Aksum at the transition to Christianity - article ; n°1 ; vol.19, pg 215-230
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Aksum at the transition to Christianity - article ; n°1 ; vol.19, pg 215-230


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Learn all about the services we offer
17 Pages


Annales d'Ethiopie - Année 2003 - Volume 19 - Numéro 1 - Pages 215-230
16 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 2003
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Marlies Wendowski
Helmut Ziegert
Aksum at the transition to Christianity
In: Annales d'Ethiopie. Volume 19, année 2003. pp. 215-230.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Wendowski Marlies, Ziegert Helmut. Aksum at the transition to Christianity. In: Annales d'Ethiopie. Volume 19, année 2003. pp.
doi : 10.3406/ethio.2003.1044
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/ethio_0066-2127_2003_num_19_1_1044Annales d'Ethiopie, 2003, vol. XI X : 215-230.
Marlies Wendowski and Helmut Ziegert
Ethiopia is the only state in Africa with an almost non-colonial history; fu
rthermore Ethiopia is a with a tradition in Christianity far back to the ear
liest spread of Christian belief. Both facts attrack even foreign researchers to
focus their interests on the history of this country, for the beginnings even
'Archaeology as History' (H.Ziegert,2002).
If we look for the gaps in our knowledge and where archaeology can con
tribute to the history of Aksum and the early state of Ethiopia we find as one of
the main problems the period and processes of statebuilding influenced by the
introduction and adoption of Christianity.
Our research project focusses on these topics including the environments as
historical factors, technological, settlement-, chronological and additional
methodological problems.
In an early stage of archaeological theory and methods and objectorientated
the German Axum Expedition 1906 registered, mapped, cleaned and recon
structed many settlement and grave ruins, churches and stelae. These results
brought Aksum back to international attention, made a great number of inter
esting remains available for tourism, but without sufficient historical informat
ion on dating, function and meaning.
Far away from critical methodological discussions and control, even later
investigations by excavation were more or less of the same standard; e.g. how
old are the carved stelae in the stelae park ? Who and at which time were the
inhabitants of Dungur-palace? (Obviously not "Queen Sheba"). This lack of
information is one of the reasons for the one-day-stay of tourists in Axum and
for the 5-minutes-stay in the Archaeological Museum.
Without historical questions and without critical methodological background
several excavations left behind many building and grave remains without the
record of contexts, associations, stratigraphy and relation to environmental fea
tures. Therefore it is very difficult to use these remains as sources to solve new
questions. 216
The only way is now to discover and excavate new remains for investigations
with new historical questions, step-by-step starting from model-building, survey
with profile-drilling, test-excavations, problemorientated excavations using the
theoretical and methodological background in archaeology. This way we can
reach a higher level of information on dating, function, settlement and cultural
behaviour, and on the environmental conditions as an additional source for his
Aksum in its environments
The highlands of northern Ethiopia are due to the tectonic shifting and uplift
in East Africa, and mainly consist of volcanic rocks, deep weathered under
plateaus. Volcanic tuff layers from eruptions interbedded with cultural remains
can be used as time-markers for dating and chronological comparison.
Axum at the hight of 2150 to 2300 m a.s.l. is surrounded by high volcanoes,
volcanic ridges and some granite outcrops. Steep rocks are heavily eroded; slope
deposits as finegrained sediments originating from chemical weathering are
only preserved at the foot of the hills, covering ancient surfaces and cultural
remains on different layers.
The climates:
Due to a higher amount of rainfall the surface-soils were washed down to the
valleys and finally deposited in the Nile-valley, up to the time of the Ezana-
inscription-stones in the early fourth century AD. For the following time we can
recognize deep weathering of the volcanic hills and soil creeping and covering
of the old surfaces and cultural remains by slope deposits. This was probably
due to a gradual reduction of rainfall and longer rainy seasons. Not dated till
now, the trend to decreasing led to dry soils, surface run off and -wash,
gully erosion, lowering of the ground water level - a phase lasting till today.
