Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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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 the 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 centuries.  
  
2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom 
 
Aksum was, oddly as it might seem at first, situated in the western part of the future 
Aksumite kingdom. This, however, must reflect the prevailing political, economic and 
commercial conditions long before Aksumite ambitions could have reached to an outlet 
on the Red Sea coast, and probably implies that the original significance of the site 
derived from its command over certain local resources and interior trade-routes, one 
important one most likely leading to the Nile Valley and using the Marab and Takaze 
river valleys which drained westwards towards the Nile. Eventually Aksum lay at the 
heart of a series of routes. One lay between the Nile and Adulis, another led to `the 
Cataracts' (Aswan), a journey of 30 days according to Kosmas (Wolska-Conus 1968: 
356). This route leading to Egypt was also mentioned by the anonymous king who raised 
the Monumentum Adulitanum (
Ch. 11: 5
), and by Procopius (ed. Dewing 1914: 185); 
"From the city of Auxomis to the Aegyptian boundaries of the Roman domain, where the 
city called Elephantine is situated, is a journey of thirty days for an unencumbered 
traveller". A third route may be surmised as leading south from Aksum to the 
"extremities of Ethiopia", defined by Kosmas as "to the land of incense called Barbaria
(apparently the Somali coast where incense can still be found), some 30 days distant. A 
final route was that known for the gold trade, running through the Agaw lands towards 
Sasu, which took six months to go and return, including five-day stops for trading 
(Wolska-Conus 1968: 362).  



Map B. Map of Aksumite Ethiopia.  
In addition to its advantageous position for trade, the site, facing the plains of Aksum and 
Hasabo and with the plateau of Shire behind it, enjoyed abundant rainfall, with a long 
rainy season from late June to early September. There were probably a number of streams 
and springs, and fertile soil very likely capable of producing more than one crop a year. 
In the environs of the future city were good agricultural areas, such as the plain of 
Hasabo (Hazebo, Atzabo) to the east. Michels (1988: 2-3, map 4), in a very useful survey, 
interviewed farmers in the Aksum- Yeha region in 1974 as to soil qualities, and studied 
local topography and irrigation potential. He was able to classify four ecological zones
and found that the immediate environs of Aksum and Yeha belonged in his Zone A; "low 
gradient, highly fertile land that is optimal for plow cultivation, requires no fertility 
intervention other than crop rotation, and relies upon seasonal rains".  
This evidently favourable region was, it seems, already populated when Aksum was 
founded. Though there are earlier sites with ruins dating to the Sabaean- influenced pre-
Aksumite period nearby (such as Hawelti, Melazo — with Gobochela and Enda Cherqos 
— and Medoge) so far no firm evidence has been found to indicate that the site of Aksum 
itself was occupied before about the beginning of our era. However, the pre-Aksumite 
`Sabaean' cultural area certainly extended along the route from Adulis and into the 
Aksum region.  
Recent work by Italian archaeologists in the Kassala region, noted by Fattovich (1988), 
has hinted that certain aspects of Aksumite culture may have come from the western 
lowlands even before this. Fattovich observed features on pre-Aksumite pottery 
resembling those on pottery of the Sudanese peoples labelled by archaeologists Kerma 
and C— group, and suggested that even such cultural features as the stelae, so 
characteristic of later Ethiopian funerary customs, might perhaps have derived from early 
Sudanese prototypes. Some of these features date back to the late 3rd and early 2nd 
millenia BC, and the discovery of evidence of fairly complex societies in the region at 
this early date may suggest, to quote Fattovich, "a more complex reconstruction of state 
formation in Northern Ethiopia" (see also 
Ch. 4: 1
).  
At the moment, however, the early history of Aksum is almost unknown and there is little 
evidence available relating to the formation of the Aksumite state. However, we can 
suggest a possible course of development. It would seem that the favourable position of 
the future capital both from the trading point of view, and from that of local food-
production and other resources, allowed increasing prosperity to come to the settlement. 
With this prosperity there was possibly a rise in the local population, and, concomitantly, 
an increase in potential military strength. Expansion to secure either new resources or 
various trade-routes was possible with the development of a military machine which, as 
we may surmise from later events, became very efficient. What other incentives may 
have arisen to encourage the Aksumites to exploit their new potential we do not know, 
but there could have been such impulses as the need to repel a possible threat from 
nearby peoples, or the rise of an exceptional leader. Aksum was not a great colonial 
power, arriving with superior weapons to fight ill-equipped locals; though they did 



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