BY STUART MUNRO-HAY
The events of the time of Kaleb swell the sources available for Aksumite history to a disproportionate degree, and have resulted in the assumption that Kaleb was Aksum’s greatest and most powerful ruler. However, the majority of the sources merely consist of more or less repetitious accounts by ecclesiastical historians full of praise for Kaleb’s incursion into the Yemen to crush the anti-Christian persecutor, and often add little or nothing to the information of more reliable sources.
Illustration 12a. A bronze coin (d. 15mm) of king Kaleb.
Kaleb invaded the Yemen around 520, in order to oust the Jewish Himyarite king Yusuf Asar Yathar, who was persecuting the Christian population. This ostensible reason for mounting the expedition across the Red Sea probably covers a number of other causes, since it seems that Yusuf may have also acted against Aksumite interests, and those of her Roman allies, in the political and commercial spheres.
One later source (the historian known as Pseudo-Zacharias of Mitylene; Brooks, ed. 1953) claims that Yusuf had acceded to power in Himyar because an Aksumite appointee to the throne had died, and, it being winter, the Aksumites could not cross the Red Sea to install another king. However, the source is not a contemporary one, though the very fact that he makes such a statement is interesting. King Ma`adkarib Ya`fur, who left an inscription of year 631 of the Himyarite era (c516AD), may have been the deceased ruler, but his titulature is the very long one including `Hadhramawt, Yamanat, and their bedouins of the high plateau and coastal plain’, and it seems very unlikely that he was actually an Aksumite appointee (Rodinson 1969: 28, 31).
The various Latin, Greek, Syriac and Ge`ez sources (admirably summarised in Shahid 1971) have left a complicated set of names for the two protagonists in this war. Kaleb Ella Atsbeha is usually referred to by variants of his throne-name (such as Ellesbaas, Hellesthaeos, etc.), though John of Ephesus calls him Aidog. Yusuf is called Dhu-Nuwas in the Arab accounts, and a variety of names in other sources (Damianus, Dunaas, Dimnus, Masruq, Finehas, etc.) which seem to be based on this epithet or nickname or are derived from other epithets.
The chronology of the rulers of the Yemen in Kaleb’s time is tentative, and one inscription which refers to the death of a king of Himyar, dated to 640HE/c525AD, has been taken as announcing the death of king Yusuf, thus situating Kaleb’s invasion in 525. But it may well refer to the death of his successor, the viceroy Sumyafa` Ashwa`. With the useful assistance of dated inscriptions the chronology can be reconstructed as follows;
Ma`adkarib Ya`fur – c517/8AD;
Yusuf Asar Yathar 517/8 – 520;
Sumyafa` Ashwa` 520 – c525;
Abreha 525 – at least 547.
The Arab historians Ibn Hisham, Ibn Ishaq and Tabari, each of whom has a slightly different version of events (Guillaume 1955; Zotenberg 1958), tell of rivalry between Abreha and another of the najashi’s generals in the Yemen, Aryat. This would seem to have occurred around 525.
When Kaleb’s forces arrived in Yemen, there was a certain amount of fighting, celebrated by various inscriptions. One (Rodinson 1969), of some qayls or princes of `Yusuf Asar Yathar, king of all the Tribes’, is dated to year 633 of the Himyarite era/c518AD, and mentions that the king destroyed the church and killed the Abyssinians at Zafar, the Himyarite capital, demonstrating clearly that there were already Abyssinians in the country at the time; this rather speaks in favor of Pseudo-Zacharias’ statement noted above. In the end, Kaleb’s invading force was able to rout and eventually kill Yusuf. Another, Christian, ruler, Sumyafa` Ashwa`, was appointed, whose inscription (Philby 1950; Ryckmans 1946; Ryckmans 1976) refers to him by the title of king, but also as viceroy for the kings (in the plural) of Aksum; this inscription actually names Kaleb by his `Ella’-title, as Ella A(ts)bahah. Another inscription, possibly part of this one or a close parallel, appears to name the town of Aksum itself (Beeston 1980ii).
