1. The Pre-Aksumite Period
This period is not of major concern to us here, and in any case we have very little information about it; but some consideration should be given to the situation in Ethiopia before the rise of Aksum, since the source of at least some of the characteristics of the later Aksumite civilization can be traced to this earlier period. Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon in this respect is that by around the middle of the first millennium BC — a date cautiously suggested, using palaeographical information (Pirenne 1956; Drewes 1962: 91), but possibly rather too late in view of new discoveries in the Yemen (Fattovich 1989: 16-17) which may even push it back to the eighth century BC — some sort of contact, apparently quite close, seems to have been maintained between Ethiopia and South Arabia. This developed to such an extent that in not a few places in Ethiopia the remains of certain mainly religious or funerary installations, some of major importance, with an unmistakable South Arabian appearance in many details, have been excavated. Among the sites are Hawelti-Melazo, near Aksum (de Contenson 1961ii), the famous temple and other buildings and tombs at Yeha (Anfray 1973ii), the early levels at Matara (Anfray 1967), and the sites at Seglamien (Ricci and Fattovich 1984-6), Addi Galamo, Feqya, Addi Grameten and Kaskase, to name only the better-known ones. Fattovich (1989: 4-5) comments on many of these and has been able to attribute some ninety sites altogether to the pre-Aksumite period.
Inscriptions found at some of these sites include the names of persons bearing the traditional South Arabian title of mukarrib, apparently indicating a ruler with something of a priest-king status, not otherwise known in Ethiopia (Caquot and Drewes 1955).
Others have the title of king, mlkn (Schneider 1961; 1973). Evidently, the pre-Aksumite Sabaean-influenced cultural province did not consist merely of a few briefly-occupied staging posts but was a wide-spread and well-established phenomenon. Until relatively recently South Arabian artifacts found in Ethiopia were interpreted as the material signs left behind by a superior colonial occupation force, with political supremacy over the indigenes — an interpretation still maintained by Michels (1988). But further study has now suggested that very likely, by the time the inscriptions were produced, the majority of the material, in fact, represented the civilization of the Ethiopians themselves. Nevertheless, a certain amount of contact with South Arabia is very apparent and had resulted in the adoption of a number of cultural traits (Schneider 1973; 1976).
Evidently, the arrival of Sabaean influences does not represent the beginning of Ethiopian civilization. For a long time, different peoples had been interacting through population movements, warfare, trade, and intermarriage in the Ethiopian region, resulting in a predominance of peoples speaking languages of the Afro-Asiatic family. The main branches represented were the Cushitic and the Semitic. Semiticized Agaw peoples are thought to have migrated from south-eastern Eritrea possibly as early as 2000BC, bringing their `proto-Ethiopic’ language, ancestor of Ge`ez and the other Ethiopian Semitic languages, with them; and these and other groups had already developed specific cultural and linguistic identities by the time any Sabaean influences arrived. Features such as dressed stone building, writing and iron-working may have been introduced by Sabaeans, but words for `plough’ and other agricultural vocabulary are apparently of Agaw origin in Ethiopian Semitic languages, indicating that the techniques of food production were not one of the Arabian imports. Clark (1988) even suggests that wheat, barley, and the plow may have been introduced from Egypt via Punt.
Some of the graffiti found in eastern Eritrea include names apparently neither South Arabian nor Ethiopian, perhaps reflecting the continued existence of some older ethnic groups in the same cultural matrix. Various stone-age sites and rock-paintings attest to these early Ethiopians in Eritrea and Tigray. At Matara and Yeha, for example, archaeologists have distinguished phases represented by pottery types which seem to owe nothing to South Arabia but do have some Sudanese affinities. The Italian archaeologist Rodolfo Fattovich, who has particularly interested himself in this study, has suggested that the pre-Aksumite culture might owe something to Nubia, specifically to C— group/Kerma influences, and later on to Meroë/Alodia (Fattovich 1977, 1978, 1989). Worsening ecological conditions in the savanna/Sahel belt might have induced certain peoples to move from plains and lowlands up to the plateau in the second half of the second Millenium BC (Clark 1976), bringing with them certain cultural traditions. Evidence for early trade activity to regions across the Red Sea from eastern Sudan and Ethiopia at about this time has been noted by Zarins (1988), with reference to the obsidian trade.
