élite residences, and at Aksum by the rough stelae erected near the town. The third level is the kingdom of Aksum, and here Michels' conclusions are of sufficient interest to quote the whole passage;

"Quite probably, the kingdom was a confederacy, one which was led by a district-level king who commanded the allegiance of other petty kings within the Axumite realm. The ruler of the Axumite kingdom was thus "King-of-Kings" — a title often found in inscriptions of this period. There is no evidence that a single royal lineage has yet emerged, and it is quite possible that at the death of a King-of-Kings, a new one would be selected from among all the kings in the confederacy, rather than through some principle of primogeniture."
(It may be noted here that Kobishchanov (1979: 202-3) had already proposed the idea of an elective Aksumite monarchy, using his analysis of the rites of coronation).
"By implication, therefore, there is reason to question whether Axum was invariably the location of the royal household, especially during the early part of this phase. Certainly the discovery of four large-scale elite residences at or near Axum and believed to date to this phase would suggest that probably by the end of the period, Axum was beginning to take on that function. But, by and large, one must conclude that during the Early Axumite phase, Axum, as the ceremonial or symbolic center of the kingdom, lent its name to the kingdom but had not yet emerged as its permanent secular capital".

This very different view of the origins of Aksum concerns the considerable period between 150 to 450AD, when relatively little historical material is available. At first sight the idea that kings were chosen from among the rulers of an Ethiopian confederacy might seem an attractive solution to explain the `Bisi'-title or ethnicon of the kings, meaning `man of . . .' in Ge`ez, and different for each succeeding monarch. The title, however, persists even after the certain establishment of an Aksum-based hereditary dynasty, and there are other explanations for it (Ch. 7: 5).

Despite the dearth of information, Aksum's position as the secular capital by the very beginning of this period seems well-enough established from external sources. Both the Periplus and Ptolemy mention the town as a royal capital (Ch. 2: 2), a metropolis with a royal palace. One question which remains unanswered is; why should Aksum take on such a tremendous significance among numerous Ethiopian kingdoms that it became the ceremonial and symbolic centre, and kings of different regions would aspire to call themselves `king of kings of Aksum'? The answer seems rather that it was local Aksumite rulers themselves who gradually became the `kings of kings'.

By about 200AD (about fifty years after the date Michels' proposes for the beginning of this phase), king GDR/GDRT was involved in South Arabian affairs, and his name and that of three other kings, `DBH, DTWNS and ZQRNS are associated with the titles `nagashi of Aksum', or `nagashi of Habashat and Aksum' (Ch. 4: 4), and with wars in South Arabia during the century. By the later third century, with the inception of the local coinage, the title `king of the Aksumites' is given prominence on the coin-legends (Ch. 9), and by the 330s a bishop of Aksum, Frumentius, had been consecrated (Ch. 10: 2). During the whole period important notice is given only to Aksum or Habashat (Abyssinia). Aksum was indeed set apart as the ceremonial centre, site of the royal tombs and inscriptions, but was also the kingdom's capital city, whose rulers and people were referred to as Aksumites after their town (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 183) with its special and increasing predominance in the region. There are stelae and tombs at Matara and elsewhere which doubtless indicate the burial places of the local rulers of other districts, whilst those at Aksum are surely more likely to belong to a dynasty centred in Aksum itself than to a series of kings whose capitals were actually at different places all over the country. Family emphasis (relevant to the question of a royal lineage and the succession — Ch. 7: 4) is quite prominent throughout this period. Both GDRT and `DBH had sons fighting in South Arabia, and in the early fourth century Ezana not only almost certainly succeeded his father Ella Amida but was guided during his minority by his mother the queen-regent. Later in his reign his two brothers fought for him in his wars. The unknown author of the Monumentum Adulitanum inscription (Chs. 11: 5 and 3: 4), certainly dateable to this period, calls attention to the fact that he was the first and only one among the kings his predecessors to make such conquests; and while admittedly he could be referring to previous `kings of kings' from different lineages, the example of Ezana makes it much more likely that he alludes to his ancestors on the Aksumite throne.

It is hard to credit that "district-level" kings selected as the `kings of kings' from different regions in succession, could have presided for some 300 years over a kingdom whose course was otherwise so unified in so many disparate fields; a regular policy of interference in Arabian affairs, the issuing of a continuous coinage, and the steady architectural and cultural developments at Aksum can scarcely be viewed from such a perspective. In short, it seems quite clear that the achievements of the period, in terms of military and naval organisation, coinage, monumental construction and so on, bespeak something far more centralised than a loose confederation of more or less equal petty kingdoms.

Very likely some other urban centres still existed in the Aksum region as the capitals of more or less independent political entities while Aksum began to consolidate its power; but they fell in due course under Aksum's hegemony. Even in the reigns of Ezana or Kaleb, groups near to the centre of the kingdom, like the Agwezat, continued to rebel under their own kings (Ch. 11: 5), and perhaps among the `district-scale kingdoms' which Michels identifies are represented one or more of the local centres of such groups, contemporaries of, and subjects of, the kings of Aksum. The Aksumites, as suggested in Ch. 2: 2, may have much earlier been allied with neighbouring tribal groups, but by the period in question it seems that such disparate elements had been gathered under the control of one dominating centre: Aksum. Without further excavation we cannot detect signs which might illustrate this, such as the relative size of the elite residences in Aksum as compared to those in subordinate centres, or the increasing amount of imported luxury items in one place as compared to another; but from what work has been done Aksum seems without doubt to have been the `central place' in Ethiopia from at least the first century AD.

