Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Ethiopians rarely trained them (Wolska-Conus 1973: 354). Camels would have been used 
in desert warfare, and two camel- riding spies were captured by Ezana during his Noba 
campaign. Camels, as well as donkeys or mules, may have been employed as transport 
animals.  
4. The Fleet 
 
There are numerous occasions when ships and shipping are mentioned in Aksumite 
contexts. The various expeditions and trading ventures overseas would suggest that 
Aksum was mistress of a fleet of some kind. Though there is no really clear statement to 
that effect in the local sources, a fleet is mentioned in the Monumentum Adulitanum 
inscription, and other inscriptions (
DAE 2

Marib inscription
; see 
Ch. 11: 5
) also refer to 
expeditions by land and sea. In the case of the Adulis inscription, concern for the sea-
lanes and the coastal defence of the country, as well as land routes, is manifested. The 
king cites the area from Leuke Kome to the Arabian kingdoms as one area of operations, 
then on the Ethiopian side he established the Solate people to guard the coasts. The 
Periplus (Huntingford 1980: 20) notes that ships anchored cautiously at the island of 
Oreine since, in the past, the anchorage which was to become Adulis' harbour, Gabaza, 
had proved dangerous because of raids from the local people. This could not have been 
tolerated later, when the port's function as a gateway to trade had grown more important, 
and the Periplus may indeed refer to a period when Aksum was still consolidating its 
position on the coast.  
Some of the commentators on Kaleb's expedition to the Yemen allude to ships, and even 
to the shipyards of Adulis/Gabaza (Munro-Hay 1982: 117; Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 
132-3). Perhaps the most interesting comment of all came from the sixth-century 
historian Procopius, who not only stated that Kaleb — whom he called Hellestheaios, his 
version of Elle Atsbeha — collected a fleet of ships, but also described Ethiopian and 
Indian ships. He mentions that  
"all the boats which are found in India and on this sea (the Red Sea) are not made in the 
same manner as are other ships. For neither are they smeared with pitch, nor with any 
other substance, nor indeed are the planks fastened together by iron nails going through 
and through, but they are bound together by a kind of cording. The reason is not as most 
persons suppose, that there are certain rocks there which draw the iron to themselves 
(for witness the fact that when the Roman vessels sail from Aelas into this sea, although 
they are fitted with much iron, no such thing has ever happened to them), but rather 
because the Indians and the Aethiopians possess neither iron nor any other thing suitable 
for such purposes. Furthermore they are not even able to buy any of these things from the 
Romans since this is explicitly forbidden to all by law" (Procopius, ed. Dewing 1914: 
183-4).  
The Aksumite technique whereby ships were made by binding with ropes, not by using 
nails, which is also mentioned by the Periplus as existing on the East African coast 


(Huntingford 1980: 29), lasted until recently in the Somali, Hadrami, and East African 
coastal regions, where such `sewn boats' were common. Procopius' information is a very 
good indication that when he speaks of Kaleb's fleet he was actually referring to 
Aksumite ships rather than others simply using Aksumite ports. It cannot be said what 
proportion of goods might have been shipped in Aksumite vessels, but as a trading nation 
with a maritime outlet of great importance, and later on an empire to administer overseas, 
it is certain that Aksum's merchant fleet or navy was a useful, even vital, part of the 
apparatus of commerce and government.  
5. The Aksumite Inscriptions 
 
Since a very large part of the information we have about the Aksumite rulers comes from 
their inscriptions, it seems useful to give English translations of  the most important of 
these. The published versions are very varied; and it is admittedly not easy, given the 
damaged state of some of the inscriptions, and the uncertainty of meaning of certain 
words in others, to see what precisely is meant, or where a new train of thought has 
begun. These translations, then, cannot be thought of as in any way definitive. Even so, 
something of the mood of the Aksumite inscriptions still comes over in these translations, 
and there are many interesting details. A number of early Ethiopian inscriptions were 
published by Drewes (1962), and others by Schneider in various volumes of the Annales 
d'Ethiopie. These are not repeated in this section, but have been quoted where appropriate 
in other chapters. A  Recueil des textes antiques de l'Ethiopie, a very much needed 
compendium, is also in preparation (Bernand 1982: 106). The label DAE indicates the 
number given to those inscriptions published by the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition 
(Littmann 1913, IV), and some of Ezana's inscriptions were also published by Littmann 
in 1950.  
DAE 2. 
This much-damaged inscription was found at Abba Pantelewon near Aksum. Greek. It 
has neither name nor titles preserved, but appears to be an Aksumite royal inscription of 
the pre-Christian period. The translation is from Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 69.  
. . . in this space . . . and he orders(?) to be repaired . . . it and the other side of the sea . . 
. unconquerable (god) of the Aksumite . . . the first and only(?) . . . in distant (and) big . . . 
an infantry . . . I have dedicated . . . to unconquered Ares of Aksumite. . . .  
Monumentum Adulitanum. Greek. 
This anonymous inscription only survives in the copy made in the early sixth century AD 
by Kosmas Indikopleustes at Adulis (Wolska-Conus 1968: 372-8).  
. . . and after I had commanded the peoples near my country to maintain the peace, I 
entered valiantly into battle and subdued the following peoples; I fought the Gaze, then 



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