Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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taf. XXVII) is still shown near Aksum, a little to the west of the modern town in an area 
where the ruins of many large structures of the ancient capital still lie buried. Makeda 
next moved the city to the territory called `Aseba, from whence she is said to have gained 
her name queen of Saba (Sheba). The third building of the city is stated to have been 
accomplished by the kings Abreha and Atsbeha (
Ch. 10: 3
). An Arab writer of the 
sixteenth century, describing how the tabot or Ark was removed from the cathedral of 
Aksum to a safe place when the Muslim armies approached, says of Aksum `it is not 
known who built it: some say it was Dhu al-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great). God alone 
knows best'! (from the Futuh al-Habasha, or `History of the Conquest of Abyssinia' by 
Arab-Faqih; de Villard 1938: 61-2).  
Several modern authors (eg. Doresse 1956, 1971; Kitchen 1971) have speculated as to 
whether Tigray or the Ethiopian-Sudanese borderlands, instead of Arabia or the Horn of 
Africa, may have been the legendary `God's Land' of the ancient Egyptians. This land of 
Punt, producer of incense and other exotic treasures, where the pha raohs sent their ships, 
may at least have been one of the regions included at some time in the Aksumites' 
extended kingdom. Egyptian expeditions to Punt are known from as far back as Old 
Kingdom times in Egypt, in the third millenium BC, but the best-known report comes 
from the New Kingdom period, during the reign of queen Hatshepsut, in the fifteenth 
century BC. She was so proud of her great foreign trading expedition that she had 
detailed reliefs of it carved on the walls of her funerary temple at Dayr al- Bahri across the 
Nile from the old Egyptian capital of Thebes. The surviving reliefs show that the region 
was organised even then under chiefly rule, with a population eager to trade the 
recognisably African products of their lands with the visitors. Aksum is still today a 
sorting and distribution centre for the frankincense produced in the region, and it is not 
unlikely that the coastal stations visited by the ancient Egyptians acquired their incense 
from the same sources. Punt is suggested to have been inland from the Sawakin- north 
Eritrean coast (Kitchen 1971; Fattovich 1988, 1989i), and, apart from the great similarity 
of its products with those of the Sudan-Ethiopia border region, an Egyptian hieroglyphic 
text seems to confirm its identity with the Ethiopian highland region by reference to a 
downpour in the land of Punt which caused the Nile to flood (Petrie 1888: p. 107). The 
inscription dates to the twenty-sixth Egyptian dynasty, and knowledge of Punt seems to 
have continued even into the Persian period in Egypt, when king Darius in an inscription 
of 486-5BC mentions, or at least claims, that the Puntites sent tribute (Fattovich 1989ii: 
92). One extremely interesting Egyptian record from an 18th Dynasty tomb at Thebes 
actually shows Puntite trading boats or rafts with triangular sails (Säve-Söderbergh 1946: 
24), for transporting the products of Punt, indicating that the commerce was not 
exclusively Egyptian-carried, and that local Red Sea peoples were already seafaring — or 
at least conveying goods some distance by water (Sleeswyk 1983) — for themselves.  
Returning to more specifically Aksumite matters, the Book of Aksum states that 
Aksumawi, son of Ityopis (Ethiopis), and great-grandson of Noah, was the founder of the 
city, and the names of his descendants (the `fathers of Aksum') gave rise to the various 
district names. His son was Malakya-Aksum, and his grandsons Sum, Nafas, Bagi'o, 
Kuduki, Akhoro and Fasheba (Littmann 1913: I, 38). In other legends (Littmann 1947), it 
is said that once a serpent-king, Arwe or Waynaba, ruled over the land, exacting a tribute 


of a young girl each year. It may be that the tale reflects memory of a serpent-cult in the 
region. Eventually a stranger, Angabo, arrived, and rescued the chosen girl, killing the 
monster at the same time. Angabo was duly elected king by the people, and one of his 
successors was Makeda. Sometimes the legends say that it was Makeda herself who was 
the intended sacrifice and inheritor of the kingdom. The essential element of all this was 
to appropriate for Aksum, one way or another, the legends which referred to the remote 
origins of Ethiopian history. The Englishman Nathaniel Pearce, who lived in Ethiopia in 
the early nineteenth century, related (Pearce 1831) how these stories were still current 
amongst the Ethiopians; `In the evening, while sitting with Ozoro, she told me a number 
of silly tales about Axum, among others a long story about a large snake which ruled the 
country . . . which sometimes resided at Temben, though Axum was the favourite 
residence of the two'. Pearce was later shown what seems to have been a fruit press, but 
which he interpreted as being `made by the ancients to prepare some kind of cement in 
for building'; his Ethiopian friend told him that this had actually been designed as a 
container for the snake's food.  
The origins of these legends hark back to some unknown time after the conversion of the 
kingdom to Christianity in the reign of king Ezana of Aksum in the fourth centur y AD, or 
in some cases perhaps to an even earlier period when some Jewish traditions had entered 
the country. Such legends had their political use in providing pedigrees for national 
institutions. It was believed in later times that the state offices from  the king downwards 
were descended from the company which had brought the Ark to Aksum from Jerusalem 
(Budge 1922: 61). Doubtless the Christian priests, searching for a longer pedigree for 
their religion to impress pagans and unbelievers, would have been interested in 
developing these tales which connected Ethiopia with Solomon and Sheba. The Ethiopian 
kings themselves, anxious to acquire the prestige of ancient and venerable dynastic 
ancestors, could scarcely have hoped for a more august couple as their reputed 
progenitors. Even in the official Ethiopian Constitution, up to the time of the end of the 
reign of emperor Haile Selassie, the dynasty was held to have descended directly from 
Solomon and the queen of Sheba through their mythical son, the emperor Menelik I.  
The real events in Ethiopia's history before the present two millenia are lost in the mists 
of antiquity, but valiant attempts were made by Ethiopian chroniclers to fill in the 
immense gap between the reign of Menelik I and the time of the kings of Aksum. The 
king lists they developed (all those now surviving are of comparatively recent date), 
name a long line of rulers, covering the whole span from Menelik through the Aksumite 
period and on to the later Zagwé and `Solomonic' dynasties (Conti Rossini 1909). There 
is little point in reciting the majority of these names, but some of the most important of 
the reputed successors of Menelik I are worth noting for their importance in Ethiopian 
tradition.  
Illustration 2. Built into one of the walls of the cathedral of Maryam Tseyon at Aksum, 
the so-called Stone of Bazen, surmounted by the Stele of the Lances.  
The legendary king Bazen was supposed to have been reigning at the time of the birth of 
Christ in his eighth year (one modern interpretation even depicts him as one of the Three 



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