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post Exceptional Axum

May 11th, 2008

Filed under: History Corner — Lissan Magazine @ 10:55

Something Exceptional in Ethiopia

1906plan.jpg
Stuart Munro-Hay (c) 1998
1906 Excavation Plan of Axum (Ethiopia)

Dictionaries or atlases of the ancient world, or exhibitions in the great museums, barely mention Aksum. The British Museum exhibits a coin, a few pots and beads; nothing in the bookshop informs further. Ethiopia, often in the news for political, social and economic events, is little known for its splendid past, when the north (Tigray and Eritrea) was ruled by the kings of Aksum. Britannia was only the most distant Roman province then, when Aksum, with its capital over a mile above sea level on the ‘roof of Africa’, was listed by the Persian prophet Mani as the third kingdom of the world, with Rome, Persia and China. Later a Byzantine diplomat described his audience with Kaleb of Aksum, conqueror of the Jewish king of Yemen. The embassy proposed that Aksum join the silk trade, buying from Indian merchants to exclude Rome’s inveterate enemy, Persia. The ambassador witnessed King Kaleb’s arrival, standing high on a dais bound with golden leaves, set on a wheeled platform drawn by four elephants. From his gold and linen headdress fluttered golden streamers. His collar, armlets, and many bracelets and rings were of gold. His kilt was also gold on linen, his chest covered with straps embroidered with pearls. He held a gilded shield and lances. Around him musicians played flutes and his nobles formed an armed guard.

Around 500BC or perhaps even a little earlier we begin to get hints of something exceptional in Ethiopia. Inscriptions written in the language of Saba in Yemen appear on the Ethiopian plateau. With them were found stone altars, elegant limestone female statues dressed in pleated robes, canopied thrones decorated with carved ibex, and those lesser ’small finds’ that allow the archaeologist to piece together the unknown past. At Yeha near Aksum a fine masonry temple, still almost intact, was built.

The inscriptions reveal the creators of all this—Sabaeans, perhaps a trading community from overseas, associated with Ethiopians who employed the same script as these overseas trading partners. The kingdom they established, called Dia`mat, mysteriously disappeared by perhaps the 3rd century BC. It gave birth in an indirect way to what may be called, after Egypt and Meroe in the Sudan, the greatest of all Africa’s civilisations: the kingdom of Aksum.

Text copyright Stuart Munro-Hay 1998

source: archaeology.about.com

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