The Rediscovery of Aksum

By Stuart Munro-Hay

Whatever was the cause of the end of the former Aksumite kingdom, a new centre eventually appeared in the province of Lasta to the south under a dynasty, apparently of Cushitic (Agaw) origin, later regarded as usurpers, called the Zagwé (Taddesse Tamrat 1972: 53ff; Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 200ff). The existence of a long and a short chronology for this dynasty indicates that the Ge`ez chroniclers were in some confusion as to the precise events occurring at the end of the `Aksumite’ period until the advent of the Zagwé. The Zagwé capital, surely one of the world’s most remarkable sights with its marvelous rock-cut churches, was at Roha, later renamed after the most famous of the Zagwé kings, Lalibela, who seems to have died around 1225. It still bears his name.

The Zagwé dynasty was eventually superseded by the so-called `Solomonic Restoration’ in 1270, under king Yekuno Amlak. This new dynasty held to the legalistic fiction that Yekuno Amlak was a direct heir to the old Aksumite kings, whose line had been preserved in exile in the province of Amhara until strong enough to regain their inheritance by ousting the Zagwé monarchs. By the time of this restoration, and for a long period afterward, the highland kingdom was involved in struggles with the constantly encroaching power of the Muslim states which had become established along the seaboard and was pushing inland and up onto the Ethiopian plateau.

In spite of some successes, the kingdom was in great distress when the first westerners began to renew the old contacts formerly maintained with the Ethiopian highlands by Greek, Roman, Indian and Arab traders. Though there is a mention of Aksum (Chaxum) in a Venetian merchant itinerary (Crawford 1958: 28) of the late fourteenth century (which specifically notes Aksum’s status as a coronation city and the magnificence of its basilica, richly ornamented with gold plates), it was, in fact, the Portuguese who first made real contact. A number of Ethiopian kings, such as Widim Ar`ad (1297-1312), Yeshaq (1414-1429), and Zara Ya`qob (1434-1468), had previously tried to communicate by sending missions to Europe, and as a result, a certain interest was aroused.

In the early fourteenth century the now-lost treatise written by Giovanni da Carignano, who obtained his information from an Ethiopian embassy which stopped at Genoa in 1306 while returning from Avignon and Rome, had declared that the legendary Christian king Prester John was to be found in Ethiopia (BBeckingham 1980). It is, of course, possible that Jacopo Filippo Foresti of Bergamo, who summarised Carignano’s work in 1483, interpolated this idea, but a map of 1339 already shows Prester John in Ethiopia. Aksum appears on a map by Pizzigani in 1367 as Civitas Syone, the City of Zion, appropriately enough in view of its cathedral dedicated to Mary of Zion. At the end of the fourteenth century Antonio Bartoli of Florence was in Ethiopia, and in 1407 Pietro Rombulo arrived there, remaining for a very long time. Envoys of Yeshaq reached Valencia with letters from the king to Alfonso of Aragon in 1428. In 1441 Ethiopian

monks from Jerusalem attended the Council of Florence (Tedeschi 1988) and some of their remarks about their country, recorded through an Arab-speaking interpreter by Poggio Bracciolini, constitute the first more or less credible description of Ethiopia printed in Europe (1492). Embassies sent by Zara Ya`qob to Cairo in 1443 and 1447 were also reported in Europe. In 1450 Rombulo went to Italy as the ambassador for Zara Ya`qob to Alfonso of Aragon and met Pietro Ranzano, who recorded some of his accounts in his very muddled description of the land of Prester John (this work is still unpublished). Alfonso replied, mentioning that on a previous occasion the artisans and envoys he had sent had all died. Ethiopian maps were produced, such as the Egyptus Novelo of c.1454 (which does not include Aksum) and that of Fra Mauro, 1460, which shows it under the name `Hacsum’. From 1470-1524 the Venetian Alessandro Zorzi was collecting his Ethiopian Itineraries (Crawford 1958), some of which mention Aksum or Axon (`great city of Davit, prete Jani of Ethiopia’).

