Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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now suggested that very likely, by the time the inscriptions were produced, the majority 
of the material in fact represented the civilisation of the Ethiopia ns themselves. 
Nevertheless, a certain amount of contact with South Arabia is very apparent, and had 
resulted in the adoption of a number of cultural traits (Schneider 1973; 1976).  
Evidently the arrival of Sabaean influences does not represent the beginning of Ethiopian 
civilisation. For a long time different peoples had been interacting through population 
movements, warfare, trade and intermarriage in the Ethiopian region, resulting in a 
predominance of peoples speaking languages of the Afro-Asiatic family. The main 
branches represented were the Cushitic and the Semitic. Semiticized Agaw peoples are 
thought to have migrated from south-eastern Eritrea possibly as early as 2000BC, 
bringing their `proto-Ethiopic' language, ancestor of Ge`ez and the other Ethiopian 
Semitic languages, with them; and these and other groups had already developed specific 
cultural and linguistic identities by the time any Sabaean influences arrived. Features 
such as dressed stone building, writing and iron-working may have been introduced by 
Sabaeans, but words for `plough' and other agricultural vocabulary are apparently of 
Agaw origin in Ethiopian Semitic languages, indicating that the techniques of food-
production were not one of the Arabian imports. Clark (1988) even suggests that wheat
barley, and the plough may have been introduced from Egypt via Punt. Some of the 
graffiti found in eastern Eritrea include names apparently neither South Arabian nor 
Ethiopian, perhaps reflecting the continued existence of some older ethnic groups in the 
same cultural matrix. Various stone-age sites and rock-paintings attest to these early 
Ethiopians in Eritrea and Tigray. At Matara and Yeha, for example, archaeologists have 
distinguished phases represented by pottery types which seem to owe nothing to South 
Arabia, but do have some Sudanese affinities. The Italian archaeologist Rodolfo 
Fattovich, who has particularly interested himself in this study, has suggested that the 
pre-Aksumite culture might owe something to Nubia, specifically to C— group/Kerma 
influences, and later on to Meroë/Alodia (Fattovich 1977, 1978, 1989). Worsening 
ecological conditions in the savanna/Sahel belt might have induced certain peoples to 
move from plains and lowlands up to the plateau in the second half of the second 
millenium BC (Clark 1976), bringing with them certain cultural traditions. Evidence for 
early trade activity to regions across the Red Sea from eastern Sudan and Ethiopia at 
about this time has been noted by Zarins (1988), with reference to the obsidian trade. 
Extremely interesting results have lately come from work in the Gash Delta on the 
Ethiopo-Sudanese borderland, indicating the existence of a complex society there in the 
late 3rd-early 2nd millenium BC (Fattovich 1989: 21); possibly the location of the land of 
Punt there reinforces this suggestion (Kitchen 1971; Fattovich 1988: 2, 7). It seems that 
the new discoveries are of major importance to an understanding of the dynamics of state 
formation in the Ethiopian highlands. The latest work suggests that in the late second and 
early first millenium BC the eastern part of the Tigray plateau was included in a 
widespread cultural complex on both the African and the Arabian Tihama coasts of the 
Red Sea, in contact with the lowlands of the Sudan and perhaps with the Nile Valley, 
while the western part was in contact with peoples of the Gash Delta. These two regions 
of the plateau later became united culturally and politically under the D`MT monarchy 
(Fattovich 1989: 34-5).  


It appears that there were undoubtedly some South Arabian immigrants in Ethiopia in the 
mid- first millenium BC, but there is (unless the interpretation of Michels is accepted) no 
sure indication that they were politically dominant. The sites chosen by them may be 
related to their relative ease of access to the Red Sea coast. Arthur Irvine (1977) and 
others have regarded sympathetically the suggestion that the inscriptions which testify to 
Sabaean presence in Ethiopia may have been set up by colonists around the time of the 
Sabaean ruler Karibil Watar in the late fourth century BC; but the dating is very 
uncertain, as noted above. They may have been military or trading colonists, living in 
some sort of symbiosis with the local Ethiopian population, perhaps under a species of 
treaty-status.  
It seems that the pre-Aksumite society on the Tigray plateau, centred in the Aksum/Yeha 
region but extending from Tekondo in the north to Enderta in the south (Schneider 1973: 
389), had achieved state level, and that the major entity came to be called D`MT 
(Di`amat, Damot?), as appears in the regal title `mukarrib of Da`mot and Saba'. The 
name may survive in the Aksumite titulature as Tiamo/Tsiyamo (
Ch. 7: 5
). Its rulers, 
kings and mukarribs, by including the name Saba in their titles, appear to have expressly 
claimed control over the resident Sabaeans in their country; actual Sabaean presence is 
assumed at Matara, Yeha and Hawelti-Melazo according to present information 
(Schneider 1973: 388). The inscriptions of mukarribs of D`MT and Saba are known from 
Addi Galamo (Caquot and Drewes 1955: 26-32), Enda Cherqos (Schneider 1961: 61ff), 
possibly Matara, if the name LMN attested there is the same as the .MN from the other 
sites, (Schneider 1965: 90; Drewes and Schneider 1967: 91), Melazo (Schneider 1978: 
130-2), and Abuna Garima (Schneider 1973; Schneider 1976iii: 86ff). Of four rulers 
known to date, the earliest appears to be a certain W`RN HYWT, who only had the title 
mlkn, king, and evidence of whom has been found at Yeha, Kaskase, Addi Seglamen; he 
was succeeded by three mukarribs, RD'M, RBH, and LMN (Schneider 1976iii: 89-93).  
Illustration 9. An inscription from Abba Pantelewon near Aksum, written in the 
Epigraphic South Arabian script and me ntioning the kingdom of D`MT; it is dedicated to 
the deity Dhat-Ba`adan. It has been photographed upside down. Photo BIEA.  
The Sabaeans in Ethiopia appear, from the use of certain place- names like Marib in their 
inscriptions, to have kept in contact with  their own country, and indeed the purpose of 
their presence may well have been to maintain and develop links across the sea to the 
profit of South Arabia's trading network. Naturally, such an arrangement would have 
worked also to the benefit of the indigenous Ethiopian rulers, who employed the titles 
mukarrib and mlkn at first, and nagashi (najashi) or negus later; no pre-Aksumite najashi 
or negus is known. The inscriptions dating from this period in Ethiopia are apparently 
written in two languages, pure Sabaean and another language with certain aspects found 
later in Ge`ez (Schneider 1976). All the royal inscriptions are in this second, presumably 
Ethiopian, language. A number of different tribes and families seem to be mentioned by 
the inscriptions of this period, but there is no evidence to show whether any of these 
groups lasted into the Aksumite period. Only the word YG`DYN, man of Yeg`az, might 
hint that the Ge`ez or Agazyan tribe was established so early, though the particular 
inscription which mentions it is written in the South Arabian rather than the Ethiopian 



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