Archaeological Discovery

by Stuart Munro-Hay

The Legends of Aksum

The town of Aksum is today only a small district center, not even the capital of the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray in which it is situated. However, despite this relative unimportance in modern times, Aksum’s past position is reflected by the prime place it occupies in the fabric of legends which make up traditional Ethiopian history. For the people of Ethiopia, it is even now regarded as the ancient residence and capital city of the queen of Sheba, the second Jerusalem, and the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. One text calls the city the `royal throne of the kings of Zion, mother of all lands, the pride of the entire universe, the jewel of kings’ (Levine 1974: 111). The cathedral of Maryam Tseyon, or Mary of Zion, called Gabaza Aksum, was the holiest place in the Ethiopian Christian kingdom and is still said to house the Ark, supposedly brought from Jerusalem by the first emperor, Menelik. Tradition says that he was the son of King Solomon of Israel and the queen of Sheba conceived during the queen’s famous visit to Jerusalem. Although no information survives in the legends about the ancient Aksumite rulers who really built the palaces and erected the giant stone obelisks or stelae which still stand in several places around the town, these monuments are locally attributed in many instances to Menelik or to Makeda, the queen of Sheba or queen of Azab (the South). Such legends are still a living force at Aksum today; for example, the mansion recently excavated in the district of Dungur, west of Aksum, has immediately been absorbed into local legends as the `palace of the queen of Sheba’ (Chittick 1974: 192, n. 28).

UNSPECIFIED – OCTOBER 01: Meeting between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopia, 20th century. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images); . (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In the tales describing life in Ethiopia before the reign of the queen of Sheba, Aksum holds an important place. A tale about a local saint, Marqorewos, states that Aksum was formerly called Atsabo (Conti Rossini 1904: 32). The Matshafa Aksum, or `Book of Aksum’ (Conti Rossini 1910: 3; Beckingham and Huntingford 1961: 521ff), a short Ge`ez (Ethiopic) work of the seventeenth century or a little earlier, says that the town was formerly built at Mazeber (`ruin’) where was the tomb of Ityopis (Ethiopis), son of Kush, son of Ham, son of Noah. A structure called the `tomb of Ethiopis’ (Littmann 1913: II, taf. XXVII) is still shown near Aksum, a little to the west of the modern town in an area where the ruins of many large structures of the ancient capital still lie buried. Makeda next moved the city to the territory called `Aseba, from whence she is said to have gained her name queen of Saba (Sheba). The third building of the city is stated to have been accomplished by the kings Abreha and Atsbeha (Ch. 10: 3). An Arab writer of the sixteenth century, describing how the tabot or Ark was removed from the cathedral of Aksum to a safe place when the Muslim armies approached, says of Aksum `it is not known who built it: some say it was Dhu al-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great). God alone knows best’! (from the Futuh al-Habasha, or `History of the Conquest of Abyssinia’ by Arab-Faqih; de Villard 1938: 61-2).

Several modern authors (eg. Doresse 1956, 1971; Kitchen 1971) have speculated as to whether Tigray or the Ethiopian-Sudanese borderlands, instead of Arabia or the Horn of Africa, may have been the legendary `God’s Land’ of the ancient Egyptians. This land of Punt, producer of incense and other exotic treasures, where the pharaohs sent their ships, may at least have been one of the regions included at some time in the Aksumites’ extended kingdom. Egyptian expeditions to Punt are known from as far back as Old Kingdom times in Egypt, in the third millennium BC, but the best-known report comes from the New Kingdom period, during the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, in the fifteenth century BC. She was so proud of her great foreign trading expedition that she had detailed reliefs of it carved on the walls of her funerary temple at Dayr al-Bahri across the Nile from the old Egyptian capital of Thebes. The surviving reliefs show that the region was organized even then under chiefly rule, with a population eager to trade the recognizably African products of their lands with the visitors. Aksum is still today a sorting and distribution center for the frankincense produced in the region, and it is not unlikely that the coastal stations visited by the ancient Egyptians acquired their incense from the same sources.

