Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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marked in the landscape by village communities with masonry structures representing 
chiefly dwellings, and there are also district-scale `kingdoms' of c. 150-200 sq. km. 
denoted by very large nucleated communities with one or more élite residences, and at 
Aksum by the rough stelae erected near the town. The third level is the kingdom of 
Aksum, and here Michels' conclusions are of sufficient interest to quote the whole 
passage;  
"Quite probably, the kingdom was a confederacy, one which was led by a district-level 
king who commanded the allegiance of other petty kings within the Axumite realm. The 
ruler of the Axumite kingdom was thus "King-of-Kings" — a title often found in 
inscriptions of this period. There is no evidence that a single royal lineage has yet 
emerged, and it is quite possible that at the death of a King-of-Kings, a new one would be 
selected from among all the kings in the confederacy, rather than through some principle 
of primogeniture."  
(It may be noted here that Kobishchanov (1979: 202-3) had already proposed the idea of 
an elective Aksumite monarchy, using his analysis of the rites of coronation).  
"By implication, therefore, there is reason to question whether Axum was invariably the 
location of the royal household, especially during the early part of this phase. Certainly 
the discovery of four large-scale elite residences at or near Axum and believed to date to 
this phase would suggest that probably by the end of the period, Axum was beginning to 
take on that function. But, by and large, one must conclude that during the Early Axumite 
phase, Axum, as the ceremonial or symbolic center of the kingdom, lent its name to the 
kingdom but had not yet emerged as its permanent secular capital".  
This very different view of the origins of Aksum concerns the considerable period 
between 150 to 450AD, when relatively little historical material is available. At first sight 
the idea that kings were chosen from among the rulers of an Ethiopian confederacy might 
seem an attractive solution to explain the `Bisi' -title or ethnicon of the kings, meaning 
`man of . . .' in Ge`ez, and different for each succeeding monarch. The title, however, 
persists even after the certain establishment of an Aksum-based hereditary dynasty, and 
there are other explanations for it (
Ch. 7: 5
).  
Despite the dearth of information, Aksum's position as the secular capital by the very 
beginning of this period seems well- enough established from external sources. Both the 
Periplus and Ptolemy mention the town as a royal capital (
Ch. 2: 2
), a metropolis with a 
royal palace. One question which remains unanswered is; why should Aksum take on 
such a tremendous significance among numerous Ethiopian kingdoms that it became the 
ceremonial and symbolic centre, and kings of different regions would aspire to call 
themselves `king of kings of Aksum'? The answer seems rather that it was local 
Aksumite rulers themselves who gradually became the `kings of kings'.  
By about 200AD (about fifty years after the date Michels' proposes for the beginning of 
this phase), king GDR/GDRT was involved in South Arabian affairs, and his name and 
that of three other kings, `DBH, DTWNS and ZQRNS are associated with the titles 
`nagashi of Aksum', or `nagashi of Habashat and Aksum' (
Ch. 4: 4
), and with wars in 
South Arabia during the century. By the later third century, with the inception of the local 


coinage, the title `king of the Ak sumites' is given prominence on the coin- legends (
Ch. 
9
), and by the 330s a bishop of Aksum, Frumentius, had been consecrated (
Ch. 10: 2
). 
During the whole period important notice is given only to Aksum or Habashat 
(Abyssinia). Aksum was indeed set apart as the ceremonial centre, site of the royal tombs 
and inscriptions, but was also the kingdom's capital city, whose rulers and people were 
referred to as Aksumites after their town (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 183) with its 
special and increasing predominance in the region. There are stelae and tombs at Matara 
and elsewhere which doubtless indicate the burial places of the local rulers of other 
districts, whilst those at Aksum are surely more likely to belong to a dynasty centred in 
Aksum itself than to a series of kings whose capitals were actually at different places all 
over the country. Family emphasis (relevant to the question of a royal lineage and the 
succession — 
Ch. 7: 4
) is quite prominent throughout this period. Both GDRT and `DBH 
had sons fighting in South Arabia, and in the early fourth century Ezana not only almost 
certainly succeeded his father Ella Amida but was guided during his minority by his 
mother the queen-regent. Later in his reign his two brothers fought for him in his wars. 
The unknown author of the Monumentum Adulitanum inscription (Chs. 
11: 5
 and 
3: 4
), 
certainly dateable to this period, calls attention to the fact that he was the first and only 
one among the kings his predecessors to make such conquests; and while admittedly he 
could be referring to previous `kings of kings' from different lineages, the example of 
Ezana makes it much more likely that he alludes to his ancestors on the Aksumite throne.  
It is hard to credit that "district-level" kings selected as the `kings of kings' from different 
regions in succession, could have presided for some 300 years over a kingdom whose 
course was otherwise so unified in so many disparate fie lds; a regular policy of 
interference in Arabian affairs, the issuing of a continuous coinage, and the steady 
architectural and cultural developments at Aksum can scarcely be viewed from such a 
perspective. In short, it seems quite clear that the achieveme nts of the period, in terms of 
military and naval organisation, coinage, monumental construction and so on, bespeak 
something far more centralised than a loose confederation of more or less equal petty 
kingdoms.  
Very likely some other urban centres still existed in the Aksum region as the capitals of 
more or less independent political entities while Aksum began to consolidate its power; 
but they fell in due course under Aksum's hegemony. Even in the reigns of Ezana or 
Kaleb, groups near to the centre of the kingdom, like the Agwezat, continued to rebel 
under their own kings (
Ch. 11: 5
), and perhaps among the `district-scale kingdoms' which 
Michels identifies are represented one or more of the local centres of such groups, 
contemporaries of, and subjects of, the kings of Aksum. The Aksumites, as suggested in 
Ch. 2: 2
, may have much earlier been allied with neighbouring tribal groups, but by the 
period in question it seems that such disparate elements had been gathered under the 
control of one dominating centre: Aksum. Without further excavation we cannot detect 
signs which might illustrate this, such as the relative size of the elite residences in Aksum 
as compared to those in subordinate centres, or the increasing amount of imported luxury 
items in one place as compared to another; but from what work has been done Aksum 
seems without doubt to have been the `central place' in Ethiopia from at least the first 
century AD.  



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