An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"

The Royal Tombs of Aksum – Ethiopia

with 4 comments

A Tour of the Ethiopian Iron Age Site
SOURCE: From K. Kris Hirst,

Text copyright Stuart Munro-Hay (1998)

Dr Stuart Munro-Hay

Dr Stuart Munro-Hay

Dr Stuart Christopher Munro-Hay is internationally-respected Ethiopian specialist, archaeologist and historian of Thailand. First known as an Egyptologist who, after excavating at the ancient city of Aksum, turned his attention to Ethiopian studies instead.

He studied for his doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, and was a Research Associate at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cambridge. Later he taught archaeology and ancient African history in many universities including Khartoum and Nairobi.

In 1998, the now-late archaeologist Stuart Munro-Hay contacted me and asked if I would move his wonderful website on the history of excavations at Axum to my website. I was happy to be able to do so. The following is an update of Munro-Hay’s project, in that it is in a new format, with with some additional figures. I hope he would approve.

During his formative years, archaeologist Stuart Munro-Hay had the good fortune to work with the esteemed scholar Neville Chittick of the British Institute of Eastern Africa, as he excavated the Iron Age site of Aksum in what is now Ethiopia. The 1974 excavation proved a thrilling experience, as is clear from the glimpse Stuart provides us with, into what the excavation was like and what he learned from it.

Christopher T. Snow - Passageway Beneath Tomb Entrance, Axum - Archaeologists don't recognise themselves in Indiana Jones; his methods and results raise a shudder of horror in a profession dedicated to precision, care and the slow, meticulous uncovering of the past. Nevertheless, there are true moments of drama in archaeology that can compare with even the most extravagant of Indiana's sets.Imagine a small hole leading down a narrow shaft into the earth. A rough wooden ladder is inserted; down you go. At the bottom, darkness and the heavy, moist air of an ancient tomb. A ball of string to guide your return, a candle to light you, and you set out into the gloom. The candle barely illuminates a large rock-cut chamber. On through a rough doorway---room after room. You concentrate on what the flame dimly reveals---a floor covered with shiny dry mud---walls and roof imperfectly seen. Here a skull, gleaming white suddenly in the light, guards an entrance, or the greenish tint of some ancient bronze object is fitfully illuminated; there pots still lie intact where the servants of the dead---or later robbers---left them. Then, at the end, a huge dressed stone forbids further exploration. Suddenly you realise the candle is dimming. There is no oxygen. You find yourself gasping for breath....Text copyright Stuart Munro-Hay 1998

Archaeologists don’t recognise themselves in Indiana Jones; his methods and results raise a shudder of horror in a profession dedicated to precision, care and the slow, meticulous uncovering of the past. Nevertheless, there are true moments of drama in archaeology that can compare with even the most extravagant of Indiana’s sets.

Imagine a small hole leading down a narrow shaft into the earth. A rough wooden ladder is inserted; down you go. At the bottom, darkness and the heavy, moist air of an ancient tomb. A ball of string to guide your return, a candle to light you, and you set out into the gloom. The candle barely illuminates a large rock-cut chamber. On through a rough doorway—room after room. You concentrate on what the flame dimly reveals—a floor covered with shiny dry mud—walls and roof imperfectly seen. Here a skull, gleaming white suddenly in the light, guards an entrance, or the greenish tint of some ancient bronze object is fitfully illuminated; there pots still lie intact where the servants of the dead—or later robbers—left them. Then, at the end, a huge dressed stone forbids further exploration. Suddenly you realise the candle is dimming. There is no oxygen. You find yourself gasping for breath….