The Ethiopian viceroyalty lasted for perhaps four or five years, until c525, when the viceroy, Sumyafa` Ashwa`, was deposed, and Abreha became king in his stead. The contemporary Byzantine historian Procopius mentions that Sumyafa`, whose name he graecises as Esimiphaios, was a Himyarite by birth. The deposition of Sumyafa` was, apparently, accomplished with the support of Ethiopians who had remained in Yemen, and Kaleb attempted to punish them and Abreha by sending a force of three thousand men under a relative of his. But this force defected, killing their leader and joining Abreha. The infuriated Kaleb sent yet another army, but this was defeated and accordingly Abreha was left on his throne (Procopius; ed. Dewing 1914: 189-191). Abreha in later years used the titles of `king of Saba, Himyar, Hadhramawt, Yamanat, and all their Arabs of the Coastal Plain and the Highlands’ (Ryckmans 1966; Smith 1964; Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 148, 153). This title, apparently last used by Ma`adkarib Ya`fur, seems to have lapsed during Yusuf’s usurpation (Rodinson 1969) and Sumyafa` Ashwa`’s viceroyalty, and it is interesting to observe that although Kaleb of Aksum used these same titles, his son Wa`zeb abandoned the longer title and contented himself with the old claim of Ezana’s time to overlordship of Saba and Himyar only (Schneider 1972). This seems to reflect exactly the position as Procopius, writing after the death of Kaleb, related it, and seems to indicate that the titulature of the Aksumite kings did have some real significance in relation to events, rather than consisting of a merely traditional listing of both actual possessions and former claims (Ch. 7: 5). The essential of the situation is, that while the Aksumites may have been palliated by a formal submission and tribute, in actual terms they had permanently lost the control of the Yemen. A poem recorded by one of the Arab authors (Guillaume 1955: 34) sums up the history of Dhimar (Yemen) in this period, (as seen through anti-Ethiopian eyes);
“To whom belongs the kingdom of Dhimar? to Himyar the righteous;
to whom belongs the kingdom of Dhimar? to the wicked Abyssinians;
to whom belongs the kingdom of Dhimar? to the noble Persians;
to whom belongs the kingdom of Dhimar? to the Qoreysh, the merchants”.
Glorious though Kaleb’s re-establishment of the Christian faith in the Yemen seemed to contemporary (and later) ecclesiastical historians, it was Aksum’s swan-song as a great power in the region. The real result may well have been quite the opposite; a weakening of Aksumite authority, over-expenditure in money and man-power, and a loss of prestige. The venture was, it seems, too ambitious for the times, and did Aksum nothing but harm in the long run. Nevertheless, for a while we still hear of embassies arriving from the Byzantine empire with trade proposals, and others going to Abreha in the Yemen (recorded on his Marib Dam inscription of 658HE/c543AD) and to the Persian king to persuade him to release certain bishops jailed at Nisibis (according to John of Ephesus’ life of Simeon, bishop, of Beth Arsham — Brooks 1923; Doresse 1971: 102). Evidently Aksum still remained in the main stream of international affairs for a while. Kaleb’s inscription and coins, the hagiographical tales (and the king-lists, rather surprisingly, as well), confirm that Kaleb Ella Atsbeha’s father was a certain Tazena. He is not represented on the coins, but could be included under some other name; one of the great difficulties of Aksumite numismatics. The gold coins which most closely resemble those of Kaleb come from a group bearing the royal names Ousas/Ousana/Ousanas, which may all belong to only one king. Perhaps he is to be identified with Tazena, as noted above (Ch. 4: 6). On the other hand, the emphasis on naming Kaleb’s father on all his son’s surviving official documents, and his use of the phrase `throne of my fathers’ in his inscription (see above) might lead us to suppose that some political need was felt for this assertion of legitimacy; perhaps Tazena’s kingship was somehow in dispute, or perhaps he was not an Aksumite king, but a claimant in the line of succession? The late compilations of the tales of the Nine Saints mention a king Tazena as the father of Kaleb, but their evidence is not necessarily reliable.
The Ethiopian traditions say that Kaleb eventually abdicated the throne, sent his crown to be hung on the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem, and retired to a monastery. Since there are actual die-links between the coins of Kaleb and a king Alla Amidas (Munro-Hay, Oddy and Cowell, 1988), it is possible that he and Kaleb may have ruled together, Kaleb perhaps later retiring, thus explaining the plural term `the neguses (nagast) of Aksum’ in the inscription of Sumyafa` Ashwa` (Ryckmans 1946: line 3). Another line (8) in this inscription mentions that `they submitted to the kings (amlak) of Aksum’; however, these locutions might apply to a concept of `the crown of Aksum’, since a further phrase (line 14) alludes to the ngsy in the singular form.
