Perhaps the most frequently quoted remark about Ethiopia occurs in a brief excursus on the Ethiopian church which Edward Gibbon included in his monumental work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written at the end of the eighteenth century; `Encompassed on all sides by the enemies of their religion the Æthiopians slept near a thousand years, forgetful of the world, by whom they were forgotten’. Gibbon further accorded brief mention to those few events in Aksumite Ethiopia’s history which touched the larger theme of the history of the Roman empire. In this he still remains relatively unusual, however, one might nowadays view the Ethiopians’ `sleep’, Gibbon’s last phrases still ring true. Of all the important ancient civilizations of the past, that of the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum still remains perhaps the least known.
When this book was in preparation, I wrote to the archaeology editor of one of Britain’s most prominent history and archaeology publishers about its prospects. He replied that, although he had a degree in archaeology, he had never heard of Aksum, and didn’t think it would arouse much interest. If anything, this points the more strongly to the need for an introductory history to one of Africa’s most fascinating civilizations. In most of the recent general histories of Africa or of the Roman world, Aksum is either not mentioned at all, or is noted in brief summaries culled from earlier works. Only in Connah’s 1987 book African Civilisations does Aksum, though still dealt with in one brief chapter, begin to take its proper place as an important part of Africa’s history. Certainly, there have been books on Aksum, or on Ethiopian civilization in general, mainly in German, French, Italian and Russian; but since the last of these was published much new work has been done, and a well-illustrated and up-to-date general coverage of Aksumite Ethiopia is now the more urgently required.
It is hoped that this book, the result of nearly fifteen years of study of Aksumite history and civilization, will at least partly fill the gap, and encourage interest in Aksumite studies. Ancient Ethiopia is a fertile field for future researchers, and if this book attracts the attention of even a few towards this neglected but richly rewarding subject, it will have served its purpose adequately. It is worth adding that Ethiopia, and especially Aksumite Ethiopia, is an elusive entity, and I cannot hope to have always plumped for the correct interpretation in some of the more debated themes of its history. Theories and arguments which I may seem to have left aside could prove to be of great importance to future study. In most cases where a choice between opposing theories has been made, it is nevertheless with a profound consciousness of the stimulation afforded by the points-of-view of colleagues who share the opposite opinion, and with the certainty that the last word has not yet been said, that I have leaned towards certain conclusions. I have not infrequently drawn on my own earlier publications for certain sections of this book, sometimes with radically different results; alterations indicative of the progress made by more recent research.
I am extremely grateful, as the dedication indicates, to the late Dr. H. Neville Chittick for introducing me to Aksumite studies during the important excavations which he directed at Aksum between 1972 and 1974, and for his continued subsequent encouragement. His excavations at Aksum completely altered many concepts about Aksumite Ethiopia, clarifying certain points and, inevitably, raising new questions. In 1985 I was invited by the British Institute in Eastern Africa, under whose auspices Neville Chittick had worked, to publish in their Memoir series the excavation report his death prevented him from undertaking; and it was during this work that the idea of the present book, less specialist and wider-ranging, was suggested to me by Glen Kania. The British Institute in Eastern Africa also kindly gave permission for the reproduction of some of the photographs taken during the excavations. A number of friends and colleagues helped in the preparation of the book; I would particularly like to thank Dr. Bent Juel-Jensen and Dr. David Phillipson for reading and commenting on the typescript at different stages, and for supplying illustrations; Roger Brereton and the late Ruth Plant for other illustrations; Chris Tsielepi for information from the Horniman Museum; Michael Grogan for the maps and Glen Kania for his usual patience and assistance in editing and word-processing, for the fourth time, a book on an Aksumite theme.
Aksum’s obscurity, and the impossibility of visiting the site at present seem to have had a discouraging effect on funding institutions. However, awards which have greatly helped me in the writing of this book, and in my Aksumite studies in general, came from the Twenty-Seven Foundation and the Spalding Trust; to these organizations, I am extremely grateful, particularly since they have both assisted my work in other fields as well.