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The Magnificence of Aksum: Revisiting Ethiopian Civilization

                                       Ghelawdewos Araia

The return of the Aksum stela, after sixty-eight years of hiatus, has once again revitalized the Ethiopian sense of their heritage. Unlike the prodigal son who returned home on his own volition, the Aksum stela finally headed home after an incessant and immense pressure on the Italian government by Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia.

While we extend gratitude to the Italian Government, despite its initial reluctance and subsequent lethargy, it is the Ethiopian people’s perseverance and love for their history and culture that must be commended very highly. It is not without reason that David W. Phillipson, author of Ancient Ethiopia, reasoned in such a way to depict the Ethiopian ethos accurately: “profound historical consciousness and respect for the past is characteristic of very many Ethiopians. Their culture preserves strong memories of the past and there is a long standing tradition of committing these memories to writing in a form suitable to prevailing circumstances.”

The “strong historical consciousness” of Ethiopians is of course rooted in the civilization of antiquity that we like to revisit in this essay while at the same time cover a brief history of Aksum and the pre-Aksumite period. Not too many historians, let alone pseudo-historians who either cynically or innocently distort Ethiopian history, acknowledge the several millennia before Christ as the beginnings of the Ethiopian civilization.

Now we know, and this is attested by historiography and archaeology, 5000 years ago or 3000 years before Christ, a pottery-making culture evolved in a place called Gobedra, just three miles west of Aksum. Reinforcing our thesis of pre-Aksumite civilization, Yuri Kobishchanov in his book AXUM, argues, “one cannot doubt that wheat cultivation appeared in northern Ethiopia long before the beginning of the Aksumite period.” Furthermore, Kobishchanov tells us that “in pre-Aksumite deposits at Houlti, Melazzo, Yeha, Sabaea, and Mai Mefles were found specimens of weaponry and work tools of bronze…and the towns of Ethiopia appeared on sea and land trade routes beginning the VI-V centuries BC. The significance of these routes had evolved considerably by the end of the pre-Aksumite period.”

What we can safely conjecture from the above argument is the fact that there was a long pre-Aksumite period followed by the Kingdom of Aksum at least by 600-500 BC, and the evolution of Aksum as an empire by the last quarter of the third century AD. Ancient historians generally cover the long pre-Aksumite period as “Ethiopian”, but ‘Ethiopia’ (from aetiops, Greek, for “sun-burnt face”) refers to all black Africans. For instance Aithiopika, a novel written by Heliodoros in 230 AD refers to all Black people in general and to Egyptians in particular. But even in ancient times, more than often, the word ‘Ethiopia’ was used in relation to the ancestors of present-day Ethiopians.

“Sometime around 525 BC, according to Horodotos,” says Richard Poe in his book Black Spark White Fire, “the Persian king Cambyses decided to conquer Ethiopia,” but the Persians were defeated and the Ethiopians were victorious. Poe reaffirms, “in the story of Cambyses, Herodotos writes specifically about those Ethiopians who live along the Red Sea coast.”

The Aksumite period is extensively covered by historians and archaeologists alike. Historians like Cosmos Indicopleustes cover mostly of the 5th and 6th centuries AD Aksum, but others like Claudius Ptolomaeus cover the historical time frame beginning 100 AD. Likewise the Peripilus of the Erythrean Sea documents Aksum’s trade and extent of its territorial control. Extensive archaeological excavations then corroborated the findings of ancient historians, the first famous being that of Deutsche Aksum Expedition (DAE), a German team led by Dr. Enno Littmann in 1906. The DAE is credited for unearthing important Aksumite structures such as Enda Michael, Enda Semon, and Ta’akha Mariam. About the same time, i.e. in 1907, Piva, Dainelli and Morinelli undertook excavation projects in present-day Eritrea, and three decades later, in 1937, after Italy occupied Ethiopia, the Italian government sponsored massive excavation projects in Aksum but they created much havoc to Ethiopian heritage. They destroyed the magnificent palace of Ta’akha Mariam and they abducted the second largest stela that they have now agreed to return.

In the 1950s Aksumite locales such as Mahbere Dyaqon was discovered 5 km south east of Houlti, and in the 1960s “extensive Aksumite ruins are reported” from the Senafe and Ham areas in Eritrea. Incidentally, Haile Selassie’s government established the Ethiopian Institute of Archaeology in 1952 with the intention of archaeological studies and excavating in areas adjacent to the stelae, St. Mary of Zion cathedral, Dungur palace, Houlti-Melazzo, Yeha, Metera, and Adulis. Francis Anfray led the expedition during this period.