(Niall Crotty) - Axumite Architecture at Gondar -

Or again, wedged into a gap between giant granite roof beams and the earth fill of the corridor in an immense newly-discovered tomb. Scribbling notes as the expedition leader crawls along under those tremendous stones, calling out what he sees… “another chamber.. ten in all… enormous… seems to be plaster on the wall… another shaft coming down here… roots between the stones… ouch!… at the end, the top of a brick arch… it’s blocked…” This was Dr. Neville Chittick, leader of the 1974 British Institute in Eastern Africa’s expedition to Aksum in Ethiopia, recorded in my notebook as we entered for the first time the great tomb dubbed ‘the Mausoleum’ for its unexpected size and architectural impressiveness. The slow unfolding of my own particular discovery as part of Dr. Chittick’s team, the Tomb of the Brick Arches, also had moments of suspense. First, a staircase going down. A granite lintel appeared. Then, totally unexpected, a brick. The diggers clear the top of an arch; I recalled the received dictum; ‘the arch was unknown in Aksum’. More clearing. The arch was horseshoe shaped—a new page to be written in the history of architecture. Then the blocking… broken or still intact…? These were some of my experiences a quarter of a century ago when we discovered the royal tombs at Aksum.

1906 Excavation Plan of Axum (Ethiopia)

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.

Red Sea off Sinai Peninsula

We know all too little of early Aksum, hence the great importance of Dr. Chittick’s excavations. A Greek document of the mid-1st century AD mentions King Zoskales, ruler of upland and coastal Ethiopia from its ‘metropolis’, Aksum. Adding a human touch, the document notes that Zoskales was greedy for gain, though well versed in Greek literature, before returning to its real interest, commerce in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. During the early centuries AD towns were founded or succeeded Dia`mat precursors. Palaces in a distinctive architectural style dominated lesser streets with houses built haphazardly. Ranking after the capital, granite-built, splendid beyond the possibilities of provincial centres, came several substantial towns. At Matara archaeologists found impressive limestone architecture and innumerable objects relating to the inhabitant’s daily life. On the coast, Adulis, its palaces and churches built of local basalt, became Aksum’s chief port, though still ruled by its hereditary rulers, the kings of Gabaz. From here, the treasures of Africa, gold, emeralds, obsidian, ivory, costly animal skins, gums and aromatic incense, and slaves were shipped away to Egypt, Rome, India, and Sri Lanka. In return came valuable metalwork, iron weaponry, wine, olive oil, fabrics, glassware….

The 17th-18th century church of Mary of Zion, successor to the earliest Christian church in Ethiopia's ancient capital

Building on their trading wealth, Aksum’s rulers became ever more powerful. Their titles (in Greek, Arabian, and Ge`ez or Ethiopic inscriptions) grow more elaborate. Ezana, second ruler, after the king of Armenia, to adopt Christianity as state religion c. AD 330, calls himself ‘King of Kings, King of Aksum, Saba, Salhen, Himyar, Raydan, Habashat, Tiamo, Kasu, and the Beja tribes’.

The four names after Aksum represent Yemeni kingdoms and the palaces in their capital cities; Habashat is ‘Abyssinia’, Tiamo perhaps a memory of old Diamat; Kasu is Meroe, biblical Kush, in modern Sudan, where the Beja people, too, still live. Two centuries later Kaleb, King and Saint, added Hadramaut (SE Yemen) and ‘all the Arabs on the coastal plain and the highlands’. His empire embraced, in modern terms, all northern Ethiopia, the Sudan to the Nile, and Yemen with part of Saudi Arabia.

Arab royal inscriptions of the 3rd century tell us—first hand evidence, written by the enemy—how Aksumite kings sent their sons with fleets and armies to ally with rival Yemeni tribes, slowly carving out a great Afro-Asiatic empire that bridged the Red Sea, and allowed the kings of Aksum to impose kings on the Yemeni Arabs. When, around 570AD, the Persians conquered Yemen, the blaze of all this magnificence, fuelled by commercial riches, faded away. The Red Sea trade with Rome and India slipped from Aksum’s control. With the rise of Islam around 640 a new world map was drawn, excluding Aksum.

The city, for 600 years a great capital, was left with an exhausted environment. For centuries trees were felled for charcoal and agricultural expansion, the topsoil had washed away. Even the weather changed, according to recorded Nile flood-levels in Egypt, which depend on Ethiopian rains. Its hinterland incapable of supporting it, Aksum became a backwater, notable only for its ruins and Mary of Zion cathedral—still today the holiest shrine in Ethiopia, the reputed resting place of Indiana’s Ark of the Covenant.

