Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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reputed to have been told by `Aisha, one of the prophet's wives. The future najashi was 
apparently the only son of his father and predecessor, who was murdered by certain 
Abyssinians in order to give the throne to his brother, who had twelve sons to guarantee 
the succession. He grew up and found favour with his uncle the new king, but the 
Abyssinians, frightened that he might yet become the next najashi, insisted on his exile. 
At this point the story becomes a little more embroidered; the future najashi is said to 
have been sold to a merchant, the reigning king to have been struck by lightning, and the 
twelve sons to have turned out to be too foolish to succeed. Inevitably, the najashi had to 
be brought back and finally triumphed. However unlikely some parts of this tale might 
seem, the assumption that the succession must rest in a certain family is interesting. The 
Chinese account of the life of Muhammad (Mason 1921) noted above (
Ch. 4: 7
), claims 
that the ruler whose accession to the Ethiopian throne occurred in c577 was the grandson 
of a certain `great king', and that he was in due course succeeded by his own grandson, 
thus suggesting a descent in the same family for five generations without excluding the 
possible succession of brothers.  
5. The Royal Titles 
 
The formal protocol of the Aksumite kings on their inscriptions is interesting both as an 
indication of which titles the Aksumite rulers decided, for one reason or another, to 
adopt, and as a guide to the official version of the kingdom's status at different periods. 
However, so far we only know the form of the titulary from widely separated instances, 
in the inscriptions of Ezana, Kaleb and Wa`zeb (see 
Ch. 11: 5
). Ezana's titles are, on his 
pagan inscription in Greek, (DAE 4), `Aeizanas, king of the Aksumites, the Himyarites, 
Raeidan, the Ethiopians, the Sabaeans, Silei (Salhen), Tiyamo, the Beja, and Kasou, king 
of kings, son of the unconquered Ares'. The version written in the Epigraphic South 
Arabian script (DAE 6) reads in the order Aksum, Himyar, Raydan, Habashat, Saba, 
Salhen, Tsiyamo, Kasu, and the Beja, and the Ge`ez version (DAE 7) reads Aksum, 
Himyar, Kasu, Saba, Habashat, Raydan, Salhen, Siyamo, Beja; both of these add the 
phrase `king of kings, son of the unconquered Mahrem'. There does not seem to be any 
particular anxiety over the order of the states mentioned, nor is precedence always given 
to Arabian or African names; however, the general outline of the majority of the 
inscriptional titularies seems to prescribe Aksum, Arabia and Africa in that order. On 
Ezana's other inscriptions he gives the filiation Ella Amida, and the title Bisi Halen, or 
Alene, and mentions that he is the son of Ares/Mahrem or, in the case of his Christian 
inscription, the servant of Christ. The inscription DAE 8 may not be of Ezana (to whom it 
was attributed by Littmann) but of his predecessor, possibly Ousanas. It appears to read 
`[Ousanas?] Ella Amida, Bisi [Gi]sene . . .' but this reading cannot at present be checked; 
the order of the countries following is the same as in DAE 4 but omits Habashat.  
The next inscriptions preserved date from over 150 years later. Kaleb's inscription gives 
the protocol `Kaleb Ella Atsbeha, son of Tazena, Bisi Lazen, king of Aksum, Himyar, Dhu 
Raydan, Saba, Salhen, the High Country and Yamanat, the Coastal Plain, Hadhramawt, 
and all their Arabs, the Beja, Noba, Kasu, Siyamo, DRBT . . . and the land of ATFY(?), 


servant of Christ'. The South Arabian section of this is exactly that expanded form 
adopted in the later fourth century by Abukarib As`ad and employed by his successors in 
the region, including the Ethiopian usurper Abreha himself. The inscription of Wa`zeb 
more modestly only names Aksum, Himyar, Dhu Raydan, Saba, Salaf (Salhen), Beja, 
Kasu, Tsiyamo, WYTG. Wa`zeb also calls himself `son of Ella Atsbeha, Bisi Hadefan', 
and `servant of Christ'. His titulary thus reverts to the older form employed by Ezana 
(and out of use in Arabia even at that time) for the overseas section, abandoning his 
father's more elaborate Arabian claims.  
The titulary of an Aksumite king therefore consisted of several separate elements; the 
personal name, the `Ella'-name, the `Bisi' -name, a real or divine filiation, certain epithets, 
and then the enumeration of territories.  
The personal name is often, in the case of the Christian kings, a biblical name. Apart 
from Kaleb, these are only known from the coinage.  
The name preceded by `Ella', meaning `he who . . .' is an epithet, probably employed after 
the king's accession or coronation as his reign title or throne name. Kaleb's name Ella 
Atsbeha, for example, means `he who brought forth the dawn'. Ezana's `Ella'-name is 
unknown; possibly he could have used one or more, giving rise to the legend of `Abreha 
and Atsbeha' as the rulers of Ethiopia in Frumentius' time. Such throne names might have 
been changed at times by kings anxious to commemorate some special feature of their 
reign. The `Bisi' element, meaning `man of . . .' may refer to a clan division in the royal 
family, or possibly to a military regiment with which he was especially connected. 
Among regimental names mentioned in the inscriptions there are a few which resemble 
the `Bisi' names of one or other of the kings. The `Bisi'-title is not available for all the 
kings, but is attested from Endubis to Wa`zeb, a period of over two hundred and fifty 
years, and later for Lalibela. These are the known examples; 
    Endubis Bisi Dakhu. 
    Aphilas Bisi Dimele. 
    WZB B'SY ZGLY (Zagalay?). 
    Ousanas Bisi Gisene. 
    Ezana Bisi Alene, Alen, or Halen. 
    Eon Bisi Anaaph. 
    KLB . . . B'S LZN (Lazen?). 
    W`ZB B'S HDFN (Hadefan?). 
    Lalibela be'esi `azzal (but see below). 
François de Blois has recently (1984) proposed a credible solution to the problem of the 
`Bisi' -title. He suggests that the clan system in ancient Aksum was matrilineal, and thus 
each successive ruler bore his mother's clan- name. These clans were also the basis of the 
military organisation, hence the coincidence of certain `Bisi' names with certain regiment 
names.  
All the kings known from inscriptions give their patronymic or filiation, and Kaleb does 
so on his coins as well. The custom was probably a usual one in Ethiopian society of the 
time, and is found also used in the inscriptions of the hatseni Danael, son of Dabra Ferem 



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