Kaleb’s son Wa`zeb (W`ZB) is known from an inscription (Schneider 1974), where he is actually called `son of Ella Atsbeha’ using his father’s throne-name. He is presumably represented on the coins by another name, possibly Ella Gabaz (Munro-Hay 1984ii). Wa`zeb has left only this inscription, in Ge`ez, written in South Arabian script like Kaleb’s, but so damaged that it is very difficult to decipher (but see Ch. 11: 5). The story of Abba Libanos, the `Apostle of Eritrea’, mentions a king called `Za-Gabaza Aksum’, perhaps another version of the name Ella Gabaz (Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: I, 103); a suggestion confirmed very recently by Sergew Hable Sellassie (1989) who notes a homily of the Metropolitan Elias of Aksum about Abba Mat’e, Libanos, in which it is stated that the contemporary king was Ella Gabaz. Ella Gabaz and Za-Gabaza Aksum may be epithets indicating that Wa`zeb (if the identity is admitted) did some important building work at Maryam Tseyon cathedral.
|The Axumite Kingdom, Hataz (ca. AD 575) AE19. Capped & draped bust of Hataz facing, framed by two-grain ears, each with an offshoot terminating in a cross / Greek cross within octagon, Ge’ez legend Htz ngs ‘ksm , “Hataz, King of Aksum.”|
The coinage of this period is extremely difficult to put in order. There are often only single surviving specimens of issues, or a bewildering array of mutually exclusive factors to take into account when attempting to classify them into a sequence. However, among names known from the coinage, apart from those already noted above, are Wazena (tentatively identified with Alla Amidas), Ioel, Iathlia/Hataz, and Israel. If the identity of Alla Amidas with Wazena is correct (Munro-Hay 1984ii), and this ruler was a colleague or immediate successor of Kaleb, it may be that Wazena is the name found in the opening phrases of Abreha’s 543AD Marib inscription; `viceroy of the king Ella `ZYN’ (see Schneider 1984: 162-3). This would be a somewhat bizarre rendering of a supposed name `Wazena Ella Amida’ with, in addition, the waw written as `ain. Illustration 15. The obverse of a gold coin (d. 18mm) of king Israel of Aksum. Photo British Museum.
King Israel bears the name of one of Kaleb’s sons in the legendary histories (Conti Rossini 1909; Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 161), but seems too far removed from him from a numismatic point-of-view to be so identified (Munro-Hay 1984ii). Two more kings, Armah and Gersem, close the sequence of the coinage. The coins of the later kings are very degenerate in appearance in comparison to the earlier issues, and their gold content is much debased. It would seem that Aksumite prosperity was on the decline through a combination of reasons, but that coins continued to be issued until the disruption of the Red Sea trade which had brought the experiment with a monetary economy into being finally removed the need for it. Some features of the design of the later coins are extremely reminiscent of Byzantine models.
Illustration 16. Drawing of a silver coin (d. 16mm) of king Armah, depicting, on the reverse, a gateway adorned with three crosses, possibly representing the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
There are certain factors which favour suggesting that king Gersem belongs at the end of the coinage sequence, but a number of alternative points might favour Armah as the last king of Aksum to issue coins (Munro-Hay 1984ii; Hahn 1983). Armah’s name could conceivably be related to that of Ashama ibn Abjar, or his son Arha, known from the accounts of some early Islamic historians, through the common process of Arab misspellings or inversions by copyists (Hartmann 1895). Armah produced (so far as we know to date) no gold coins, which might suggest that he had accepted that there was no purpose in producing them, as his kingdom was by now at least in part cut off from the Byzantine trade network. His silver has an unusual reverse, depicting apparently a structure with three crosses, the central one gilded; Hahn (1983) suggested that this could represent the Holy Sepulchre, and have been placed on the coins in reference to the Persians’ seizure of Jerusalem and the holy places in 614. On the obverse the king’s crown is gilded as well. Armah’s bronze coins are the largest produced by the Aksumites, and unusually show the king full-length, seated on a throne; these and the elaborate gilded silver coins may have been designed to compensate for the lack of gold. Unfortunately there are neither archaeological contexts, nor overstrikings among the coinage, which can confirm which of these kings actually issued the last coins of the Aksumite series.
Structures have been found at Adulis, Aksum and Matara which contain the coins of all these later kings, showing that these towns were probably functioning at least until the end of the coinage, and were still under Aksumite control. Considerable quantities of pottery, often decorated with elaborate crosses, and other material including imported amphorae, provide evidence of still flourishing trade and local industries during the time of at least some of the later rulers. It is interesting to note, however, that the mottoes on the coins seem to grow increasingly less interested in royal and religious themes, but in the reigns of the later kings begin to ask for `Mercy and Peace to the Peoples’. Perhaps it is pure imagination to see in this a response to the current situation of Aksum, but it can be suggested that gradually things were getting worse in both the condition of the kingdom in general and in the capital itself. Aksum may possibly have suffered from the plague which reached Egypt in 541 (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 451ff; see also Pankhurst 1961 for more notes on diseases in Ethiopia), and had spread all over the eastern part of the Roman empire a year or two later; some claimed that it had originated in `Ethiopia’, but the term could refer to the Sudan or even other parts of Africa. If, however, Aksum was the victim of an epidemic, it might be an additional reason for the failure of the attempt to control king Abreha in the Yemen, and for the gradual decline of Aksum from that time onwards.