Punt is suggested to have been inland from the Sawakin-north Eritrean coast (Kitchen 1971; Fattovich 1988, 1989i), and, apart from the great similarity of its products with those of the Sudan-Ethiopia border region, an Egyptian hieroglyphic text seems to confirm its identity with the Ethiopian highland region by reference to a downpour in the land of Punt which caused the Nile to flood (Petrie 1888: p. 107). The inscription dates to the twenty-sixth Egyptian dynasty and knowledge of Punt seems to have continued even into the Persian period in Egypt, when king Darius in an inscription of 486-5BC mentions, or at least claims, that the Puntites sent tribute (Fattovich 1989ii: 92). One extremely interesting Egyptian record from an 18th Dynasty tomb at Thebes actually shows Puntite trading boats or rafts with triangular sails (Säve-Söderbergh 1946: 24), for transporting the products of Punt, indicating that the commerce was not exclusively Egyptian-carried, and that local Red Sea peoples were already seafaring — or at least conveying goods some distance by water (Sleeswyk 1983) — for themselves.

Returning to more specifically Aksumite matters, the Book of Aksum states that Aksumawi, son of Ityopis (Ethiopis), and great-grandson of Noah, was the founder of the city, and the names of his descendants (the `fathers of Aksum’) gave rise to the various district names. His son was Malakya-Aksum, and his grandsons’ Sum, Nafas, Bagi’o, Kuduki, Akhoro and Fasheba (Littmann 1913: I, 38). In other legends (Littmann 1947), it is said that once a serpent-king, Arwe or Waynaba, ruled over the land, exacting a tribute of a young girl each year. It may be that the tale reflects the memory of a serpent-cult in the region. Eventually, a stranger, Angabo, arrived, and rescued the chosen girl, killing the monster at the same time. Angabo was duly elected king by the people, and one of his successors was Makeda. Sometimes the legends say that it was Makeda herself who was the intended sacrifice and inheritor of the kingdom. The essential element of all this was to appropriate for Aksum, one way or another, the legends which referred to the remote origins of Ethiopian history. The Englishman Nathaniel Pearce, who lived in Ethiopia in the early nineteenth century, related (Pearce 1831) how these stories were still current amongst the Ethiopians; `In the evening, while sitting with Ozoro, she told me a number of silly tales about Axum, among others a long story about a large snake which ruled the country . . . which sometimes resided at Temben, though Axum was the favorite residence of the two’. Pearce was later shown what seems to have been a fruit press, but which he interpreted as being `made by the ancients to prepare some kind of cement in for building’; his Ethiopian friend told him that this had actually been designed as a container for the snake’s food.

The origins of these legends hark back to some unknown time after the conversion of the kingdom to Christianity in the reign of King Ezana of Aksum in the fourth century AD, or in some cases perhaps to an even earlier period when some Jewish traditions had entered the country. Such legends had their political use in providing pedigrees for national institutions. It was believed in later times that the state offices from the king downwards were descended from the company which had brought the Ark to Aksum from Jerusalem (Budge 1922: 61). Doubtless, the Christian priests, searching for a longer pedigree for their religion to impress pagans and unbelievers, would have been interested in developing these tales which connected Ethiopia with Solomon and Sheba. The Ethiopian kings themselves, anxious to acquire the prestige of ancient and venerable dynastic ancestors, could scarcely have hoped for a more august couple as their reputed progenitors. Even in the official Ethiopian Constitution, up to the time of the end of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, the dynasty was held to have descended directly from Solomon and the queen of Sheba through their mythical son, the emperor Menelik I.

The real events in Ethiopia’s history before the present two millennia are lost in the mists of antiquity, but valiant attempts were made by Ethiopian chroniclers to fill in the immense gap between the reign of Menelik I and the time of the kings of Aksum. The king lists they developed (all those now surviving are of comparatively recent date), name a long line of rulers, covering the whole span from Menelik through the Aksumite period and on to the later Zagwé and `Solomonic’ dynasties (Conti Rossini 1909). There is little point in reciting the majority of these names, but some of the most important of the reputed successors of Menelik I are worth noting for their importance in Ethiopian tradition.

