Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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palace (1979: 141) of Ta`akha Maryam is probably an error for the number of stepped 
shelves which constituted the building's podium (Schneider 1984: 165).  
Some of these structures were of very considerable size; Ta`akha Maryam measured 120 
× 80 m, and its pavilion, at c. 24 × 24 m was the smallest of the three the German 
expedition cleared; if the other two were in proportion their overall size must have been 
very large indeed. Ta`akha Maryam thus covered around six times the total area of the 
more-or-less contemporary palace and portico of the kings of the Hadhramawt recently 
excavated (Breton 1987) at their capital of Shabwa, and, as a single architectural concept 
rather than an agglomeration of buildings, was larger than many European palaces 
(excluding such monumental constructions as the Roman and Byzantine Great Palaces) 
until the erection of such buildings as Hampton Court. Kosmas, when speaking of Kaleb's 
palace, sometimes simply refers to it as the royal dwelling, but on other occasions uses 
the latin word palatium, surely in recognition of its particular splendour (Wolska-Conus 
1973: 321, n. 4.3).  
Illustration 23. A column base from Aksum, possibly originally from the peristyle in the 
centre of the south wing of Ta`akha Maryam palace.  
Illustration 24. At the ma nsion of Dungur, some of the basement rooms contained rough 
stone supports, perhaps for wooden columns.  
The central pavilion at Ta`akha Maryam contained nine rooms, two of which were 
probably simply staircase-wells for access to the upper storey. The largest room was 7 × 
6 m, and others measured 5 × 5 m, 7 × 4 m and 6 × 5 m. All had their roofs supported by 
two, three or four columns, and some had carefully flagged floors. In the south wing was 
a central peristyle with octagonal column-bases, and leading to the north corner-buildings 
were four-columned porticoes with elaborate floral column bases. The central pavilion of 
Enda Mikael measured 27 × 27 m with 10 rooms, following the same pattern as Ta`akha 
Maryam but with the central room divided into two. Room sizes were 6 × 6 m, 4 × 10 m, 
5 × 9 m, and 3 × 9 m, with emplacements for four, eight or nine columns. The most 
substantial pavilion found to date was that in Enda Sem`on, 35 m square, with two 
enormous halls, each with twenty-eight column emplacements and measuring some 19 × 
10 m; impressive dimensions, but needing more and more roof-support as the room sizes 
grew more ambitious, which must have resulted in a rather crowded effect. The lack of 
stone columns, commoner in the eastern Aksumite sites (Anfray 1974: 747), suggests that 
carved wooden ones were used, perhaps resting on rough stone pedestals as at Dungur, in 
some of the Matara buildings, and in some rooms excavated at Adulis (where they were 
capped with discs of basalt). These descriptions rest ma inly on the published plans of the 
Deutsche Aksum- Expedition, which depend in parts on their assumption, probably 
correct as far as subsequent excavation has shown, that most buildings were more or less 
symmetrically arranged (see for example the plans in  Littmann 1913: II, taf. XVII-XIX).  
Anfray (1974: 762) suggested that the idea for such buildings ultimately derived from 
north Syria, and thought that `un certain caractère de sobriété, de rigidité, de rationalité 
même dans cette architecture axoumite . . . paraît d'inspiration romaine'. Whilst this may 


be partly true, a good deal of the inspiration might equally be derived from earlier local 
examples; the Yeha temple could hardly be plainer or more simple.  
The architecture of the Aksumite élite residences should tell us something about the 
intentions and the character of the people who had them built, but this is in reality hard to 
interpret. The massiveness and solidity of the structures, and their simplicity and 
plainness, do indeed impress at first, but here we may well be missing such decorative 
elements as carved wooden columns, capitals and screens, and interior painting on 
plaster. Though in most Aksumite sites very few fragments of anything like elaborate 
carved stone or plaster-work have come to light as yet, churches in Tigray and Lalibela 
exhibit a rich selection of (albeit somewhat later) decorative elements (Plant 1985; 
Gerster 1970). These include painting on walls and ceilings, imaginative designs for 
windows, carved friezes, and carved wooden roof panels — some decorative woodwork 
survives at Dabra Damo, of uncertain date, and conceivably coming originally from a 
palace (Gerster 1970: 73). Some of this may well have been of Aksumite origin.  
At Adulis, where perhaps more foreign influences might be expected, Paribeni (1907, loc. 
var.) found several examples of carved marble or basalt panels and decorative elements 
for affixing to walls, and carved architectural features such as acanthus or lotus capitals, 
or alabaster or limestone reliefs with formal floral designs or intertwined (vine?) leaves 
and branches; one also depicted a bird, possibly a peacock. Paribeni also found 
decorative marble colonnettes for framing screens — though these seem to have been 
imported ready- made from the eastern Mediterranean region, like those from an Adulite 
church excavated by the British in 1868 (Munro-Hay 1989i). He even found traces of 
lines, bands and leaves painted in red and brown on plaster in one house at Adulis. Most 
unusual among Paribeni's discoveries were plaques of a black schist, carved with shapes 
resembling oak leaves, which were cut in such a way as to accommodate metal inlay. At 
Aksum, the largest stele makes one concession to decoration with its filigree window-
screens of superimposed stepped crosses under arches on the top storeys, perhaps 
modelled on something like the alabaster screens found until today in Yemeni houses. 
Constructional details like the beam-ends seem to have been left plain and visible. The 
churches of Lalibela, and others in Tigray, are nevertheless quite restrained where the 
architecture is concerned, however elaborate their interior paintings might be. As noted 
above, in the pavilions, smallish rooms, or larger halls thronged with columns, were a 
necessity given the limited means of spanning spaces, but the inevitable rather cramped 
feeling may have been largely offset by the use of open porticoes and wide courtyards.  
A taste for the dramatic and the exclusive can perhaps be read into the appearance of the 
central pavilions in these courts, raised high on their podia, isolated by the courtyards 
surrounding them, and approached by massive flights of usually about seven steps. Such 
a design may be an expression of the special position of the rulers translated into 
architectural terms. There may have been an intention to isolate the pavilions as a 
convenience for security, but although the whole ensemble of pavilion, courtyards, and 
outer ranges was evidently to some extent defensible, that does not seem to have been a 
primary consideration. The Aksumites could surely, had they wished, have made stronger 
fortresses than these.  



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