The Portuguese, beginning their expansion in the East, envisaged allying with Prester John against the Muslims, who were natural enemies of Portuguese trading development. Portuguese sailors, soldiers, and priests began to penetrate into Ethiopia in the later fifteenth century, and their accounts renewed interest in the history and legends of the country, and also brought to notice the ruins of the ancient capital of Aksum (Rey 1929; Caraman 1985; de Villard 1938). This was a fascinating period in the history of Ethiopia. The tales told by the Portuguese missionaries and envoys, and the absolutely extraordinary journeys, made willingly or not, which they undertook, are well worth the reading; but they are not, alas, within the compass of a work purely on Aksum. It was they, however, who reintroduced the ancient Ethiopian capital to the world, and some of them described the ruined town with a certain amount of detail.

The best of these accounts are quoted in extenso below, Ch. 5: 3. In the last years of the emperor Eskender (1478-1494) Pero de Covilhã, the first of the Portuguese envoys, whoaccountsen sent to the east by his king João II, reached the country. He was never allowed to leave, and he remained in Ethiopia until he died. By 1502 King Manoel I of Portugal had adopted the resounding title `Lord of the Conquest, Navigation and Commerce of Ethiopia, India, Arabia and Persia’, a manifesto of intentions towards Ethiopia which were never to be realized. Perhaps the conquest of Goa and Ormuz had raised expectations elsewhere. In 1507 Covilhã was joined by João Gomes, a priest sent by Tristão da Cunha. Both of them were still there when the priest Francisco Alvares, to whom we owe a great debt for his description of the Ethiopia of his day (Alvares, ed. Beckingham and Huntingford 1961), arrived with the Portuguese fleet bringing the ambassador Rodrigo de Lima in 1520 (Thomas and Cortesão 1938).

In 1512, the first reply to these embassies was sent by the Ethiopian queen-regent Eleni (Helena), through a certain Matthew, apparently an Armenian, who eventually managed to get to Portugal and return with the 1520 embassy, dying just afterward. The military successes of the emperors Na`od (1494-1508) and Lebna Dengel (1508-1540) led the Ethiopians to make little of the opportunity for alliance offered by Rodrigo de Lima’s embassy, a grave error since almost immediately after the embassy’s departure in 1526 the attacks of the amir of Adal, Ahmad Gragn (or Grañ; `the left-handed’), began to wreak havoc in the kingdom. This continued until 1542, but already in 1541, in response to renewed appeals, the Portuguese soldier Cristovão da Gama, son of Vasco da Gama, had arrived with his troops. The Portuguese (though da Gama himself was killed in 1542) helped the new emperor Galawdewos or Claudius (1540-1559) to rescue his country from the depredations of the amir of Adal, who eventually died as a result of wounds inflicted in battle. Galawdewos himself later perished in battle, but the Ethiopian Christian state was from this time on in less danger from its Muslim enemies than before.

During his campaigns Gragn, like queen Gudit, had sacked Aksum and it was probably he who burnt the famous cathedral of `our Lady Mary Zion, the Mother of God’. Sartsa Dengel (1563-1597) was the next king after Zara Ya`qob to celebrate his coronation at Aksum, and perhaps at this time, he built a small church in the ruins, which probably perished in its turn during the Galla war of 1611. There may have been some restoration of this structure before the present church was constructed by the emperor Fasiladas (1632-1667) with Portuguese or Indian influenced architects; it seems to have been dedicated in 1655. Though the ancient cathedral disappeared as a result of Gragn’s destruction, there is preserved among the Portuguese records Francisco Alvares’ description of its appearance a decade or two before (Ch. 5: 3).

In spite of the harmony of purpose between Ethiopians and Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century, the latter’s influence in Ethiopia was brief. By the time of the emperor Susenyos (1608-1632), religious disputes had grown up between the Catholics and the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and Jesuit arrogance destroyed the atmosphere of trust. As a result, the Portuguese were expelled from the country by Susenyos’ son Fasiladas. It was, however, this Portuguese episode in Ethiopia which first revealed the remains of the Aksumite civilization to the outside world, through the writings and travels of the Portuguese ecclesiastics.