Soils and surfaces:
The recent fields on the slope deposits are covered with stones over 20 cm
fertile soils due to ploughing, and terraced against erosion. Old surfaces, that
means also living horizons, are preserved in the slope deposits and covered up
to several meters, as at 'Berik Audi', an excavation site of our mission to Axum
during the last seasons. This geomorphological background opens the possibili
ties for a new time-sequence, and with the identification of the stratified vol
canic tuff layers it yields the basis for relative dating.
Vegetation and fauna:
For the ancient times of Aksum City State we can assume that there existed
a similar highland vegetation and sudanic and endemic fauna as in some isolat
ed areas today. The economic base for settlement must have been cattle herd- 217
ing; plough horizons could only be recognized from later historic periods.
An interesting topic of our research is the passible contribution of ancient
Aksum to the change of cattle in Africa. According to cattle representations in
rock drawings the domestigated cattle in Africa during prehistoric times orig
inated from the Near Eastern and European species Bos primigenius, primarily
domesticated probably in the Near East (Troy et al., 2001). In contrary the
recent African cattle is an Indian humped zebu. There must have been a change
from Bos primigenius to Bos indicus, at a time about 2000 years ago, and prob
ably by East Africa.
At these times the City State Aksum controlled the Indian-Mediterranean-
trade, by these contacts it might have been possible to import zebu cattle from
India. In stelae texts of king Ezana of early 4th century it is recorded that he
offered a great number of cattle to defeated tribes which probably were cattle
herders before. Our assumption is therefore that he presented the new type of
cattle which was imported and breeded for Aksum. The benefit of this cattle
type was the better adaptation to step vegetation with long dry seasons and the
pieceful behaviour, important for the handling by farmers and herders.
Archaeological investigations 2000-02 yielded bone fragments of cattle of the
time about 200 to 600 AD in stratified layers. It seemed to be important to know
by DNS-analysis whether - and when - these bones originated from Bos primi
genius or Zebu cattle, to estimate the role of Aksum in the change of cattle in
Africa. DNS-analyses of recent African cattle show that the mtDNS, inherited
from cows, originated from Bos primigenius, but the DNS from Bos indicus
which is dominant and yields the phenotype Zebu. The conclusion is that only
Zebu-bulls had been imported and crossbreeded with Bos primigenius tradi
tional cattle (Loftus et al.,1994). In recent times such a process was reported
from Australia, and from Richmond (USA): crossbreeding of longhorn-and
Indian Zebu-bulls.
'Berik Audi'
North of the Kaleb-graves at the feet of the mountains hill 'Kube' and hill
'Terer' we found the eroded and destructed foundation walls of palaces of
Aksumite times. Half the way from Kaleb to hill 'Kube' we could observe irreg
ularities in the sloping planes - steps from diggings and from covered structures
- and surface stone cover of wall building materials lifted up by ploughing.
Testexcavations 2000 and excavations in the following seasons shew a settl
ement place with a palace in two phases of construction and other structures
around, a big king's grave of 16 xl6m and 4m high, with a renewed wall at the
southern face and smaller graves beside. The palace was left at last, the rooms
artificially filled with soils and a pottery-content offered on top of the filling of
the ground floor rooms. The king's grave and the annex correspond each one to
the end of the first and second palace phase. Human sacrifices indicate a
prechristian inhabitatian of the site. 218
Fig 1: A*um - Benk Audi' - palace: a child-offering in a jar under the court
second yard of palace, the first covered palace-building; by stones in of the profile demolition the soil of the of the upper ritual floors filling of the 219
Fig. 2: 'Berik Audi' second phase of the palace : open air courtyard with
a floor of volcanic tuff, drainage system and stairs around, to east up to the
main palace building.
Fig. 3: 'Berik Audi' main palace groundfloor with soil-filling and jar
(content) offering on top; the jar contained a layer of volcanic tuff as it was
deposited on the soil; that means just after the ritual burial of the palace. 220
A quarry for copper-ore, slag heaps, furnaces of smelting processes and
remains of continuing technical processes refer to glass and copper-production
and fabrication and probably to minting of coins. 'Dynamic experiments' beside
and related to the excavations shew this technical process in different steps.
