The City and the State

By Stuart Munro-Hay

1. The Landscape

A traveler arriving at Gabaza, the coast station and customs point for the port city of Adulis (Ch. 3: 4) a short distance inland, may well have looked westwards towards Aksum from the hot and humid coastal plain by the Red Sea shore with some trepidation. As James Bruce (1790) put it “The mountains of Abyssinia have a singular aspect from this (coastal plain), as they appear in three ridges. The first is of no considerable height, but full of gullies and broken ground, thinly covered with shrubs; the second, higher and steeper, still more rugged and bare; the third is a row of sharp, uneven-edged mountains, which would be counted high in any country in Europe”. The traveler would know that Aksum lay in those highlands, several days journey from the top of the escarpment, in a different climatic zone, and to all intents and purposes in a different world.

Adulis, with its prosperous international trading community, and sizable buildings in the Aksumite style, was the first important town on the journey to the capital. It evidently became `Aksumite’ in terms of architecture and government, but may well have already had a long history before that. During the Aksumite period, it was probably still rather different from the inland towns, as one would expect from a community exposed to many foreign influences. Paribeni (1907) found their many objects apparently imported from the Graeco-Roman world or even India.

Immediately on leaving Adulis on the Aksum road, a traveler would have seen the famous monument left by an unknown Aksumite king, and a stele belonging to one of the Egyptian Ptolemies (Chs. 3: 4 and 11: 1). From here the journey to Aksum took eight days, according to the Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20), or twelve days according to Procopius (Dewing 1914: 183). The difference doubtless reflected either some change in the route or in the season of traveling, if it was not simply caused by the greater haste of merchants in comparison to ambassadors traveling in a comparatively leisurely manner. The journey took travelers through two of the three climatic zones recognized by the Ethiopians nowadays; the first is called the kwolla, below 1800 m and with a hot tropical climate (26°C or more), and the second the woina dega, from 1800-2400 m, with a subtropical climate and average temperatures of 22°C. Aksum itself lay at about 2100 m. The final climatic zone was the high dega, above 2400 m with an average temperature of 16°C.

The climatic extremes or differences were mentioned by ancient travelers such as Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 362), who particularly noted that it was the rainfall in Ethiopia which formed the torrents which fell into the Nile. The ambassador of Justinian, Nonnosus (Photius; ed. Freese 1920) noted the two zones;

“The climate and its successive changes between Aue and Aksum should be mentioned. It offers extreme contrasts of winter and summer. In fact, when the sun traverses Cancer, Leo and Virgo it is, as far as Aue, just as with us, summer and the dry weather reigns without ceasing in the air; but from Aue to Aksum and the rest of Ethiopia a rough winter reigns. It does not rage all day, but begins at midday everywhere; it fills the air with clouds and inundates the land with violent storms. It is at this moment that the Nile in flood spreads over Egypt, making a sea of it and irrigating its soil. But, when the sun crosses Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces, inversely, the sky, from the Adulitae to Aue, inundates the land with showers, and for those who live between Aue and Aksum and in all the rest of Ethiopia, it is summer and the land offers them its splendors”.

Frequently, because of the possibility of the name Aue being a Greek rendition of the name Yeha, the two are identified (see for example Bent 1896: 143ff). But Nonnosus specifically says that Aue is mid-way between Adulis and Aksum, and this note, with the climatic information, seems to place it among the first towns of the highlands when the plateau is reached, possibly Qohayto, Tekondo, or Matara (if the latter is not identified with the Koloë of the Periplus). Schneider (1982) has already suggested that Aue lay on the edge of the plateau.

After following the winding rocky passes up and up into the cooler zone of the highlands the traveler would reach one of these towns, set in the broken scenery of the high Ethiopian plateau, scored by rivers and valleys sloping westwards to the Nile valley and scattered with strange-shaped mountains. Flatland is relatively rare here, but the plateaux on the tops of the mountains, called ambas, are utilized for cultivation, and also act as natural fortresses. Balthasar Telles (Tellez 1710: 31) mentioned their advantages; “Some of these mountains, which the natives call ambas, stand by themselves apart from all others, are prodigious high, as it were in an impregnable fortress. . . .”

Vegetation and streams abound, and there must have been a considerable variety of wildlife in ancient times. Alvares, who described part of his journey as passing “through mountains and devilish jungle”, populated his jungle with lions, elephants, tigers, leopards, wolves, boars, stags, tapirs and “all other beasts which can be named in the world except . . . bears and rabbits”. His tigers may have been hyenas, as Bruce suggested (Beckingham and Huntingford 1961: 67) or perhaps cheetahs. Telles and Alvares mention crocodiles and hippopotami in the Takaze river, as well as the electric fish, called the torpedo or cramp-fish (Tellez 1710: 20-21).

The mountainous scenery of northern Ethiopia, the heartland of the Aksumite kingdom, it is the mountains which most impress.

To quote Bruce again,

“It is not the extreme height of the mountains in Abyssinia that occasions surprise, but the number of them, and the extraordinary forms which they present to the eye. Some of them are flat, thin and square, in the shape of a hearth-stone, or slab, that scarce would seem to have base sufficient to resist the action of the winds. Some are like pyramids, others like obelisks or prisms, and some, the most extraordinary of all the rest, pyramids pitched upon their points, with the base uppermost, which, if it was possible, as it is not, they could have been so formed in the beginning, would be strong objections to our received ideas of gravity”.

Telles commented that there were

“almost continual mountains of a prodigious height, and it is rare to travel a day’s journey without meeting such steep, lofty and craggy hills, that they are dreadful to behold, much more to pass over”.

The northern Ethiopian scenery, enhanced by the startling shapes of the imposing euphorbia candelabra trees on the slopes, is both beautiful and formidable. Nowadays, however, when the rains have not arrived, the area around Aksum can seem as desolate as a moonscape, inhospitable and without a blade of grass anywhere; the results of climatic changes and man’s improvidence (Ch. 15).

All along the main route south, from the head of the valleys where one finally entered the highlands, were Aksumite towns. A traveler must have passed at least one major town, Matara, and many others with impressive stone buildings before he turned west to Aksum. From the plateau of Shire, behind the ancient capital to the west, descend two river valleys, the Marab in the north and the Takaze in the south, both doubtless used, at least in the dry season, as routes into Sudan. Beyond the Takaze rise the Semien mountains, described in one of the Aksumite inscriptions as covered with snow and freezing mists. This inscription, the Monumentum Adulitanum (Ch. 11: 5), also describes campaigns against the tent-dwelling Beja in the inhospitable hills of the Red Sea coast, against some mountain-dwelling peoples, and against the tribes living in the immense waterless plains of the Danakil region. The account given in the inscription gives a good idea of the extreme contrasts in the geography, climate, and population groups of the area which the Aksumites controlled, and instills a certain amount of respect for the rulers who, albeit tenuously, managed to link such disparate parts into a functioning political and commercial system for several century.