Francisco Alvares, the chaplain accompanying the embassy which arrived in 1520, left an interesting account in his book The Prester John of the Indies, published in Portuguese in Lisbon in 1540 (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961). Apart from the description of the great five-aisled basilica of Maryam Tseyon, he mentioned the stone thrones nearby, and a reservoir which does not seem to be the well-known one called Mai Shum (Ch. 5: 1). He described some of the stelae and visited the `Tomb of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal’, which he mentioned was supposed by some to contain the treasure chests of the Queen of Sheba. He also noted some information about Abba Pantelewon and Abba Liqanos, both churches on small hills near Aksum.

Illustration 2a. The title page of Francisco Alvares 1540 book on Ethiopia. Though the book itself is rich in information about Ethiopia, including a valuable section on Aksum and its ruins, the illustrator has shown `Prester John’ with all the trappings of a contemporary European monarch.

In 1603, the Spaniard Pedro Paez (Pero Pais) arrived in Ethiopia after extraordinary adventures in the Yemen, where he was a prisoner for seven years. He wrote a History of Ethiopia (Pais 1945-6), and also mentioned Aksum in his letters to a friend, Thomas Iturén, with whom he corresponded every year (Caraman 1985). Through João Gabriel, captain of the Portuguese in Ethiopia, who was present at the time, he was able to describe the coronation of Susenyos at Aksum on 18 March 1608 (Ch. 7: 6). He also mentions the thrones, the stelae, and the church, though he comments that this latter could not be compared with the ancient one. Paez even prepared a measured drawing of the `Tomb of Kaleb’ (Monneret de Villard 1938: 68).

Two years after Paez’ death in 1622, Manoel de Almeida arrived. His History of Ethiopia (Huntingford 1954), which contained revised material from Paez’ work, noted that about twenty stelae were still standing, and seven or eight fallen and broken ones were visible (Ch. 5: 3). He commented that it was said that these were overthrown by the Turks during the war of Sartsa Dengel with the viceroy Yeshaq (1578). Such an incident is not mentioned in the Ge`ez chronicles.

Emmanuel Barradas, who accompanied de Almeida’s mission, also left some notes (de Villard 1938: 68-71) on Aksum’s monuments, some of which were `very large and of notable majesty’, including `high and beautiful columns or pyramids’, evidently the stelae, which bore comparison with the biggest and best at Rome. He also mentions an inscription with letters on one side in `Amharic’ of an ancient style, and on the other letters which appeared to be Greek or Latin. The thrones are described, and also the `Tomb of Kaleb and Gabra Masqal’.

In 1625, the new Catholic patriarch Alfonso Mendes reached Ethiopia, bringing with him from Diu the Jesuit father Jerónimo Lobo, who had gone there after a courageous but abortive attempt to enter the country via Malindi, on the Indian Ocean coast (now in Kenya). Lobo remained nine years in Ethiopia; his account of his travels, the Itinerário, was first published in 1728 in a French translation by Le Grand, and later appeared in English translated by Samuel Johnson (1735). All he says of Aksum is “and the place where she (the Queen of Sheba) had her court still exists today, with monuments of remarkable magnificence, as well as the town where they say she was born and which still today preserves her name, the land being called Saba by the Abyssinians, all of which I saw and traversed on several occasions”.

When James Bruce, (who detested the Jesuits, and who referred to Lobo as `a groveling fanatic priest’) launched into one of his denunciations of Lobo’s inaccuracy, he made the mistake of assuming that Lobo’s `Caxume’ was Aksum, and ridiculed his geographical understanding (Bruce 1790). Actually, Lobo was referring to Qishn in Arabia. Finally, in 1660 the Jesuit Balthasar Telles or Tellez published his Historia Geral de Ethiopia an Alta, at Coimbra in Portugal. This was an abridgment and revision of de Almeida’s (unpublished) book, just as the latter depended to some extent on Paez. Translated into English, Tellez’ The Travels of the Jesuits in Ethiopia was published in London in 1710. It contained a brief account of Aksum and its monuments (Ch. 5: 3).

