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.