By Stuart Munro-Hay
The general style of the élite domestic buildings of Aksum has been described above (Ch. 5: 2), and reconstructions have been attempted (in Littmann 1913; and, more modestly, by Buxton and Matthews 1974). The pavilions in their domestic enclosures are the most typical examples of the unique Aksumite form of construction and embody most of the characteristics of Aksumite architecture. The podia (the only parts of these buildings which survive, except in very rare cases) were built according to a style whereby the walls exhibited no long straight stretches but instead were indented so that any long walls were formed by a series of recesses or re-entrants and salients. These, considering that the building material was mostly random rubble (coursed stonework is rarely found), bound only with mud mortar, must have been designed to strengthen walls with low cohesion inclined to sag, and to deal with expansion and contraction caused by wide-ranging temperatures. Later structures, such as the Lalibela churches, show that the indentations were not used only on the podia, but extended to roof level.
At intervals of a little less than 50 centimeters as the podium walls rose they were rebated, each rebate setting the wall back about 5 centimeters. These rebates or gradins, sometimes up to seven, were often topped with flat slate-like stones forming a shelf or string-course. This design was perhaps inspired by the same architectural tradition illustrated in the pre-Aksumite period at the Grat-Beal-Guebri and the temple at Yeha (Anfray 1972ii: 58). It not only narrowed the walls as they rose higher, but assisted the run-off of rain from the surfaces of the walls, and thus protected the mud-mortar to some extent. The rebated walls with re-entrants and salients are one of the chief distinguishing marks of Aksumite architecture, and apart from their reinforcing function, they would have enhanced the appearance of the massive podia of the palaces and mansions by breaking up the solidity of their mass with light and shadow. A wall at the structure called Enda Sem`on was remarkable in that it had not only five surviving rebates, but the wall above was preserved for a further 1.80m, including a blocked-up window with a stone lintel (Munro-Hay 1989).
Most of the surviving podium walls of these Aksumite structures were furnished at all corners with large and carefully cut granite corner blocks, which protected, linked, and supported the weaker parts of the walls. Occasionally a podium might be strengthened by a complete row of cut granite blocks, as still visible at Dungur and in the Aksumite part of the Maryam Tseyon cathedral podium. Granite was also used for architectural features such as columns, bases and capitals, doors, windows, paving, and the like, and particularly for the massive flights of steps which sometimes flanked two or three sides of the pavilions. A good deal of this stonework consisted of undecorated but well-dressed blocks, but some of the doorway blocks, or the columns and their bases and capitals, were decorated with a variety of designs.
A thick lime plaster was noted on the walls of one room in the large tomb called the Mausoleum at Aksum (Munro-Hay 1989), and similarly appears on a chamfered column at Maryam Nazret. Lime mortar has also been observed fixing stones on the podium of the Aksumite church at Agula, but it does not appear to have been regularly used. At Adulis the main construction material was porous basalt (the same material was used for the stele at Adulis which Kosmas saw behind the marble throne there, lying broken into two pieces — Wolska-Conus 1968: 364) or sandstone. Polygonal blocks of basalt were used for walls, and cut cubes were assembled to form square columns. During the excavations at Adulis, Paribeni (1907: 464) was puzzled by the lack of doors and windows in walls he was able to clear up to a height of 3.40m. He concluded that they must only represent foundations, and this was in a measure true since the buildings rose on podia as indicated by the excavations at Matara and Aksum. Among the structures which Paribeni cleared was one which he called the Ara del Sole, Altar of the Sun, because of a number of designs which he interpreted as hills and sun-discs carved on bluish marble plaques destined for fixing to the walls. A church had been built on top of the original podium, but the latter confirmed in all other ways to the usual Aksumite style.
The second type of architecture, though similar in most essentials to that already described, employed wooden beams as a strengthening element within the walls. A square horizontal beam set in the wall supported rounded cross-members embedded in the stonework and forming ties across the width of the walls. The ends of these cross members projected from the external wall (and were sometimes visible internally as well) in rows, forming the characteristic `monkey-heads’ often seen fossilized in stone in other examples of Ethiopian architecture. Doors and windows were constructed by a similar method, the openings being framed on all four sides and linked by cross members through the thickness of the walls, but the `monkey-heads’ are square. Most of these features were carved in granite on the decorated stelae, and some can still be seen in the surviving ancient rock-cut or built churches of Tigray and Lalibela (Buxton and Matthews 1974; Plant 1985; Gerster 1970). The framed doors and windows appear as a repeated motif in some of these later structures and have been dubbed the `Aksumite frieze’, since they appear on the decorated stelae there (Plant 1985: 17, 20). However, the simple lintel was also known and employed, for example over the doorway of the East Tomb at Aksum and over a window at Enda Sem`on (Munro-Hay 1989).
