Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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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 ambassador for Zara Ya`qob 
to Alfonso of Aragon, and met Pietro Ranzano, who recorded some of his account 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very muddled description of the land of Prester John (this work is still unpublished).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 no t, 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, who had been 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 realised. 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 afterwards. 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 civilisation 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 me ntioned Aksum in his letters to a friend, Thomas 
Iturén, with whom he corresponded every year (Caraman 1985). Through João Gabriel, 



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