Illustration 2. Built into one of the walls of the cathedral of Maryam Tseyon at Aksum,

The legendary king Bazen was supposed to have been reigning at the time of the birth of Christ in his eighth year (one modern interpretation even depicts him as one of the Three Kings who came to Bethlehem). A tomb is attributed to him in the south-eastern necropolis of Aksum, at the entrance to the modern town on the Adwa road. Near the cathedral is a stone on which is written in Ge`ez `This is the sepulchral stone of Bazen’, but when this inscription was actually carved is unknown (Littmann 1913: IV, 49); evidently after the arrival of Christianity in Ethiopia, since it begins and ends with a cross. Two rulers preeminent in Ethiopian tradition were Abreha and Atsbeha (Ch. 10: 3), brothers who are said to have ruled jointly. They were converted to Christianity by the missionary Frumentius, and their example was eventually followed by the entire nation. Another hero in Aksumite legend was king Kaleb, also called Ella Atsbeha (Ch. 4: 7). He was regarded as a great conqueror and Christian hero whose expedition to suppress the persecution of his co-religionists in Yemen by the Jewish king there caused his name to be famous throughout the Christian world. He is recognized as a saint in several church calendars. Two sons of Kaleb, called Gabra Masqal and Israel, are said to have succeeded him, and their rule is supposed to have encompassed both the physical and the spiritual worlds. Local legend in Aksum attributes an unusual double tomb structure to Gabra Masqal and his father Kaleb (Littmann 1913: II, 127ff); but Gabra Masqal is also supposed to be buried at his monastic foundation, Debra Damo, to the north-east of Aksum. Finally among the legendary accounts come Degnajan, Anbessa Wedem, and Dil Na’od, the kings in whose reigns, according to tradition, the collapse of Aksum eventually occurred (Sergew 1972, 203ff). It seems that in reality, the stories about these three rulers refer to a time after Aksum had ceased to be the capital, and the traditions, interestingly, associate all of these theoretical `kings of Aksum’ with activities in Shewa, Amhara, and other southern regions, even mentioning details implying a shift of the capital.

Much of this legendary literature is, of course, based very broadly on actual events and personalities. The story of Kaleb’s conquest of Yemen is at least a genuine historical occurrence (Ch. 4: 7), and, although there seem to be various distortions, the main theme of the conversion of the kingdom to Christianity by Frumentius also has independent historical confirmation (Ch. 10: 2). When more information is available about Ethiopian history in the period of Aksum’s zenith and decline, it is very probable that the reality behind many other legends will be decoded into more prosaic form.

Legendary accounts for the fifth century are particularly rich since it was then that the so-called Nine Saints (Sergew 1972, 115ff) and other foreign missionaries arrived in Ethiopia. Some of these would appear to have been Roman subjects from the Syrian provinces, probably seeking safe exile from the persecutions suffered by followers of the monophysite interpretation of the nature of Christ. They settled in various districts of the Aksumite kingdom and began, it seems, the real Christianisation of the Ethiopian countryside population as apart from the official, royal, conversion of the fourth century, whose influence was no doubt somewhat limited. Around the missionaries’ work a large and fascinating cycle of legends, full of miraculous happenings, developed and is reported by the various gadlan (`lives’, literally `struggles’) of the saints. Their arrival and activities are set in the reigns of the fifth and sixth-century kings Sa`aldoba, Ella Amida, Tazena, Kaleb and Gabra Masqal. The legendary accounts certainly contain elements of truth, and it seems that the missionaries who worked to convert the Aksumite population left traces of themselves in the Ge`ez language itself, since they used certain Aramaic/Syriac words in their translation of the Bible which remained in use ever afterward (Ullendorff 1967).

One of the stories related about the end of Aksum, the tale of the foreign queen, called Gudit, Judith or Esato, seems also to have actual relevance to Ethiopian history in the last half of the tenth century. Gudit is said to have attacked the Aksumite kingdom, and driven the king out. Her armies harried the royal forces, destroying cities and churches as they went, and collecting plunder on a large scale. In Aksum they are said to have caused immense destruction, damaging the cathedral, smashing the altars, and even toppling some of the great stelae. Certain Arab historians corroborate parts of the tale; one, Ibn Hawqal, (Kramers and Weit 1964) states that, in the later tenth century, a foreign queen was able to take over the country, eventually killing the king. Another simply notes that a Yemeni king, sending a gift to the king of Iraq, included a female zebra previously sent to him by a queen who ruled over Habasha (Abyssinia), dating this event to AD969-70 (elChennafi 1976). The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria preserves a letter from an unnamed Ethiopian king to George (Girgis) II of Nubia, in which the king, attacked by the `Queen of the Bani al-Hamwiyya’, bemoans his fate, attributing his distress to a rift between the monarchy and the Patriarchate, and begs the Nubian king to intercede for him with the Alexandrian patriarch (Atiya et al. 1948, 171-2; Budge, 1928ii: I, 233-4). Though the origin of this queen is obscure, it is possible that she was the ruler of one of the pagan kingdoms to the south, such as Damot.

