By Stuart Munro-Hay
By the time that the Periplus Maris Erythraei was written, the town of Aksum, together with Meroë, capital of the Kushitic kingdom (though here the text is corrupt — Huntingford 1980: 19), was prominent enough to be called by the anonymous author of that work a `metropolis’, a word reserved for relatively few places. It seems as if the main part of the town lay on either side of the Mai Lahlaha in the areas now known as Dungur and Addi Kilte. Here were all the élite dwellings found by the various archaeological expeditions (Littmann 1913; Puglisi 1941; Anfray 1972; Munro-Hay 1989). The Deutsche Aksum-Expedition traced the approximate ground plans of three very substantial buildings, which they called Ta`akha Maryam, Enda Sem`on and Enda Mikael after local identifications based on the Book of Aksum (Conti Rossini 1910), and they found traces of many others in the immediate neighborhood. Subsequently, Puglisi, an Italian archaeologist, and Anfray, working on behalf of the Ethiopian Department of Antiquities, established that to the west were many more such structures.
The whole area is scattered with the debris of the ruined buildings of this ancient quarter of the town. These large residences were basically, it seems, of one plan; a central lodge or pavilion raised on a high podium approached by broad staircases, surrounded and enclosed by ranges of buildings on all four sides. The central pavilion was thus flanked by open courtyards. The plan shows a taste for the symmetrical, and the buildings are square or rectangular, with a strong central focus on the main pavilion. Ta`akha Maryam was furnished with an extra wing and is the largest of such structures to have been excavated and planned so far.
How widespread the central part of the town was formerly is not yet known, but it may be assumed that the less permanent habitations of the poorer sections of the population were constructed all around the more substantial dwellings and on the slopes of the Beta Giyorgis hill. Nothing of these has survived, but in time archaeologists may find evidence for the sort of dwellings we would expect; rough stone and mud, or wood, matting and thatch. One or two house models in clay found during the excavations give an impression of the smaller houses of Aksumite times (Ch. 5: 4).
Map b. The Kingdom of Aksum
Interest in fortification seems to have been minimal. The country itself was a natural fortress, enclosed within its tremendous rock walls and defended by its mountainous and remote position, as well as by the military superiority of its armies. Within the town, the pavilion style of dwelling, enclosed by inner courts and outer ranges of buildings, were in some measure given privacy, and if necessary defense, by their very layout. Kobishchanov writes of fortified bastions around the sacred area, but these were in fact only the outer walls of the large structure of typical Aksumite plan which now lies beneath the cathedral, not walls for specific defense reasons (Kobishchanov 1979: 141; de Contenson 1963). Nothing is known about the street plan of the suburbs where these mansions lay, and whether they too partook of the prevailing liking for symmetry by using a grid pattern. The outer parts of the town very likely developed organically in a piecemeal fashion, and were in a constant state of alteration, enlargement, or rebuilding as structures decayed or developed. Such a development can be seen on the plan (Anfray 1974) of the excavated structures at Matara.
Flanking the town in various directions were the necropoleis or cemeteries. These are marked today by the numerous granite stelae, standing stone monuments which vary from rough and simple marker-stones to some of the largest single stones ever employed in human constructions. Fields of such stelae are found in the following locations; to the south of Dungur (called the `Gudit’ field, after the legendary queen who sacked Aksum in the tenth century); to the east of the town below the south side of Mai Qoho; on the top of Beta Giyorgis to the north of the two church buildings there excavated by Lanfranco Ricci (1976); and above all in the main stelae field running along the north side of the Mai Hejja. This latter can be divided into two, a northern group in the area known as Geza `Agmai, and the main, southern group, ending almost opposite the cathedral and embracing the recently-made `Stele Park’, which includes all the decorated monoliths, and some enormous granite-built tombs (Littmann 1913; Munro-Hay 1989). Rock-cut or built tombs are also to be found on the slopes of Mai Qoho hill, in the courtyard of the church of the Four Animals (Arbate Ensessa) in Aksum, and in the region of the so-called tombs of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal some 2 km. north of the present town (Littmann 1913; Munro-Hay 1989).