Extremely interesting results have lately come from work in the Gash Delta on the Ethiopia-Sudanese borderland, indicating the existence of a complex society there in the late 3rd-early 2nd millennium BC (Fattovich 1989: 21); possibly the location of the land of Punt there reinforces this suggestion (Kitchen 1971; Fattovich 1988: 2, 7). It seems that the new discoveries are of major importance to an understanding of the dynamics of state formation in the Ethiopian highlands. The latest work suggests that in the late second and early first millennium BC the eastern part of the Tigray plateau was included in a widespread cultural complex on both the African and the Arabian Tihama coasts of the Red Sea, in contact with the lowlands of the Sudan and perhaps with the Nile Valley, while the western part was in contact with peoples of the Gash Delta. These two regions of the plateau later became united culturally and politically under the D`MT monarchy (Fattovich 1989: 34-5).
It appears that there were undoubtedly some South Arabian immigrants in Ethiopia in the mid-first millennium BC, but there is (unless the interpretation of Michels is accepted) no sure indication that they were politically dominant. The sites chosen by them may be related to their relative ease of access to the Red Sea coast. Arthur Irvine (1977) and others have regarded sympathetically the suggestion that the inscriptions which testify to the Sabaean presence in Ethiopia may have been set up by colonists around the time of the Sabaean ruler Karibil Water in the late fourth century BC; but the dating is very uncertain, as noted above. They may have been military or trading colonists, living in some sort of symbiosis with the local Ethiopian population, perhaps under a species of treaty-status.
It seems that the pre-Aksumite society on the Tigray plateau, centred in the Aksum/Yeha region but extending from Tekondo in the north to Enderta in the south (Schneider 1973: 389), had achieved state level, and that the major entity came to be called D`MT (Di`amat, Damot?), as appears in the regal title `mukarrib of Da`mot and Saba’. The name may survive in the Aksumite titulature as Tiamo/Tsiyamo (Ch. 7: 5). Its rulers, kings and mukarribs, by including the name Saba in their titles, appear to have expressly claimed control over the resident Sabaeans in their country; actual Sabaean presence is assumed at Matara, Yeha and Hawelti-Melazo according to present information (Schneider 1973: 388). The inscriptions of mukarribs of D`MT and Saba are known from Addi Galamo (Caquot and Drewes 1955: 26-32), Enda Cherqos (Schneider 1961: 61ff), possibly Matara, if the name LMN attested there is the same as the. MN from the other sites, (Schneider 1965: 90; Drewes and Schneider 1967: 91), Melazo (Schneider 1978: 130-2), and Abuna Garima (Schneider 1973; Schneider 1976iii: 86ff). Of four rulers known to date, the earliest appears to be a certain W`RN HYWT, who only had the title mlkn, king, and evidence of whom has been found at Yeha, Kaskase, Addi Seglamen; he was succeeded by three mukarribs, RD’M, RBH, and LMN (Schneider 1976iii: 89-93).
Illustration 9. An inscription from Abba Pantelewon near Aksum, written in the Epigraphic South Arabian script and mentioning the kingdom of D`MT; it is dedicated to the deity Dhat-Ba`adan. It has been photographed upside down. phot wikipidia
The Sabaeans in Ethiopia appear, from the use of certain place-names like Marib in their inscriptions, to have kept in contact with their own country, and indeed the purpose of their presence may well have been to maintain and develop links across the sea to the profit of South Arabia’s trading network. Naturally, such an arrangement would have worked also to the benefit of the indigenous Ethiopian rulers, who employed the titles mukarrib and mlkn at first, and nagashi (najashi) or negus later; no pre-Aksumite najashi or negus is known. The inscriptions dating from this period in Ethiopia are apparently written in two languages, pure Sabaean and another language with certain aspects found later in Ge`ez (Schneider 1976). All the royal inscriptions are in this second, presumably Ethiopian, language. A number of different tribes and families seem to be mentioned by the inscriptions of this period, but there is no evidence to show whether any of these groups lasted into the Aksumite period. Only the word YG`DYN, the man of Yeg`az, might hint that the Ge`ez or Agazyan tribe was established so early, though the particular inscription which mentions it is written in the South Arabian rather than the Ethiopian language (Schneider 1961). Some of the other apparently tribal names also occur in both groups of inscriptions. The usual way of referring to someone in the inscriptions is `N. of the family N. of the tribe N.’, possibly also reflected later by the Aksumite `Bisi’-title; `king N. man of the tribe/clan (?) N.’ (Ch. 7: 5).
