Tuesday, November 23

Axum or Aksum?

this post was spun off from this one about the return of the obelisk.

Axum was the cradle of Ethiopian civilization. The Library of Congress has a Country Study that gives a good brief of that era. Axum is in the Tigray region and although the Tigrayan and Amharic languages are intimately related and the cultures at times indistinguishable, the Tigrayans are linguistically and ancestrally the closest living kin of the Axumite Empire.
The Aksumite state emerged at about the beginning of the Christian era, flourished during the succeeding six or seven centuries, and underwent prolonged decline from the eighth to the twelfth century A.D. Aksum's period of greatest power lasted from the fourth through the sixth century.
At the kingdom's height, its rulers held sway over the Red Sea coast from Sawakin in present-day Sudan in the north to Berbera in present-day Somalia in the south, and inland as far as the Nile Valley in modern Sudan. On the Arabian side of the Red Sea, the Aksumite rulers at times controlled the coast and much of the interior of modern Yemen. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Aksumite state lost its possessions in southwest Arabia and much of its Red Sea coastline and gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward.
Much of the impetus for foreign conquest lay in the desire to control the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India and adjoining lands. Indeed, King Zoskales is mentioned by name in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (the Latin term for the Red Sea is Mare Erythreum), a Greek shipping guide of the first to third centuries A.D., as promoting commerce with Rome, Arabia, and India.
The Metropolitan on the outside contacts
An Alexandria-based trader's handbook written in the first century A.D., the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, provides one of the earliest testimonies of Aksum's expanding involvement in trade. Linked to the Red Sea trade routes by its port city of Adulis, Aksum itself was situated further inland, perhaps to allow for better control of the ivory that was one of its most lucrative exports. Aksumite ties through Adulis to the Red Sea would remain vital to the kingdom throughout its history, a factor that contributed to Aksum's decline in the seventh century when increasing Muslim dominance of the region cut off access to international trade.
The Country Study continues
As an indication of the type of political control he exercised, Ezana, like other Aksumite rulers, carried the title negusa nagast (king of kings) [basically means Emperor], symbolic of his rule over numerous tribute-paying principalities and a title used by successive Ethiopian rulers into the mid-twentieth century.

The Aksumites created a civilization of considerable distinction. They devised an original architectural style and employed it in stone palaces and other public buildings. They also erected a series of carved stone stelae at Aksum as monuments to their deceased rulers. Some of these stelae are among the largest known from the ancient world. The Aksumites left behind a body of written records, that, although not voluminous, are nonetheless a legacy otherwise bequeathed only by Egypt and Meroë among ancient African kingdoms. These records were written in two languages--Gi'iz and Greek. Gi'iz is assumed to be ancestral to modern Amharic and Tigrinya, although possibly only indirectly. Greek was also widely used, especially for commercial transactions with the Hellenized world of the eastern Mediterranean.
We disagree on two points. First, Ge'ez is still the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Ethiopian Jews - to speakers of all three languages it is obviously particularly close to Tigrinya and close to Amharic as well. The relationship is most definitely direct - at least as direct as Italian and English respectively are to Latin. Second, Ge'ez is a Semitic tongue akin to Hebrew and Arabic that has little to do with Ancient Greece or Egypt.

Ge'ez lost its national predominance to Amharic and Tigrinya from the 13th century onwards. Amharic, in particular, is the offspring of extant Cushitic languages and of Ge'ez. Ethiopian History.com has some images of ancient Ge'ez and has this to say about it
Amharic is the official language of Ethiopia and it is spoken most widely in the northwest and central part of the country. Tigrinya is mostly spoken in northern and northeastern Ethiopia. Tigré is spoken in the independent nation of Eritrea, formerly part of Ethiopia.

