Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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be better expressed by the round church plan, though, as the rectangular type also 
continued in use, it may rather be attributed to ease of construction, or perhaps to the 
move southward of the Christian Ethiopian kingdom, where it simply reflected the 
common house-type. Where rock-cut churches are concerned, this architectural 
consideration obviously did not apply; though in fact most rock-cut churches may be 
earlier in date than the period when round churches became common.  
The most splendid surviving built church is that at the monastery of Dabra Damo which 
may even go back to the sixth century, and there are a few other old built churches 
surviving. Of the vast number of rock- hewn churches in Tigray (Plant 1985), some may 
date to Aksumite times, and certainly many have Aksumite architectural features. Some 
of the Aksumite peculiarities of design and structure are also apparent at the rock-cut 
churches of Lalibela, carved and completed at an uncertain date, but usually attributed to 
Zagwé times, long after the end of Aksum (for exceptional pictures of some of these, see 
Gerster 1970).  
A feature of some Aksumite churches was the baptistery. What seems to have been a 
building including a baptistery or similar monument survives at Wuchate Golo, just west 
of Aksum (de Contenson 1961i). The Wuchate Golo structure consisted of a podium 
approached by steps, and surrounded by corridors, on which the main feature was a 
circular cistern paved with a large rounded stone. Small stelae, benches and basins lay 
around the main building, which was flanked by a lesser structure containing five rooms. 
The coins found at Wuchate Golo seem all to be of  the sixth or even early seventh 
century, and pottery fragments with crosses were excavated, implying a late Aksumite 
date for this curious building. De Contenson suggested that it represents a Christian 
church of a special type (1961i: 6-7).  
Other baptisteries, with access to the water provided by two staircases, are known from 
Yeha (Doresse 1957: 232, and fig. opposite p. 240), Adulis (Paribeni 1907: fig. 50) and 
Matara. This latter was fed by an ingenious pipe-system formed by the bodies of pottery 
amphorae, fitted one within the other, passing through the baptistery wall to the outside 
(Anfray 1974: 766-8).  
It is interesting to note that Kaleb's inscription (Schneider 1974) says "I founded a 
maqdas in Himyar. . . . I built his GBZ and consecrated it by the power of the Lord". 
Other sources claim that Kaleb built several churches in Himyar (Shahid 1979). The text 
may employ the word gabaz to refer back to the newly- founded church in Himyar, but 
this sentence, dealing with Kaleb's last act recorded in the inscription, comes in the 
position usually reserved in earlier examples for the dedication of captives, thrones, 
statues or the inscription itself, and it might instead signify reconstruction work by Kaleb 
at Aksum's own cathedral as a gesture of gratitude for his victorious campaign.  
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity 
by Dr. Stuart Munro-Hay. 
© 1991 by Dr. Stuart C. Munro-Hay. 
Online edition with the author's permission, by Alan Light (alight@vnet.net). 


Chapters 11-17. 
Back to Table of Contents
.  
 
11. Warfare 
 
1. The Inscriptional Record 
 
An important aspect of the Aksumite kings' responsibilities was the conduct of military 
campaigns, the main theme of almost all the Aksumite royal inscriptions which have 
survived (see 
Ch. 11: 5
). The significance of this element for the kings is emphasised by 
Ezana's identification in the pagan period as the son of Mahrem, whose parallel in Greek 
was the war- god Ares. In most of the inscriptions we are given a fair amount of detail 
about the campaigns which the Aksumite rulers conducted throughout the Aksumite 
sphere of influence. Similarly, the South Arabian inscriptions mentioning Habasha t and 
Aksum deal with Ethiopian military activities on the east side of the Red Sea. We 
therefore have a considerable amount of information about the Aksumites' methods and 
tactics in warfare. It is very probable that the Aksumite system of controlling sub ject 
peoples through their own rulers had the effect of encouraging these to try the strength of 
their overlords at each succession or other crisis. This might explain the `revolts' which 
occurred at places apparently quite near to the centre of the kingdom. The inscriptions 
and coins often use the word `peace', but we gather that the `Pax Aksumita' was, if not 
apparently seriously challenged, in need of continuous repair.  
The Aksumite inscriptions are rather stereotyped in style and content, being the official 
records of the campaigns. In general, they commence with the reasons for the campaign; 
these included damage to a trading caravan, DAE 10; rebellion of vassal kings or tribes, 
DAE 4, 6 & 7, Geza `Agmai; and a combination of rebellion and a plea for assistance 
from subjects under attack, DAE 11, Anfray, Caquot and Nautin 1970. Other reasons, 
implied in a general way by the Monumentum Adulitanum inscription, but certainly 
important, were the need to deal with such questions as frontier security, piracy  in the 
Red Sea, and the security of land routes for trade.  
After the justifications for war, the inscriptions next recount any diplomatic efforts 
towards achieving a peaceful settlement (DAE 11) and, these failing, there finally came 
the decision to make war.  
The next stage in the inscriptions is the account of the campaign itself. Details are 
supplied as to the routes and encampments, provisioning, the strategy, the troops or 
regiments used at different phases of the campaign, and the eventual inevitable victory. 
Geographical information abounds, though it is often difficult to place on the modern 



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