Fig. 4: The quarry-site of 'Berik Audi' digging to south for cop
per-ore, with slagheaps of about lm height and furnace-remains
under the farmland (view to southeast with Abalikanos-hill).
Just after the move from this site - probably to Aksum city centre - a volcanic
ash-layer (tuff) covered this site and marked a time-horizon for the different
structures and sequences.
Fig. 5: Northwest-corner of the king's-grave of 'Berik Audi' at Axum. 221
Fig 6 Stair-entrance (half excavated) of the church on the king's-grave
of 'Berik Audi' at Axum.
Fig. 7: Axum, site 35 B 'Berik Audi', a baptesterium in the church on
the king's-grave; the walls were covered with waterproof plaster, the steps
are of slate; at last three glass-cups at the bottom were covered with fine
grained soil. 222
Illustration non autorisée à la diffusion
Fig. 8: Grave 1 at the king's-grave site of 'Berik Audi' with more than 22
pieces of pottery, clay-crosses and an inscription "It will last only a short time
when a ruler can wear a splendid coat" (M.Wendowski - et al, 2001, 193).
Shortly afterwards a smaller Christian chapal was erected on the pagan king's
grave; that structure was half-covered by slope deposits at that time. This small
church was extended as a monastery with a church, with a 9m-staircase to west
and small rooms to east, and including a baptisterium. This church was left
again, the baptisterium ritually filled and the walls destroyed. In the following
time this place and the palace-remains were covered by slope deposits comp
During a later time-horizon of about 600AD according to coins the place of
that former church was used as a Christian cemetery. (M. Wendowski -
H.Ziegert, Hamburg 2003).
The Aksum 'City State'
The model of state-building in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranian
times followed the idea of a hierarchy of social classes with a king as the centre
of state and religion, concentrated in a city in the surrounding farmlands for
supply, manpower and defence. - For ancient Aksum especially we found the
prechristian palaces as the centres for kings and state scattered around the city 223
(cf. the castles of the Kanaan-kings at northern Jebel Marra, Sudan), only the
palaces of Christian time lie in the city.
The Mediterranian sources:
Spots of information from Mediterranian sources show Aksum as one of the
ancient city states like Rom, Jerusalem, Damaskus, etc. (cf. Periplus, ca. 100
AD; Ptolemai, ca. 130 AD; Heliodor [Syria] and Callisthenes [Egypt] of the 3rd
century AD).
Relations to the Mediterranean cultures had been reported in written
sources and imported goods, by the way along the Nile and contributors, by
Adulis and the Red Sea, and to India: the 'Aksum' City State as the main junc
tion between the great civilizations in late antiquity.
The model of a 'City State":
State' according to Max Weber (1920) created the term of the ancient 'City
the sociological interpretation. Starting from this idea we can develop a complex
model of a city and the 'City State' including all environmental factors and those A "
of settlement and cultural behaviour. This model can be used for our research:
to identify the gaps in our knowledge and to focus our investigations on these
E.The early Christian mission at Aksum
As we know from the New Testament scriptures and records of the early cen
turies of the spread of Christianity the faithful gathered in small communities in „..
a world of pagan religions. Their life and preaching were model and base for .:■
the Christian mission.
The first record for Christian belief in Aksum seems to be the information
from the Acts (of the Apostles) 8,26-39: The desciple Philip was sent by an angle Jerusalem to south to Gaza to meet "a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of
great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of
all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship, was returning, and
sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet." [Esaias 53, 7.8.] ... "Philip opened
his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. And
as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said,
see, here is water; what doth hinder me to be babtized? And Philip said, if thou
believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe
that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand
still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and
he baptized him. And when they were come up out of the water, the Spirit of the
Lord caught away Philip, that the eunuch saw him no more: and he went on his
way rejoicing. "[ "The Holy Bible", London, NT p.144]