By Stuart Munro-Hay
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, endeavored 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 the 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 centers 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 emphasizes 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 hypothesizes that in this period of decentralization Yeha alone remained a center 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 favored 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 the organization. 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 the 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 center, 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 center, 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 centered 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 organization, coinage, monumental construction and so on, bespeak something far more centralized than a loose confederation of more or less equal petty kingdoms.
Very likely some other urban centers 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 center 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 centers 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 neighboring tribal groups, but by the period in question, it seems that such disparate elements had been gathered under the control of one dominating center: 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 centers, 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, practicing 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 emphasized, 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 any way 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 the 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 center 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 hats and Daniel texts (Ch. 11: 5). If the structures were built after Aksum ceased to be the center of government, these dwellings might represent the remnant who stayed on to administer the region dependent on the old capital.
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