By Stuart Munro-Hay
Whilst there are no contemporary accounts of the Aksumite coronation ritual, it is interesting to learn how the later `Solomonic’ kings exploited the religious and historical prestige of the ancient site, by making it their ceremonial coronation place. Information can be assembled from different accounts of the coronations, such as those of Zara Ya`qob (1434-68) and Sartsa Dengel (1563-97), preserved in the royal chronicles (Perruchon 1893). The coronation of Susenyos on 18th March 1608 was described by the Spaniard Pedro Paez from the eye-witness account of João Gabriel, the Portuguese captain (Pais 1945-6: 115ff).
The ceremony was accompanied by great pageantry, the king arriving with some 25,000 infantry and 1500 cavalry, riding a richly caparisoned steed, himself garbed in crimson damask with a golden chain around his neck. Zara Ya`qob is the first king who is known to have resurrected the ancient coronation ceremony at Aksum — or, at least, who is known to have employed the sacred precincts as his coronation place, and who accordingly may be suggested to have exploited ancient rituals of Aksumite origin. The king would first of all distribute largesse by flinging gold amongst the crowd as he processed over rich carpets laid out on the streets from the entrance of the town to the cathedral area. Then, he would be seated on the coronation throne (one of the Aksumite stone thrones) for the actual ceremony. On other occasions he would take his place on a different throne for the blessing ritual; this one was flanked by the thrones of the twelve judges in the main group of thrones. There was also one destined for the metropolitan.
St. Yared of Ethiopia
The ritual itself was as follows. As the king approached the cathedral, the priests, singing the chants composed by the legendary sixth-century musician-priest Yared, declared `May you be blessed, O king of Israel’. The `daughters of Zion’ (the young women of Aksum) gathered in two rows on either side of the pathway near one of the Aksumite inscriptions to the east of the cathedral. The women stood to the left and right of the road holding a cord, with two older women holding swords. As the king’s horse approached, the women questioned arrogantly `Who are you, and of what tribe and family?’ The king answered, `I am the son of David, the son of Solomon, the son of Ibn Hakim (Menelik)’. A second and third time the king was questioned, and on these occasions replied with his real genealogy. He then used his sword to cut the cord, while the older women declaimed `Truly, you are the king of Zion, the son of David, the son of Solomon’. Then the king was seated on the coronation throne, spread with precious cloths for the occasion; the throne was called `the throne of David’. During the ceremonies, the king also took on a new name, the throne-name, which, like the Aksumite `Ella’-name, was an epithet often with a religious implication. Apparently, they were chosen randomly from tablets inscribed with a selection of different names. Very probably the Aksumite rulers adopted their throne-names in the course of similar coronation ceremonies.
In addition, certain other ceremonies are mentioned, such as the leading in of a lion and a buffalo for the king to kill (Zara Ya`qob set his lion free, and his son Baeda Maryam did the same — though not at Aksum, at Jejeno in Amhara, during a tonsuring ceremony — getting someone else to kill the buffalo).
This doubtless theoretically served as a test of the strength of the king, harking back to beliefs in the identity of ruler and state; a strong ruler could protect his country against outside foes. Another ceremony involved the use of milk, mead, wine, and water in an anointing ritual. Among the Portuguese visitors to Ethiopia, both Paez and de Almeida devoted some space to the coronation ceremonies, using information derived not only from contemporary coronations, but also from the Kebra Nagast, the `Glory of Kings’, the oldest surviving collection of traditions in Ethiopia, probably codified at the end of the thirteenth century. The following description comes from Chapter XXII of de Almeida’s book (Beckingham and Huntingford 1954: 92ff);
“How the Emperors are crowned in this place. This is the way in which the Emperor is crowned here. He arrives at Acçum and encamps in a very big meadow there. When the coronation day arrives he orders his army to be arrayed so that everyone should accompany him with the proper ceremony. The infantry goes in front, divided into different squadrons, the cavalry comes behind them, and the Emperor at the end, accompanied by the greatest lords . . . in their richest and best clothes. . . . He approaches this place on the eastern side, and reaches the stone which . . . has an inscription”
(according to the chronicle of Sartsa Dengel, “the name of this place is Mebtaka Fatl, cutting of the cord”; (Conti Rossini 1907: 89; also de Villard 1938: 63)
“Here the Abuna and all the clergy were awaiting him . . . the grandees dismount and range themselves in two rows . . . leaving a wide path between which is covered with large, rich carpets. The Emperor too dismounts and walks over the carpets but is met and stopped by three maidens whom they call maidens of Zion”
(here follows the ritual of the challenges to the emperor and the final cutting of the cord, and, according to Sartsa Dengel’s chronicle, musical instruments were sounded, above all the royal drum Deb Anbasa, `Hyena and Lion’.)
