By Stuart Munro-Hay
Apart from rock-cut tombs of various types, and others constructed by walling excavated pits, the Aksumites built some much more elaborate tombs. The chronology of these is uncertain, but some idea has been gained from the stratigraphical evidence provided by recent excavations (Munro-Hay 1989). The tombs show that the Aksumites were deeply concerned with the well-being of their kings and other citizens after death, and from the finds in one partially-cleared tomb, called the Tomb of the Brick Arches, we can see those rich funerary goods were buried with them.
Illustration 26. View of the great stele and the Nefas Mawcha, showing how the stele, in falling, struck the corner of the roof and destroyed the equilibrium of the tomb. Photos BIEA.
Perhaps the most extraordinary of all the funerary structures at Aksum is the tomb called (at least since the time of the German visit in 1906) Nefas Mawcha, or `the place of the going forth of the winds’. This name may be derived from a legend, related in the Book of Aksum (Conti Rossini 1910), that at the foot of the largest stele lay tunnels where winds blew out any lights. The tomb is (cautiously) dated to the third century AD (Munro-Hay 1989). It consists of a gigantic single roofing block, measuring about 17 × 7 × 1 m, placed over a paved chamber surrounded by ambulatories on all four sides. These passages were also roofed with granite blocks, those of the inner ambulatory (perhaps actually a rubble-filled supporting wall) fitting under both the great roofing block and the outer ambulatory roof blocks. The stones were trimmed to fit at either end and linked together with metal clamps, the holes for which are still visible. This huge structure was almost certainly intended to be covered over by the earth as an underground tomb. No entrance survives since the largest of the stelae, in falling, destroyed the west end of the building and caused the rest to settle as a result of the shock.
An unexpected find was the Tomb of the Brick Arches. The tomb itself lay beneath a rough-stone and mud-mortared superstructure, most of which has now disappeared, and whose original form cannot be reconstructed. Between two parallel walls, a staircase roofed with rough granite slabs descended until the tomb’s entrance was reached. The first sign of anything unusual was the discovery of a granite lintel, and then, underneath it, the upper part of an arch of baked bricks. As the excavations progressed, it became apparent that this was a horse-shoe shaped arch, forming about three-quarters of a perfect circle, which rested at each side on slate-like stones forming plinths supported by the usual Aksumite rough stone and mud-mortared walls. The entrance led to an antechamber, from which two further horse-shoe shaped arches led into the tomb chambers proper. All had been blocked with stones, and all had been broken open in ancient times when the tomb was partially robbed.
Illustration 25. Detaild Part of the great top-stone of the tomb called Nefas Mawcha.
The entrance-arch had an internal measurement of 1.3 m across the widest point, and the bricks were square. One of the internal arches resembled this, but the second was rather different, with oblong bricks arranged so that the long and short sides followed each other alternately. The square bricks measured 27 × 28 × 7 cm.
The contents of the tomb have been tentatively dated by various methods to the early/mid-fourth century AD. To find horse-shoe shaped baked brick arches of this early date in Ethiopia was very surprising, and of great interest for the history of architecture. Horseshoe-shaped arches are known from an earlier period in India, a country with which Aksum had vigorous trading relations from probably the first century AD, but these arches were carved from the rock and not built. More or less contemporary built examples are reported from Syria, and so the Ethiopian examples have a pedigree as old as any others, at least for the time being (Munro-Hay, Rassegna di Studi Etiopici, forthcoming).
Some distance away was found the so-called Brick Vaulted Structure, presumed to be a tomb of the same date as the Tomb of the Brick Arches, since it was also situated in the main necropolis and similarly employed brick horse-shoe shaped arches. But it also included relieving arches and lintels, and the rooms were barrel-vaulted with the brick. These bricks were mortared together, and it is evident that the Aksumites knew the use of mortar (nb. de Almeida’s statement above, Ch. 5: 3), but rarely felt the need to employ it, preferring their drystone walling with simple mud-bonding.
Illustration 27. The Tomb of the Brick Arches. View from inside the vestibule, looking through the horseshoe arch towards the staircase.
The Brick Vaulted Structure first appeared during the excavations (Munro-Hay 1989) as a stone wall of Aksumite style, built parallel to the courtyard in front of the Tomb of the False Door to the west. In due course, a number of bricks began to appear, soon proving to be the remains of collapsed brick vaults. These consisted of double rows of square baked bricks forming radial barrel vaults resting on string-courses of slate-like stone on top of the usual Aksumite stone and mud-mortared walls. The chambers covered by the vaulting seem to have been approximately 1 × 2 m in size, and one retained traces of the stone-paved floor of a superstructure over the barrel vaulting. The height of the vaulted rooms was about 4 m, and a tentative reconstruction seems to indicate that they flanked a central passage.
The vaults themselves were not horse-shoe shaped. But the entrance to one of the vaults (the only entrance found) was formed by a horseshoe-shaped arch, also 1.3 m wide across the center, sealed with a stone blocking, and surmounted by a granite relieving lintel above which the bricks of the vault rose. This revealed a new and more complex combination of architectural features, which, as far as our present knowledge goes, is entirely unique. It seems as if the structure originally had a number of these vaulted rooms opening off a central corridor, but the complete plan has not yet been completely recovered.
Illustration 28. The granite entrance doorway to the tomb called the `Mausoleum’.