From 450-800AD Michels envisages an "explosive growth in the number of settlements and in the size of the overall regional population . . . Axum itself must now be viewed as a metropolitan entity consisting of fourteen towns and villages within a three-kilometer radius". The district-scale chiefdoms have vanished, and almost all the élite structures are now within metropolitan Aksum. On Amba Beta Giyorgis above the town, and in other places, were workshops marked by the presence of flaked stone tools. These are identified possibly, and plausibly, as tools for dealing with the ivory brought into the town before its re-export abroad (though the presence of these stone scrapers might also indicate that the commerce in leather attested in later times had already begun, since such tools could be used for preparing the skins). In this period Michels now accepts the concentration of the ruling and merchant classes at Aksum, while in the surrounding territory were many village communities, practising dry-farming, defining the capital's immediate sustaining area.

Except for the dates, which take us long past the end of the coinage and into a period when the archaeological evidence indicates that many of the élite residences were in ruins or at least subject to squatter occupation (Munro-Hay 1989), the depiction of a large town, with its "concentration of economic, demographic and political assets", represents Aksum at its zenith. But Michels also attributes to this period an `explicit neglect' of the royal tombs of the `confederate phase' which apparently "dramatizes the consolidation of power by a single royal lineage".

A very different analysis of events is possible. In this book, the tombs and stelae, developing along traceable architectural lines, are considered to represent rather the continuity of a "true state-level monarchy" at Aksum over a long period, culminating in the great stelae and tombs of the late third and fourth centuries. Michels quotes Butzer (1981) in observing that the main stelae field was "covered over by an extensive residential community during this phase". In fact, there were no dwellings among the stelae and platforms in the Stele Park except those very much later ones (nineteenth century?) found there by the DAE (Littmann 1913) which were removed around 1965 for the construction of the Stele Park. The French archaeologist, Henri de Contenson (1959i) — whom in his turn Butzer quotes for his information — specifically notes "les rares éléments architecturaux attestés dans ce niveau". He found traces of occupation dating to after the fall of the largest stele in or after the time of the probably late fourth century king Ouazebas, in the form of a single room built near the main terrace wall on deposits covering the nearby large tomb called Nefas Mawcha (Ch. 5: 5). But this one structure, which was, it must be emphasised, not even in the cemetery as defined by the main terrace wall, but outside it, does not mean that the whole cemetery was abandoned, and in no way resembles the debris of an `extensive residential community'. All that it indicates is that outside the cemetery wall, in the area above and north of the Nefas Mawcha — a tomb which was anyway designed to be buried (Ch. 5: 5), — there was some late fourth century occupation on the wash layers which had partly covered the terrace wall. It seems more likely that with the advent of Christianity and the collapse of the largest stele, which obviously demonstrated the impracticability of erecting yet larger monuments, a new type of mortuary structure, of a type illustrated by the Tomb of the False Door (Ch. 5: 5), was then adopted (Munro-Hay 1989). This may have meant that no more stelae were erected, but does not imply `explicit neglect' of the older monuments, since it was built in the same cemetery.

The last Aksumite phase proposed by Michels, like the previous one, follows the expected pattern, but is far removed in its suggested date. Reduction of population, the end of the factory-scale workshops, and an emphatic shrinkage of the city boundaries, combined with the re-emergence of small-scale chiefdoms in the region, occurs in this phase. All of this would reflect the decline of Aksum, and the eventual departure of the government to another more suitable centre for the reasons proposed in Ch. 15 below.

An interesting detail noted in Michels 1986 paper was that in the Late Aksumite period a new factor was introduced; for the first time, consideration was apparently given to selecting defensive sites for the palaces or élite residences. If this was not caused simply by the fact that all the prime sites were by now occupied, it might have been in response to such troubles as those mentioned in the hatsani Danael texts (Ch. 11: 5). If the structures were built after Aksum ceased to be the centre of government, these dwellings might represent the remnant who stayed on to administer the region dependent on the old capital.

 

4. Cities, Towns and Villages


Within the expanded Aksumite kingdom, a number of flourishing urban communities appear to have grown up. Adulis, the chief Aksumite, and probably pre-Aksumite, port, and Aksum itself are special cases; but it seems, from archaeological and literary evidence, that a number of other towns became established on trade routes or crossroads, or wherever particularly favourable conditions were encountered. Water availability was an evident precondition (Anfray 1973i: 15, n. 5). The development of some degree of urbanism in Aksumite Ethiopia is an interesting phenomenon, but one which is not yet even partially documented. All that survives of many of the `towns' are the traces of a few monumental structures such as temples, churches or élite residential/administrative buildings, and scatterings of pottery on the surface. These have been reported from the time of the earliest explorations in Ethiopia, but have only rarely been properly surveyed, much less excavated and planned. Excavation may yet provide some surprises, as it has already done at Matara, but in general these towns may not have been very large, perhaps of little more than large village status, though Matara certainly seems to have been a sizeable community (Anfray 1963, 1974; Anfray and Annequin 1965). Such communities were probably much more intimately associated with the surrounding countryside than are, for example, modern manufacturing towns. But even so their existence bespeaks an agricultural output sufficient to provide the surplus necessary to support at least some town dwellers engaged in specialist pursuits, and the availability of more or less efficient exchange and transport facilities on a regional scale. The urban setting throughout Ethiopia, including port, capital and market or trading towns, implies the development of a social stratification. At the top we can envisage the occupants of the élite dwellings and elaborately-constructed tombs. Further ranks would have included the merchants, traders or middlemen who arranged the supply-system, or the architects, builders, and artisans who raised the buildings. The base of the system rested upon the labourers in the fields and the workers in other sectors. We can assume from the apparently long existence of the towns that reasonably stable conditions prevailed in the country both politically and otherwise. This at least partly urbanised Aksumite society was in sharp contrast to the situation in later Ethiopia, when travellers remarked that the country contained no cities or substantial towns, only the mobile tented `capital' which followed the emperor, and was moved to another region when it had exhausted the resources of a particular spot (Pankhurst 1961: 137ff).

