Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Chapter XXXVIII. 
(After the description of the church of Maryam Tseyon; see 
Ch. 10: 5
);  
Inside the large enclosure (the outer enclosure around Maryam Tseyon) there is a large 
ruin built in a square, which in other times was a house and has at each corner a big 
stone pillar, square and worked [very tall with various carvings. Letters can be seen cut 
in them but they are not understood and it is not known in what language they are. Many 
such epitaphs are found.] This house is called Ambaçabet, which means house of lions.  
It is not known what this structure, which has now disappeared, was.  
Before the gate of the great enclosure there is a large court, and in it a large tree which 
they call Pharaoh's fig tree, and at the end of it there are some very new-looking 
pedestals of masonry, well worked, laid down. Only when they reach near the foot of the 
fig tree they are injured by the roots which raise them up. There are on the top of these 
pedestals twelve stone chairs [arranged in order one after the other] as well made with 
stone as though they were of wood. They are not made out of a block, but each one from 
its own stone and separate piece. They say these belong to the twelve judges who at this 
time serve in the court of Prester John.  
These are the thrones, of which only the pedestals now exist.  
Outside this enclosure there is a large town with very good houses . . . and very good 
wells of water of [very beautiful] worked masonry, and also in most of the houses . . . 
ancient figures of lions and dogs and birds, all well made in [very hard, fine] stone. At 
the back of this great church is a very handsome tank [or lake of spring water] of 
masonry, [at the foot of a hillock where is now a market] and upon this masonry are as 
many other chairs of stone such as those in the enclosure of the church.  
This seems to refer to the row of thrones set on what seems to be a natural rock wall at 
the base of Mai Qoho; possibly in the sixteenth century this wall acted as a retaining wall 
for water, perhaps overspill from Mai Shum?  
This town is situated at the head of a beautiful plain, and almost between two hills, and 
the rest of this plain is almost as full of these old buildings, and among them many of 
these chairs, and high pillars of inscriptions [; it is not known in what language, but they 
are very well carved].  
Above this town, there are very many stones standing up, and others on the ground, very 
large and beautiful, and worked with beautiful designs, among which is one raised upon 
another, and worked like an altar stone, except that it is of very great size and it is set in 
the other as if enchased (the standing stele and its base-plate). This raised stone is 64 
covados in length, and six wide; and the sides are 3 covados wide. It is very straight and 
well worked, made with arcades below, as far as a head made like a half moon; and the 
side which has this half moon is towards the south. There appear in it five nails which do 
not show more on account of the rust; and they are arranged like a quinas (the five dots 
on dice). And that it may not be asked how so high a stone could be measured, I have 
already said how it was all in arcades as far as the foot of the half moon, and these are 
all of one size; and we measured those we could reach to, and by those reckoned up the 
others, and we found 60 covados, and we gave 4 to the half moon, although it would be 
more, and so made 64 covados (thus making it about twice too great, the covado being 


apparently 27 inches). This very long stone, on its south side, where the nails in the half 
moon are, has, at the height of man, the form of a portal carved in the stone itself, with a 
bolt and a lock, as if it were shut up. The stone on which it is set up is a covado thick and 
is well worked; it is placed on other large stones, and surrounded by other smaller 
stones, and no man can tell how much of it enters the other stone, or if it reaches to the 
ground. [Near these] there are endless other stones raised above the ground [, very 
beautiful] and very well worked [; it seemed as if they had been brought there to be put to 
use, like the others that are so big and are standing up]; some of them will be quite forty 
covados long, and others thirty. There are more than thirty of these stones, and they have 
no patterns on them; most of them have large inscriptions, which the people of the 
country cannot read, neither could we read them; according to their appearance, these 
characters must be Hebrew (perhaps actually Epigraphic South Arabian; does this mean 
that originally there were some inscriptions in the Stele Park?). There are two of these 
stones, very large and beautiful, with designs of large arcades, and tracery of good size, 
which are lying on the ground entire, and one of them is broken into three pieces, and 
each of these equal eighty covados, and is ten covados in width. Close to them are stones, 
in which these had been intended to be, or had been enchased, which were bored and 
very well worked.  
These are the two largest stelae, but now the base-plate of the largest is missing.  
Chapter XXXIX. 
Above this town which overlooks much distant country [on every side], and which is 
about a mile, that is the third of a league, from the town, there are two houses under the 
ground into which men do not enter without a lamp (the `Tombs of Kaleb and Gabra 
Masqal'). These houses are not vaulted, but of a very good straight masonry, both the 
walls and the roof. The blocks are free on the outside. The walls may be 12 covados high; 
the blocks are set in the walls so close one to the other, that it all looks like one stone [for 
the joins are not seen]. One of these houses is much divided into chambers and 
granaries. In the doorways are holes for the bars and for the sockets for the doors. In one 
of these chambers are two very large chests (the sarcophagi), each one 4 covados in 
length, and one and a half broad, and as much in overall height, and in the upper part of 
the inner side they are hollowed at the edge, as though they had lids of stone, as the 
chests are also of stone (they say that these were the treasure chests of the Queen Saba). 
The other house, which is broader, has only got a portico and one room. From the 
entrance of one house to that of the other will be a distance of a game of Manqual (a type 
of skittles) and above them is a field. . . . In this town and in its countryside . . . when 
there come thunderstorms . . . there are no women or men, boys or children . . . left in the 
town who do not come out to look for gold among the tillage, for they say the rains lay it 
bare, and that they find a good deal.  
This remark was taken by the editors of Alvares' book to mean that gold was actually 
washed out of the soil; it is, however, much more likely to refer to the finding of go ld 
coins and other items in the earth, something still not infrequent at Aksum after the rains. 
Alvares also describes the now-disappeared western church of St. Michael with a `tower 
of very fine masonry' and the two shrines of Abba Liqanos and Abba Pantelewon.  
Illustration 19a. The title page of Telles' 1660 Historia de Ethiopia a alta after d'Almeida; 
some attempt has been made to `Ethiopianise' the figure of the king and his courtiers.  



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