The Portuguese father Francisco Alvares, whose book on Ethiopia was written by 1540 (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961), reported that Aksum (which he calls “a very good [big] town named Aquaxumo”) . . . “was the city, court, and residence (as they say) of Queen Saba [whose own name was Maqueda]” . . . He also wrote that “Aquaxumo was the principal residence of Queen Candace (the title of the queens of the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Kush or Kasu, whose capital was Meroë), [whose personal name was Giudich] (Judith or Gudit), who was the beginning of the country’s being Christian . . . they say that here was fulfilled the prophecy which David spoke: “Ethiopia shall arise, and stretch forth her hands to God” (Psalm lxviii. 31). So they say they were the first Christians in the world”. Alvares has conflated the pagan/Jewish queen Judith with Candace (Kandake) the `queen of the Ethiopians’, whose eunuch treasurer was converted to Christianity by the apostle Philip (Acts, ch. 8), and whom the Ethiopians claim was actually a ruler of Ethiopia rather than of Meroë; in such ways do the legends grow more and more confused. Alvares also mentions the “large and handsome tower . . . a royal affair, all of well-hewn stone” (the pre-Aksumite Sabaean temple at Yeha, Ch. 4: 1), as another edifice which “belonged to Candace”.

Ethiopian Christian chroniclers have sought to connect their country with several other events and prophecies mentioned in the Bible. The kingdom was referred to in ancient documents as `Aksum’ or the country `of the Aksumites’, after the capital city and the ruling tribal group or clan. The people, or perhaps a group of peoples including the `Aksumites’, were also called `Habasha’, and the name for the ir country, Habashat, is that from which we derive the now out-of-fashion name `Abyssinia’. However, already by the fourth century AD the Aksumite king Ezana, in his long list of titles in a bilingual inscription (see Ch. 11: 4), uses the word `Ethiopia’ in the Greek version as the translation for `Habashat’. The original use of the Greek designation `Ethiopia’ was either as a general designation for the black peoples south of the Egyptian border (as the Arabs later used `al-Habasha’ or its plural `Ahabish’ for groups like the Zanj, Beja, and Nubians as well as the Abyssinians; Tolmacheva 1986), or more specifically as a reference to the kingdom of Kush or Kasu, with its capital at Meroë on the Sudanese Nile. But after the eclipse of this state, the kings of both Aksum and Nubia (Munro-Hay 1982-3) used the name `Ethiopia’ to refer to their own countries and peoples. Thus the mentions of Kush in the Bible have been attributed to Aksumite `Ethiopia’, instead of Meroitic/Kushite Ethiopia, by those Christian interpreters determined to bestow a long and prominent tradition, beginning with Kush, grandson of Noah, on their country.

By the fourth century AD Aksumite pilgrims began to appear in Jerusalem, and St. Jerome noted their presence (Cerulli 1943: I, 1). A few fourth-century Aksumite coins have been found there and in Caesarea (Barkay 1981; Meshorer 1965-6). Later the Ethiopians had a religious house at Jerusalem (Meinardus 1965) which helped to spread the growing interest in Ethiopia in subsequent centuries and also played its part in disseminating the legendary history of Ethiopia in the west.

The Ethiopian traditional king-lists and chronicles are important in that, late as they are in their present form, they show how vital the legends concerning Aksum have been to the Ethiopians throughout their history. They are unquestionably erroneous since there are widely differing versions both of the king-lists and the lists of metropolitan bishops of Aksum starting with Frumentius. They also fail to name those kings and bishops who are known from inscriptions, coins, and other sources except in very few cases. Although it has been suggested that, in the case of the kings, this could be in part due to the Ethiopian rulers’ custom of employing several names (as, for example, a personal name, a throne name, a `tribal’ name and so on; see Ch. 7: 5), the differences in the lists are not to be so simply explained. Nevertheless, the compilation of the lists, the collection of anecdotes and chronicles, and the attempts to root Ethiopian tradition in  remote past connected with eminent persons, places and events, clearly indicates the importance of the country’s past history to medieval and even to more modern Ethiopians. Such texts remain a testimony, whether their contents be partly legendary or not, to the efforts of Ethiopian scholars over the centuries to understand and interpret their own history.