Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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decorations, bearer of the royal umbrella, administrator of the palace, chief of the royal 
workmen), and the judges of the palace and the assembly. A number of other titles occur 
in documents or copies of documents from the Zagwé and later periods (
Ch. 7: 2
). Whilst 
a good deal of this reflects the later administrative structure of the kingdom, such 
officials are to be expected earlier, though we have no actual proof of their existence 
from the Aksumite period.  
7. The Monarchy 
 
1. The King and the State 
 
It appears that to all intents and purposes, the Aksumite king was himself the 
embodiment of the state. This is emphasised on the coinage (see 
Ch. 9
) where the image 
of the king appears on both the obverse and the reverse of the gold coins accompanied by 
his name and the title `king of the Aksumites'. This sort of concentration on the king is 
most unusual, other coinages generally showing some symbolic representation of the 
state such as the image of Roma or specially chosen gods and goddesses, national 
symbols, or certain heraldic animals or birds. The only symbols permitted by the 
Aksumite kings to share their prominent position on the coins were the disc and crescent 
in pre-Christian times, and the cross after the conversion, unless the wheat or barley-
stalks which appear on all gold coins and on some bronzes (Munro-Hay 1984i) may be 
regarded as some sort of badge representing the state.  
In the pre-Christian period the king was considered to be the son of Mahrem, who was 
identified with Ares, the Greek god of battles. He was probably the special dynastic or 
tribal god of the Aksumites. This relationship would have enhanced the kings' position in 
the eyes of his subjects, raising him to a quasi-divinity which set him in a special 
category, apart from and above all other men. The Aksumite royal inscriptions emphasise 
the king as a dynamic figure, son of a deity, member of one of the Aksumite cla ns (see 
below, the `Bisi'-title), the leader of his people as war-hero and conqueror, but also as 
judge and lawgiver.  
It has been suggested that the title negus or nagashi originally denoted an official who 
was little more than a tax- gatherer for Sabaean colonial rulers. However, the whole 
concept of the Sabaean period in Ethiopia is now generally altered (
Ch. 4: 1
), and it 
seems that there was a true Ethiopian kingship as early as the time of the mukarribs of 
D`MT and Saba (Drewes 1962; Schneider 1976i). The connecting links between these 
early rulers and the Aksumite kings are unfortunately missing from the archaeological 
record.  
The pivotal position of the Aksumite king in the machinery of government must have 
meant that the personality of each individual who occupied the office had a strong 


influence on the character of the reign. There are very few glimpses of anything so 
personal; but we may perhaps suggest that Zoskales' interest in commercial profit and 
Greek literature, Ezana's predilection for military exercises and his qualities as a leader in 
war, and Kaleb's religious bent, do at least give some hints as to individual rulers' 
concerns.  
2. The Regalia 
 
The kingship was thus of a sacred or semi-sacred character (for a study of this aspect in 
later times see Caquot 1957). On the coins the reigning monarch is depicted equipped 
with a regalia formed from various insignia whose significance is in some cases obvious, 
and in others obscure. The majority of the gold coins show the king wearing a 
magnificent tiara or arcaded crown on the obverse, and what seems to be a headcloth tied 
with a ribbon at the back on the reverse. From the presence of the same ribbon on the 
obverse as well, it may be inferred that this headcloth was also worn under the tiara. The 
headcloth (if it is so to be identified) is always shown with three gently curving lines 
radiating from a point at the king's forehead, possibly stretch- lines of the cloth, or 
possibly some sort of decoration, like an aigrette. It could be that the headcloth owes 
something to Meroitic antecedents, as some of the Meroitic kings are represented wearing 
a similar head-covering in their temple or tomb reliefs.  
 
Illustration 40. The Aksumite tiara and other items of regalia as seen on a drawing of a 
gold coin (d. 17mm) of king Ousanas.  
The tiara was not shown by king Endubis on his coins, which have only the headcloth on 
both obverse and reverse; but it does appear on the coins of Aphilas. Possibly, then, 
Aphilas was the first king for whom this elaborate tiara was made, though it may well 
have been in use considerably earlier. The earliest representations show it as consisting of 
an arcade of three arches separated by columns with bases and capitals (see drawings in 
Munro-Hay 1984). Surmounting this are four slender oval elements capped with discs, 
alternating with thin spikes. Such a crown is unique in contemporary iconography, and 
was doubtless an Aksumite invention based on a number of combined influences. The 
Roman radiate crown, the variety of complex headdresses of Egyptian type worn by the 


Meroitic kings, the Indian Kushan dynasty's crowns, or the tiaras and mural crowns of 
more or less contemporary Sassanian rulers of Persia like Ardashir I or Shapur I may 
have contributed to both the design and, more important, the idea of using such crowns. 
Perhaps most interesting of all, the style of the neighbouring Meroitic rulers' crowns was 
bequeathed to the so-called X- group rulers of Nubia, probably the same Noba who were 
in close proximity to, and sometimes vassals of, the Aksumite kingdom; and some of 
their crowns, in silver richly studded with carnelians, have actually been found on the 
skeletons of the rulers at their tombs at Ballana (Kirwan 1963: 62). We can thus show 
that the idea of these ornate crowns has very strong contemporary African parallels. It 
may yet be possible that one or more of the tombs at Aksum, whose excavation has only 
been briefly commenced, contains an example of the Aksumite tiara. A recent article by 
Bent Juel-Jensen (1989) notes some survivals of Aksumite royal headgear in illustrations 
in much later Ethiopian manuscripts.  
As the Aksumite dynasty continued, the depiction of the crown grew simpler; the oval 
elements were reduced to three, and an arcade- less version appears, sometimes with a 
cross in the centre. Presumably the crown was at least partially made of metal, perhaps 
gold, or silver like the `X-Group' crowns noted above. The crown and royal robes Kaleb 
is said to have sent to Jerusalem are supposed to have been valuable items; but the story 
only survives in a late record (Budge 1928: III, 914).  
The idea has been advanced that the tiara was worn by the Aksumite king in his capacity 
of `king of kings', whilst the headcloth would indicate his position as the `king of the 
Aksumites' only. Alternatively, the two representations might indicate the rôle of the king 
in the different capacities of warlord or giver of peace (Munro-Hay 1978: 44; Anzani 
1926: 22). An inlaid halo of gold surrounds the royal portrait on some silver and bronze 
coins, even in the Christian period, giving the portrait special prominence; on other coins 
the king's crown is gilded, but otherwise this honour is only shared by the cross.  
Illustration 41. A silver coin (d. 12mm) of king Aphilas of Aksum, showing the inlaid 
halo of gold around the king's head.  
In his hands the king holds a sword (rarely) or, more usually, a spear, sceptre, or short 
baton. In the fifth century the characteristic hand-cross appears. On the reverse of many 
gold coins the king carries an unusual object, possibly a fly-whisk or alternatively (or still 
as a fly-whisk) some sort of branch with berries. Some of the best examples show five 
branches or filaments, each with a little dot at the end. In a land-grant of the Zagwé king 
Lalibela's time (1225) the title of aqabe tsentsen, keeper of the fly-whisks, occurs 
(Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 36), and in the later account of Zara Ya`qob's 
coronation, the nebura-ed of Aksum and the Tigray makonnen are mentioned as standing 
to left and right on the king's entry into Aksum waving olive-branches as fly- whisks; very 
evocative of this item of Aksumite regalia.  
The kings are shown on their coins elaborately robed, at first in what seems to be a 
round- necked overgarment covering an under-robe, leaving the arms free. Sometimes 
what appear to be fringes are shown. Later, with the more frequent depiction of the facing 



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