The above archaeological findings, coupled by historical and anecdotal accounts, indicate that Aksum had a sophisticated polity, a highly developed material culture, a well developed agriculture including irrigation, complex astronomy including calendar, long distance trade, fine architecture, and definitely megalithic obsession with masonry construction technique that we are unable to fathom to this day.

Aksum, in fact, was a civilization of skilled manpower and professionals. The kingdom had produced a huge labor force engaged in stone, metal, and glass works; these artisans, who played a vital role in the making of the kingdom and later in the empire of Aksum, were collectively known as Tebib or  “skillful”.  Unfortunately, the aristocracy initially despised the Tebib, and later when “Tebib” in its narrow sense was attributed to the goldsmith and ironsmiths, even the average Ethiopian began to ostracize and avoid them.

Like all kingdoms and empires of antiquity, Aksum had its beginnings, climax, and collapse. The heyday of Aksumite expansion witnessed a vast territory controlled by Ethiopians. Some pseudo-historians claim that Aksum’s dominion was limited to present-day Tigray and Eritrea, but this perspective is certainly false. The northern half of the Ethiopian plateau including Shewa, Wello, Gojjam, Gonder, Tigray, and Eritrea as well as parts of northern Somalia were controlled by Aksum. At one point, southern Arabia and Kush (northern Sudan) also became part of the Aksumite Empire.

The real expansion of Aksum began with the reign of Aphilas, Endybis’ successor, around 270 AD when Ethiopians managed to control southern Arabia. However, as mentioned above, Claudius Ptolemaeus contends that Ethiopians in fact were in control of the Hijaz-Yemen area around 100 AD, and hence he stretches back the beginnings of Aksumite Empire to the first century AD. By the time Ezana I assumed power in 325 AD, Askum, without doubt, was a strong and large empire. Ezana himself claimed that he was “king of Aksum and Himer [Himyar] and Raydan and Saba and Salhen and Habashat and Siamo and Beja and Kassu.” Kobishchanov says  “the ancient inhabitants of Somalia recognized the hegemony of Axum only to a modest degree, but followed the order of the Axumite ruler.” Long before Ezana conquered Meroe and Kush, there are some historical indications that Ethiopians had begun controlling Nubia and a stone slab of victory of unknown Aksumite king was found in Kush.

By the time Ella Atsbeha (Kaleb) came to power in 517 AD, the kingdom of Himyar with its capital Zafar and the entire southern Arabia was controlled and ruled by Aksum. During this period, Aksum was not only a military power but also ccommandeered a sizable naval fleet on the Red Sea. Thus, even the contemporary Roman Empire had to deal with Aksum for matters of trade and diplomacy on either side of the southern Red Sea.

The pre-Aksumite period witnessed incipient state formation and was essentially a civilization of agriculture, pottery, and metallurgy, although some stone works had begun in earnest. The Aksumite period, as pointed out earlier, by contrast exhibited a highly developed material culture reflected in handicraft and architecture. Ethiopians at this juncture have used stone for their propaganda, transmission of knowledge to posterity, as well as communicating with the spiritual world. The huge structures and monuments were built during the Aksumite period, a period of “gigantism or gigantomania” as labeled by Kobishchanov.   

Hundreds upon hundreds of buildings and stelae were constructed under the supervision and sponsorship of the Aksumite kings. Some scholars like Cheikh Anta Diop, however, had a wrong impression of Aksum and its stelae. He says, “To modern minds, the term “Ethiopia” conjures up Addis Ababa. Here again, we must insist on the fact that this region, except for one obelisk and two pedestals of statues, nothing is found. The civilization of Axum, former capital of Ethiopia, is more a word than a reality attested by historical monuments.” Had Diop lived longer, he would have learned that in one place designated “Stelae Park” alone, some 120 remains of stelae were excavated in 1960.

