By Stuart Munro-Hay
The kingship was thus of a sacred or semi-sacred character (for a study of this aspect in later times see Caquot 1957). On the coins, the reigning monarch is depicted equipped with a regalia formed from various insignia whose significance is in some cases obvious, and in others obscure. The majority of the gold coins show the king wearing a magnificent tiara or arcaded crown on the obverse, and what seems to be a headcloth tied with a ribbon at the back on the reverse. From the presence of the same ribbon on the obverse as well, it may be inferred that this headcloth was also worn under the tiara. The headcloth (if it is so to be identified) is always shown with three gently curving lines radiating from a point at the king’s forehead, possibly stretch-lines of the cloth, or possibly some sort of decoration, like an aigrette. It could be that the headcloth owes something to Meroitic antecedents, as some of the Meroitic kings are represented wearing a similar head-covering in their temple or tomb reliefs.
Illustration 40. The Aksumite tiara and other items of regalia and a gold coin (d. 17mm) of king Ousanas.
The tiara was not shown by king Endubis on his coins, which have only the headcloth on both obverses and reverse; but it does appear on the coins of Aphilas. Possibly, then, Aphilas was the first king for whom this elaborate tiara was made, though it may well have been in use considerably earlier. The earliest representations show it as consisting of an arcade of three arches separated by columns with bases and capitals (see drawings in Munro-Hay 1984). Surmounting this are four slender oval elements capped with discs, alternating with thin spikes. Such a crown is unique in contemporary iconography and was doubtless an Aksumite invention based on a number of combined influences. The Roman radiate crown, the variety of complex headdresses of Egyptian type worn by the Meroitic kings, the Indian Kushan dynasty’s crowns, or the tiaras and mural crowns of more or less contemporary Sassanian rulers of Persia like Ardashir I or Shapur I may have contributed to both the design and, more important, the idea of using such crowns. Perhaps most interesting of all, the style of the neighbouring Meroitic rulers’ crowns was bequeathed to the so-called X-group rulers of Nubia, probably the same Noba who were in close proximity to, and sometimes vassals of, the Aksumite kingdom; and some of their crowns, in silver richly studded with carnelians, have actually been found on the skeletons of the rulers at their tombs at Ballana (Kirwan 1963: 62). We can thus show that the idea of these ornate crowns has very strong contemporary African parallels. It may yet be possible that one or more of the tombs at Aksum, whose excavation has only been briefly commenced, contains an example of the Aksumite tiara. A recent article by Bent Juel-Jensen (1989) notes some survivals of Aksumite royal headgear in illustrations in much later Ethiopian manuscripts.
As the Aksumite dynasty continued, the depiction of the crown grew simpler; the oval elements were reduced to three, and an arcade-less version appears, sometimes with a cross in the center. Presumably, the crown was at least partially made of metal, perhaps gold, or silver like the `X-Group’ crowns noted above. The crown and royal robes Kaleb is said to have sent to Jerusalem are supposed to have been valuable items; but the story only survives in a late record (Budge 1928: III, 914). The idea has been advanced that the tiara was worn by the Aksumite king in his capacity of `king of kings’, whilst the headcloth would indicate his position as the `king of the Aksumites’ only.
Alternatively, the two representations might indicate the rôle of the king in the different capacities of warlord or giver of peace (Munro-Hay 1978: 44; Anzani 1926: 22). An inlaid halo of gold surrounds the royal portrait on some silver and bronze coins, even in the Christian period, giving the portrait special prominence; on other coins the king’s crown is gilded, but otherwise, this honor is only shared by the cross.
Illustration 41. A silver coin (d. 12mm) and Aphilas (c. AD 300), Gold, draped bust right, wearing head-cloth, disc and crescent at right, king Aphilas of Aksum.
In his hands, the king holds a sword (rarely) or, more usually, a spear, scepter, or short baton. In the fifth century, the characteristic hand-cross appears. On the reverse of many gold coins, the king carries an unusual object, possibly a fly-whisk or alternatively (or still as a fly-whisk) some sort of branch with berries. Some of the best examples show five branches or filaments, each with a little dot at the end. In a land-grant of the Zagwé king Lalibela’s time (1225) the title of Aqabe Tsentsen, keeper of the fly-whisks, occurs (Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 36), and in the later account of Zara Ya`qob’s coronation, the Nebura-ed of Aksum and the Tigray Makonnen are mentioned as standing to left and right on the king’s entry into Aksum waving olive-branches as fly-whisks; very evocative of this item of Aksumite regalia.
The kings are shown on their coins elaborately robed, at first in what seems to be a round-necked overgarment covering an under-robe, leaving the arms free. Sometimes what appears to fringe are shown. Later, with the more frequent depiction of the facing bust, the robes are shown in different ways; most often with a central panel of horizontal lines on the chest flanked by vertical lines over the shoulders, or in two or three panels containing the king’s arm, a hand-cross held in front of the chest, or the lines of the drapery.