The information imparted by the various missionaries who worked in Ethiopia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though full of semi-legendary material, allowed Job Ludolf, or Ludolphus, in 1681, to publish at Frankfurt the first full History of Abyssinia, (excluding the fabulous `history’ written by Tellez’ `Chimerical author’, Luis de Urreta, published at Valencia in 1610 — a book about which Geddes (1696: 467ff), quoting an extract about vast and mythical Dominican convents in Ethiopia, noted `though it is an octavo of 1130 odd pages, and a small print, there is not one syllable of truth from the beginning to the end’). Ludolf’s work was translated and printed in English the next year. It included, in Book II, a chapter (XI) entitled “Of the Royal City of Axuma: and the Inauguration of their Kings”. Ludolf has very little to add, beyond a number of sighs at the transience of material things, to the Jesuit reports, merely saying that “of old, this city was adorned with most beautiful structures, a fair palace, and a cathedral proudly vaunting her obelisks, sculptures, and several sumptuous edifices. Some of the pillars are still to be seen, with inscriptions of unknown letters, remaining arguments of their antiquity, now demolished by the wars, or defaced with age. The city itself, now totally ruined, looks more like a village, than a town of note . . . only the ruins still remain to testify that once it was great and populous”.

The next additions to our knowledge about the country came from travelers who for one reason or another managed to penetrate through what is now Sudan or from the inhospitable coastlands and climb through the passes to the high Ethiopian plateau. The French doctor, Charles Poncet, journeyed to Aksum (which he called Heleni) in 1699 but limited himself to describing three pyramidal and triangular granite needles, covered with hieroglyphs, in the square in front of the church. He noted that they had bolts represented on them, which surprised him since the Ethiopians did not employ them. However inaccurate the description, it is evident that he refers to the three largest stelae. The Scottish explorer, James Bruce, arrived in 1769 and stayed in the country until 1772. In his book, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile, he devoted some pages to the description of the antiquities of Aksum. He mentioned forty obelisks “none of which have any hieroglyphs upon them”, discussed Poncet’s bolts, and suggested that the three largest stelae were the work of Ptolemy Euergetes. He also illustrated this part with a “geometrical elevation, servilely copied, without shading or perspective, that all kind of readers may understand it “. This illustration is very inaccurate but does give an impression of the stelae. Bruce also mentioned one hundred and thirty-three pedestals with the marks of statues on top; some of these pedestals still remain visible today. Bruce claimed that two of them still bore the statues of “Syrius the Latrator Anubis, or Dog Star”. These were `much mutilated, but of a taste easily distinguished to be Egyptian”.

What these actually were is, alas, now a mystery, but his evidence, with that of Alvares, leads one to think that there must have been many more pedestals or thrones visible that can be seen today. He also saw other pedestals “whereon the figures of the Sphinx had been placed”. He commented on the “magnificent flights of steps” of the platform of the former church “probably the remains of a temple built by Ptolemy Euergetes, if not of a time more remote”, and dismissed the cathedral as a “mean, small building, very ill kept, and full of pigeons dung”. He also added that the king himself told him that the Ark of the Covenant had been destroyed by Gragn with the church, “though pretended falsely to subsist there still”. He saw the various pillars and thrones (or at least so one supposes from his description of “three small square enclosures, all of granite, with small octagon pillars in the angles, apparently Egyptian; on the top of which formerly were small images of the dog-star, probably of metal”).

