Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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information from Ptolemy, and names `Ksumi, the town (or, land) of the king of Kush' 
(Nallino 1907: II, 47). This obviously refers to Aksum; but most other Arab writers 
provide completely different names. The earliest is Jarmi or Jarma, followed by Ku`bar 
or Ka`bar.  
Abu Ja`far al-Khuwarizmi, writing before 833AD, seems to be the first to cite a town 
called `Jarma, the town of the kingdom of Habash', as well as `Jarmi, the great town', in 
company with such other towns as Dunqula (Dongola), capital of the Nubian kingdom of 
Muqurra (Vantini 1975: 50). Al-Farghani, writing before 861AD, mentions `the towns of 
the kingdom of the Habasha, which are called Jarmi (Jarma), Dunqula and the town of 
the Nuba' (Vantini 1975: 53). Ibn Rusta, who died before 913AD, wrote of `Jarmi, the 
capital of the Habasha and Dunqula, the capital of the Nuba' (Vantini 1975: 87), and 
around 950AD Ishaq ibn al-Husain wrote that "The main town in the country of the 
Habashat is (the town of) Jarmi, (which is) the capital (dar) of the kingdom of the 
Habasha. This kingdom is ruled by the najashi". Interestingly, this author repeats 
Kosmas' old tale about silent trade in the lands of the Habasha (Vantini 1975: 122-3), as 
do others even later (e.g. al- Zuhri, Vantini 1975: 262).  
About 966AD al-Maqdisi simply confirms the previous information, writing that "One of 
the towns of the First Climate is . . . Jarmi, a town of the king of the Habasha, another is 
Dunqula, the town of the Nuba" (Vantini 1975: 147), and a little later Ibn Yunus (d. 
1009AD) listed both Jarmi and Madinat al-Habash (here Dongola/Dunqala?) with their 
latitudes and longitudes (Vantini 1975: 223). Al-Tusi, an astronomer who died in 
1273AD, also mentions these two towns with their latitude and longitude (Vantini 1975: 
380).  
Al-Biruni (d. 1048), though a pupil of al-Mas`udi, does not mention Ku`bar (see below), 
but in his list of towns, he includes "Jarma (Jarmi), a town of the Habasha" and Aydhab 
as a Habasha town, the frontier between Beja and Habasha (Vantini 1975: 231-2), while 
al-Marwazi (d. after 1120AD) mentions that the First Climate "passes through a country 
called Jarma, which is the residence of the king of the Habasha, and through Dunqala, 
which is the capital of the Nuba" (Vantini 1975: 250). Yaqut (d. 1229) mentions among 
the towns of the First Climate `Jarma, the town of the king of the Habasha; Dumqula, the 
town of the Nuba' (Vantini 1975: 341). Abu'- l-Fida` (1273-1331AD) wrote that "Jarmi is 
the capital of the Habasha. It is mentioned by the majority of the travellers in the books 
of routes" (Vantini 1975: 463), and Ibn al-Shatir (1304-1379AD) still notes the latitudes 
and longitudes of "Jarmi of the Habasha" and "Dongola of the Nuba" (Vantini 1975: 
525). Finally, it may be that the name Tambra or Tarma, used by al-Wardi (d. 1457AD) is 
a last memory of Jarmi or Jarma; he describes the town as "a big town on a lake in which 
the Nile waters collect " (Vantini 1975: 724).  
Al-Ya`qubi (fl. c872-891) is the first of the Arab authors to mention Ku`bar or Ka`bar. 
His report is interesting in that it names five Beja kingdoms bordering on the najashi's 
realms and on Alwa (the Arab name for the Nubian Christian state of Alodia, with its 
capital at Soba). They each had their own king, and there is no mention of dependence on 


the najashi's kingdom; the last known Aksumite claim to control Beja and Noba is in 
W`ZB's titulature (Schneider 1974). Al-Ya`qubi describes  
"a vast and powerful country. Its royal town is Ku`bar. The Arabs go thither to trade. 
They have big towns and their sea coast is called Dahlak. All the kings of the habasha 
country are subject to the Great King (al-malik al-a`zam) and are careful to obey him 
and pay tribute" (Vantini 1975: 73).  
This information, well over two hundred years after the time of Ashama ibn Abjar, 
indicates that the Ethiopian kingdom had maintained itself relatively well, and was still in 
control of some of the coastal area.  
Al-Mas`udi, who died in 956AD, gives rather similar information in his geographical 
work Muruj al-Dhahab, the `Meadows of Gold'.  
"The chief town of the Habasha is called Ku`bar, which is a large town and the residence 
of the najashi, whose empire extends to the coasts opposite the Yemen, and possesses 
such towns as Zayla`, Dahlak and Nasi"  (Vantini 1975: 131).  
He repeated this in his Akhbar al-Zaman;  
". . . the Habasha are the descendants of Habash b. Kush. b. Ham. The largest of their 
kingdoms is the kingdom of the najashi, who follows Christianity; their capital is called 
Kafar (Ka`bar). The Arabs used since the earliest times to come to this kingdom for 
trade" (Vantini 1975: 143).  
Al-Harrani, writing about 1295AD, mentions that  
"one of the greatest and best-known towns is Ka`bar, which is the royal town of the 
najashi . . . Zayla`, a town on the coast of the Red Sea, is a very populous commercial 
centre. . . . Opposite al-Yaman there is also a big town, which is the sea-port from which 
the Habasha crossed the sea to al-Yaman, and nearby is the island of `Aql"  (Vantini 
1975: 448).  
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) also knew that Ka`bar was formerly the capital of Abyssinia 
(Trimingham 1952: 59).  
Conti Rossini proposed that Ku`bar originated in a mistaken rendering of [A]Ksum in 
Arabic (1909: 263, n. 1). He says that "Aksum was the political capital still in the tenth 
century . . . I call . . . kings of Aksum the kings anterior to the Zagwé, who went down into 
Lasta". Vantini (1975: 131), whose extremely useful compendium of translations from 
Arab authors we have used extensively in this section, also thought Ku`bar was Aksum, 
suggesting a distortion from an epithet, `kabur', The Noble, or the name of some place 
near Aksum. Paul (1954: 71) identified Ku`bar with Adulis. The editors of Mas`udi's 
book The Meadows of Gold, where he mentions Ku`bar, identified it with Ankober in 
Shewa, influenced by the current name for the Shewan capital (de Meynard and de 
Courteille 1844: 34). Taddesse Tamrat (1970: 87-8; 1972: 37) thought Ku`bar might be in 
southern Tigray or Angot; an Ethiopian legendary account (Kur 1965: 18) says that the 
(ninth-century?) king Dil Na`od moved the capital "from Aksum to the country of the 
east" in the seventh year of his reign, and since the same phrase elsewhere in the text 
describes the Lake Hayq region, Tamrat suggested Ku`bar was in that general direction. 
In fact, little reliance can be placed on the names and dates (Tamrat 1972: 36, n. 3) in 



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