Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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inscribed with a selection of different names. Very probably the Aksumite rulers adopted 
their throne- names in the course of similar coronation ceremonies.  
In addition, certain other ceremonies are mentioned, such as the leading in of a lion and a 
buffalo for the king to kill (Zara Ya`qob set his lion free, and his son Baeda Maryam did 
the same — though not at Aksum, but at Jejeno in Amhara, during a tonsuring ceremony 
— getting someone else to kill the buffalo). This doubtless theoretically served as a test 
of the strength of the king, harking back to beliefs in the identity of ruler and state; a 
strong ruler could protect his country against outside foes. Another ceremony involved 
the use of milk, mead, wine and water in an anointing ritual.  
Among the Portuguese visitors to Ethiopia, both Paez and de Almeida devoted some 
space to the coronation ceremonies, using information derived not only from 
contemporary coronatio ns, but also from the Kebra Nagast, the `Glory of Kings', the 
oldest surviving collection of traditions in Ethiopia, probably codified at the end of the 
thirteenth century. The following description comes from Chapter XXII of de Almeida's 
book (Beckingham and Huntingford 1954: 92ff);  
"How the Emperors are crowned in this place.  
This is the way in which the Emperor is crowned here. He arrives at Acçum and encamps 
in a very big meadow there. When the coronation day arrives he orders his army to be 
arrayed so that everyone should accompany him with the proper ceremony. The infantry 
goes in front, divided into different squadrons, the cavalry comes behind them, and the 
Emperor at the end, accompanied by the greatest lords . . . in their richest and best 
clothes. . . . He approaches this place on the eastern side, and reaches the stone which . . 
. has an inscription"  
(according to the chronicle of Sartsa Dengel, "the name of this place is Mebtaka Fatl, 
cutting of the cord"; (Conti Rossini 1907: 89; also de Villard 1938: 63)  
"Here the Abuna and all the clergy were awaiting him . . . the grandees dismount and 
range themselves in two rows . . . leaving a wide path between which is covered with 
large, rich carpets. The Emperor too dismounts and walks over the carpets but is met and 
stopped by three maidens whom they call maidens of Zion"  
(here follows the ritual of the challenges to the emperor and the final cutting of the cord, 
and, according to Sartsa Dengel's chronicle, musical instruments were sounded, above all 
the royal drum  Deb Anbasa, `Hyena and Lion'.)  
"The Emperor scatters on the carpets many grains of gold which are picked up by those 
to whom this privilege belongs by ancient custom.  
The first enclosure of the church is the one in which . . . are some seats which were 
formerly, and still at the time when Father Alvares came to this country, twelve very well-
made stone chairs, as he recounts in his book. Today there are no chairs and the bases or 
pedestals on which they stood are not as many. The four columns that I mentioned above 
(see 
Ch. 5: 3
) seem formerly to have supported a vault. In the centre of them they 
decorate two pedestals with rich cloths and handsome chairs and the ground at the foot 


is carpeted. The Emperor sits here on one of the two chairs, the Abuna on the other. At 
the sides twelve dignitaries, some ecclesiastical, some secular, take their places, six on 
the right, six on the left. I shall describe them in the exact words of the book of these 
ceremonies that is kept in the same church at Acçum".  
(here follows an account from the Kebra Nagast of the officials bringing oil in a gold box 
for the anointing, holy water, a stick with a silk cord for keeping the people at a distance, 
the state umbrella, `wild and domestic animals that can be eaten', fruits and edible seeds, 
milk, wine, water, mead, herbs, and perfumes, as well as the altar stone, the royal horse, 
and the royal mule. There were also brought in varieties of antelopes, a buffalo, a wild 
goat, and a lion, offerings from various districts. Songs, some in praise of the king, were 
chanted — apparently an innovation which Yared recommended to king Gabra Masqal in 
the sixth century — and readings from the Old and New  Testaments followed.)  
"Then the people present go once round the place where the royal chair is, and throw 
flowers and perfumes upon it . . . a lion and a buffalo are at hand, tied to columns; the 
king strikes the lion with his lance; then they release the other animals, tame and wild, 
and all the birds. The people of the camp kill all those they can catch for a feast.  
As the king comes to the place where his chair is he throws gold on the carpets. When he 
sits down they bring two plates of gold and two of silver. On the gold plates are milk and 
honey wine, on the silver water and grape wine. Then they anoint the king in accordance 
with custom, sprinkle all the ceremonial objects with water they have from the river 
Jordan, and cut the hair of the king's head as for clergy in the first tonsure. The clergy 
take up the hairs, the deacons continue to sing at the altar stone with lighted candles and 
the clergy cense with their thuribles. After going once round the place where the royal 
chair is, as though in procession, they go towards a stone which stands at the door of the 
church of Sion, called Meidanita Neguestat, i.e. protector of the Kings. They put the hairs 
on it and light them from the thuribles. . .".  
(Finally the ecclesiastics and the abun blessed the king after he had been into the church, 
and the ceremony was at an end).  
This description of the mediaeval ritual of coronation in Ethiopia shows that a number of 
different strands were woven into the fabric of the ceremony. Doubtless some of these 
hark back to Aksumite times and pre-Christian observances. Some of these rituals may 
have originated in fertility rites, or were designed to affirm the king's strength, often 
traditionally connected with the well-being of the country he rules. The killing of wild 
beasts may be a survival from a royal hunt in which the king's courage and force could be 
demonstrated; if so, it appears to have been much watered-down in later times. Certain 
aspects of the ceremonies do have a Christian flavour, but others, like the burning of the 
hair, seem designed as protective rites. The scattering of gold shows the king as a 
dispenser of wealth, and the presentation of various wild animals not only gives the king 
the chance to release them in a merciful gesture (also benefiting the people who catch and 
eat them), but affirms his control of the different provinces whose special tribute they are. 
The donation to the king of agricultural products perhaps symbolises the tribute due to 
him, and also reinforces his position as ruler and dispenser, and alludes to his rôle in 



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