One uncertain but interesting hint that Aksumite power may have been increasing notably in the 1st century AD comes from accounts preserved by Seneca (ed. Corcoran 1972), the Roman writer who became the emperor Nero’s tutor, and Pliny (ed. Rackham 1952: VI. 35, 184). These authors record details about an exploration (or two separate expeditions; Shinnie 1967: 21-22) in 61AD into the southern part of Sudan. Certain Roman officers were able to penetrate as far as the great papyrus swamp region of Sudan, the Sudd, it seems with a certain amount of help from the Meroitic king. Even in Augustus’ time, according to Strabo (ed. Page 1930: 353) Aelius Gallus had been sent not only to explore Arabia, `but also in Aethiopia, since Caesar saw that the Troglodyte country which adjoins Aegypt neighbors upon Arabia, and also that the Arabian Gulf, which separates the Arabians from the Troglodytes, is extremely narrow’ but this earlier effort came to nothing, it seems, since Gallus’ expedition was a failure.
It has been suggested that at the time of the Sudan expedition Rome, as Meroë’s ally, was trying to assist in preventing the nascent Aksumite kingdom from seizing control of the routes formerly used by the Kushite monarchy’s merchant caravans. Whilst we have no certain confirmation of this, there may have come a time when Meroë and Aksum clashed over their interests in the control of the Nile routes. Schur (1923) says that the emperor Nero intended to move against Aksum, and therefore sent an army to Ptolemais under Vespasian and Titus; but this can only be conjecture. Nevertheless, with the decline of Meroitic power and the fragmentation of authority in the region, Aksum would certainly have had a better opportunity for advancing its interests to the west and north than when Meroë was still a powerful state. The Meroitic relief at Jabal Qayli, close to the route leading to Kassala, where the king of Meroë is shown with slain enemies under the image of an Apollo-like deity, is the furthest actual trace of Meroitic influence to the east (Shinnie 1967: 50-51). This relief, bearing the name of king Sherkarer, is attributed to the early first century AD, but the Meroitic dates are not certainly fixed, and there is considerable leeway. It has been suggested that the distorted figures of the enemy represent slain Aksumites, but they could just as easily be depictions of any local group who had incurred Sherkarer’s enmity.
This period may be characterized as Aksum’s first `South Arabian’ period since most of the information available comes from inscriptions found in South Arabia (Beeston 1937; Jamme 1962; Robin 1981). The inscriptions name the Ethiopian kings as `nagashi of Habashat (Abyssinia) and of Aksum(an)’ and are written in the old South Arabian script and language. Since there are no vowels marked, the royal names mentioned by these inscriptions actually read GDRT, `ADBH, ZQRNS, and DTWNS, but for convenience here simple vowelling has been added, as for example, in the name `Gadarat’. The letters GDRT could represent a Ge`ez name such as Gedur, Gadura, Gedara or the like, but until a correctly vowelled spelling is found we remain unsure of the precise pronunciation. The inscriptions which refer to Gadarat and `Adhebah (perhaps `Azba or `Azeba in Ge`ez), kings of Aksum and Habashat, come from the famous temple at Marib called by the Arabs `Mahram Bilqis’, after the Arab name for the Queen of Sheba. Mahram Bilqis was, in fact, the great temple of the moon-god Ilmuqah at the ancient capital of the kingdom of Saba, now in north Yemen. Dated inscriptions, using an `era of Himyar’ are now interpreted as providing a date for Gadarat around the beginning of the 3rd century AD. It was previously suggested (Munro-Hay 1984: 20) that these were fourth century rulers, on the strength of the reading of `ADBH as WDBH, identified with Wazeba (WZB), one of the earliest kings named on the coinage, but since new discoveries about the dating of the inscriptions this theory has been abandoned.
The inscriptions which mention the Aksumite rulers were written as official accounts of wars and victories by the kings of Saba and Himyar. Since these kings were usually the enemies of the Aksumites, they do not deal very often with Aksumite successes. Nevertheless, we find that the military forces of the Aksumites were in control of certain regions of the Arabian peninsula, a situation doubtless partly facilitated by the political situation in Arabia, where the rulers of both Saba and Himyar at different times called in the help of Aksumite armies against each other.