“The Emperor scatters on the carpets many grains of gold which are picked up by those to whom this privilege belongs by ancient custom.
The first enclosure of the church is the one in which . . . are some seats which were formerly, and still at the time when Father Alvares came to this country, twelve very well-made stone chairs, as he recounts in his book. Today there are no chairs and the bases or pedestals on which they stood are not as many. The four columns that I mentioned above (see Ch. 5: 3) seem formerly to have supported a vault. In the centre of them, they decorate two pedestals with rich cloths and handsome chairs and the ground at the foot is carpeted. The Emperor sits here on one of the two chairs, the Abuna on the other. At the sides, twelve dignitaries, some ecclesiastical, some secular, take their places, six on the right, six on the left. I shall describe them in the exact words of the book of these ceremonies that is kept in the same church at Acçum”.
(here follows an account from the Kebra Nagast of the officials bringing oil in a gold box for the anointing, holy water, a stick with a silk cord for keeping the people at a distance, the state umbrella, `wild and domestic animals that can be eaten’, fruits and edible seeds, milk, wine, water, mead, herbs, and perfumes, as well as the altar stone, the royal horse, and the royal mule. There were also brought in varieties of antelopes, a buffalo, a wild goat, and a lion, offerings from various districts. Songs, some in praise of the king, were chanted — apparently, an innovation which Yared recommended to king Gabra Masqal in the sixth century — and readings from the Old and New Testaments followed.)
“Then the people present go once round the place where the royal chair is, and throw flowers and perfumes upon it . . . a lion and a buffalo are at hand, tied to columns; the king strikes the lion with his lance; then they release the other animals, tame and wild, and all the birds. The people of the camp kill all those they can catch for a feast. As the king comes to the place where his chair is he throws gold on the carpets. When he sits down they bring two plates of gold and two of silver. On the gold plates are milk and honey wine, on the silver water and grape wine. Then they anoint the king in accordance with custom, sprinkle all the ceremonial objects with water they have from the river Jordan, and cut the hair of the king’s head as for clergy in the first tonsure. The clergy takes up the hairs, the deacons continue to sing at the altar stone with lighted candles and the clergy cense with their thuribles. After going once round the place where the royal chair is, as though in procession, they go towards a stone which stands at the door of the church of Sion, called Meidanita Neguestat, i.e. protector of the Kings. They put the hairs on it and light them from the thuribles. . .”.
(Finally, the ecclesiastics and the abun blessed the king after he had been into the church, and the ceremony was at an end).
This description of the medieval ritual of coronation in Ethiopia shows that a number of different strands were woven into the fabric of the ceremony. Doubtless, some of these hark back to Aksumite times and pre-Christian observances. Some of these rituals may have originated in fertility rites or were designed to affirm the king’s strength, often traditionally connected with the well-being of the country he rules. The killing of wild beasts may be a survival from a royal hunt in which the king’s courage and force could be demonstrated; if so, it appears to have been much watered-down in later times. Certain aspects of the ceremonies do have a Christian flavor, but others, like the burning of the hair, seem designed as protective rites. The scattering of gold shows the king as a dispenser of wealth, and the presentation of various wild animals not only gives the king the chance to release them in a merciful gesture (also benefiting the people who catch and eat them) but affirms his control of the different provinces whose special tribute they are.
The donation to the king of agricultural products perhaps symbolizes the tribute due to him, and also reinforces his position as ruler and dispenser, and alludes to his rôle in ensuring the land’s fertility. The ritual of cutting the cord affirms his legitimate descent through the recent kings right back to the very founders of the kingdom, while the presence of the abun and church hierarchy, the army and nobles, confirms their acceptance of his right to rule. Some elements, familiar in the panoply of African monarchy, like the parasol and the state drum, can easily be imagined as heirlooms from the Aksumite tradition, though no contemporary reference to them survives; in some monarchical traditions the royal umbrella, and the laying of carpets when the king walks, are used to protect the king from the sun and the earth, contact with either being presumed to dissipate his essential force to the detriment of the land he rules. The Ethiopian mediaeval coronation ritual as a whole, the last trace of Aksum’s former function as the capital of the country, allows us to see the ruins of the city’s monuments, through the eyes of the Portuguese and the native chroniclers, as a living and vital part of the medieval Ethiopian monarchy’s most important ceremony.
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