By Stuart Munro-Hay
The most significant of the Portuguese accounts of Aksum is undoubtedly that of Francisco Alvares (or Alvarez), who came to Aksum in 1520. He was a careful and sympathetic observer who noted a good deal about the town, including details of many of the then extant monuments. His account has the special significance that it was the only one made before the sack of the city by the Muslim leader Ahmad Gragn. Several of the buildings which he mentions now do not exist (at least on the surface), but from the accuracy of those descriptions which can be checked, it is evident that his statements are worthy of respect. His description of Aksum was as follows (from Beckingham and Huntingford 1961); the square brackets indicate additions in Ramusio’s Italian edition, apparently made from a different manuscript than that published in Lisbon in 1540.
“(After the description of the church of Maryam Tseyon; see Ch. 10: 5); Inside the large enclosure (the outer enclosure around Maryam Tseyon) there is a large ruin built in a square, which in other times was a house and has at each corner a big stone pillar, square and worked [very tall with various carvings. Letters can be seen cut in them but they are not understood and it is not known in what language they are. Many such epitaphs are found.] This house is called Ambaçabet, which means house of lions. It is not known what this structure, which has now disappeared, was. Before the gate of the great enclosure there is a large court, and in it a large tree which they call Pharaoh’s fig tree, and at the end of it there are some very new-looking pedestals of masonry, well worked, laid down.
Only when they reach near the foot of the fig tree they are injured by the roots which raise them up. There are on the top of these pedestals twelve stone chairs [arranged in order one after the other] as well made with stone as though they were of wood. They are not made out of a block, but each one from its own stone and separate piece. They say these belong to the twelve judges who at this time served in the court of Prester John. These are the thrones, of which only the pedestals now exist. Outside this enclosure, there is a large town with very good houses . . . and very good wells of water of [very beautiful] worked masonry, and also in most of the houses . . . ancient figures of lions and dogs and birds, all well made in [very hard, fine] stone.
At the back of this great church is a very handsome tank [or lake of spring water] of masonry, [at the foot of a hillock where is now a market] and upon this masonry are as many other chairs of stone such as those in the enclosure of the church. This seems to refer to the row of Thrones set on what seems to be a natural rock wall at the base of Mai Qoho; possibly in the sixteenth century, this wall acted as a retaining wall for water, perhaps overspill from Mai Shum? This town is situated at the head of a beautiful plain, and almost between two hills and the rest of this plain is almost as full of these old buildings, and among them many of these chairs, and high pillars of inscriptions [; it is not known in what language, but they are very well carved].
Above this town, there are very many stones standing up, and others on the ground, very large and beautiful, and worked with beautiful designs, among which is one raised upon another, and worked like an altar stone, except that it is of very great size and it is set in the other as if enchased (the standing stele and its base-plate). This raised stone is 64 covados in length, and six wide; and the sides are 3 covados wide. It is very straight and well worked, made with arcades below, as far as a head made like a half moon; and the side which has this half moon is towards the south. There appear in it five nails which do not show more on account of the rust, and they are arranged like a quinas (the five dots on dice). And that it may not be asked how so high a stone could be measured, I have already said how it was all in arcades as far as the foot of the half moon, and these are all of one size; and we measured those we could reach to, and by those reckoned up the others, and we found 60 covados, and we gave 4 to the half moon, although it would be more, and so made 64 covados (thus making it about twice too great, the covado being apparently 27 inches). This very long stone, on its south side, where the nails in the half moon are, has, at the height of the man, the form of a portal carved in the stone itself, with a bolt and a lock, as if it were shut up.
The stone on which it is set up is a covado thick and is well worked; it is placed on other large stones and surrounded by other smaller stones, and no man can tell how much of it enters the other stone, or if it reaches to the ground. [Near these] there are endless other stones raised above the ground [, very beautiful] and very well worked [; it seemed as if they had been brought there to be put to use, like the others that are so big and are standing up]; some of them will be quite forty covados long, and others thirty. There are more than thirty of these stones, and they have no patterns on them; most of them have large inscriptions, which the people of the country cannot read, neither could we read them; according to their appearance, these characters must be Hebrew (perhaps actually Epigraphic South Arabian; does this mean that originally there were some inscriptions in the Stele Park?). There are two of these stones, very large and beautiful, with designs of large arcades, and tracery of good size, which are lying on the ground entirely, and one of them is broken into three pieces, and each of these equal eighty covados, and is ten covados in width. Close to them are stones, in which these had been intended to be, or had been enchased, which were bored and very well worked.
Above this town which overlooks much distant country [on every side], and which is about a mile, that is the third of a league, from the town, there are two houses under the ground into which men do not enter without a lamp (the `Tombs of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal’).
These houses are not vaulted, but of a very good straight masonry, both the walls and the roof. The blocks are free on the outside. The walls may be 12 covados high; the blocks are set in the walls so close one to the other, that it all looks like one stone [for the joins are not seen]. One of these houses is much divided into chambers and granaries. In the doorways are holes for the bars and for the sockets for the doors. In one of these chambers are two very large chests (the sarcophagi), each one 4 covados in length, and one and a half broad, and as much in overall height, and in the upper part of the inner side they are hollowed at the edge, as though they had lids of stone, as the chests are also of stone (they say that these were the treasure chests of Queen Saba). The other house, which is broader, has only got a portico and one room. From the entrance of one house to that of the other will be a distance of a game of Manqual (a type of skittles) and above them is a field. . . . In this town and in its countryside . . . when there come thunderstorms . . . there are no women or men, boys or children . . . left in the town who do not come out to look for gold among the village, for they say the rains lay it bare, and that they find a good deal.
