Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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captain of the Portuguese in Ethiopia, who was present at the time, he was able to 
describe the coronation of Susenyos at Ak sum 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 grovelling 
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 a alta, at Coimbra in Portugal. This was an abridgement 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 adorn'd 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 demolish'd by the wars, or defac'd with age. The city itself, now 
totally ruin'd, 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 travellers who for one 
reason or another managed to penetrate through what is now the 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 bookTravels 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 than 
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 inclosures, all of granite, with small octagon 
pillars in the angles, apparently Egyptian; on the top of which formerly were small 



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