An interesting, but very tentative, source for Aksumite history in the later sixth century takes us much further afield for sources, to China. In 1779 the T’ien-fang Chih-sheng shih-lu, written between 1721 and 1724 by Liu Chih, was published. This was a life of Muhammad, the `True Annals of the Prophet of Arabia’, written using an older book of records about the prophet in Arabic found at Ts’eng Liu. It has been translated into English by Mason (1921). According to Leslie (1989) the original used by Liu Chih is very likely to have been a Persian translation of a biography of the prophet written by Sa`id al-Din Muhammad b. Mas`ud b. Muhammad al-Kazaruni, who died in AH758/1357AD, but at the time of writing the sources used by the latter have not yet been traced. However, it is interesting to note that the book contains a number of mentions of Abyssinia. The reigning najashi was said (Mason 1921: 35) to have sent an ambassador with gifts on sighting a star which marked the birth of the prophet (c570), and later (c577) when Muhammad was seven, the text (Mason 1921: 47) tells that the najashi Saifu ascended the throne. Abd al-Muttalib went to congratulate Saifu on his accession, and a speech of the former is quoted. He declared that “The great king, your grandfather, was a benevolent king, and his grandson is a holy sovereign, who breaks off with flatterers and follows what is right, avenges the oppressed and, acting upon right principles, administers the law equitably. Your servant is the superintendent of the sacrifices in the sacred precincts of the True God, a son of the Koreish, who, hearing that your Majesty has newly received the great precious throne, has come to present congratulations”.
Saifu recognised Muhammad’s greatness from portents he had found in the books, but prophesied that he would have troubles.
However much the Chinese translation may colour the narrative, there remain very interesting points in this account. If a king `Saifu’ came to the Aksumite throne in c577, and was the grandson of a particularly eminent Aksumite monarch, could that monarch have been Kaleb, so well-known to the Arabs as the conqueror of the Yemen? The text also adds (Mason 1921: 102) that Saifu’s own grandson was the najashi who received the Muslim emigrants in the fifth year of Muhammad’s prophetship, 615-6AD (Ch. 15: 4). If this very late and very much second-hand account deserves any credit we may postulate that Kaleb’s son(s) ruled until c577, to be succeeded then by his grandson, followed by other members of the same family until Ashama ibn Abjar. Ibn Ishaq (Guillaume 1955: 153ff) says that Ashama only succeeded after the reign of an uncle who had usurped the throne from Ashama’s father (Ch. 7: 5). The coins and inscriptions offer, as we have seen, Alla Amidas/Wazena, and Ella Gabaz/W’ZB (Kaleb’s sons?), followed by Ioel, Hataz, Israel, Armah and Gersem, for this period. It seems that this comes close to the number of rulers recorded in the later sources; two sons of Kaleb according to the Ge`ez texts, a grandson Saifu succeeding in c577 after the Chinese text, anothe r ruler and his usurping brother according to Ibn Ishaq, and finally Ashama, who died in 630, according to the Muslim chroniclers.
The situation at the ancient capital at this period was not what it had been in former times. Overuse of the land around a city which had supported a substantial population for some six hundred years was doubtless beginning to result in food-supply deficiencies, and in addition the Nile-levels recorded in Egypt indicate that the rainfall was not so constant as before (Ch. 3: 1-2). The clearance of the wooded hills around the city, whether for charcoal or planting of crops, allowed the rains to carry off the topsoil, exacerbating the agricultural problems (Butzer 1981). The very grave dimunition of the Red Sea trade, and the loss of revenue from that source may have combined with internal troubles, such as a resurgence of independence among the northern Beja tribes, or even dynastic difficulties, to hasten the abandonment of Aksum as the capital of the kingdom. Whatever the case (for the situation under Ashama ibn Abjar and the wars of the hatseni Danael see Ch. 15: 4-5) it seems that possibly before the middle of the seventh century AD, Aksum, though it continued to exist in a reduced way until the present as an ecclesiastical centre, and even ritual centre for the kingship, had ceased to be viable as Ethiopia’s capital city.
A famous Ethiopian of this last period of Aksum was one of the early converts to Islam, Bilal ibn Rabah. He was a freed slave of Ethiopian origin born in Mecca who became the first muadhdhin — muezzin — or chanter of the call to prayer. He also bore the prophet’s spear, which was a gift of the najashi Ashama to the prophet’s cousin al-Zubayr, and was used from 624AD to point the direction of prayer. Bilal died about 640AD (Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: I, 41)
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