A further tomb, probably the largest yet known at Aksum, was entered by a monumental granite doorway in typical Aksumite style, with carved granite square-headed beam ends protruding at the corners. This tomb was dubbed the `Mausoleum’, as a testimony to its size and elaborate construction, both totally unexpected by the excavators. Its plan consists of a long corridor behind the stone doorway, also entered from above by three shafts, and flanked by ten rooms, five on each side. It has not yet been cleared, only planned by crawling through the narrow gap left between the mud fill and the roof. The tomb is about 15 m square and lies to the west of the foot of the largest stele. The entrance to another tomb was found on the east side of the stele with a simpler doorway of rough stone topped by a granite lintel. Both of these tombs opened onto a courtyard at the foot of the stele, which must have been filled in before the collapse of the stele. The `Mausoleum’ was built largely of rough stonewalling roofed with granite blocks and was covered with huge quantities of dry stone fill. It may belong to the person for whom the giant stele was raised. At the west end of its central corridor can be seen the top of another brick arch, leading into a passage not yet entered; but whether it was of the horseshoe type is as yet unknown, as it was never cleared. It is possible that the arch gives access to further chambers, but it seems unlikely that there will be any connection with the Brick Vaulted Structure to the west since over 20 meters lie between them.
By the time this arch was found it was scarcely a notable discovery (see above). But earlier in the same season (1974), the very appearance of baked brick in Aksumite Ethiopian architecture would have been remarkable, since it had been previously noted only in a few special circumstances (Anfray 1974), and an arch in the same material was completely unheard of. It is certain that our ideas about the architectural limitations of the ancient Aksumites will require yet more revision when excavations can be resumed. These baked brick features, horseshoe-shaped arches, and vaults, in Aksumite buildings of the fourth century AD, may mean that our ideas about the routes of dissemination of architectural ideas in Africa, the Near East, and Spain (where the horseshoe arch was later familiar) also need some revision. Wherever the style originated, it was certainly not expected to turn up in Aksumite Ethiopia. Without being able to assert the idea too strongly until we have more evidence, there may even be a case for proposing the brick horse-shoe arch as another Aksumite innovation, perhaps based on ideas which arrived through the trade-routes with India.
It may be presumed that attached to all the stelae are as yet unrevealed tombs like those just described. The latest excavations confirmed that the whole area of the central `Stele Park’, apart from the tombs already mentioned, was honeycombed with shaft tombs and tunnels (Chittick 1974; Munro-Hay 1989). These consisted of chambers and passages cut into the rock, sometimes irregularly, sometimes following a more orderly plan. Some may be a combination of smaller tombs linked by robber tunnels cut later. Very little could be done to clear them and investigate their plan and content in the short time available, but the remains of tomb-furniture were found in some. Illustration 29. The Tomb of the False Door; the door block during excavation. It is very similar in detail to the doorways carved on the three largest of the decorated stelae at Aksum. Photo BIEA.
The most westerly of all the tombs found so far, excluding one small shaft tomb, was the Tomb of the False Door. This possibly late-fourth or fifth-century tomb (Munro-Hay 1989) has a false-door facade with a dentilled lintel exactly like those on some of the decorated stelae but instead set into a granite-built square structure exhibiting the typical Aksumite plan of symmetrical recessed facades. It faced onto a carefully paved court and was doubtless open to view. Below, however, was an underground tomb-chamber with a vestibule and a surrounding corridor, with two staircases descending from the court to the substructure. The staircases had been blocked by massive capping stones, only one of which now survives. The tomb now contains nothing but a smashed granite coffin. Illustration 30. The ruined superstructure of the Tombs of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal, just outside Aksum. Photo BIEA.
Illustration 31. Detail showing the entrance to the Tomb of Kaleb.
The tombs customarily attributed to the sixth century Aksumite kings Kaleb and Gabra Masqal could conceivably be of that period or of the fifth century. The building-complex consisted of two underground granite-built tombs with a double superstructure which seems to have consisted chiefly of two columned halls set on a platform approached by a staircase. The façade was about 40 m long, and the two halls were not exactly the same size, that attributed to Gabra Masqal being a little larger. The eight- or ten-columned hall above the `Kaleb’ tomb measured c. 10 × 11 m, and that above the `Gabra Masqal’ tomb c. 10 × 13 m, though both also had niches to the east adding an extra 2 m. The Gabra Masqal hall contained some sort of architectural feature, possibly a cupola or baldaquin, perhaps for a statue of the deceased (see the illustration in Littmann 1913: II, 133).
Each side of the superstructure also contained entrance halls and staircase-wells, and these side-buildings were linked by a broad main entrance-stair 23 m wide. This was surmounted by a terrace with two porticoes, each with a column in the center supporting the roof; the base of the column on the Kaleb side was square and stepped, while the column (which survived) and base on the Gabra Masqal side were octagonal. The building may represent a memorial chapel or shrine to the deceased, perhaps a `Christianised’ development of the principle which gave rise to the decorated stelae and the Tomb of the False Door. The Book of Aksum claims that these tombs were filled with gold and pearls.
The main southern stele field, particularly the area set aside in modern times as a `Stele Park’, is also characterized by the terracing achieved by erecting walls or platforms. The earliest of these platforms is the oldest architectural works yet found at Aksum (Chittick 1974; Munro-Hay 1989), and may date to the first century AD or possibly even a little earlier in some cases. Platform-building seems to have continued for some time, the typical examples being simple stepped or rebated revetting walls acting as facing to enormous quantities of freshly-quarried rock fill. They appear to have been carefully topped with layers of white and red soils, doubtless specially chosen for some religious purpose, and there are signs that sacrifices or sacrificial meals took place on or around them. They seem to precede some of the stelae and to be contemporary with others. At some time, possibly in the fourth century, major work was undertaken to raise the height of the stele field, the whole being faced with a long rebated terrace wall at least three meters high. It is on this terrace that the largest of all the stelae were raised.
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