It is evident that there are many other structures in this region and to the north; an idea of the density of occupation can be gained from the survey work of Michels quoted in Kobishchanov (1979: Map 4). The southern group of stelae in the main stelae field marks what was evidently the chief necropolis of the city, and the royal burial place. Directly facing it was a religious and ceremonial area now occupied by the sacred enclosure called Dabtera where the two cathedrals, old and new Maryam Tseyon, stand. The base of the podium of the old cathedral is an Aksumite structure, and other very substantial buildings have been traced in the area (de Contenson 1963i); if the custom of building churches on formerly sacred spots was followed here also, there may be traces of earlier cathedrals or pre-Christian temples. The architectural ensemble of this part of the town, of cathedral/temple, thrones, and stelae, shows an arrangement which may owe something to intentional design, but which was evidently also an extended process. The earlier examples among the greatly decorated stelae may well have been situated one after the other following a deliberate design; this impression is much stronger for the last three, which, dominating the terrace of lesser stelae, must have offered a sight which for dramatic quality was rarely equaled in the ancient world.
Map C. Plan of the ancient city of Aksum.
Near to and facing the old cathedral, is a cluster of granite thrones (Littmann 1913: II, 45ff) of which now only pedestals remain. Most of them are in a row running approximately north-north-east to south-south-west. There are eleven in the row, two being double, with another two immediately in front of the main row. At least six of the thrones had some sort of pillared canopy, as emplacements for pillars can be seen in the stonework of the pedestals. Slots for their backs and sides show that the original design was for closed chairs like the picture (Wolska-Conus 1968) of the Adulis throne in Kosmas’ book, and very likely at least some of these now-missing slabs bore inscriptions as did the Adulis monument.
Some way to the southeast, between the row of Thrones and the inner enclosure of the church, stand two other throne-pedestals, one with four columns still erect, and another set on a massive plinth. The throne-bases are noted in the Book of Aksum (Conti Rossini 1910) as the thrones of the Nine Saints, with others for Kaleb, Gabra Masqal and so on, or are attributed to the twelve judges of Aksum. In later times they served in the ceremony of the coronation. They may well have been the thrones which inscriptions tell us were set up as memorials of victories or other great events, like the one which still existed at Adulis in the sixth century, when Kosmas copied its anonymous Aksumite inscription. One of Ezana’s inscriptions, DAE 10, (see Ch. 11: 5) mentions a throne set up `here in Shado’, possibly the ancient name of one of the two places at Aksum still marked by rows of thrones.
The second set of pedestals led in a row from beside the eastern stelae field towards the ceremonial centre of the town, and some of these still show traces which indicate that they once held statues. Plinths for statues are known from other parts of the town also, one having sockets for feet 92 cm long (Littmann 1913: II, 44, provided a photograph of this now-vanished monument). Perhaps this sort of monument gave rise to the legend that when Christ descended to earth to perform the miracle of filling up the lake where Abreha and Atsbeha later built the cathedral, he left his footprints in the rock; they were, according to the Book of Aksum, still visible in the fifteenth century. Some of the Aksumite inscriptions mention the erection of metal statues as victory memorials, but as yet only stone statues have been found in Ethiopia. These, of which the finest examples come from Hawelti, near Aksum, date to some centuries before Aksumite times, but there may have been a continuity of tradition from one period to the next (de Contenson 1963).
The town-plan of Aksum is thus fairly simple; it may be envisaged as commencing with a ceremonial approach from the east, lined with granite victory-thrones and statues of bronze and precious metals dedicated to the gods, leading to the religious center with the royal cemetery lying to the north and east. The focus for this region seems to have been the temple/cathedral area, with another row of thrones. The main residential suburb with its huge palaces was situated to the west, and the whole was flanked with lesser cemeteries and more humble residential suburbs. It is probable that there was at least one open square, a market-place perhaps, somewhere in the town center. Since inscriptions and a statue base are reported to have come from the area between Ta`akha Maryam and Enda Sem`on (Littmann 1913; Schneider 1974), it may have been situated there, as such monuments may well have been set up in a public place. Civic building has not been identified; nothing has yet been excavated which can be categorized as public architecture, such as the structures housing town administrations, law-courts, covered markets or shopping arcades, baths, and the like so common in Roman town centers. As we have noted above, there is no hint that the Aksumite rulers needed to dominate their towns with citadels or surround them with defensive walls, and the town must have simply petered out in the plain and on the slopes of the hills.
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