Aksumite cultural traits are found at many of the town sites, some of which may originally have been the local centres for tribal groups later conquered by the Aksumites. The port-city of Adulis, which eventually covered at least 20,000 square metres, according to Paribeni (1907: 443), with its harbour and customs point a short distance away at Gabaza (see below), appears to have originated as the centre for the coastal people called Adulitae. It was the first point on the long trade route into the Sudan, and, favourably situated as it was in a bay on the Red Sea coast, had obvious opportunities to acquire wealth by trading. Evidence of its prosperity came from Sundström's and Paribeni's excavations in 1906, where numbers of gold coins were found in several different occupation levels (Sundström 1907, Paribeni 1907). It was not necessarily the only Aksumite port or coastal city, and another coastal town to the north called Samidi is known (see below). In the Dahlak Islands off the coast, Puglisi (1969: 37ff) noted four typical Aksumite capitals or column bases and a chamfered column re-used in a building at Gim'hilé and more complex carved material at Dahlak Kebir; almost certain evidence for Aksumite activity on the islands. It is perhaps just possible that they could have been taken there later, but it seems inconceivable that the long Aksumite control of the coast would not have encouraged them to secure these islands on the direct path to their main port.

Defence was not apparently an urgent consideration for the people of Adulis; although it was not safe for foreign vessels to anchor in places directly accessible from the Ethiopian coast at the time of the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20), the town does not seem to have been walled. Paribeni (1907: 444) searched on all sides of the town for any traces of fortifications, but without success.

Adulis contained large and elegant buildings, churches, and smaller town houses of a few rooms (Paribeni 1907; Anfray 1974). It lay a short distance inland from the port installations at Gabaza. The Periplus and Procopius do not name Gabaza, but mention the distance of 20 stades from the actual harbour to Adulis itself (Huntingford 1980: 20; Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 183). Adulis' Ethiopic name may have been Zala (Caquot 1965: 225). The merchant Kosmas, who situates the town `2 miles' from the coast (Wolska-Conus 1968: 364), mentions that Adulis had a governor, Asbas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 368), and that merchants from Alexandria and Ela (Aela or Eilat) traded there (Wolska-Conus 1968: 364). On Kosmas' map, preserved in much later copies, the position of Adulis is shown with Gabaza a little to the south on the sea-shore, and Samidi to the north (Wolska-Conus 1968: 367). Paribeni wondered if perhaps Adulis had originally been on the seacoast, and excavated a trench at the east side of the ruin-field to test for any such evidence; but the trench instead revealed a church (Paribeni 1907: 529).

Paribeni (1907: 444) also searched for the famous Monumentum Adulitanum. The monument, a sort of symbolic throne, seems to have been fairly elaborate in design. Kosmas describes it as placed at the entrance to the town, on the west side towards the road to Aksum. Executions took place in front of it. It was of good white marble, but not, Kosmas says, Proconnesian, with a square base supported by four slender columns at the corners and another, heavier, column carved in a twisted fashion, in the centre. The throne had a back, sculpted with images of Hermes and Hercules, and two arm-rests. Behind it was a basalt stele, fallen and broken, with a peaked top. Both monuments, drawings of which are included on Kosmas' map of the Ethiopian coast, had inscriptions in Greek on them, one of Ptolemy III (246-221BC) on the stele, and one of an unnamed Aksumite king on the throne (see Ch. 11: 5).

The name of Adulis' customs-point, Gabaza, has been preserved also in the Martyrium Sancti Arethae (Carpentier 1861: 747), where it is cited as the naval station for Adulis. In this account of the persecutions in South Arabia in the sixth century, a hermit called Zonaenus, originally from Aela, is said to have been living at the town of Sabi; this has been thought to refer to a coastal town near Adulis (Irvine, in Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 217), and the king is said to have descended from it to Adulis after receiving the hermit's blessing. But it seems rather to refer to the hermitage of Abba Pantelewon, very close to Aksum (Boissonade 1833; Carpentier 1861: 748, 751). Carpentier drew attention to Telles' note about a place called Saba, when he wrote that "Near to Auxum or Aczum, in the kingdom of Tigre in Ethiopia, there is still a small village called Saba or Sabaim, where they say the queen of Sheba or Saba was born" (Tellez 1710: 71).