A Byzantine ambassador’s report (see below) mentions that the ruler of Aksum wore much gold jewelry, and this is confirmed by the coins. The king appears lavishly bejeweled, almost always wearing earrings, bracelets, and armlets on which the jewels are depicted by dots, sometimes necklaces, and very probably finger-rings (too small to appear on the coinage designs).
There is only one eye-witness description of an Aksumite king, that of Kaleb Ella Atsbeha as related by one of Justinian’s ambassadors, whose words are preserved by the historian John Malalas (ed. Migne 1860: 670). The report — for what it is worth; some commentators see it as a more or less imaginary description (Schneider 1984: 162) — shows the kind of pomp with which these ancient rulers supported their position, and details a barbaric magnificence and ostentation. Kaleb appeared in a high car, decorated with golden wreaths, supported on a wheeled platform drawn by four elephants. These were doubtless the smaller African elephant, and just such an elephant quadriga is shown on gold staters of king Ptolemy I of Egypt long before; they are also mentioned in accounts describing some of the elaborate religious processions in Ptolemaic Alexandria and were employed in Roman symbolism as well, appearing for example on coins commemorating the deified emperor Claudius, and on joint consular gold medals of the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian (Williams 1985: pl. 3).
Kaleb was dressed in a linen garment, embellished with goldwork, apparently a kind of kilt, and his body was decorated with straps sewn with pearls, and much jewelry; more than five armlets, golden rings on his fingers, and a golden collar or necklace. His head was bound around with a `phakhiolin’ or little bandage, and this headgear was also decorated with gold; four streamers or pendants hung down from it on each side. He held gilded spears and a shield and moved amongst armed nobles to the sound of flutes and chanting. This description has features in common with the `portraits’ (actually fossilized representations which do not alter much from the time of the first issues) on the reverse of the gold coins. The picture at Qusayr Amra (Almagro et al 1975), painted some 200 years later in the hunting-lodge of a Umayyad caliph, shows an Ethiopian najashi dating probably from the period after the abandonment of Aksum as the capital. He is part of a group including the most prominent of the rulers of the known world, often called the `Enemies of Islam’ fresco. The figure seems (the wall-painting is badly damaged) to be in the stiff, hieratic pose of a Byzantine emperor, and to be dressed in Byzantine-style jeweled robes. It is probably just the conventionalized idea of the najashi by an artist who had never seen him, but the figure does appear to wear the typical Aksumite headcloth, just as the neighboring picture of the Persian king depicts him wearing the characteristic Persian tiara.
The throne is only shown on the coins of the late Aksumite king Armah. It appears to have been a tall-backed chair, with probably carved legs and rail supporting a seat. The back is sometimes shown doubled, with a design of dots perhaps showing a cushion; and often the whole chair is indicated by dots, giving a rather Jacobean turned-wood impression.
Illustration 42. Endybis (c. AD 290), Gold, of ‘King Endybis’), draped bust right, wearing headcloth,
There is no record of the sort of ceremonial with which the Aksumite kings surrounded themselves, apart from the sixth-century description quoted above from Malalas, and some later descriptions of a royal audience from Arab accounts of the court of the najashi Ashama ibn Abjar (Guillaume 1955). The Byzantine ambassador knelt before Kaleb when he presented the sacra or rescript from Justinian, and the king kissed the seal before having the document read by the translator. Possibly the status of the rulers, already enhanced by the regalia and the impressive setting supplied by the palaces, was further emphasised by the requirement of the prostration from Aksumite subjects, as had become the custom in the newly recast Roman monarchy of Diocletian and Maximian (Williams 1985: 111) and had long prevailed in Persia.
It may be expected that already in Aksumite times some of the familiar trappings of African kingship (and indeed of kingship in other places) may have been in use in Aksum as they were in later times in Ethiopia. The umbrella is actually mentioned quite early, in the time of the Zagwé king Lalibela, though not as an attribute of the king but of the metropolitan bishop. Michael of Fuwa newly arrived in Ethiopia, entered the royal city under an umbrella of cloth-of-gold with a jeweled top; five years later a brother of the Ethiopian queen usurped this privilege and began to go about under the umbrella of state (Atiya et al. 1950: 184ff). It may be valid to assume that this privilege was originally a royal one, perhaps dating even from Aksumite times. Another feature of later Ethiopian kingship was the use of drums; local rulers had the right to have drums beaten before them when traveling, and the royal drum `Hyena and Lion’ was beaten at the coronation (Ch. 7: 6). Again, we may imagine that this custom had earlier origins, and may have originated in Aksumite royal ceremonial.
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