King Ezanas

Exceptionally for an ancient sub-Saharan African state, Aksum struck coinage. The importance of this move for Aksum was confirmed for me in 1987, when the Ethiopian Department of Antiquities invited me to catalogue a hoard of gold Aksumite coins found at a place called al-Madhariba in Yemen. I arrived at Aden Museum expecting to see a dozen or so pieces, since these coins were exceptionally rare. I can never forget my astonishment when the museum director poured out a stream of coins from a bag onto the table in front of me. Altogether there were 1194 gold coins, including 858 struck by the kings of Aksum. The find tripled at one stroke the known total of Aksumite gold coins.

King Aphilas

Few contemporary rulers could issue in gold, a statement of absolute sovereignty. On the coins (the silver and bronze, uniquely, overlaid with gold on important symbols like the cross or crown) we read the names of over twenty otherwise unknown kings, from the 3rd-7th century AD. We see the monarchs wearing the high Aksumite tiara, dressed in fringed robes, with necklaces, bracelets, armlets and probably finger-rings, and holding sword, spear, or hand-cross. Wheat-stalks appear too, a vital crop for Aksum’s continued prosperity. A characteristic motif is the cross; the Aksumites were the first to depict it on coins. Ethiopian art later exploited cross-forms to a high degree, but on coins some early developments—cross-crosslets, diamond centred crosses inlaid with gold—can be seen. Only in Aksum was the coinage decorated with gold inlay in this fashion.

King Kaleb

The coin-legends of the earlier kings were in Greek, changing later to Ethiopic, though Greek is retained for the gold—an indication of the international commercial status of the greek language in the trade of the region. The coins made excellent propaganda media; early Christian examples show a cross surrounded by the phrase ‘May this please the People’, a form of conversion-manifesto. Others declare ‘By the Grace of God’, or ‘By this Cross he will conquer’, or, later, ‘Joy and Peace to the People’, ‘Christ is with us’, ‘Mercy and Peace’.

Engraving of an excavated Aksumite style palace at Lalibela.

In Aksum itself impressive structures were built. The great ‘palaces’ or elite residences of the rich apparently consisted—only foundations now survive—of towered pavilions mounted on high basements (an anti-flood measure?) approached by monumental granite staircases. A 6th century Greek visitor to Aksum mentioned the king’s ‘four-towered palace’. Such buildings were enclosed by flanking wings of domestic structures, ensuring them both privacy and defence—if that were necessary in a land that was itself a mountain fortress. Inside, there were carved granite pedestals and capitals adorning the columns, brick ovens, underfloor-drainage systems, marble flooring and paneling. We may imagine, almost certainly, carved wooden columns and other decorative work.

The Aksumite kings dedicated granite thrones to their Gods—Astar, Beder, Meder, Mahrem—inscribing them with accounts of military campaigns. Such thrones still stand, broken and desolate, around the city. Statues of gold, silver and bronze were erected to Mahrem, the dynastic god, paralleled with the Greek war-god Mars. One statue-base discovered earlier this century still bore fixing holes and the outline of the feet of a statue, each 99 cm long. All this represents the elite of the Aksumite world.

Archaeology is not all royal monuments, but the perishable nature of humbler dwellings means that often enough little remains to indicate how the ordinary people lived. This is the case at Aksum as elsewhere, but sometimes one can be lucky and find some hints about the lives of lesser people. In one modest tomb on the outskirts of the town of Aksum were found sets of glass stem goblets and beakers, iron tools, weapons and about seventy exquisitely-finished earthenware pots. Even this signifies a certain wealth, but the style of the tomb—little more than a hole dug into the ground—and the contrast between the contents and those from more imposing tombs, hints at very different strata of society.