Ptolemy mentions a town called Sabat, which he situates to the north of Adulis (Stevenson 1932: 108, and map, where it is labelled Sabath). Perhaps it is identical with Kosmas' Samidi. Huntingford (1980: 100) suggested that Sabat might rather be identified with the town of Saue mentioned in the Periplus; this was three days inland on the Arabian side between Muza and Zafar. Taddesse Tamrat, after Conti Rossini, identified Sabat with Girar near Massawa (1972: 14). Carpentier referred to "Sabae, a port of Ethiopia on the Red Sea, noted by Strabo, and Sabat, a town of Ethiopia in the Adulitic gulf, mentioned by Ptolemy". Occasionally Adulis itself has been identified with Strabo's Saba, and Assab with his Sabai (Strabo XVI; Huntingford 1980: 168-70), and even older origins have been proposed for Adulis (see Munro-Hay 1982i). Until a great deal more is known about the earlier archaeological levels at the site of Adulis, the antiquity of its origins remains obscure; but Paribeni found archaeological deposits of over 10m. depth in one of his exploratory trenches (Paribeni 1907: 446ff, 566) and suggested that a considerable amount had been deposited before sustained contacts with other civilisations had developed.

After climbing the steep valleys, such as that of the river Haddas which led from the coastal plain where Adulis was situated up to the highlands, the town of Koloë, mentioned in the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20; Casson 1989: 53) was reached. Koloë town and Maste town were also noted by Ptolemy (Stevenson 1932: 108) as among the towns remote from the river in the interior. Koloë derived its importance from its position as the first inland market where ivory could be obtained (see also Ch. 8: 4). It is possibly to be identified with the present-day Matara in southern Eritrea. At this site the French archaeologist Francis Anfray, in a spectacular series of excavations (Anfray 1963, 1967, 1974; Anfray and Annequin 1965), found numerous large and splendid mansions surrounded by their dependencies, together with churches, tombs, and even some domestic buildings in humbler residential areas. With the structures he found the material remains of a very sophisticated way of life. The town's history, as revealed by the excavations, extends back into the pre-Aksumite period, though so far this earlier archaeological stratum has only been accessible in extremely restricted areas of the site, and has not therefore been thoroughly investigated. Another town, Qohayto, further to the north, which also has the ruins of impressive structures (Littmann 1913: II, 148ff), but which has not yet been excavated, might be another candidate for identification with Koloë. It is most remarkable for the dam, made of seven courses of dressed stone stepped back in typical Aksumite fashion, which still retains water after the rains.

From Koloë the route continued to Aksum and beyond; but although its southern extension led past many Aksumite communities, relatively few sites have so far been identified between Aksum and this main north-south route, and even fewer west of the capital. The eastern highlands, in contrast, contain the ruins of numerous towns and villages, and it is evident that this part of the Aksumite kingdom was a prosperous and populous region from pre-Aksumite days (Anfray 1973i: 20). Aksum itself, as is to be expected, lay within easy access of several villages whose produce was doubtless necessary to feed the capital's increasing population (Michels, in Kobishchanov 1979).

The general homogeneity of the architecture and material goods of these ancient Ethiopian towns is apparent, and, despite regional differences in, for example, building stone and pottery types, the overall `Aksumite' nature of the civilisation is undeniable. The large mansions in the towns may have been the residences of sub-kings who had adopted the metropolitan style of living, or those of Aksumite governors and officials. No mansion has yet been identified as belonging to some local ruler known from the inscriptions, as for example the Agwezat kings who are mentioned in the time of Ezana and Kaleb (Ch. 11: 5), and information of such a specific character is likely to be very nearly impossible to obtain. But it is not impossible that the headquarters of the archon of Adulis, or that of the local controller at Matara, could be identified eventually. The mansion buildings at this latter place contained such symbols of wealth and authority as the Matara treasure (gold jewellery found in a bronze pot), an elaborate tomb, and apparently in one case the skeletons of prisoners still lying in their chains in basement oubliettes.

Not very much is yet known about the settlement pattern of the Aksumite kingdom, but it has been possible to identify a number of particularly well-populated areas. The towns and villages along the main tracks south and east from Adulis towards Aksum, like Qohayto, Tekondo, Matara, Zala-Bet-Makeda, Ham, Etchmara, Gulo-Makeda, Haghero-Deragweh, Yeha, Dergouah and Henzat, and those further south along the route west of the escarpment from Enda Maryam Tseyon Tehot and Maryam Kedih, or the branch via Anza, Hawzien and Degum, at least as far as Cherqos Agula and Nazret (Anfray 1970) must have developed along with the main trade and supply routes and at cross-routes leading into the interior. Such centres probably lay in areas of farming settlements, and acted as their market-outlet and exchange points, and some perhaps supplemented this activity with specific local products or, if suitably situated, could provide services connected with the movement of goods along the main routes.

Aksumite settlements also appear to the west and north of Adulis, and the inscription of Sembrouthes from Daqqi Mahari, the buildings and coins from Arato (Piva 1907), and even traces as far north as Rora Laba and perhaps beyond, confirm that this region belonged to the Aksumite milieu. However, it is impossible to suggest what the limits of the Aksumite kingdom may have been at its zenith in view of the lack of archaeological evidence. Conti Rossini (1931) notes ruins in northern Eritrea with possible Aksumite affinities, particularly the thrones at Dicdic and the carved stelae at Rora Laba with lion and ox sculptures, and Anfray (1970) describes apparently Aksumite columns from Qeneda in Wollo, as well as paralleling, tentatively, the lion sculpture at Tchika-Beret in southern Wollo with the well-known Aksumite lion-headed water-spouts. Anfray's survey is the most informative we have so far, but more work is required to define the limits of Aksumite penetration.