This remark was taken by the editors of Alvares’ book to mean that gold was actually washed out of the soil; it is, however, much more likely to refer to the finding of gold coins and other items in the earth, something still not infrequent at Aksum after the rains. Alvares also describes the now-disappeared western church of St. Michael with a `tower of very fine masonry’ and the two shrines of Abba Liqanos and Abba Pantelewon. Illustration 19a. The title page of Telles’ 1660 Historia de Ethiopia an Alta after d’Almeida; some attempt has been made to `Ethiopians‘ the figure of the king and his courtiers. About one hundred years later, after Ethiopia had passed through the great convulsions of Gragn’s wars, Manoel de Almeida described the town in his chapter XXI, Acçum and its Antiquities (Beckingham and Huntingford 1954: 90ff); It is situated on the edge of very broad meadows in a gap where they come in between two hills. Today it is a place of about a hundred inhabitants. Everywhere their ruins are to be seen, not of walls, towers, and splendid palaces, but of many houses of stone and mud which show that the town was formerly very large.
Much of this was presumably the remains of the early sixteenth-century town. A church of stone and mud, thatched, is to be seen there built among the ruins and walls of another, ancient, one, the walls of which are still visible and were of stone and mud too (for in no part of Ethiopia is there any sign or trace that lime has ever at any time been seen there, or any building, large or small, constructed with it) but very wide apart. From what is visible, the church seems to have had five aisles. It was 220 spans long and 100 wide, it has a big enclosure wall of stone and mud and inside it a very handsome courtyard paved with large, well-cut stones, ending, on the side the church is, in a flight of 8 or 9 steps, also made of well-cut stones. At the top is a platform of 10 or 12 covados in the space before the façade and principal door of the church.
Outside this church’s enclosure is another in which five or six big pedestals of black stone are to be seen. Near at hand are four columns of the same stone 10 or 12 spans high. Among them is a seat on which the Emperors sit to be crowned after first having taken his seat on the pedestals I mentioned and after various ceremonies have been performed on them (see Ch. 7: 6 for an account of the coronation). What is most worth seeing here, a display of presumptuous grandeur is many tall stones like obelisks, needles, and pyramids. They are in a meadow lying behind the church. I counted some twenty that were standing and seven or eight that have been thrown to the ground and broken in many fragments. The tallest of those standing, if measured by its shadow, is 104 spans.
Its width at the base is ten spans, it becomes thinner as it goes up, like a pyramid, but it is not square; it has two sides broader and two narrower than the other two. It is carved as though in small panels each of which is like a square of two spans. This is the style of all those which have this carving, which is the taller ones. The rest are rough and unshaped slabs without any carving at all. The shortest is from 30 to 40 spans; the rest are all taller. It can be seen from the fragments of three or four of those that have been overthrown, that they were much bigger than the tallest of those now standing, which I said was a hundred and four spans, and some can be seen to have been over two hundred. The old men of this country say that a few years ago, in the time of King Malaac Cegued, and the Viceroy Isaac who rebelled and brought in the Turks to help him against the Emperor, they overthrew the six or seven that lie on the ground in fragments.
No one can say what was the object of the former kings who raised them up. It may well be thought that they were like mausoleums erected near their tombs since this was the object of the Egyptians. It was no doubt from them, through their proximity and the constant communication there was between them, that they learned about, and that the workmen came to make, these barbarous and monstrous structures. A bombard shot away from this spot is a broad stone not much higher than a man on which a long inscription can be seen. Many Greek and some Latin letters are recognizable, but when joined together, they do not make words in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, or any other known language, and so the meaning of the writing is not discoverable.
At this time there is no settled city in all Ethiopia; formerly the town of Aczum was very famous among the Abyssinians, and still preserves somewhat of its renown; and this place seems to have been a city, at least they look upon it as most certain, that the Queen of Sheba kept her court there, and that it was the residence of the emperors for many ages after, and they are crowned there to this day . . . this is the city Aksum or Auxum . . . at present it is only a village of about 100 houses. There are to be seen many ancient ruins, particularly those of a spacious church. . . . The most magnificent thing that appears here, are certain very tall stones, in the nature of obelisks, or pyramids, the biggest of the 78 foot in length, the breadth at the foot seven foot six inches.
It is cut as it were in small cushions, each of them about half a yard square; the smallest of them being between 25 and 30 foot high are rude misshapen stones. Some of those which seem to have been tallest are thrown down, and they say, the Turks entering Ethiopia overthrew them. The end of erecting them may reasonably be supposed to have been for monuments, near their graves; which was the design of the Egyptians in their so famous pyramids. Here is also a stone set up with a large inscription, in Greek and Latin characters, but they do not make any sense.”
Illustration 20. Aksum (Ethiopia): An Inquiry into the State of Documentation and Preservation of the Archaeological and Heritage Sites and Monuments, par / by HILUF BERHE (Aksum University)
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