Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Kings who came to Bethlehem). A tomb is attributed to him in the south-eastern 
necropolis of Aksum, at the entrance to the modern town on the Adwa road. Near the 
cathedral is a stone on which is written in Ge`ez `This is the sepulchral stone of Bazen', 
but when this inscription was actually carved is unknown (Littmann 1913: IV, 49); 
evidently after the arrival of Christianity in Ethiopia, since it begins and ends with a 
cross. Two rulers preeminent in Ethiopian tradition were Abreha and Atsbeha (
Ch. 10: 3
), 
brothers who are said to have ruled jointly. They were converted to Christianity by the 
missionary Frumentius, and their example was eventually followed by the entire nation. 
Another hero in Aksumite legend was king Kaleb, also called Ella Atsbeha (
Ch. 4: 7
). He 
was regarded as a great conqueror and Christian hero whose expedition to suppress the 
persecution of his co-religionists in the Yemen by the Jewish king there caused his name 
to be famous throughout the Christian world. He is recognised as a saint in several church 
calendars. Two sons of Kaleb, called Gabra Masqal and Israel, are said to have succeeded 
him, and their rule is supposed to have encompassed both the physical and the spiritual 
worlds. Local legend in Aksum attributes an unusual double tomb structure to Gabra 
Masqal and his father Kaleb (Littmann 1913: II, 127ff); but Gabra Masqal is also 
supposed to be buried at his monastic foundation, Dabra Damo, to the north-east of 
Aksum. Finally among the legendary accounts come Degnajan, Anbessa Wedem and Dil 
Na'od, the kings in whose reigns, according to tradition, the collapse of Aksum 
eventually occurred (Sergew 1972, 203ff). It seems that in reality the stories about these 
three rulers refer to a time after Aksum had ceased to be the capital, and the traditions, 
interestingly, associate all of these theoretical `kings of Aksum' with activities in Shewa, 
Amhara, and other southern regions, even mentioning details implying a shift of the 
capital.  
Much of this legendary literature is, of course, based very broadly on actual events and 
personalities. The story of Kaleb's conquest of the Yemen is at least a genuine historical 
occurrence (
Ch. 4: 7
), and, although there seem to be various distortions, the main theme 
of the conversion of the kingdom to Christianity by Frumentius also has independent 
historical confirmation (
Ch. 10: 2
). When more information is available about Ethiopian 
history in the period of Aksum's zenith and decline, it is very probable that the reality 
behind many other legends will be decoded into more prosaic form.  
Legendary accounts for the fifth century are particularly rich, since it was then that the 
so-called Nine Saints (Sergew 1972, 115ff) and other foreign missionaries arrived in 
Ethiopia. Some of these would appear to have been Roman subjects from the Syrian 
provinces, probably seeking safe exile from the persecutions suffered by followers of the 
monophysite interpretation of the nature of Christ. They settled in various districts of the 
Aksumite kingdom, and began, it seems, the real Christianisation of the Ethiopian 
countryside population as apart from the official, royal, conversion of the fourth century
whose influence was no doubt somewhat limited. Around the missionaries' work a large 
and fascinating cycle of legends, full of miraculous happenings, developed, and is 
reported by the various gadlan (`lives', literally `struggles') of the saints. Their arrival and 
activities are set in the reigns of the fifth and sixth century kings Sa`aldoba, Ella Amida, 
Tazena, Kaleb and Gabra Masqal. The legendary accounts certainly contain elements of 
truth, and it seems that the missionaries who worked to convert the Aksumite population 


left traces of themselves in the Ge`ez language itself, since they used certain 
Aramaic/Syriac words in their translation of the Bible which remained in use ever 
afterwards (Ullendorff 1967).  
One of the stories related about the end of Aksum, the tale of the foreign queen, called 
Gudit, Jud ith or Esato, seems also to have actual relevance to Ethiopian history in the last 
half of the tenth century. Gudit is said to have attacked the Aksumite kingdom, and 
driven the king out. Her armies harried the royal forces, destroying cities and churches as 
they went, and collecting plunder on a large scale. In Aksum they are said to have caused 
immense destruction, damaging the cathedral, smashing the altars, and even toppling 
some of the great stelae. Certain Arab historians corroborate parts of the tale ; one, Ibn 
Hawqal, (Kramers and Weit 1964) states that, in the later tenth century, a foreign queen 
was able to take over the country, eventually killing the king. Another simply notes that a 
Yemeni king, sending a gift to the king of Iraq, included a fema le zebra previously sent to 
him by a queen who ruled over Habasha (Abyssinia), dating this event to AD969-70 (el-
Chennafi 1976). The History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria preserves a letter from an 
unnamed Ethiopian king to George (Girgis) II of Nubia, in which the king, attacked by 
the `Queen of the Bani al-Hamwiyya', bemoans his fate, attributing his distress to a rift 
between the monarchy and the patriarchate, and begs the Nubian king to intercede for 
him with the Alexandrian patriarch (Atiya et al. 1948, 171-2; Budge, 1928ii: I, 233-4). 
Though the origin of this queen is obscure, it is possible that she was ruler of one of the 
pagan kingdoms to the south, such as Damot.  
The Portuguese father Francisco Alvares, whose book on Ethiopia was written by 1540 
(Beckingham and Huntingford 1961), reported that Aksum (which he calls "a very good 
[big] town named Aquaxumo") . . . "was the city, court and residence (as they say) of the 
Queen Saba [whose own name was Maqueda]" . . . He also wrote that "Aquaxumo was 
the principal residence of Queen Candace (the title of the queens of the ancient Sudanese 
kingdom of Kush or Kasu, whose capital was Meroë), [whose personal name was 
Giudich] (Judith or Gudit), who was the beginning of the country's being Christian . . . 
they say that here was fulfilled the prophecy which David spoke "Ethiopia shall arise, 
and stretch forth her hands to God"  (Psalm lxviii. 31). So they say they were the first 
Christians in the world". Alvares has conflated the pagan/Jewish queen Judith with 
Candace (Kandake) the `queen of the Ethiopians', whose eunuch treasurer was converted 
to Christianity by the apostle Philip (Acts, ch. 8), and whom the Ethiopians claim was 
actually a ruler of Ethiopia rather than of Meroë; in such ways do the legends grow more 
and more confused. Alvares also mentions the "large and handsome tower . . . a royal 
affair, all of well hewn stone" (the pre-Aksumite Sabaean temple at Yeha, 
Ch. 4: 1
), as 
another edifice which "belonged to Candace".  
Ethiopian Christian chroniclers have sought to connect their country with several other 
events and prophecies mentioned in the Bible. The kingdom was referred to in ancient 
documents as `Aksum' or the country `of the Aksumites', after the capital city and the 
ruling tribal group or clan. The people, or perhaps a group of peoples including the 
`Aksumites', were also called `Habasha', and the name for the ir country, Habashat, is that 
from which we derive the now out-of- fashion name `Abyssinia'. However, already by the 



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