One feature often found in Aksumite town sites is the mansion-and-dependencies element (Ch. 5: 4). Such mansions were not only a feature of the towns, but also seem, at least in the case of Aksum itself, to have been distributed in their hinterland, perhaps representing local village centres surrounding landlord's houses. These élite residences are found in quantity, according to the survey by Joseph Michels undertaken in 1974 (Michels in Kobishchanov 1979; Michels 1986) in and around the capital and in the region of a number of villages as far as Yeha.

The term `villa' for these mansion-and-dependencies groups is tempting (Anfray 1974: 761), but they are evidently not all country and/or farm-houses like the Roman villas. The largest ones at Aksum and other towns could have had a different function from the smaller, more scattered country ones, although the general plan might have been common to both; even this is not yet properly confirmed, since a number of town mansions have been excavated but none of the remoter ones. Michel's published information tells us very little about the possible function of the larger and smaller élite residences in the Aksum area, and we can only guess how to interpret them economically and socially. If we knew more about the chronological development of these mansions, we might be able to trace whether the type was developed at Aksum and moved from the city and royal context first to other towns and then was adopted as the model for the country mansions of a landowner class, a sequence which might be plausible. On the other hand, they may have originated elsewhere; in, for example, Adulis, with its greater exposure to foreign influences, and spread thence to Aksum and the countryside.

In those towns which became administrative centres of the Aksumite state, Aksumite institutions would of course be prominent. The largest mansions probably housed the ruler of the region and acted as governmental and ceremonial centres; their layout, with the separation of the imposing central pavilion on its podium and staircases, seems emphatically designed to impress. In such town mansions the outer ranges must have been partly used for occupation and partly for service activities. We are still archaeologically ignorant of what went on in the dependencies. Certain features, like ovens, would indicate domestic activities serving the central occupant and all his people; others, like a possible heating system under the floor, would seem to indicate a luxury dwelling. Some rooms may even have been used as manufacturies of items needed in everyday life. Francis Anfray excavated one of these mansions just to the west of present-day Aksum, the so-called `Château de Dungur', and when the results of this excavation are completely published we will certainly have a much clearer idea of the nature of these structures (Anfray 1972).

Illustration 7. View of the Dungur villa, showing one of the facades of the central pavilion with a double staircase leading to the entrance. Photo R. Brereton.

The country mansions, one might think, were more likely to have been on agriculturally-based estates of the surrounding region, perhaps owned by city-dwellers who possessed the capital to build elsewhere as well. Land around Aksum or any other largish town must have become a good investment as the city grew and the demand for foodstuffs increased. Did some of these mansions lie in estates which were selected since they could produce sufficient surplus crops to serve the capital? Some of the mansions we know of were situated close enough to Aksum to exploit the constant demand the town-market must have created, provided there was a reasonable road and transport system to guarantee the preservation of perishables in transit; there may have been wheeled carts and porters employed for inland transport, and one made-up stone road, apparently ancient, has been found northeast of Aksum. Conversely this demand must have acted as a spur to production. In such circumstances one can well imagine the Aksumite noble or businessman deciding to try out an agricultural investment, and building on his estate the imitation of his town mansion. Such mansions would then have been in some sense dependencies themselves. Alternatively, perhaps, we should think in terms of a `rural aristocracy' living and farming on their estates? In fact, we know nothing of such putative estates; only the existence of the mansions themselves allows us to postulate the estates.

 

6. Foreign Relations


Aksum had diplomatic and commercial relations with many foreign countries, increasing as the kingdom's own importance developed. There are several accounts of ambassadors and messengers sent to or from distant or neighbouring powers, and even, occasionally, some clues as to the purpose of their missions. In addition, a number of archaeological or chance finds have produced objects which attest to contacts of one sort or another between Aksum and certain foreign countries.

Egypt.

All the proposed connexions between Aksum and (pre-Roman) Egypt remain very uncertain, and indeed it seems as if Aksum itself was only in its very earliest stages of development when the Ptolemaic dynasty fell with Cleopatra VII's death in 30BC. There are a few objects which might have come from Egypt, such as the cippus of Horus given to Bruce, and illustrated by him (Ch. 2: 3), and a few amulet figurines of blue faience (de Contenson 1963ii: 48, p. XLIX b and c) or cornaline (Leclant 1965: 86-7) found at various sites in Ethiopia. The latter, with its double-uraeus, could perhaps have come instead from Meroë. From Adulis came a glazed Egyptian scarab carved with a design somewhat resembling a ship, probably dating to a very late period (Paribeni 1907: 5, fig. 3). Other signs of contact between the regions are the inscription of Ptolemy III copied by Kosmas at Adulis and an `ankh'-sign engraved on one of the stelae (Anfray 1972). It is not beyond possibility that the accounts of Egyptian expeditions to Punt may be the earliest extant references to peoples of the Ethiopian/Sudanese coast and interior; provided that Punt (Pwene) always meant the same thing to the Egyptians over the long period that mentions of the country occur in their records. If so, these are important witnesses to trade-links stretching at least as far back as the time of the pharaoh Djedkare Isesi, eighth king of the fifth Egyptian dynasty, c.2400BC, and still continuing in the time of Rameses III around 1200BC. Later contacts, under the Romans, are much better documented and are described below.

Illustration 8. One of the rough stele in the Northern Stele Field at Aksum, with a carved symbol representing the ancient Egyptian word for life, ankh. Photo BIEA.

Meroë and Africa.