(Niall Crotty) - Obelisk at Axum, Ethiopia -

Without doubt, Aksum’s most impressive remains are the royal tombs and their fabulous markers, the ‘stelae’ or obelisks. Even the plain examples are impressive, cut from hard local granite. But truly staggering is a series of six carved examples. These seem to depict the dead rulers’ palaces—their tombs lay beneath, and it was our good fortune to be the discoverers of this underground world. The stelae—or so we may conjecture—were the stairways to heaven for the kings of Aksum. At the base are granite plates with carved wine-cups for offerings to the spirit of the deceased. The largest stela is certainly among the biggest single stones ever quarried by human labour. It testifies to the magnificent self-esteem of the unknown ruler who had it extracted and dragged several kilometres to its final site, and to the skill and artistry of those who prepared and decorated it. Over thirty-three metres tall, the stele represents a thirteen storey tower, with elaborate window-tracery, frames, lintels, beam-ends, even a door with a bolt. This monstrous stone soon fell—perhaps a few seconds after being levered upright—smashing onto the roof block of a tomb nearby. This block (some 17 x 7 x 1.5 metres), was not broken, though the tomb underneath it was crushed, but the great stele separated into three pieces. The top was completely smashed by the impact. Nearby is its largest still-standing neighbour, twenty-seven metres tall. Underneath this ‘stele field’ is an extraordinary series of tombs, the underground maze which we began in 1973-4 to explore and clear. On all sides tunnels open out—some dug by robbers. The ground here contains fallen stelae, or their base-plates, that have slipped down from above, buried staircases, walls and walled platforms, shafts and other structures, as well as tomb chambers and their contents—skulls and bones, pottery, metal, and piles of other grave-goods.

H. Neville Chittick and Stuart Munro-Hay, during excavation

Only in the Tomb of the Brick Arches was there time to carry out proper clearing, and even this was only the tip of the iceberg. I found that the arches all had broken blocking. Robbers had been there before. Work was difficult. I had to wear a hat continuously, despite the unpleasantly hot and stuffy atmosphere, as the heat from my lamp—we had no electricity in those days—dried out the rough rock-cut roof. Jagged stones would occasionally fall on me. But I was well rewarded. In the tomb many grave-goods still remained. There were fragments of gold and silver jewellery, beads, bronze objects, including plaques inlaid with glass in floral or geometric patterns that had once adorned now-collapsed wooden chests, iron weapons, exquisite glassware goblets and flasks, beautifully-decorated pots, even wood and leather preserved by the damp. Much of Aksum’s domestic production was peculiar to itself, individual, just as is the coinage I noted above.

Only part of the tomb’s contents could be was cleared at the time. Further in were small loculi where the dead were laid to rest. These, though planned, were never touched. In 1974 we left Ethiopia on the eve of revolution, and the work was never resumed. It was frustrating to leave things unfinished—information half assembled. For example, I found two pieces of a broken glass bowl, with Greek or Latin letters; twenty years later I still wonder what the rest of the inscription, undoubtedly there among the piles of broken objects, read.

Though, sadly, events made it impossible for me to rejoin the team, the British Institute’s work, under Dr. David Phillipson, at last resumed after nearly two decades in 1993. The Tomb of the Brick Arches was reopened, and more treasures revealed, this time including finely carved ivory, panels perhaps from some splendid chair or throne. The work continued until 1997, and Dr. Phillipson published his report in two volumes in 2001.

Written by Tseday

September 13, 2008 at 8:53 pm

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Dear Sir:
    I would like to know more about Dr. Munro-Hay works.
    Thank you.
    kind regards:
    Luis Estepa

    Luis Estepa

    March 11, 2009 at 7:02 pm

  2. Dears, i am very intersiting for your site to get more information about Axum oblisk.Thank you very much for giving me this information.

    Thank you!

    Abush getachew

    August 20, 2009 at 8:28 am

  3. (Just Googled for some reason)I knew Stuart from 1976 to 1978 we lived in the same apartment building in London, I can still remember drinking tea & talking with him about our different goals for the future, his apartment was very strange, full of antiquities including a mummy (so he said)but I do remember us laughing a lot. I still have one of the (Brass things) he had me make for him.
    Such a nice guy.

    David Fenton

    October 8, 2009 at 1:09 am

  4. Archeologists need to continue the excavation of Axum which was started in 1974 by archaeologist Stuart Munro-Hay together with the British Institute of Eastern Africa. Staurt Munro-Hay’s book titled “Aksum:An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity” can be found at (


    June 6, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: