Conus 1973: 348-51) describes how a Roman merchant, Sopatros, who had gone to
Taprobane (Sri Lanka) with merchants from Adulis, got the better of a distinguished
Persian in the presence of a Sri Lankan king by comparing the gold coins of the Romans
with the silver milarision of the Persians. A number of yellow pottery figures, apparently
mould- made, were found at Hawelti, near the stelae there; de Contenson suggested that
they were of Indian type, but this has not been authoritatively confirmed (de Contenson
1963ii: 45-6, pl. XLVIII).
The Far East.
There is no real evidence for contacts between China and Aksum, but it has been
suggested that the Han dynasty records include a reference to the Aksumite kingdom
(Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 71, 84-5). If, as seems possible, the Han ships were in
contact with states beyond India, the kingdom which the chroniclers call Huang-Chi
might have been Aksum (Fiaccadori 1984: 283, n. 30). Aksum grew to be an important
power in the region of the Red Sea, and the Chinese merchants must, at the very least,
have eventually come into contact with someone who knew of Aksum. If Huang-Chi was
Aksum the contact is a valuable one for our chronology, since the usurper Wang Mang
(1-6AD) received in return for his gifts a live rhinoceros from the king of Huang Chi,
thus attesting the presence of a dominant power group at this early stage, just when the
rise of Aksum is postulated. However, Wang Mang's agents could equally well have
contacted some other coastally centred pre-Aksumite group, like the Adulitae. Other
products of Huang-Chi were tortoise-shell and ivory, both readily available to the
Aksumites. The distances cited by the Chinese records put Huang-Chi well beyond India
and it took twelve months to accomplish the voyage there. We can only say that the
identification is tempting, but very uncertain. A suggestion that the Hsi-wang Mu of
ancient Chinese records, who lived in the K'un- lun mountains, was to be identified with
the Queen of Sheba living in the qolla of Abyssinia, was another attempt to find a point
of contact in the even more remote past.
A useful division for the study of the history of Aksum, in our present state of
knowledge, is to separate the historical sequence into a number of periods based as far as
possible on the coinage. The latter (
) is the best criterion we have for suggesting a
chronology. Since the history of Aksum obviously overlaps the issue of the coinage at
both ends, the following divisions have been employed.
Pre-Aksumite. Northern Ethiopia before the rise of Aksum.
1. Early Aksum until the reign of Gadarat. 1st and 2nd centuries AD.
2. Gadarat to the first issues of coinage under Endubis. 3rd century AD until c270.
3. The Pagan Kings; Endubis to Ezana. c270-c330AD.
4. Ezana (after his conversion) to Kaleb. c330-c520AD.
5. Kaleb to the end of the coinage. c520-early seventh century AD.
6. The Post-Aksumite period. From the early seventh century AD.
The period begins with the reign of Ashama ibn Abjar and continues until the accession
of the Zagwé dynasty c1137.
1. The Pre-Aksumite Period This period is not of major concern to us here, and in any case we have very little
information about it; but some consideration should be given to the situation in Ethiopia
before the rise of Aksum, since the source of at least some of the characteristics of the
later Aksumite civilisation can be traced to this earlier period. Perhaps the most
interesting phenomenon in this respect is that by around the middle of the first millenium
BC — a date cautiously suggested, using palaeographical information (Pirenne 1956;
Drewes 1962: 91), but possibly rather too late in view of new discoveries in the Yemen
(Fattovich 1989: 16-17) which may even push it back to the eighth century BC — some
sort of contact, apparently quite close, seems to have been maintained between Ethiopia
and South Arabia. This developed to such an extent that in not a few places in Ethiopia
the remains of certain mainly religious or funerary installations, some of major
importance, with an unmistakeable South Arabian appearance in many details, have been
excavated. Among the sites are Hawelti-Melazo, near Aksum (de Contenson 1961ii), the
famous temple and other buildings and tombs at Yeha (Anfray 1973ii), the early levels at
Matara (Anfray 1967), and the sites at Seglamien (Ricci and Fattovich 1984-6), Addi
Galamo, Feqya, Addi Grameten and Kaskase, to name only the better-known ones.
Fattovich (1989: 4-5) comments on many of these and has been able to attribute some
ninety sites altogether to the pre-Aksumite period.
Inscriptions found at some of these sites include the names of persons bearing the
traditional South Arabian title of mukarrib, apparently indicating a ruler with something
of a priest-king status, not otherwise known in Ethiopia (Caquot and Drewes 1955).
Others have the title of king, mlkn (Schneider 1961; 1973). Evidently the pre-Aksumite
Sabaean- influenced cultural province did not consist merely of a few briefly-occupied
staging posts, but was a wide-spread and well-established phenomenon. Until relatively
recently South Arabian artefacts found in Ethiopia were interpreted as the material signs
left behind by a superior colonial occupation force, with political supremacy over the
indigenes — an interpretation still maintained by Michels (1988). But further study has