Virtually nothing is known of what sort of contacts Aksum had with its western neighbour, the kingdom of Meroë or Kasu and its large but probably loosely controlled area of more or less effective influence. It has been suggested that perhaps the famous rock-relief of the Meroitic king Sherkarer, at Jabal Qayli, the easternmost Meroitic monument known, was connected with some conflict with a rising Aksum, but there is no proof either way. Only a few objects to which a Meroitic origin has been attributed have been found in Ethiopia, most notably some bronze bowls from Addi Galamo (Atsbi Dera) — which could also have come from Roman Egypt (Doresse 1960: 425ff) — possibly the diorite thumb-ring (archer's loose) found by the BIEA expedition at Aksum (illustrated by Chittick, 1974, PL.XIV), and a cornaline amulet of Harpocrates with the typical double-uraeus of the Meroites on its forehead (see above, Leclant 1965: 86-7). The most powerful evidence for contacts are the fragments of two Aksumite inscriptions from Meroë which may indicate that Aksumite campaigns reached the city; and also some Ge`ez inscriptions roughly cut on the pyramids there (Ch. 11: 5). When king Ezana of Aksum led his expedition to the Nile (Ch. 11: 5, DAE 11), the Meroitic kingdom had probably ceased to exist. Its successors, the Noba, apparently behaved insultingly to the Aksumite ambassadors sent to them, and were punished by a military expedition. Certain tribes, the Mangurto, the Barya, and the Khasa had asked for Ezana's support against these aggressors, and either regarded Aksum as a usefully powerful neighbour who could be invoked to help check Noba ambitions, or possibly even as a suzerain. Ezana's expedition also attacked the Kasu, the remnants of the Meroitic state. Both the Noba and the Beja, as well as the Kasu, were officially noted in the titulature as comprising part of Ezana's kingdom.

These records, and certain other accounts of military expeditions within or on the borders of Aksum, are almost the only fragments of information which have come down to us about Aksumite dealings with their African neighbours. There is a brief mention of some missionary activity in the southern Nubian kingdom of Alodia/Alwa (see Ch. 10), and Kosmas Indikopleustes wrote about Aksum's `silent trade' with the gold-gatherers of Sasu (Wolska-Conus 1968). However, it seems likely that, unless the main elephant-hunting areas were already within Aksum's direct control, there must have been close and protracted trading contacts with the suppliers of ivory from beyond the Nile; an excellent reason for the maintenance of generally peaceful conditions to encourage this important commerce.

South Arabia.

The South Arabian states, such as Saba, Himyar, and the Hadhramawt, had a long and special relationship with Ethiopia. Aksum seems to have been quite strongly influenced by the same cultural tradition as prevailed in these countries, and in language, religion, and other cultural traits the Aksumites belonged to something of the same milieu as their overseas neighbours. When the Aksumites first became powerful enough to assert themselves by intervening in the political troubles of the Arabian states is uncertain, but from the beginning of the third century AD there are several records of such expeditions (Ch. 4: 3-4). There was much diplomatic and military activity during the reigns of Gadarat (GRDT) and Adhebah (`DBH) in the first half of the third century, including the negotiation of a treaty with Saba and then with Hadhramawt. In Adhebah's time a certain Shamir, called dhu-Raydan, `he of Raydan', a prince of Himyar, sent for military aid from Aksum. At least from the time of Ezana, in the fourth century, the Aksumite king adopted the title of `king of Saba and Himyar', asserting a suzerainty probably difficult to enforce in practice. It is very likely that there was continuous contact during the fifth and early sixth centuries between the two sides of the Red Sea; Procopius mentions that it took five days and nights to cross the Red Sea and that "the harbour of the Homeritae from which they are accustomed to put to sea is called Boulikas" — presumably somewhere near Mukha; — "and at the end of the sail across the sea they always put in at the harbour of the Adulitae" (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 183). In the reign of the Aksumite king Kaleb (Ch. 4: 7), the use of the Arabian titles was expanded to copy the current style in use there, a procedure no doubt justified by the impact of the king's successful Arabian expedition which destroyed the régime of the Jewish king of Himyar, Yusuf Asar. Kaleb set up a vice-royalty in the Yemen, but soon his viceroy was deposed, and the Yemen became more or less independent. Direct Aksumite influence was never reinstated. However, one of the inscriptions of the new king in the Yemen, Abreha, dated to 543AD and dealing with the restoration of the great dam at Marib, mentions embassies from various foreign countries (Aksum, Rome, Persia, and various Arab groups), putting that of the Aksumite najashi first in the list (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 148-9), and Procopius notes Abreha's formal submission to the successor of Kaleb — a diplomatic solution which may have soothed the damaged pride of the Aksumites and did Abreha little harm (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 191).

Mecca and the Quraysh.

It has been suggested (Creswell, see Ullendorff 1960: 154) that the man who re-built the Ka`ba at Mecca in 608AD was an Aksumite. His name was Bakum, and he used the wood retrieved from a shipwreck to build a structure of wood and stone layers which sounds very like the typical Aksumite architectural style as represented by, for example, Dabra Damo church. In 615AD, at the time of the prophet Muhammad's mission, the Ethiopians were involved in a certain amount of diplomatic activity with the Quraysh tribe, the mercantile rulers of Mecca. The reigning najashi, whom the Arab chroniclers refer to as Ashama ibn Abjar (see Ch. 15: 4), offered asylum to Muslim political exiles, who entered the country in two waves. The first hijra, or flight, in the 7th month of the 5th year of Muhammad's mission (615), consisted of eleven men and four wives, who came via the old port of Mecca, Shu`ayba. These returned after three months, due to the false report that the Quraysh had been converted to Islam. The second hijra eventually amounted to one hundred and one Muslims, 83 of them men, and these did not all return until 628 (Muir 1923: 69). The najashi, in spite of gifts and representations from the Quraysh, refused to hand the Muslims over.