It is possible that the original inspiration for the design of the decorated stelae came from the South Arabian mud-brick multi-story palaces familiar to the Aksumites from their involvements in that country, rather than from Ethiopian examples. On some of the Aksumite podia, there could conceivably have been erected high tower-like structures of mud-brick around a wooden frame, such as that found at Mashgha in the Hadhramawt (Breton et al. 1980: pls. VIII, X) looking rather like the great stelae. But no evidence for such Yemeni-style buildings actually survives in Ethiopia, nor is there any archaeological indication there for mud-brick architecture. Alternatively, and more probably, the stelae could have been exaggerated designs based on the Aksumite palaces; and here there is archaeological support, since the structure called the `IW Building’ partly cleared by the excavations of Neville Chittick (Munro-Hay 1989), included just such wood-reinforced walls. Though the load-bearing strength of the rough stone and mud mortared walls is apparently very considerable, it seems most likely that these buildings would have been in reality limited to only two stories above the podia.
Evidence that the pavilions and some of these outer ranges were more than one story high is provided by the occasional staircases which have been found. The central pavilions of Aksumite palaces were completely surrounded by ranges of subsidiary structures, pierced here and there by gateways and doors. Each ensemble must have formed very much the sort of thing mentioned by the sixth-century merchant Kosmas, who speaks of the `four-towered palace of the king of Ethiopia’ (Wolska-Conus 1973). The recessed central parts of each facade may have reached a story less in height than the corner salients, giving the impression of towers (as shown on the reconstructions). Kobishchanov’s eight-storied palace (1979: 141) of Ta`akha Maryam is probably an error for the number of stepped shelves which constituted the building’s podium (Schneider 1984: 165).
Some of these structures were of very considerable size; Ta`akha Maryam measured 120 × 80 m, and its pavilion, at c. 24 × 24 m was the smallest of the three the German expedition cleared; if the other two were in proportion their overall size must have been very large indeed. Ta`akha Maryam thus covered around six times the total area of the more-or-less contemporary palace and portico of the kings of the Hadhramawt recently excavated (Breton 1987) at their capital of Shabwa, and, as a single architectural concept rather than an agglomeration of buildings, was larger than many European palaces (excluding such monumental constructions as the Roman and Byzantine Great Palaces) until the erection of such buildings at Hampton Court. Kosmas, when speaking of Kaleb’s palace, sometimes simply refers to it as the royal dwelling, but on other occasions uses the Latin word palatium, surely in recognition of its particular splendor (Wolska-Conus 1973: 321, n. 4.3).
Illustration 23. A column base from Aksum, possibly originally from the peristyle in the center of the south wing of Ta`akha Maryam palace.
The central pavilion at Ta`akha Maryam contained nine rooms, two of which were probably simply staircase-wells for access to the upper story. The largest room was 7 × 6 m, and others measured 5 × 5 m, 7 × 4 m and 6 × 5 m. All had their roofs supported by two, three or four columns, and some had carefully flagged floors. In the south wing was a central peristyle with octagonal column-bases, and leading to the north corner-buildings were four-columned porticoes with elaborate floral column bases. The central pavilion of Enda Mikael measured 27 × 27 m with 10 rooms, following the same pattern as Ta`akha Maryam but with the central room divided into two. Room sizes were 6 × 6 m, 4 × 10 m, 5 × 9 m, and 3 × 9 m, with emplacements for four, eight or nine columns.
The most substantial pavilion found to date was that in Enda Sem`on, 35 m square, with two enormous halls, each with twenty-eight column emplacements and measuring some 19 × 10 m; impressive dimensions, but needing more and more roof-support as the room sizes grew more ambitious, which must have resulted in a rather crowded effect. The lack of stone columns, commoner in the eastern Aksumite sites (Anfray 1974: 747), suggests that carved wooden ones were used, perhaps resting on rough stone pedestals as at Dungur, in some of the Matara buildings, and in some rooms excavated at Adulis (where they were capped with discs of basalt). These descriptions rest mainly on the published plans of the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, which depend in parts on their assumption, probably correct as far as subsequent excavation has shown, that most buildings were more or less symmetrically arranged (see for example the plans in Littmann 1913: II, taf. XVII-XIX).
Anfray (1974: 762) suggested that the idea for such buildings ultimately derived from northern Syria, and thought that `uncertain caractère de sobriété, de rigidité, de rationalité même dans cette architecture Axumite . . . paraît d’inspiration romaine’. Whilst this may be partly true, a good deal of the inspiration might equally be derived from earlier local examples; the Yeha temple could hardly be plainer or more simple.
