By Stuart Munro-Hay
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 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 the 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 favorable region was, it seems, already populated when Aksum was founded. Though there are earlier sites with ruins dating to the Sabaean-influenced preAksumite 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 labeled 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 millennia 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 favorable 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, organizational 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 organizations 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 neighboring 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 neighboring 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 neighbors 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 `harbor 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 Sudan, such as the Kasu, Noba, and the Northern Cushitic-speaking Beja tribes (see the literature 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 centered 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 unfavorably 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 favorably 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.
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