At different times many famous names in Islam were to seek the najashi's hospitality, including Muhammad's daughter Ruqayya, and two of his future wives, Umm Habiba and Umm Salama or Hind, who described Maryam Tseyon church at Aksum to the prophet on his deathbed (Ch. 13: 3). Umm Habiba's former husband was `Ubaydalla, a Quraysh convert to Islam who emigrated to Ethiopia where he adopted Christianity, and died confessing that faith (Muir 1923: 36). It was the najashi himself who contracted the marriage of Umm Habiba to Muhammad, which occurred when she returned in 628. Another famous exile was `Uthman b. Affan, who eventually became khalifa in 644AD. The conqueror of Egypt, `Amr ibn al-Asi, was actually received into Islam, if one credits the tradition (Guillaume 1955: 484) by the najashi acting on behalf of the prophet. Because of this kindness to his followers, Muhammad is said to have exempted Ethiopia from the jihad or holy war of Islam. According to Muslim tradition, in AH.6/627-8AD Muhammad himself is said to have sent an embassy to the najashi and other rulers; the contents of his letter (which many authorities doubt was ever actually written) are reproduced by Tabari and others, and an actual copy of the letter, undoubtedly a forgery, was published by Dunlop (1940). All this occurred very close to the time when it is suggested that Aksum was abandoned as the capital (Ch. 15: 4).

Rome and Constantinople/Byzantium.

With the Romano-Byzantine world Aksum seems to have almost always had good relations. Possibly Rome had designs on Aksum in Nero's time (see Ch. 4: 3), but this is uncertain. Aksum may have had some cause to fear the recovery of Roman power from about the time of Aurelian (270-275), when Aksumite ambassadors are reported in Rome (see below) but the arrangements for the frontiers made by Diocletian in 298 must have put such fears to rest, since Rome set Elephantine (Philae) as the limit of its direct authority (Williams 1985: 82).

The land route from Aksumite territory to Egypt was mentioned by the author of the Monumentum Adulitanum inscription (Wolska-Conus 1968: 374), and it is known from Procopius (ed. Dewing 1914: 185) that the route from Aksum to Elephantine took thirty days for an unencumbered traveller (Ch. 3: 2).

Though the land-route may have been used at times, the most frequented route from the Roman world appears to have been down the Red Sea from Egyptian ports to Adulis. It is possible that the story of Frumentius, the Tyrian Christian who converted the country, reveals one break in the early fourth century in the otherwise generally peaceful Romano-Aksumite trading relations. According to the historian Rufinus (Migne 1849: 478-9), the ship in which Frumentius, then a boy, was travelling, landed at a port, presumably under Ethiopian control, for provisions. But apparently due to a rift in political relations, the vessel was seized and the occupants slain. Frumentius and his companion Aedesius were lucky, as they alone were spared, and subsequently taken to the king as prisoners. It is not impossible that such a breach in relations was caused by the death of one king and the succession of another, since in traditional Hellenistic monarchies (some elements of whose organisation we can detect in Aksum) treaties would lapse until confirmed by the ruler who next came to power. In this case, we might conceivably suggest that king Wazeba of Aksum had died, and Ousanas (Ella Amida) had just come to the throne (Ch. 4: 5). The lapse of the treaty might also reflect the uncertain conditions in the Roman world after the retirement of Diocletian in 305 until 323 when complete order was restored by Constantine's defeat of Licinius.

Apart from this story, there are no signs of anything but peaceful trade and occasional diplomatic activity. With the new order in the Roman empire, and no challenges on the frontiers between Roman and Aksumite ambitions, Aksum had nothing to look for from Rome/Constantinople but peaceful and profitable trading relations. There was a certain amount of diplomatic activity in the reign of Constantius II, with the mission of Theophilus the Indian. This ecclesiastic may also have delivered the letter of Constantius preserved in the Apologia of the patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria (Ch. 4: 3). During and after the Himyarite war which Kaleb conducted in the sixth century, there was an increase in recorded diplomatic activity, and several missions were sent by Justinian. Two of the ambassadors, Julian, and Nonnosus son of Abrames, are mentioned by historians of the period, together with some details as to their instructions from the emperor (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1924: 192-5; Photius, ed. Henry 1959: 4-5).

Palmyra.

The suggestion (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 86) that Aksumites were taken prisoner by Aurelian (270-275AD), the Roman emperor who conquered Queen Zenobia of Palmyra's armies, is unfounded. Zenobia's forces had benefited from the weakness of Rome under its ephemeral military emperors in the late third century, and she was in control of Syria and the great city of Antioch. In 269AD, she successfully invaded Egypt; by 270 her interest was turning to Asia Minor. In 271 she proclaimed her son Wahballat as Augustus. In spite of this widespread success, the Roman empire was at last recovering from its unhappy condition under a new emperor, Aurelian, and Palmyrene hegemony lasted only a few years; and in August 272 Palmyra itself fell to the emperor's armies.

The Aksumites mentioned in the (rather suspect) Latin `Life of Aurelian' attributed to Flavius Vopiscus in the so-called Scriptores Historiae Augustae (Magie 1932: 258-61), seem to have been among the foreign envoys present at the celebration of Aurelian's triumph rather than defeated allies of Zenobia being led with the queen in the procession. They are included in a separate section with other representatives from different countries bearing gifts, and not among the captives from peoples against whom Aurelian is known to have conducted campaigns. There is no evidence that Zenobia was able to open any diplomatic relations with Aksum during her brief period of dominance, and none to indicate that she enlisted the support of the Aksumites in her wars.

Persia.

Towards the end of Aksum's period of power, the Persians conquered both Egypt (in 619AD, holding it until 628) and South Arabia (in 575 and again, after a rebellion in Himyar, in 598), and it may have been this that began to destroy Aksum's trade in the Red Sea rather than the later Arab expansion. There is only a little information about Persian relations with Aksum. John of Ephesus, in his `Life of Simeon the Bishop', states that when Simeon and his companions had been for seven years in the prison at Nisibis, the king of Ethiopia heard of it and made a successful request, through his ambassadors to king Kawad (d. 531AD), that they should be freed (Brooks 1923: 153). Kosmas mentions that merchants from Adulis and Persia both met in Taprobane (Sri Lanka), and that ivory was exported from Ethiopia to Persia by sea (Wolska-Conus 1973: 348, 354). Also in the sixth century, the emperor Justinian is supposed to have tried to use Aksum against Persia in both an economic war over silk supplies and a military tentative through Aksum's South Arabian possessions (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 192-5). The inference is that Aksum would be ready to act against the Persians because of their community of religion with the Roman/Byzantine empire. After the loss of Aksum's direct influence in South Arabia, and the death of the negus Kaleb, the historian Procopius (ed. Dewing 1914: 190-1) informs us that the leader of the rebel government in Arabia, Abreha, agreed to pay tribute to Aksum. The Persian conquest would have terminated this arrangement if it still applied to Abreha's successors. It may be supposed, then, that after 575 Aksum had not only lost its tribute, but was also faced with a more or less hostile Persian dependency just across the Red Sea. Already there may have been an increase in the movement of hostile shipping in the sea-lanes on which Aksum depended for its foreign commerce.

A few links with Persia have been suggested at different times. It may be that certain figures, robed and with curly hair, depicted on the monumental staircase of the Apadana at Persepolis, are Ethiopians. They are shown presenting a giraffe, a tusk, and a vase. Some details of their appearance resemble the more-or-less contemporary Ethiopians as known from their statues and throne reliefs from Hawelti (Leroy 1963: 293-5). At a much later date, certain glazed wares, blue-green in colour, found at Aksum and Matara, have been classified, rather vaguely, as Sassanian-Islamic or Gulf wares (Wilding in Munro-Hay 1989; Anfray 1974: 759).

India and Sri Lanka.

Aksum also had trading relations with India and Sri Lanka (Pankhurst 1974). A find of Indian gold coins, issued by the Kushana kings (who ruled in north India and Afghanistan) in the earlier third century, at the monastery of Dabra Damo on the route between Aksum and the coast, confirms the contact from the Ethiopian side (Mordini 1960, 1967). There are also occasional allusions to ships from Adulis sailing to or from the sub-continent. Such instances occur in the accounts of the arrival of the future bishop Frumentius in Ethiopia (Ch. 10: 2), the journey of bishop Moses of Adulis (Desanges 1969) and in the Christian Topography of Kosmas Indikopleustes. Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1973: 348-51) describes how a Roman merchant, Sopatros, who had gone to Taprobane (Sri Lanka) with merchants from Adulis, got the better of a distinguished Persian in the presence of a Sri Lankan king by comparing the gold coins of the Romans with the silver milarision of the Persians. A number of yellow pottery figures, apparently mould-made, were found at Hawelti, near the stelae there; de Contenson suggested that they were of Indian type, but this has not been authoritatively confirmed (de Contenson 1963ii: 45-6, pl. XLVIII).

The Far East.

There is no real evidence for contacts between China and Aksum, but it has been suggested that the Han dynasty records include a reference to the Aksumite kingdom (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 71, 84-5). If, as seems possible, the Han ships were in contact with states beyond India, the kingdom which the chroniclers call Huang-Chi might have been Aksum (Fiaccadori 1984: 283, n. 30). Aksum grew to be an important power in the region of the Red Sea, and the Chinese merchants must, at the very least, have eventually come into contact with someone who knew of Aksum. If Huang-Chi was Aksum the contact is a valuable one for our chronology, since the usurper Wang Mang (1-6AD) received in return for his gifts a live rhinoceros from the king of Huang Chi, thus attesting the presence of a dominant power group at this early stage, just when the rise of Aksum is postulated. However, Wang Mang's agents could equally well have contacted some other coastally centred pre-Aksumite group, like the Adulitae. Other products of Huang-Chi were tortoise-shell and ivory, both readily available to the Aksumites. The distances cited by the Chinese records put Huang-Chi well beyond India and it took twelve months to accomplish the voyage there. We can only say that the identification is tempting, but very uncertain. A suggestion that the Hsi-wang Mu of ancient Chinese records, who lived in the K'un-lun mountains, was to be identified with the Queen of Sheba living in the qolla of Abyssinia, was another attempt to find a point of contact in the even more remote past.


End of Chapters 1-3.