Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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dispute in the time of patriarch Gabriel II (1131-45) with the reigning king of Ethiopia
who wanted him to consecrate more bishops than was allowed by custom (Atiya 1950: 
56-7; Budge 1928: 800-1). This would have allowed the king to elect his own 
metropolitan, since ten bishops could constitute the synod necessary to do so, and 
Ethiopia and Nubia were therefore limited to seven. The Egyptian caliph was at first 
supportive of the king, but when the patriarch, anxious not to lose his influence in 
Ethiopia, pointed out that the Ethiopian king, absolved from his obedience to the 
patriarch, could attack Muslim lands with impunity, he seems to have changed his mind. 
In any event, famine in Ethiopia is supposed to have persuaded the king that he was 
wrong, and the attempt to gain independence for the Ethiopian church was over.  
Michael' s metropolitanate had one more trial to go through (Atiya 1950: 90-1). In 1152, 
when he was very old, a messenger arrived in Egypt from an Ethiopian king to the vizir 
with a request that patriarch John V (1146-67) replace Michael with a new metropolitan. 
Michael had apparently quarrelled with this king, who was a usurper. Possibly this 
usurping ruler may be identified with an early king of the Zagwé dynasty of Lasta, who 
seem to have come to power around 1137. The fact that he did not write to the patriarch 
until 1152 may mean that the king had not found Michael too troublesome until then, or 
that the affair took some time to build up, and does not really militate against his 
identification as a Zagwé ruler; alternatively, the 1152 incident might have been the 
culmination of the old quarrel of the time of patriarch Gabriel, with the Ethiopian ruler 
taking revenge against Michael for thwarting him previously. In any event, John V 
declined to replace the metropolitan, who had done no wrong and could not therefo re be 
legally deposed, and for this refusal was himself imprisoned; he was eventually released 
on the death of the vizir.  
While limited in scope, the biographies of the patriarchs do allow glimpses of Ethiopia, 
which, combined with those from the Arab historians and geographers, are not 
uninformative. We learn that the kingdom was, if erratically, in touch with Egypt, and 
that the monarchy and ecclesiastical structure remained intact until around the 950's. At 
some time before 1003 the foreign queen's rule was terminated, the Ethiopian kingdom 
restored and the church hierarchy reinstated with metropolitan Daniel; but one might 
imagine that the destruction of cities and churches, and the death or captivity of part of 
the population, left the country in a weaker condition than before. In the reconstruction, 
foreign influences were not lacking; in patriarch Zacharias' time (1004-32), Coptic 
Christians were allowed to emigrate to Abyssinia, Nubia, and Byzantine lands (Atiya 
1948: 196), while near the town of Qwiha, in Enderta, funerary inscriptions of Muslims, 
perhaps a trading community, have been found dating from 1001-1154AD (Schneider, M. 
1967); it may have been for such communities that some of Severus' mosques were built.  
From the History of the Patriarchs we learn that in the ninth century the country suffered 
from war, plague, and insufficient rainfall, that it suffered a major disaster in the tenth 
century with the depredations of the queen of the Bani al- Hamwiyya. The remainder of 
the information from the eleventh and early twelfth centuries deals mainly with 
ecclesiastical questions, or in the case of the Arab geographers of repetitive and more or 
less inaccurate travellers tales. But the story about the attempt to increase the number of 


bishops in metropolitan Michael's time has some interesting facets. It mentions, unless 
this is mere rhetoric to emphasise the contrast with the later state of affairs after the 
patriarch blessed the land, that between 1131 and 1145 Ethiopia suffered several 
disasters. The king's palace was struck by lightning, and the land suffered from 
pestilence, famine and drought. Although the country recovered in due course, it must 
have been at about this time that the change of dynasty actually occurred, and Zagwé rule 
was established until c1270.  
5.   The Capital City 
1. The Site 
Aksum was built on gently sloping land which rose, north and east of the city, to two flat-
topped hills, now called Beta Giyorgis and Mai Qoho respectively. The hills around the 
town are formed from a granitic rock, nepheline syenite (Littmann 1913: II, 6; Butzer 
1981). Between Beta Giyorgis and Mai Qoho runs the course of a stream, the Mai Hejja 
or Mai Malahso in its upper reaches, which rises on the eastern slopes of Beta Giyorgis. 
Further west another stream bed, that of the Mai Lahlaha, also descends from the top of 
Beta Giyorgis. Run-off from the Mai Hejja and down the flanks of Mai Qoho above the 
town is caught in a large excavated basin, officially called Mai Shum, but often referred 
locally to as the `Queen of Sheba's bath'. This is said to have been dug by one of the later 
metropolitan bishops of Aksum, Samuel, in the reign of king Yeshaq in about 1473 (Salt 
1812; Monneret de Villard 1938: 49), but may very well be of Aksumite origin, enlarged 
or cleared by Samuel, just as it has been again enlarged and cleared recently. The basin 
lies directly below the north-west side of Mai Qoho, and access to it from above is aided 
by a series of steps cut into the rock, which may also date back to Aksumite times. Butzer 
thought that there was evidence for an earth dam some 50 m. below the Mai Shum 
reservoir (Butzer 1981: 479), and it is possible that much more water was caught or 
diverted in Aksumite times than today. Water was probably a very important element in 
the development of Aksum as the capital city of ancient Ethiopia. The name of the town 
itself is thought to be composed of two wordsak and shum, the first of Cushitic and the 
second of Semitic origin, meaning water and chieftain respectively (Sergew Hable 
Sellassie 1972: 68; Tubiana 1958). This name `Chieftain's Water' seems to suggest that 
Aksum could have been the site of a spring or at least a good water supply, and perhaps it 
early became the seat of an important local ruler.  
Illustration 17. A view of Aksum taken from below Mai Qoho hill looking over the Stele 
Park towards Beta Giyorgis hill.  
Illustration 18. The reservoir Mai Shum in its present enlarged state. Photos BIEA.  
The two streams run south, that of the Mai Hejja skirting Mai Qoho hill (in its lower 
course it takes on different names, such as the Mai Barea, or the Mai Matare), and the 
Mai Lahlaha running directly through the town. Both lose themselves in the broad plain 
of Hasabo facing the town to the south and east. The two hills, both reaching to around 
the 2200 m mark above sea level, rise about 100 m above the town area, enclosing and 
sheltering it on two sides. Nowadays they are almost bare of trees, except where recent 



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