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In a recent (unpublished) paper, Roger Schneider has commented on some fascinating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