The south Arabian immigrants brought with them the Sabean language [spoken by the legendary Queen of Sheba] into Ethiopia sometime early in the first millennium BCE, possibly by the Aguezat settlers. By early in the next millennium, a distinctive Ethiopian version, influenced by the indigenous Cushitic peoples, was being used in stone inscriptions
The Metropolitan continues
Aksum (Axum) is perhaps most renowned internationally for its enormous monolithic stelae, erected during the third and fourth centuries A.D. as funerary markers for deceased members of its elite. To the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, it is the place where the Arc of the Covenant was brought by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel.
Sacred Sites.com has this to say about the Arc of the Covenant:
At some unknown date, this awesome object vanished from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Temple. The date of its disappearance and its subsequent whereabouts has mystified legions of biblical scholars, archaeologists and historians.
Ethiopian legends say that when the Queen of Sheba made her famous journey to Jerusalem she was impregnated by King Solomon and bore him a son - a royal prince - who in later years stole the Ark. The name of the prince was Menelik, which means "the son of the wise man". Although he was conceived in Jerusalem he was born in Ethiopia where the Queen of Sheba had returned after discovering that she was carrying Solomon's child. When he had reached the age of twenty, Menelik himself traveled from Ethiopia to Israel and arrived at his father's court. There he was instantly recognized and accorded great honor. After a year had passed, however, the elders of the land became jealous of him. They complained that Solomon showed him too much favor and they insisted that he must go back to Ethiopia. This the king accepted on the condition that the first-born sons of all the elders should also be sent to accompany him.

Amongst these latter was Azarius, son of Zadok the High Priest of Israel, and it was Azarius, not Menelik, who stole the Ark of the Covenant from its place in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. The group of young men did not reveal the theft to Prince Menelik until they were far away from Jerusalem. When at last they told him what they had done he asserted that they could not have succeeded in so bold a venture unless God had willed its outcome. Therefore he agreed that the Ark should remain with them. Thus Menelik brought the Arc to Ethiopia, to the sacred city of Axum, where it has remained ever since.
The city of Axum also occupies a central place in the traditions of the Muslims. The remote town of Axum was the earliest historical center where the followers of Muhammad freely exercised their religion in an atmosphere of peace without the fear of persecution. In the fifth year of Muhammad’s mission (corresponding to the year 615 in the Christian era), the Axumite king, Ella Saham, offered asylum to a small group of Muhammad’s followers (11 men and 4 women, including Uthman ibn Affan, who was to become the third Caliph).

A few years later, nearly 100 more Muslims came to join this first group and altogether they stayed in Axum for thirteen years. Scholars believe that Axum was selected as a place of asylum because there existed a close commercial link between the kingdom of Axum and the city-state of Mecca long before the rise of Islam.
Christianity had established itself in Axum by the fourth century A.D. A shipwreck stranded a Christian philosopher (from Syria - remember back then most of the current Middle East outside of the Arabian peninsula was Christian) and his two young wards. The philosopher died but the young men became officials in the court of the Axumite King. When they returned home they urged the Orthodox patriarch in Egypt to send missionaries there. One of the young men, Frumentius was sent back to become the first Bishop of the Ethiopian Church and he eventually converted King Ezana and the whole empire to Christianity.

Foreign Dispatches has some helpful input on the subject of language origins raised above.
An interesting fact is that the [H]orn of Africa region contains more attested Semitic languages than the entire Middle East, something to keep in mind when next some crank starts to posit a "Semitic invasion" of Africa: it almost certainly occurred the other way round (don't even get me started on the "Hamitic" nonsense). In fact, the vast majority of the Afroasiatic languages of which the Semitic tongues constitute a branch exist in Africa alone, and after Arabic, the second most widely spoken Afroasiatic language is West Africa's Hausa.
We agree, the African origins of Semitic languages is an idea that is well accepted. At the very least, significant linguistic and cultural interaction was in both directions across an always easily travelled Red Sea, probably in the same dhows that remain in wide use today. FD continues
In short, given what we know from recorded history, knowing that the Chadic branch of Afroasiatic alone consists of more than 600 attested languages, and seeing as not a single family of Afroasiatic outside of Semitic extends out of Africa, it is pure wishful thinking to imagine that the family could have originated anywhere else. There simply isn't a trace of evidence to support such an assumption.
Confusing at times is the relationship between Semitic, Cushitic or other languages, cultures and ethnicity and/or race. A population can be described as having an identity composed of bits and pieces from several overlapping and distinct categories. It would take a high order of understanding of anthropology (and today ... politics) to sort it all out.

One concept that has been sorted out is that of the 'Hamitic Myth' which FD aptly terms nonsense. A primitive ethnology developed from the names of the sons of Noah and all Africans were assigned the role of 'cursed' Hamites. More useful concepts are now in place - "[t]he Hamitic language group is no longer considered a useful concept, though the phrase Semito-Hamitic is an obsolete term for the Afro-Asiatic group".

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