Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay

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by some Indian scripts (Pankhurst 1974: 220-2; Chatterji 1967: 53), and it might in turn 
have influenced Armenian (Olderogge 1974: 195-203).  
This innovation was employed on the inscriptions, and doubtless on whatever (not so far 
discovered) papyrus, parchme nt or other impermanent medium the Aksumites kept their 
records. It was not generally adopted on the coins, whose legends remained unvowelled, 
except for very rare and partial vowelling on the coins of one or two later kings, until the 
end of the series. However, even without the vowelling, the coins provide a very 
interesting sequence from which the changes in the styles of the letter- forms can be 
ascertained from the third to the seventh century (Munro-Hay 1984iii). This information, 
combined with inscrip tional material, is one way of tentatively dating newly-discovered 
Ge`ez documents. However, such palaeographical work is still in its infancy, and lacks 
sufficient numbers of documents which can be reliably dated to make it an efficient tool 
at present. Early inscriptions closely resembling South Arabian ones have been dated 
according to the palaeographical studies of Pirenne (1956), but again there might be a 
case for readjustment (Schneider 1976i).  
In a recent (unpublished) paper, Roger Schneider has commented on some fascinating 
anomalies in Ge`ez writing on Aksumite inscriptions and coins (see also Drewes 1955; 
Hahn 1987). The existence of one vocalised letter on certain silver coins of Wazeba, a 
predecessor of Ezana, may well indicate that the process of vocalisation was under way 
before Ezana, though the unvocalised Ge`ez inscription of Ezana (DAE 7) has made it 
commonly accepted that the development of vocalisation occurred during his reign. 
Littmann (1913, IV: 78), Drewes and Schneider all suggest deliberate archaising; some of 
the letters, apart from lacking vowels, are of forms very much more ancient than those 
current for Ezana's time. This is not just over-elaborate academic discussion. For 
whatever reasons Ezana had this done (and Drewes suggests perhaps a desire to 
emphasise the links with South Arabia, or perhaps to point to the ancient origins of 
Aksumite royal power), it is of interest that almost no kings of Aksum in the subsequent 
centuries introduced vowelling on their coins, or when they did, it was only on a letter or 
two; and this long after vocalisation must have been current on other media.  
Preceding the common use of Ge`ez, Greek was the chosen official language of the 
inscriptions and coins. This was evidently largely orientated towards foreign residents 
and visitors, and can hardly have been understood by more than the smallest section of 
the ruling class and merchant community. There must also have been a body of more or 
less learned men who acted as scribes in preparing the drafts of the inscriptions, perhaps 
priests or a special corps of clerks. Greek remained the language of the coins, particularly 
the gold, until the end of the coinage, but its quality degenerated quickly. Coins datable to 
the fourth and fifth centuries already show errors in their Greek legends.  
A few inscriptions were drafted in several versions; Greek, and in Ge`ez in two 
redactions, the first in the Ge`ez script, the second in the South Arabian script. Use of this 
`pseudo Sabaean' seems to have been mere vanity, perhaps trying to equal the tri- lingual 
inscriptions set up by the Sassanian kings of Persia, since there can hardly have been any 
real reason for rendering a Ge`ez inscription into the South Arabian monumental script. 

Presumably a native speaker of Ge`ez would be able to recognise the gist of the text, the 
letters, though differently oriented and more rectilinear, being still recognisable; but a 
Ge`ez version was also supplied. A visiting South Arabian would have understood the 
script but not the language. The South Arabian script might perhaps have retained 
something of a sacrosanct aura, as the ancient vehicle for dedicatory inscriptions, so that 
it was felt that a version in that script fulfilled the requirements of tradition; but that 
seems a little far- fetched as an explanation by the time of Kaleb and W`ZB.  
When king Kaleb of Aksum received Greek-speaking ambassadors, he employed an 
interpreter to translate the letters from the emperor; but this may have been due to the 
formalities of court protocol rather than of necessity (Malalas, ed. Migne 1860: 670).  
It can hardly be doubted, from the evidence of survivors such as the `proto-Ge`ez' 
inscriptions of Matara, Safra, and Anza, and the series of royal inscriptions, that there 
was a fair body of written material in Ge`ez extant in Aksumite times, though examples 
found to date cannot in any way compare numerically with the sort of material surviving 
from most other ancient civilisations. Small inscriptions have been found on vessels of 
stone and pottery (Littmann 1913: IV; Drewes and Schneider 1967: 96ff; Schneider 1965: 
91-2; Anfray 1972: pl. III). One, on a rock on Beta Giyorgis hill overlooking Aksum, 
seems to be a boundary- marker reading `Boundary between (the land of) SMSMY and 
SBT' — either the names of the owners, or of the parcels of land. Future archaeological 
missions will almost undoubtedly reveal more of these minor inscriptions. Abroad, Ge`ez 
inscriptions are known from Meroë, Socotra (Bent 1898), and South Arabia.  
A later manifestation in the development of letters in Ethiopia was the translation of 
various literary works from other languages such as Greek, Arabic and Syriac into Ge`ez, 
with concomitant effects on the language itself.  
2. Literature and Literacy 
Of Aksumite literature we know virtually nothing except that between the fifth and 
seventh centuries the Bible and other works began to be translated into Ge`ez (in some 
cases by Syrian/Aramaic speakers, thus absorbing certain additions to the vocabulary of 
the Ge`ez language). Traces of the early biblical translation survive in the form of 
quotations in some of the inscriptions.  
The Ge`ez royal inscriptions themselves show an accomplished use of the language, and 
well exploit the propaganda medium provided by them. The earlier use of Greek for 
monumental inscriptions may have been an important factor towards the `stylistic 
confidence' shown by the Ge`ez inscriptions, and this may not in fact reflect a long 
literary tradition (Irvine 1977). Zoskales, an early Aksumite ruler, was an educated man 
who spoke Greek, and the royal example, as well as the influx of Greek-speaking 
merchants, doubtless encouraged the spread of learning which resulted in the use of 
Greek for even the national inscriptions and coinage. One feels that there must have been 

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