Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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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.  
 
End of Chapters 1-3. 
Continue to Chapters 4-5

Back to Table of Contents
.  
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity 
by Dr. Stuart Munro-Hay. 
© 1991 by Dr. Stuart C. Munro-Hay. 
Online edition with the author's permission, by Alan Light (alight@vnet.net). 
Chapters 4-5. 
Back to Table of Contents
.  
4.   Aksumite History 


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 (
Ch. 9
) 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 



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