By Stuart Munro-Hay
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 neighboring 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.
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.
Virtually nothing is known of what sort of contacts Aksum had with its western neighbor, 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 corna line 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 neighbor 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 literature 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 neighbors. 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.
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 neighbors. 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 harbor of the Homeritae from which they are accustomed to putting 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 harbor 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 Yemen, but soon his viceroy was deposed, and Yemen became more or less independent. The 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, Debra 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 the 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 converts 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 traveler (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 RomanoAksumite trading relations. According to the historian Rufinus (Migne 1849: 478-9), the ship in which Frumentius, then a boy, was traveling, 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 are 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 organization 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 the 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 Abrams, 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).
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.
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 color, found at Aksum and Matara, have been classified, rather vaguely, as Sassanian-Islamic or Gulf wares (Wilding in MunroHay 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 Debra 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 mold-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 centered 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.
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