Sabbatical Notes: Professor Robert Hoyland on Initial Prospection in Ancient Axum, Ethiopia

By Robert Hoyland

While on sabbatical during the fall of 2013, I started preparatory work in two countries: the city of Barda in Azerbaijan, which was a capital of the Caucasian Albanian kingdom in the Roman period (then called Partaw) and the base for an Arab garrison in the early Islamic period and the Axum region in northern Ethiopia.

Civilization in the region of Axum goes back at least to the seventh or eighth century BC.  The name of this region at that time was Da‘mat and its kings portrayed themselves in their inscriptions as lords “of Da‘mat, its east and its west, its Sabaeans and its immigrants, its red people and its black people”.

The mention of Sabaeans – that is, natives of Saba (Biblical “Sheba”) in Yemen, is intriguing, and for me, having worked on ancient Yemeni sites, my first visit to Axum and the nearby city of Yeha in December 2013 offered much that was familiar.  The latter’s ancient temple and grave complex, currently being restored and excavated respectively by the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), exhibit close parallels to pagan Yemeni architecture, including such details as ibex friezes.  And the ancient local language of Ge’ez is written in three different scripts, all of which are modifications, to a greater or lesser extent, of the Sabaic alphabet.  The Red Sea that separates Arabia and Africa is less than twenty miles across at its narrowest point, and very likely traders from the two realms established themselves in key cities in order to coordinate the trade in such lucrative products as ivory and incense, which sold for such high prices in the markets of the Mediterranean and Middle East.

As Ethiopia has become a more popular destination for archaeologists in recent years, there is hope of new discoveries to elucidate the mechanics of this trade and relations between these two rich and ancient cultures.