Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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Very little is known of the fifth century history of Aksum, but in the sixth century the 
dramatic events following upon king Kaleb of Aksum's expedition to the Yemen greatly 
interested the Christian world. Several ambassadors from Constantinople, sent by the 
emperor Justinian to propose various trading and military arrangements, have left 
accounts of their embassies. One ambassador described the king's appearance at an 
audience (Malalas, ed. Migne 1860: 670). Another Greek-speaking visitor, Kosmas, 
called `Indikopleustes', who was in Ethiopia just before Kaleb's expedition, was asked by 
the king's governor at Adulis to copy an inscription so that it could be sent to the king at 
Aksum. He complied, and preserved the contents of the inscription, together with various 
other interesting details about Aksumite life, in his Christian Topography (Wolska-Conus 
1968, 1973).  
After the time of Kaleb, foreign reports about Ethiopia grow much sparser. The 
Byzantine historian Procopius mentions (ed. Dewing 1961: 191) that Kaleb's successor 
had to acknowledge the virtual independence of the Yemeni ruler Abreha, but all the rest 
of our information on the later Aksumite kings comes from inferences drawn from their 
coinage. For the followers of the recently-arisen prophet Muhammad, the Muslims, the 
country was important because the reigning najashi gave asylum to the prophet's early 
followers (Guillaume 1955: 146ff). Muhammad is said to have mourned when he heard 
of this king's death. However, the najashi, Ashama ibn Abjar, though he was the ruler of 
the territories of the Aksumite kingdom, may no longer have used that city as his capital. 
There is reason for thinking that by the time of Ashama's death in 630AD, the centre of 
the kingdom may have shifted elsewhere. If this is so, the portrait of a najashi or nigos 
(the picture is labelled in both Greek and Arabic), preserved on the walls of a hunting 
lodge at Qusayr `Amra in Jordan, built and decorated at the command of the Caliph al-
Walid (705-715AD), would be of one of the successors of Ashama ibn Abjar who was no 
longer resident at Aksum (Almagro et al 1975: 165 & pl. XVII).  
In the ninth and tenth centuries, Arab historians still noted the vast extent of the territories 
of the reigning najashi see (
Ch. 4: 8
), but situated the capital at a place called Ku`bar or 
Ka`bar, a large and prosperous trading town. Where this was, we do not know at present, 
but presumably it was situated in a place more favourable for the exp loitation of trade 
and for participating in current political events than was Aksum. The legends about the 
fall of Aksum to Gudit, which seem, from the accounts of the Arab authors, to have 
derived from events in the later tenth century, do not really militate against this. Aksum, 
as Ethiopia's pre-eminent ecclesiastical centre, and perhaps coronation city, (a function 
restored to it in later times), may have suffered from Gudit's armies, but was not 
necessarily the country's administrative capital at the time. The great wealth of its 
cathedral, the ruins of its palaces, and the giant funerary monuments of its former kings, 
might well have attracted the attention of invaders in search of loot. Several of the kings 
mentioned in Ethiopian historical texts are said to have moved their capitals, doubtless 
reflecting the memory of a real event, unless they were already by that time nomadic 
tented capitals as was customary later in Ethiopian history.  
  


3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times 
 
Whatever was the cause of the end of the former Aksumite kingdom, a new centre 
eventually appeared in the province of Lasta to the south under a dynasty, apparently of 
Cushitic (Agaw) origin, later regarded as usurpers, called the Zagwé (Taddesse Tamrat 
1972: 53ff; Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 200ff). The existence of a long and 
a short chronology for this dynasty indicates that the Ge`ez chroniclers were in some 
confusion as to the precise events occurring at the end of the `Aksumite' period until the 
advent of the Zagwé. The Zagwé capital, surely one of the world's most remarkable 
sights with its marvellous rock-cut churches, was at Roha, later renamed after the most 
famous of the Zagwé kings, Lalibela, who seems to have died around 1225. It still bears 
his na me.  
The Zagwé dynasty was eventually superseded by the so-called `Solomonic Restoration' 
in 1270, under king Yekuno Amlak. This new dynasty held to the legalistic fiction that 
Yekuno Amlak was a direct heir to the old Aksumite kings, whose line had been 
preserved in exile in the province of Amhara until strong enough to regain their 
inheritance by ousting the Zagwé monarchs. By the time of this restoration, and for a 
long period afterwards, the highland kingdom was involved in struggles with the 
constantly encroaching power of the Muslim states which had become established along 
the seaboard, and were pushing inland and up onto the Ethiopian plateau. In spite of some 
successes, the kingdom was in great distress when the first westerners began to renew the 
old contacts formerly maintained with the Ethiopian highlands by Greek, Roman, Indian 
and Arab traders.  
Though there is a mention of Aksum (Chaxum) in a Venetian merchant itinerary 
(Crawford 1958: 28) of the late fourteenth century (which specifically notes Aksum's 
status as a coronation city and the magnificence of its basilica, richly ornamented with 
gold plates), it was, in fact, the Portuguese who first made real contact. A number of 
Ethiopian kings, such as Widim Ar`ad (1297-1312), Yeshaq (1414-1429), and Zara 
Ya`qob (1434-1468), had previously tried to communicate by sending missions to 
Europe, and as a result a certain interest was aroused.  
In the early fourteenth century the now- lost treatise written by Giovanni da Carignano, 
who obtained his information from an Ethiopian embassy which stopped at Genoa in 
1306 while returning from Avignon and Rome, had declared that the legendary Christian 
king Prester John was to be found in Ethiopia (Beckingham 1980). It is, of course, 
possible that Jacopo Filippo Foresti of Bergamo, who summarised Carignano's work in 
1483, interpolated this idea, but a map of 1339 already shows Prester John in Ethiopia. 
Aksum appears on a map by Pizzigani in 1367 as Civitas Syone, the City of Zion, 
appropriately enough in view of its cathedral dedicated to Mary of Zion. At the end of the 
fourteenth century Antonio Bartoli of Florence was in Ethiopia, and in 1407 Pietro 
Rombulo arrived there, remaining for a very long time. Envoys of Yeshaq reached 
Valencia with letters from the king to Alfonso of Aragon in 1428. In 1441 Ethiopian 



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