The architecture of the Aksumite élite residences should tell us something about the intentions and the character of the people who had them built, but this is in reality hard to interpret. The massiveness and solidity of the structures and their simplicity and plainness do indeed impress at first, but here we may well be missing such decorative elements as carved wooden columns, capitals and screens, and interior painting on plaster. Though in most Aksumite sites very few fragments of anything like elaborate carved stone or plaster-work have come to light as yet, churches in Tigray and Lalibela exhibit a rich selection of (albeit somewhat later) decorative elements (Plant 1985; Gerster 1970). These include painting on walls and ceilings, imaginative designs for windows, carved friezes, and carved wooden roof panels — some decorative woodwork survives at Debra Damo, of uncertain date, and conceivably coming originally from a palace (Gerster 1970: 73). Some of this may well have been of Aksumite origin.
At Aulis, where perhaps more foreign influences might be expected, Paribeni (1907, loc. var.) found several examples of carved marble or basalt panels and decorative elements for affixing to walls, and carved architectural features such as acanthus or lotus capitals, or alabaster or limestone reliefs with formal floral designs or intertwined (vine?) leaves and branches; one also depicted a bird, possibly a peacock. Paribeni also found decorative marble colonnettes for framing screens — though these seem to have been imported ready-made from the eastern Mediterranean region, like those from an Adulite church excavated by the British in 1868 (Munro-Hay 1989i). He even found traces of lines, bands and leaves painted in red and brown on plaster in one house at Adulis. Most unusual among Paribeni’s discoveries were plaques of a black schist, carved with shapes resembling oak leaves, which were cut in such a way as to accommodate metal inlay. At Aksum, the largest stele makes one concession to decoration with its filigree windowscreens of superimposed stepped crosses under arches on the top stories, perhaps modeled on something like the alabaster screens found until today in Yemeni houses.
Constructional details like the beam-ends seem to have been left plain and visible. The churches of Lalibela and others in Tigray are nevertheless quite restrained where the architecture is concerned, however, elaborate their interior paintings might be. As noted above, in the pavilions, smallish rooms, or larger halls thronged with columns, were a necessity given the limited means of spanning spaces, but the inevitable rather cramped feeling may have been largely offset by the use of open porticoes and wide courtyards. A taste for the dramatic and the exclusive can perhaps be read into the appearance of the central pavilions in these courts, raised high on their podia, isolated by the courtyards surrounding them, and approached by massive flights of usually about seven steps. Such a design may be an expression of the special position of the rulers translated into architectural terms. There may have been an intention to isolate the pavilions as a convenience for security, but although the whole ensemble of pavilion, courtyards, and outer ranges was evidently to some extent defensible, that does not seem to have been a primary consideration. The Aksumites could surely, had they wished, have made stronger fortresses than these.
Illustration 24. Debre Damo
Some clay models of houses survive which illustrate the architectural style of the smaller Aksumite dwellings. A round hut, with a conical roof thatched in layers, and a rectangular doorway, is one type from Hawelti (de Contenson 1963ii: pl. XXXVII, b-c). The second type from Hawelti is rectangular, the doors and windows also rectangular, with a roof supported by beams whose `monkey-head’ ends can be seen below the eaves. The roof has a small parapet and there is a waterspout to drain it (de Contenson 1963ii: pl. XXXVIII-XXXIX). A third type (de Contenson 1959: fig. 8) from Aksum shows only the remains of the bases of typical Aksumite window-apertures with square beam-ends at the corners; this may also represent a rectangular or square dwelling. In the BIEA Aksum excavations fragments of a fourth type of house, also rectangular, but with a roof consisting of sloping layers of what appears to be thatch of some sort, were found (Chittick 1974: fig. 21a). Its doorway seems to be surmounted by a distilled lintel, like that of the largest stelae and the Tomb of the False Door (see below).
The last of these house-types is particularly interesting, in that it shows a pitched roof on a rectangular building. Such a roof was evidently of advantage in the rains and may have been used on larger structures as well. Possibly the palaces themselves were roofed with thatch; the columns would have supported cross beams, perhaps with carved panels like those from Dabra Damo inset between them, and above some sort of layered thatch could have completed the weather-proofing (for some discussion of roofing in Ethiopian structures, see Buxton and Matthews, 1974). No trace of Roman-style tiles has yet been reported from Aksumite sites, not even from Adulis, nor do the brick vaults known to have been used in tombs (see below) appear to have been employed in domestic architecture as far as present evidence reveals.
Paribeni does note (1907: 545) a report that some buildings at Tekondo were roofed with slabs of slate. He also made a few comments about domestic housing in Adulis, noting that open areas, perhaps for sleeping, would be useful in the hot climate of Adulis, and suggesting that some of the structures found without doorways could perhaps represent partially underground dwellings with wood or straw upper parts. These would have been entered from above by ladders, and perhaps were occupied by some of the `Cave-dwellers’ mentioned by the texts.
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