Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Christians by the recently emerged Jewish ruler, Yusuf Asar, though interference with 
foreign traders, and perhaps fears of a new pro-Persian policy in Arabia, may have been 
strong incentives for Aksum, with Constantinople in the background, to interfere. The 
invasion succeeded, and Kaleb appointed a new ruler. However, Aksum does not seem to 
have been able to maintain its overseas conquests, and a military coup soon deposed 
Kaleb's client king, who was replaced by a certain Abreha. The latter maintained himself 
against subsequent Aksumite invasion forces, and is said by the contemporary historian 
Procopius to have come to terms with Kaleb's successor.  
In any event, as the sixth and seventh centuries progressed Aksum's position grew more 
difficult. The independence of the Yemen was followed by its conquest by Persia during 
the reign of the Sassanian king Khusro I (531-579), and further Persian disruption of the 
Roman east followed with the conquest of Syria and Egypt under Khusro II. This seems 
to have dried up some of Aksum's flow of trade, and the kingdom's expansionist days 
were over. Arab conquests followed in the mid-seventh century, and the whole economic 
system which had maintained Aksum's prosperity came to an end. Christian Ethiopia 
retained its control of the highlands, but seems to have turned away from the sea in the 
centuries after the advent of Islam and begun to look more southwards than eastwards 
during the following centuries.  
The centre of the kingdom being moved from Aksum, the city became a politically 
unimportant backwater (
Ch. 15
). In the archaeological excavations conducted there (
Ch. 
16
), nothing significant was found in the tombs or buildings which could certainly be 
attributed to a later date, and it seems that by about 630 the town had been abandoned as 
a capital, although it continued on a much reduced scale as a religious centre and 
occasional coronation place for later dynasties. The large residences in the town were 
first occupied or built around by squatters, in some cases, apparently, even during the 
reigns of the last coin- issuing kings, then gradually covered by material brought down by 
run-off from the deforested hills. The exha usted state of the land, and climatic changes 
(
Ch. 15
) combined with a number of other factors must have compelled the rulers finally 
to shift their capital elsewhere. Ge`ez accounts suggest that the najashi (negus or king) 
whose death is noted by Arab records in 630, and who was a contemporary with 
Muhammad, had already done this. He is said to have been buried at Weqro (Wiqro, 
Wuqro) south-east of Aksum rather than in the ancient royal cemetery. The names of 
other Ethiopian capitals begin to be mentioned by Arab authors from about this time (
Ch. 
4: 8
).  
It seems, therefore, that the city of Aksum probably lasted as an important centre from 
about the first to the seventh centuries AD. The wealth it gained from its control of much 
of highland Ethiopia, and its rich trade with the Roman world maintained it until the late 
sixth century, but after that first Persian and then later Arab conquests first disrupted this 
commerce and then prevented any re-establishment of the Red Sea route from Adulis to 
the Roman world. Though a powerful Ethiopian state continued in the highlands, the old 
centre of Aksum, its trading advantages gone, and its hinterland no longer able to support 
a large population, shrank to small town or village status, with only the particularly 


sacred precincts of the cathedral of Mary of Zion, the stelae, mostly fallen, and a vast 
store of local legends about its history (
Ch. 2: 1
) to preserve its memory.  
  
  
2. Legend, Literature, and Archaeological Discovery 
 
  
1. The Legends of Aksum 
 
The town of Aksum is today only a small district centre, not even the capital of the 
northern Ethiopian province of Tigray in which it is situated. However, despite this 
relative unimportance in modern times, Aksum's past position is reflected by the prime 
place it occupies in the fabric of legends which make up traditional Ethiopian history. For 
the people of Ethiopia, it is even now regarded as the ancient residence and capital city of 
the queen of Sheba, the second Jerusalem, and the resting place of the Ark of the 
Covenant. One text calls the city the `royal throne of the kings of Zion, mother of all 
lands, pride of the entire universe, jewel of kings' (Levine 1974: 111). The cathedral of 
Maryam Tseyon, or Mary of Zion, called Gabaza Aksum, was the holiest place in the 
Ethiopian Christian kingdom, and is still said to house the Ark, supposedly brought from 
Jerusalem by the first emperor, Menelik. Tradition says that he was the son of king 
Solomon of Israel and the queen of Sheba conceived during the queen's famous visit to 
Jerusalem. Although no information survives in the legends about the ancient Aksumite 
rulers who really built the palaces and erected the giant stone obelisks or stelae which 
still stand in several places around the town, these monuments are locally attributed in 
many instances to Menelik or to Makeda, the queen of Sheba or queen of Azab (the 
South). Such legends are still a living force at Aksum today; for example, the mansion 
recently excavated in the district of Dungur, west of Aksum, has immediately been 
absorbed into local legends as the `palace of the queen of Sheba' (Chittick 1974: 192, n. 
28).  
Illustration 1. Painted miniature from a XVth century Ethiopic Psalter depicting king 
Solomon, reputed ancestor of the Ethiopian monarchy. Photo B. Juel-Jensen.  
In the tales describing life in Ethiopia before the reign of the queen of Sheba, Aksum 
holds an important place. A tale about a local saint, Marqorewos, states that Aksum was 
formerly called Atsabo (Conti Rossini 1904: 32). The Matshafa Aksum, or `Book of 
Aksum' (Conti Rossini 1910: 3; Beckingham and Huntingford 1961: 521ff), a short Ge`ez 
(Ethiopic) work of the seventeenth century or a little earlier, says that the town was 
formerly built at Mazeber (`ruin') where was the tomb of Ityopis (Ethiopis), son of Kush, 
son of Ham, son of Noah. A structure called the `tomb of Ethiopis' (Littmann 1913: II, 



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