The situation is still not entirely clear, but it appears that Arabia at the end of the second century was dominated by four states, Himyar (a relatively new polity), Saba, Hadhramawt and Qataban. Somewhere between c160-210AD Qataban was annexed by Hadhramawt, while the Sabaean rulers tried to subjugate Himyar, then ruled by king Tharan Ya`ub Yuhan`im. The Sabaean king `Alhan Nahfan, son of Yarim Ayman I, and his sons Sha`ir Awtar and Yarim Ayman II allied themselves against Himyar with Gadarat, nagashi of Aksum. This latter power was probably a relatively recent arrival on the Arabian scene, interested in curtailing Himyarite trading control in the Red Sea and beyond, and its assistance helped the Sabaeans to achieve a favorable balance of power. But it also brought a new factor into South Arabian politics, not finally disposed of until the Persian conquest centuries later; the Abyssinian presence ultimately protracted the conflict between Saba and Himyar for eventual control of the entire region.
This realignment occurred in the early part of the third century. The three Sabaean kings had previously allied themselves with Yada`ub Gaylan, the king of Hadhramawt. An inscription celebrating their treaty with Aksum declares that
`they agreed together that their war and their peace should be in unison, against anyone that might rise up against them, and that in safety and insecurity there should be allied together Salhen and Zararan and `Alhan and Gadarat’.
In this inscription what seems to be Gadarat’s castle or chief residence Zararan, is mentioned in parallel to the palace of `Alhan at Marib, capital of Saba, which was called Salhen; Zararan might even be one of the palaces whose ruins are still visible at Aksum (Ch. 5: 4).
After `Alhan Nahfan’s death ,his son Sha`ir Awtar (whose reign seems to date from about 210 to 230AD, linked for a time in co-regency with his brother Hayu`athtar Yada`) abandoned this alliance. Frictions had doubtless begun to develop as Aksum grew more powerful in the region, and learned to play off the Arabian kingdoms and tribal allegiances against each other. By about 225AD Sha`ir Awtar had defeated and captured Il`azz Yalut, king of the Hadhramawt, and taken his capital, Shabwa. Il`azz was married to the sister of Sha`ir Awtar, and in 217-8AD the latter had helped put down a rebellion against the Hadhrami king; the enmity between Hadhramawt and Saba was a major change in policy. The Abyssinian position in these events is not clear. Sha`ir Awtar apparently used both Himyarite and Sabaean troops in this campaign, and the Himyarite ruler, Li`azz Yahnuf Yuhasdiq, whose reign may have overlapped with the end of Sha`ir’s, also allied with the Sabaeans against Gadarat. Aksum suffered a defeat, and was expelled from the Himyarite capital, Zafar, which had been occupied and garrisoned under the command of a son of the nagashi, Beyga or Baygat (BYGT). However, Aksum still retained territory in Arabia in the reign of Sha`ir Awtar’s successor Lahay`atat Yarkham, who had at least one clash with Habash troops. In any event, these activities, dating from perhaps the beginning of the third century to the 230’s AD, are confirmation that Aksum had reached a new zenith in its power. Overseas wars, the occupation of territories in Arabia, military alliances, a fleet, and the extension of Aksumite political and military influence from the Hadhramawt to Najran in modern Saudi Arabia bespeak an important increase in the scope of the Aksumite state.
A peace may have been patched up between the contestants for a while, but it was only temporary. A little later, in the 240s, we find two rival dynasties calling themselves kings of Saba and Dhu-Raydan, one of which, represented by a certain Shamir of Dhu-Raydan and Himyar, turned for help to king `Azeba or `Adhebah (`ADBH) of Aksum, and his son Girma, Garima or Garmat (GRMT), with their allies from Sahartan and the tribe of Akk, against the Sabaean kings Ilsharah Yahdub and Yazzil Bayyin, sons of Fari`um Yanhub (who only called himself king of Saba, perhaps recognising that he was not in the same position of power as his two predecessors, who had employed the dual title `king of Saba and Dhu-Raydan’). These kings considered that Himyar, the Abyssinians, and Sahartan were in breach of a peace-treaty during the ensuing war. Shamir Dhu-Raydan was almost certainly the Himyarite king Shamir Yuhahmid, who became an ally of Aksum under `ADBH and the `son of the nagashi’ GRMT. He sent for help to the nagashi, and, though one inscription claims that
“Shamir of Dhu-Raydan and Himyar had called in the help of the clans of Habashat for war against the kings of Saba; but Ilmuqah granted . . . the submission of Shamir of DhuRaydan and the clans of Habashat”
Shamir seems to have to some extent recovered Himyarite power. It may have been such a request for aid that eventually led the Aksumite kings to claim the much-used titles of `king of Saba and Himyar’ in their own titulature, asserting some sort of theoretical suzerainty over the Arabian kings. Incidentally, it is unknown whether the two generals entitled `son of the nagashi’ Baygat and Garmat were `crown princes’ who succeeded to the throne in their turn, or whether they were merely military captains under the nagashis. Their names are unknown except for these inscriptions.