The Aksumite stelae range from a 3-meter dwarf slab to a highly decorated 33-meter giant in height. Among the hundreds of stelae, the famous six stelae range from 43 tons to 520 tons in weight or 86,000 pounds to 1.04 million pounds respectively. The fallen stela weighs 520 tons; the one at Enda Iyesus is 56 tons and the one in the stream is 75 tons; the still standing is 160 tons, and the one that just came back is 170 tons in weight. These megaton monolithic structures, unlike the Egyptian obelisks, represent high-rise buildings with distinct and easily identifiable, but false, storeys or skyscraper as we call them today. For instance, among the six giants the smallest weighs 43 tons, is 15.3 meters in height and has 4 storeys. By contrast, the one in the stream is 15.8 meters in height and has 6 storeys. The one at Enda Iyesus is lighter than the one in the stream but it is taller (18.2 meters) than the latter although both have same 6 storeys. The standing stela is 20.6 meters in height and has 10 storeys, and the stela that has just been repatriated from Rome is 24.6 meters in height and has 11 storeys. The fallen stela is 33 meters in height and has 13 storeys (all figures after Phillipson).

The multi-storey stelae must have given rise to real storey buildings of the Ta’akha Mariam type that was destroyed by the Italians, and there is no doubt in my mind that Askumite architecture inspired our modern skyline architects, or if I give Kobishchanov the benefit of the doubt, maybe the stelae “reflected the tastes of the Axumite monarchy and fulfilled its ideological functions-to inspire reverential trepidation before the grandeur and force of the sovereigns of these monuments.” 

One misconception, ubiquitous in many history books, is that the stela are made out of granite. The material used especially for the giant stelae is nepheline syenite or igneous rocks with glassy crystalline silicate composed of feldspar. The other misconception is that the ancient Aksumite architecture was confined only to the city of Aksum and its vicinity. On the contrary, the sophisticated mason culture and architecture of Aksum was replicated in Wello, Tigray, and Eritrea. On top of stones, the Aksumites have extensively used timber and bricks in the construction of buildings and churches such as Debre Damo in Tigray, Debre Libanos in Ham, Eritrea, and Imrehane Kristos near Lalibela, Wello, but the most fascinating Aksumite heritage are the rock-hewn edifices. The world-famous 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are a continuation of Aksumite architecture. For one thing, the Zagwe Dynasty that commissioned the construction of the churches of Lalibela must have adopted the name of Ona Enda Aboy Zagwe, a locale in Aksum that was part of the archaeological excavation whereby relics of Aksumite architecture were found. Secondly, in terms of number and multiplicity of design, the rock-hewn churches in Tigray outnumber and predate all other churches in the rest of Ethiopia. According to Dr. Abba Teweldemedhin Yosief, author of The Monolithic Churches of Tigray, there are 120 rock-hewn churches in Tigray, 90 of which still provide church services, 6 are used as monastic sanctuaries, and 24 are abandoned and out of use.

Other fascinating contribution of Aksum is its literature and calendar. The ancient Ethiopians have used processed goat’s skin (as opposed to papyrus) to write down their sacred books and chronicles; and in an effort to document their civilization and experience, they have invented unique Geez alphabets nowhere to be found in the entire civilized old world. It is for this apparent reason that I have argued elsewhere that Geez is uniquely African and our ancestors were givers instead of recipients in this regard. Ancient Georgia, Armenia, and Agran borrowed Geez alphabets from Aksum, mainly for liturgy, and to this day the Armenian alphabets very much resemble Ethiopic characters. 

We do not exactly know when and how the Geez alphabets were created and we have yet to decipher and discern whether the brilliant Ethiopic characters are a result of collective literati endeavor or the invention of a mysterious genius. But, we know for sure that Geez was extensively used by Aphilas on his coins and was vocalized and widely used in Aksum during Ezana II.

It is also during Ezana II that the translation of the Bible (the Old Testament) into Geez had begun although the completion of the translation, including the New Testament, took place during Kaleb. The reign of Ezana coincided with the official adoption of Christianity in the first half of the 4th century AD but there was no mass baptism as is usually taken for granted in some history books, and to be sure there were some Christian sects in Ethiopia as far back as the first century AD. The latter argument could be more palpable if we accept some theologian claim that St. Mark was in fact preaching in Ethiopia around the first half of the 1st century AD.  If we are not satisfied with this thesis, however, we may want to validate our argument based on some history and geography pertaining to the birthplace of Christ and the beginnings of Christianity in Rome and Ethiopia. If we accept that Rome became Christian in 312 AD and Ethiopia in 350 AD, the historical and geographical facts will not match. Ethiopia is closer to Bethlehem and Nazareth than Rome is and major religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam juxtaposed in Ethiopia. This never happened in the European context. Moreover, when the first Christian sects appeared in Ethiopia, Rome still professed paganism and it is for this simple reason that we must put the horse before the cart and not vice versa.