Bruce found, below the coronation stone, another stone with a defaced inscription which, naturally, he announced “may safely be restored” with the Greek letters reading `King Ptolemy Euergetes’. He further alludes to the Mai Shum reservoir and estimates the town to have amounted in his time to some six hundred houses. Oddly enough, in view of his particular desire to see most of the monuments as Egyptian, Bruce was, while in Tigray, actually presented with a late Egyptian (possibly XXXth Dynasty or Ptolemaic) cippus (a small stele bearing magical texts) of Horus, which he illustrates in two engravings. This is one of the very rare Egyptian or Meroitic objects known from Ethiopia, but a standing figure of the same deity shown on the cippus, Horus-the-Child or Harpokrates, is also known from a cornaline amuletic figure found at Matara (Leclant 1965). Illustrations 3 & 4. Prints after one of Bruce’s sketches, showing the Egyptian Cippus of Horus given to him in Ethiopia.

In spite of Bruce’s curious interpretations of the Aksumite monuments visible in his time, his publication, though a certain amount of incredulity greeted his account of what he had seen and done, attracted interest in Ethiopian history and antiquities. He was soon followed by Henry Salt, who traveled to Ethiopia with George Annesley, Viscount Valentia, in 1805, and again as British envoy in 1809. In the last volume of Valentia’s three-volume account (1809), Salt contributed a chapter on Aksum, and first published Ezana’s inscription as well as other antiquities; the folio acquaints companion volume to Valentia’s work contained a picture of the stelae, the first nineteenth-century illustration of Aksumite antiquities. Salt also published A Voyage to Abyssinia in 1814, illustrating it with a copy of Ezana’s famous trilingual inscription. With Salt, who cleared the base of this inscription, we may say that archaeology had arrived at Aksum, although it was not until 1868 that a deliberately planned excavation, amateurish though it seems to us today, was undertaken.

This occurred when soldiers accompanying the British military expedition, sent to relieve the prisoners kept by the emperor Tewodros (Theodore) at Magdala, opened some trenches at the site of the port of Adulis. They were theoretically under the distant supervision of R. R. Holmes, the British Museum’s agent, who actually remained up-country endeavoring, unsuccessfully as it transpired, to obtain permission to visit Aksum (Munro-Hay, 1989). Other visitors of various nationalities followed, including Theodore Bent who, in 1893, was able to add a certain amount to the description of Aksum and its surroundings in his Sacred City of the Abyssinians (1896). The Italian archaeologist Paribeni, in 1906, and the Swede Sundström, also excavated at Adulis and found impressive ruined structures, with a number of coins and other objects (Paribeni 1907: Sundström 1907).

 The Greek version of the trilingual inscription of King Ezana of Aksum

With the beginning of archaeology in the country, the potential for discovering more about the Aksumites’ way of life was immensely increased. Details about technological and agricultural affairs, or urbanization, not available from any other source, now began to emerge. The major event in Ethiopian archaeology until the excavations of modern times, was the arrival of the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, led by Enno Littmann, in 1906 (Littmann et al. 1913). The German team explored Aksumite sites along their route across Ethiopia, and surveyed the whole Aksum region; they dug for the plans of major structures, and meticulously planned, drew or photographed whatever they cleared. Almost immediately after their return, a preliminary report appeared (Littmann and Krencker 1906). The German team also presented, in their copiously-illustrated four-volume publication in 1913, sketches, photographs and descriptions of everything of interest both ancient and modern. This included a number of Aksumite inscriptions, which were translated and so offered some primary material for speculations about chronology and other aspects of Aksumite history.

The foundation which they laid has been built upon, though very modestly in comparison to working in other countries, by subsequent expeditions. Archaeological and survey work has been done by Italian, French, American and British teams, and by the Ethiopian Department of Antiquities (most of it only published in preliminary reports in the Annales d’Ethiopie, but see also Chittick 1974 and Munro-Hay 1989). The surveys and excavations have revealed numerous structures and domestic material of Aksumite date in many parts of northern Ethiopia. As a result, some idea can now be obtained as to the extraordinary civilization developed between about the first and seventh centuries AD by the Aksumites at their capital city and other urban centers. Though the archaeological study of the kingdom is still in its infancy, the results are very impressive, and we can now put Aksum firmly into its place among the great civilizations of late antiquity.

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