Around the end of the 240s until c260, the Himyarite king was Karibil Ayfa`, who fought with Yada`il Bayyin and his son Ilriyam Yadum of the new dynasty in Hadhramawt, with the Abyssinians, and with Ilsharah Yahdub and Yazzil Bayyin of Saba; all the main forces then in Yemen. One of the al-Mis`al inscriptions (no. 3) mentions that a son of the nagashi, unfortunately unnamed, came to Zafar with the troops of al-Ma`afir and the Abyssinians and that a sortie was made against them.
A new gap now occurs in the records. Possibly it may be filled by one of the most mysterious of the Aksumite kings, Sembrouthes (Littmann 1913: IV, 3). He is known only from his Greek inscription from Daqqi Mahari, well north of Aksum in present-day Eritrea. The inscription is on a roughly shaped building block, and, for so brief a text, is filled with expressions of the royal self-esteem;
“King of kings of Aksum, great Sembrouthes came (and) dedicated (this inscription) in the year 24 of Sembrouthes the Great King”.
His substantial reign of at least 24 years, if correctly placed here, fills the period between the last mention of `Adhebah and the next known Aksumite rulers, DTWNS and ZQRNS. Himyarite power was growing stronger throughout this period, and perhaps to curb this Aksum decided to act; in c267-8 Yasir Yuhan`im of Himyar (c260-270) suffered an invasion led by two Aksumite kings. More South Arabian inscriptions, recently brought to notice by Christian Robin, (whose dating of the South Arabian eras, and general historical scheme (1981) we have followed here) come from the Yemeni site of al-Mis`al. One inscription (no. 5) deals with this war in which the two kings of Aksum, Datawnas (DTWNS) and Zaqarnas (ZQRNS), with their allies of al-Ma`afir, were involved.
Whether these were co-rulers or successive occupants of the Aksumite throne, is not certain, but they appear to have renewed or continued the Aksumite presence in South Arabia sometime during the years between 260 and 270 AD. The results of their efforts remain unclear; when the al-Mis`al inscriptions are fully published more may be known about the events of this period, but the fact that the Aksumite kings were still interfering in Arabian politics indicates that their interests in South Arabia were not lightly abandoned. An inscription of the last Sabaean king, Nashakarib Yuha`min Yuharib, also mentions Abyssinian incursions at this time, but it is notable that accounts of his wars in Sahartan do not mention the Abyssinians.
Illustration 10. The Greek inscription of the king of kings Sembrouthes of Aksum, from Daqqi Mahari, Eritrea (courtesy of G. Tringali).
The subsequent events, culminating in a Himyarite victory over Saba, are conjectured to be more or less contemporary with the Aksumite kings Endubis and Aphilas, and are detailed below (Ch. 4: 5).
Sadly, nothing is known of these Aksumite kings of the third century from the Ethiopian side except for the discovery at Atsbi Dera of a scepter or wand in bronze, which mentions the name of `GDR negus of Aksum’ (Caquot and Drewes 1955: 32-38; Doresse 1960). This appears in a short inscription which has been translated as either “GDR king of Aksum occupied the passages of `RG and LMQ”, or “Gedara, King of Axum is humbled before the [gods] Arg and Almouqah” (Jamme 1957). GDR is very likely the same king called by the Arabian kings GDRT (Gadarat). In addition, some finds of Himyarite coins at Aksum may be attributed to this overseas intercourse (Munro-Hay 1978).
The stelae of two prominent Ethiopians of the late third century offer a little information about local matters (Drewes 1962: 67-8). One, the Matara stele, reads `This is the stele which Agaz has made for his ancestors…’, but no information is given about Agaz himself. The other, the Anza (near Hawzien) stele, was erected by Bazat (BZT) negus of Agabo, perhaps a local king. His stelea seems to celebrate a 15-day festival, and 520 containers of beer and 20,620 loaves are recorded as a donation.
The Aksumite state at this stage appears fully-fledged as a militaristic monarchy with wide-reaching foreign connexions. The interest in South Arabia may have been encouraged by the need to keep the Red Sea efficiently policed so that vessels of the Aksumites or their trading partners could come and go safely. Aksum may also have been concerned to be included in the enormously profitable trade in incense and other valuable goods along the routes which crossed Arabia to the markets of the Roman empire. Sembrouthes’ inscription attests Aksumite power as far north as Daqqi Mahari, and confirms that he controlled subordinate kings since he uses the title `king of kings’. His inscription is in Greek, the language Zoskales also knew. It remains possible that Sembrouthes should be situated at an earlier date, though the elevated title of `king of kings’ does perhaps tend to support the dating proposed above.
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