After the Calcedonian Council in 451 AD, where schism occurred among Christians on the nature of Christ and where Ethiopia was represented by Ethiopian bishops, the Ethiopian Church evolved its own Monophysite doctrine and dogma whereby the Ethiopians maintained that Christ, despite his physical human attributes was altogether divine. And following the adoption of this doctrine, the Ethiopian Church (now incipient Orthodox denomination) grew dramatically in the 5th and 6th centuries AD along with the proliferation of monasteries. In most Eurocentric history books, the Syrian monks are considered as the founders of the Ethiopian monasteries and hence responsible for early evangelism in Ethiopia, but this is completely erroneous. A medieval Ethiopian book entitled Gedla Tsadkan (The Struggle of the Saints), states that the initial evangelical teachings were undertaken by 62 Ethiopian monks and priests and eight Syrian monks.

Geez, supplemented by Greek, also served as official medium in liturgy, education, governance, and commerce. Furthermore, to facilitate and enhance domestic and international trade, Aksum invented a monetary system. Aksum’s coins, the only of its kind in Africa, were minted in gold, silver, and copper. Gold was designated for international trade and silver and copper for domestic trade. There were at least 149 types of coins of some 20 Aksumite kings. But according to Azmach Kinfu Kidane, there were a total of 446 types of Aksumite coins, bearing the names of at least 31 kings, in circulation. All, but 4 of unknown kings, had names, pictures, and emblems of respective kings embossed on them. We are fortunate to have a book by Azmach Kinfu entitled Aksum’s Ancient Coins and the Kings who made them, in which the coins are illustrated under several tables.

Aksum’s monetary system is a clear indication of the Kingdom’s highly developed mercantile economy and trade. Aksum’s trade and commercial activity took place in northern Africa, west of Libya, Ptolemic Egypt, southern Arabia, southern India including Ceylone (Sri Lanka), and China.

The magnificence of Aksum is attested by credible historical evidence on the extent of its trade, its literature, architecture, and governance. This unique African civilization had its origins in northern Ethiopia and not in Arabia as wrongly assumed by Eurocentric historians. There is no doubt that there were contacts and cultural exchanges, including migration and miscegenation between Ethiopia and Arabia during the pre-Aksumite period, but Aksum was a distinct Ethiopian civilization. Aksum had more affinity to Nubia and Egypt in terms of astronomy and calendar, the construction of stelae/obelisk, herbal medicine and mummification, as well as religion, both pre-Christian polytheism and Christian monotheism. The Ethiopian calendar is identical with that of Egyptian calendar based on the 12 points of the Zodiac and lunar revolution. 12 points times 30 days each plus 5 days for harvest festival will match with the annual revolution of our planet earth around the Sun, and that is the calendar that we all use today.

However, no empire lasts forever. Aksum too had witnessed its decline by the first half of the 7th century AD. In 640 AD, the rising Moslems conquered and burned Aksum’s port Adulis and as a result Aksum’s foreign trade was disconnected. Aksum’s decline had begun but the Kingdom did not collapse instantly and entered to oblivion as some historians assumed. On the contrary, Aksum’s governance and domestic trade continued unabated till the end of the 8th century AD. In fact, up to the middle of the 8th century AD, the kings of Aksum continued to mint silver and copper coins although gold money disappeared gradually.

Because of its magnificence and symbolism of Ethiopian civilization, Ethiopian kings traditionally had to go to Aksum for their coronation, and to this day, thousands of Ethiopian Orthodox Church followers, the Me’emenan, pay tribute to the St. Mary of Zion every year. This, in a nutshell, is the historical consciousness of Ethiopians that I have alluded to in the introduction, and I like to conclude with Emperor Haile Selassie’s remark on Aksum:

“Aksum is the entryway and gate for Ethiopian civilization. Alphabets and design mode was brought about by the Kingdom of Aksum. Aksum was a grand place that served as entrepot for Greek, Babylonian, and Ethiopian civilizations. Because Aksum was the center of religion, it was also the place where God’s laws were told and transmitted without interruption. Aksum is Ethiopia’s eastern frontier where the Sun of Christianity rose. Aksum was honored both during the Old and the New Testament and it is a great country a living proof of history where Ethiopian kings accomplished great deeds and fulfilled their obligations.” Haile Selassie I, Tir 30, 1957 EC