By Stuart Munro-Hay
Of Aksumite literature we know virtually nothing except that between the fifth and seventh centuries the Bible and other works began to be translated into Ge`ez (in some cases by Syrian/Aramaic speakers, thus absorbing certain additions to the vocabulary of the Ge`ez language). Traces of the early biblical translation survive in the form of quotations in some of the inscriptions.
The Ge`ez royal inscriptions themselves show an accomplished use of the language, and well exploit the propaganda medium provided by them. The earlier use of Greek for monumental inscriptions may have been an important factor towards the `stylistic confidence’ shown by the Ge`ez inscriptions, and this may not, in fact, reflect a long literary tradition (Irvine 1977). Zoskales, an early Aksumite ruler, was an educated man who spoke Greek, and the royal example, as well as the influx of Greek-speaking merchants, doubtless encouraged the spread of learning which resulted in the use of Greek for even the national inscriptions and coinage. One feels that there must have been a certain amount of literacy in the country for the kings to take such care with the inscriptions and the coin legends with their mottoes (Ch. 9: 4).
A ruler like Ezana, educated under the influence of Frumentius, who later returned to be installed as Ethiopia’s first bishop, would surely have been able to speak and read Greek and be well aware of the advantages of such propaganda media in both foreign and local circles. Very occasionally, there are other indications of literacy, like the inscription left by a presumably Aksumite Ethiopian, Abreha, in the Wady Manih on the road to the Egyptian port of Berenice. Its interpretation is, as usual, not quite clear, partly from uncertainty as to the significance of certain words, partly due to its condition (the last three lines are almost completely illegible). Sergew Hable Sellasie’s version reads “I Abreha, the man of Aksum, spent the night here [and] came believing in the might of the Lord of Heaven Aryam, with my son”. Littmann read it as “I am Abreha Takla Aksum and I stayed here. [I] came [protected] by the power [of the Lord of the Sublime] H[eaven] with my son”.
Ullendorff suggested “I Abreha am the founder of Aksum” (or, “founder of the [Church of] Aksum”) “and have my domicile there” (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 109; Littmann 1954; Ullendorff 1955). Schneider (1984: 158), after discussing the state of the text as it is preserved now, concluded, perhaps wisely, that after “I Abreha” `the rest is speculation’. However, the inscription is of interest since it is unvocalized and apparently of the early fourth century AD; it confirms that the name Abreha was in use in Ethiopia at the same period as the mysterious Abreha and Atsbeha of Aksumite legend. Another unvocalized inscription from Debra Damo, associated with crosses, reads simply “I prayed” (Littmann 1913: IV, 61). A more mundane inscription, on a pot found at Aksum, reads “he who breaks it, pays!” (Anfray 1972: pl. III).
In late Aksumite times the inscription of the hatseni Daniel was carved on one of the statue bases in the city (Ch. 11: 5); this is, with the funerary inscription of Giho, daughter of Mangesha, from Ham (Conti Rossini 1939; Cerulli 1968: 18-19), one of the latest inscriptions we have. At Ham Conti Rossini also noted archaic Ethiopian inscriptions, probably simply names of travelers like those from a grotto at Qohayto, together with Aksumite pillars and other objects. The funerary inscription reads;
“Giho, daughter of Mangasha, died in the month of Tahsas, the 27th day, at dawn, the day before the vigil of the Nativity, a Wednesday, is the year . . . Ella Sahel. But as it is written `Man born of woman is of few days’ as it is written in the Gospel `He who has eaten my flesh and drunk my blood shall not taste death, and I will raise him at the last day’; and as is written in the Prophet `The dead shall be raised, and those who are in the tomb shall live'”.
Sergew Hable Sellassie (1972: 198), read the middle lines as “on the eve of Christmas on the day of Wednesday. And died a year after we had (conquered?) our enemy Ella Sahel”. Conti Rossini suggested a date of the 7th or 8th century for this inscription. Monneret de Villard (1940) noted that the shape of the tablet on which the inscription is carved resembles the typical Meroitic altar of offerings, and thought that Giho’s name was also Meroitic in origin; since such a funerary inscription is so far unique in Ethiopia but not unknown in Nubia, perhaps it does show some influences from there. It has been suggested that `Ella Sahel’ refers to a king of that name who appears in the king-lists, but the reading of the sentence is obscure (Schneider 1984: 163).
Illuminated Gospel, Amhara peoples, Ethiopia, late 14th–early 15th century, parchment (vellum), wood (acacia), tempera and ink, 41.9 x 28.6 x 10.2 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The later Ethiopian love of stories of the miracle-filled lives of saints and the wonderful tales of old may have had some literary reflection as early as Aksumite times, helping to both develop and preserve them. The compilation of the chronicles of the kings, as in medieval times, may have been an Aksumite custom, as illustrated by the preserved inscriptions. But if so the only traces we have of them are the Ge`ez king lists repeated in later times, with a few glosses about exceptional events. The patent inaccuracy of the lists and the non-appearance of most known Aksumite rulers show that only a very little was transmitted to later ages about Aksumite history, and presumably, any such ancient chronicles perished during one of the periods of unrest from late Aksumite times.
There can be little doubt that the art of making parchment and keeping records or literary works by the use of parchment scrolls (as in the Nubian kingdoms later), or larger flat pages (as in Ethiopia in the medieval period) could have been practiced in Aksumite times, and one day we may hope to find something of the sort in, perhaps, one of the Aksumite tombs. Records of government business and commercial transactions, as well as religious and other works, were certainly kept from early times, but the climate of Ethiopia does not have the dryness which has preserved so much perishable material in Egypt and Nubia. Most of the surviving Ethiopian parchment books are of relatively recent date, but there remains the hope that some earlier works may one day be discovered.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell