Humans are social animals who evolved gradually from caves to skyscrapers. During the course of this time, all of them tried to mark their presence and leave a legacy behind, be it the cave paintings of Ellora or the inscriptions during the classical Greek and Roman period.
“Beauty perishes in life, but is immortal in art” – Leonardo da Vinci.
Archaeologists try to piece together the chronology and the history of these glorious civilisations with the artifacts, art, and architecture left behind. Through this evidence, we learn about the history, culture, and life of the people who lived during ancient times. One such glorious civilisation is the Aksumite civilisation.
The beginning of Aksumite Civilisation
Founded by the all-powerful Aksum approximately during 100 AD, the Aksumite civilisation had its capital in a geographically strategic location, having a plateau for farming and proximity to the red sea that resulted in flourishing trade relations. As the first Ethiopian civilisation, it was one of the wealthiest kingdoms that also boasted of a robust military force.
Protected by the North Tigray mountain range, it had good trade relations with all the strong kingdoms in ancient India, Egypt, Persia, Byzantine, and Arabia. Being the descendants of African and Arabian settlers, the Aksum people spread Christianity in the African continent.
Flourishing of the Kingdom
Deemed as one of the most influential kingdoms of their time, the Aksum kingdom had rich fertile soil and an abundance of rock, primarily used for constructing buildings. The people were also involved in animal husbandry and the trading of precious stones and metals. Due to extensive trade connections, the kingdom had a high influx of people from outside, resulting in a rich diversification of culture and traditions.
With a stronghold on the North-Eastern African trade, they minted their currency to showcase their dominance. The northern silk route and southern spice route were under the Aksum control. As a result, the Aksum kingdom was economically the most powerful kingdom Africa has ever seen. Highly innovative and intelligent, they were the first among their adversaries to invent terrace farming.
The society and the vibrant cultural scene
The kingdom was home to people who belonged to different ethnic backgrounds, speaking various languages. The people who belonged to Kush amalgamated the Nubian and the Arabic culture, thus forming a newly blended culture prevalent in the Aksum kingdom. They were the spitting image of unity in diversity in late antiquity as they welcomed traders with open arms.
As a society, the civilisation had a hierarchical power and wealth system. The feudal system was strictly followed in the society, and the slave trade was widespread similar to their neighbouring adversaries. Similar to the current times, the kingdom had both cities and villages. The majority of trade and activities were happening in the cities, and agriculture was considered the central activity in the villages.
The wealthy and high society people were well-read and had good knowledge of literature. The scholars and poets had several patrons, and one of their proud achievements is the evolution of their own language Ge’ez. Though Ge’ez became the official language of the imperial court and Orthodox Church, the Habeshas (Semitic-speaking people, Cushitic-speaking people, and Nilo-Saharan-speaking population) continued to speak their native languages.
During the early period of the empire, impressive Steles or obelisks were constructed celebrating victories and achievements. Around 1700 years ago, the practice of building obelisks with inscriptions carved on the surface, near the kings’ underground tombstones began. These remain standing today, telling the stories of the historical times.
Strong religious inclination
The Aksum civilisation cemented its name in the Christian records due to the strides king Edana took to spread the religion across the African region. Around 325, he ensured that the people in his entire kingdom had converted from Judaic and polytheistic beliefs that they were following earlier.
Since the Aksum believed in using the coins as a symbol to establish their current events, he added a cross to the coins, reiterating his strong belief towards Christianity and as a milestone to celebrate the conversion of his subjects, making Christianity the official religion of the kingdom. A very crucial lesson for the people was the story of nine saints, who were influential Christians who took refuge in Ethiopia. The nine saints built churches and Christian centres in various places, and also the Bible was converted to Ge’ez.
Art and Architecture
When the essential requirements, food, water, and roof above the head, are achieved, the next thing that humans tend to think about is ways to improve the lifestyle, ways to entertain themselves, and hobbies to kill time. The kings aimed to ascertain their supremacy over other kingdoms by building extravagant structures and enormously promoting various forms of art.
Most of their buildings haven’t survived the test of time and wars waged; the podia is the only part that remains. One of the striking features of this random rubble construction is, it was designed with recesses, rebates, and re-entrants to ensure a single, long stretch of the wall didn’t exist. These heavy stone structures were bound by mud mortar and enhanced by light and shadow and accent granite pieces in the corners.
The ‘monkey head’ construction technique, which used timber members as a strengthening agent, was commonly used for doors and windows. Square beams were set horizontally in the walls to support and form ties along the room’s span. The notable feature of the Ethiopian technique is the projection of these members that resemble the heads popping out. These doors and windows were repeated as motifs and decorative elements in later structures and were known as the ‘Aksumite frieze’ by the people.
But what goes up eventually comes down. The mighty Aksumite civilisation was no different. Due to Islamic invasion and weaker rule, the empire fell, and people retreated to the highlands. Climate change, soil erosion, and resulting social-economic stress in the society led to the spreading of people to various other cities and wipe-out of the kingdom.
Though the empire fell, their legacy and glory remain. Here are 5 of the buildings painting the grand picture of ancient Ethiopia:
1. The monastery of Debre Damo, Tigray:
One of the most renowned monasteries in Ethiopia, Debre Damo, is a typical example of Aksumite architecture. Estimated to have been built in the 6th century, it was constructed on top of a 15m rising plateau of trapezoidal shape, scaled using a leather rope these days. Being the home of Ethiopia’s ancient illuminated manuscripts, its architecture is considered a masterpiece.
The robust random rubble building, built using limestone blocks, has the famous ‘monkey head’ style applied to it to depict the advanced construction technique and knowledge of the centuries-old Aksumites. The stumps of the projected timber members contrast the stone in colour and texture, enhancing the aesthetics. The structure ascertains that the recesses, rebates, and re-entrants, which are typical to the Aksum architecture, was continued throughout the building.
As a result, the walls became narrower with height, following the olden tradition of the area. The door and the window design and aesthetics are depicting the typical knobbly Aksumite style. The Antechamber has a wood-carved ceiling, decorated with Ethiopian wild animals’ motifs. The stone pillars supporting the nave roof have Aksumite inscriptions, but the church has design elements like wooden clerestory windows, that is borrowed from the Romanesque style.
2. Tombs of Kings Kaleb & Gebre Meskel
Located on top of a hill, the tombs of 6th century rules King Kaleb and his son King Gebre Meskel are marked by Stelaes or Obelisks typical to the local Aksumite culture. These monolithic carved stone structures are 32m high with a distinctive semi-circular apex and a concave base. The panoramic view of the mountains of Adwa adds natural beauty to this open area.
The architecture has the typical Aksumite elements such as false door carved reliefs that adorn the doors and windows and wooden beams but is more refined. It contains sophisticated self-locking locking stones instead of iron clamps that were used earlier. These dark underground tombs are defined on the ground by a raised courtyard.
Both the tombs are accessed through a corridor that branches out into multiple side chambers. The Tomb of Gebre Meskel has a precise construction technique. Consisting of five rooms and the main chamber, the carved portal shows the advancement in stone molding. King Kaleb’s tomb follows similar principles as the other tomb but the stones used are larger, angular, and the joining detail isn’t as precise.
3. Ruins of Dungar Palace
Though today the remains of the palace are only the 3,250 square meter podium, the Dungar palace was a grandeur structure depicting the influence of the Aksumite kingdom. The central building was surrounded by multiple courtyards that are accessed by a double staircase. The remains of an array of stone piers, presumed to have supported the wooden floors were excavated by the archaeologists.
Though various elements were found, the design intent is not very clear, as few rooms had no doorways and others had them. Constructed in the 7th century, the construction technique and architectural style of the random rubble structure has a stark resemblance to the St. Mary of Zion Cathedral.
4. St. Mary of Zion Cathedral
Built on an enormous stepped base, the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion has an East-West orientation adopting the European design principles. The king who commissioned it is unclear as there are different stories with various themes. The local Aksumites believe St.Marys is the mother of all the other churches and that the Ark of the Covenant is stored inside its sanctuary.
The structure that stands today is estimated to be dating back to 1965, but the church was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times before it. The church is considered very holy, and the location of it was supposedly suggested by the god himself. Built with locally available stone in random rubble, the church has a simple design language. Adorned by jaali screens and a dome, the aesthetic is plain without many carvings or details.
5. Atse Yohannes IV Palace, Mekelle
Built in the 1870s, the Aatse Yohannes IV Palace serves as a museum now. Designed by an Italian Engineer, Giacomo Nareri, all the valuables and antique collectibles such as the royal bed, rifles, and throne are displayed in the museum. The grand structure exudes grandeur and class, painting a picture of power for other kingdoms to see. The lime-washed white wall is contrasted by the bright brown of the timber doors and windows.
The arched openings coupled with the surface projections, brown horizontal detailing indicating the floor levels and the battlement parapets clearly show the European Architectural influence in the aesthetics of the palace. The stone staircase leading to the courtyard is exposed, showcasing the classic Aksumite random rubble construction, adding a rustic look to it.
Post the decline of the Aksumite civilisation, the buildings were left unprotected. Most of the notable structures are in ruins, but UNESCO is striving hard to preserve the remaining builds. The palaces that are standing today are preserved and reused as museums try conserving the intangible heritage and being sustainable. The local Architecture got diluted, and the culture is sparsely preserved, due to multiple invasions and displacement of people.