Ancient Aksum

by Stuart Munro-Hay

Some details about the political and military history of Aksum have been preserved in ancient documentary sources, some Aksumite and some foreign. A number of Greek and Roman geographers and scholars noted small snippets of information about contemporary Aksum, and certain travelers, merchants, ecclesiastics, and ambassadors added various facts about the country in their writings. None of them seems to have acquired any real substantial knowledge about the kingdom — certainly, no-one appears to have left us more than the briefest accounts — but at least we are afforded some slight glimpses from time to time.

The Roman writer Gaius Plinius Secundus — Pliny the Younger — whose notes on Ethiopia in his Naturalis Historia were probably completed in their present form in AD77 (Rackham 1948: 467-9), mentions only Aksum’s `window on the world’, the Red Sea port of Adulis, through which the kingdom’s international trade passed. Another document, called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, notes the `city of the people called Auxumites’ (Schoff 1912: 23) or `the metropolis called the Axumite’ (Huntingford 1980: 20), or `the metropolis itself, which is called Axômitês’ (Casson 1989: 53), and gives details of the trade goods imported and exported. This anonymous report, which modern scholars view as either an official report or a merchants’ and sailors’ guide to the known Red Sea and Indian Ocean ports, dating perhaps somewhere between the mid-first and the early second century AD, also describes the ruler of this region.

This monarch, almost certainly the Aksumite king himself (but see Cerulli 1960: 7, 11; Huntingford 1980: 60, 149-50; Chittick 1981: 186; Casson 1989: 109-10), was called Zoskales; he is represented as a miserly man, but of good character, who had some acquaintance with Greek literature. The famous Greek astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolemaeus — Ptolemy — of Alexandria, describes Aksum in the middle of the second century AD as the seat of the king’s palace (Stevenson 1932: 108); and the existence of a prospering trading center at Aksum at about this time is confirmed by the latest archaeological investigations (Munro-Hay 1989).

The Persian religious leader Mani, the founder of the Manichaean religion, who died in 276 or 277AD, is reported by his followers to have described the four most important kingdoms of the world as comprising Persia, Rome, Aksum and Sileos, the latter possibly China (Polotsky 1940: 188-9). This remark shows that Aksum’s repute was spreading in the contemporary world. It was about this time that the Aksumites produced their own coinage, an excellent way of bringing their country into prominence abroad silently the greatest of contemporary states issued a gold coinage.

Around 356AD, the Roman emperor Constantius II wrote a letter to Ezana, king of Aksum, and his brother Sazana, on an ecclesiastical matter. The letter has been preserved in the Apologia ad Constantium Imperatorem of the famous Alexandrian patriarch Athanasius (Szymusiak 1958). Aksum is also mentioned in the account (Philostorgius; ed. Migne 1864: 482ff.) of the travels of an Arian bishop, Theophilus `the Indian’, who was sent by Constantius to try to convert the Arabian kingdoms; he later seems to have visited Aksum. It has been suggested that possibly it was he who carried the letter from Constantius to the Aksumite rulers, but Schneider (1984: 156) points out that according to Philostorgius Theophilus returned from his mission not long after 344AD. The ecclesiastical historian Rufinus (ed. Migne 1849: 478-9), writing at the end of the fourth century, gives an account of the conversion of the country, apparently taken directly from bishop Frumentius of Aksum’s erstwhile companion, Aedesius of Tyre.

Very little is known of the fifth-century history of Aksum but in the sixth century the dramatic events following upon king Kaleb of Aksum’s expedition to Yemen greatly interested the Christian world. Several ambassadors from Constantinople, sent by the emperor Justinian to propose various trading and military arrangements, have left accounts of their embassies. One ambassador described the king’s appearance at an audience (Malalas, ed. Migne 1860: 670). Another Greek-speaking visitor, Kosmas, called `Indikopleustes’, who was in Ethiopia just before Kaleb’s expedition, was asked by the king’s governor at Adulis to copy an inscription so that it could be sent to the king at Aksum. He complied, and preserved the contents of the inscription, together with various other interesting details about Aksumite life, in his Christian Topography (Wolska-Conus 1968, 1973).

After the time of Kaleb, foreign reports about Ethiopia grow much sparser. The Byzantine historian Procopius mentions (ed. Dewing 1961: 191) that Kaleb’s successor had to acknowledge the virtual independence of the Yemeni ruler Abreha, but all the rest of our information on the later Aksumite kings comes from inferences drawn from their coinage. For the followers of the recently-arisen prophet Muhammad, the Muslims, the country was important because the reigning Najashi gave asylum to the prophet’s early followers (Guillaume 1955: 146ff). Muhammad is said to have mourned when he heard of this king’s death. However, the Najashi, Ashama ibn Abjar, though he was the ruler of the territories of the Aksumite kingdom, may no longer have used that city as his capital. There is the reason for thinking that by the time of Ashima’s death in 630AD, the center of the kingdom may have shifted elsewhere. If this is so, the portrait of a Najashi or Nigos (the picture is labeled in both Greek and Arabic), preserved on the walls of a hunting lodge at Qusayr `Amra in Jordan, built and decorated at the command of the Caliph al-Walid (705-715AD), would be of one of the successors of Ashama ibn Abjar who was no longer resident at Aksum (Almagro et al 1975: 165 & pl. XVII).

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Arab historians still noted the vast extent of the territories of the reigning Najashi see (Ch. 4: 8), but situated the capital at a place called Ku`bar or Ka`bar, a large and prosperous trading town. Where this was, we do not know at present, but presumably, it was situated in a place more favorable for the exploitation of trade and for participating in current political events than was Aksum. The legends about the fall of Aksum to Gudit, which seem, from the accounts of the Arab authors, to have derived from events in the later tenth century, do not really militate against this. Aksum, as Ethiopia’s pre-eminent ecclesiastical center, and perhaps coronation city, (a function restored to it in later times), may have suffered from Gudit’s armies, but was not necessarily the country’s administrative capital at the time. The great wealth of its cathedral, the ruins of its palaces, and the giant funerary monuments of its former kings, might well have attracted the attention of invaders in search of loot. Several of the kings mentioned in Ethiopian historical texts are said to have moved their capitals, doubtless reflecting the memory of a real event, unless they were already by that time nomadic tented capitals as was customary later in Ethiopian history.

Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity

1. Introduction

2. Legend, Literature, and Archaeological Discovery

3. The City and the State

4. Aksumite History

5. The Capital City

6. The Civil Administration

7. The Monarchy

8. The Economy

9. The Coinage

10. Religion

11. Warfare

12. Material Culture; the Archaeological Record

13. Language, Literature, and the Arts

14. Society and Death

15. The Decline of Aksum

16.The British Institute in Eastern Africa’s Excavations at Aksum