It seems that these `inscriptional’ Sabaeans did not remain more than a century or so — or perhaps even only a few decades — as a separate and identifiable people. Possibly their presence was connected to a contemporary efflorescence of Saba on the other side of the Red Sea. Their influence was only in a limited geographical area, affecting the autochthonous population in that area to a greater or lesser degree. Such influences as did remain after their departure or assimilation fused with the local cultural background, and contributed to the ensemble of traits which constituted Ethiopian civilization in the rest of the pre-Aksumite period. Indeed, it may be that the Sabaeans were able to establish themselves in Ethiopia in the first place because both their civilization and that of mid-1st millennium Ethiopia already had something in common; it has been suggested that earlier migrations or contacts might have taken place, leaving a kind of cultural sympathy between the two areas which allowed the later contact to flourish easily. The precise nature of the contacts between the two areas, their range in commercial, linguistic or cultural terms, and their chronology is still a major question, and discussion of this fascinating problem continues (Marrassini 1985; Avanzini 1987; Pirenne 1987; Isaac and Felder 1988).
Jacqueline Pirenne’s most recent (1987) proposal results in a radically different view of the Ethiopian/South Arabian contacts. Weighing up the evidence from all sides, particularly aspects of material culture and linguistic/palaeographic information, she suggests that “il est donc vraisemblable que l’expansion ne s’est pas faite du Yémen vers l’Ethiopie, mais bien en sens inverse: de l’Ethiopie vers le Yémen”. According to this theory, one group of Sabaeans would have left north Arabia (where they were then established) for Ethiopia in about the eighth or seventh century BC under pressure from the Assyrians; they then continued on into southern Arabia. The second wave of emigrants, in the sixth and fifth century, would reign over the kingdom of Da’amat (D`MT), and would have been accompanied by Hebrews fleeing after Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem; an explanation for the later Ethiopian traditions with their Jewish and Biblical flavour, and for the Falashas or black Jews of Ethiopia. These Sabaeans too, in their turn would have departed for Yemen, taking there the writing and architecture which they had first perfected in Tigray. In the fourth and third century BC, the remaining Sabaean emigrés would have left Ethiopia for Yemen, leaving elements of their civilization and traditions firmly embedded in the Ethiopian’s way of life. This ingenious mise en scène, so far only briefly noted in a conference paper, must await complete publication before it can be fully discussed, but it is expressive of the highly theoretical nature of our conclusions about pre-Aksumite Ethiopia that so complete a reversal of previous ideas can even be proposed. Isaac and Felder (1988) also speculate about the possibility of a common cultural sphere in Ethiopia and Arabia, without giving either side the precedence.
It has also been suggested that the progress of the youthful Ethiopian state brought it into conflict with Meroë in the reigns of such kings as Harsiotef and Nastasen from the fourth century BC. Whilst there must have been some contact later, there is no real evidence from this early date (Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 12).
The altars, inscriptions, stelae, temples, secular structures, tombs and other material left by the Sabaean-influenced Ethiopian population occur in considerable numbers even from the few excavated sites; those attributed to the Sabaeans themselves occur more rarely. The monuments are dated from the 5th century BC by the study of the letter-forms used on them (paleography), and seem to appear in Ethiopia at about the same time as they do in South Arabia (nb. the reservations about the dating expressed by Fattovich 1989). The disc and crescent symbol used on some of the monuments (and very much later by the pre-Christian Aksumites) was also familiar on some South Arabian coins, and South Arabian altars; many of the same deities were being worshipped in the two regions. It was also during this period that iron was introduced into the country.
In the present state of our knowledge, it is unclear how much of Aksumite civilisation was a direct continuation of a cultural heritage from pre-Aksumite times, or how much any South Arabian aspects might be better attributed to a renewal of overseas contacts in the period after the consolidation of Aksum as an independent polity in the first and second centuries AD. No clear evidence of connexions between the pre-Aksumite, Sabaean-influenced, period, and the earliest Aksumite period is at the moment available, though it seems intrinsically more likely that Aksum in some way was able to draw directly on part of the experience of its predecessors. At Matara, the archaeological evidence implies that there was a clear break between the two periods (Anfray and Annequin 1965), but this need not have been the case everywhere in the country. The solution to these questions can only await further clarification from archaeology.
The subsequent periods are those which represent the duration of the Aksumite kingdom proper. In the following table approximate dates for these periods, numbered 1-5, are indicated, together with the names of the known rulers, with notes about any references in texts or inscriptions, contemporary constructions (Ch. 16) at Aksum (using the terminology in Munro-Hay 1989), and significant international events with a bearing on Aksum.