St. Frumentius (Abba Salama) preaching before Aksumite kings
The Axumite Gold Trade
Cosmas' goal in his The Christian Topography was to prove that the universe was shaped like the Ark of the Covenant. To help prove his case, Cosmas included in his work much valuable geographical information that he had collected during his career as a merchant sailing between Egypt and the countries of the Red Sea basin. In this passage he describes the gold trade with the peoples of Axum's African hinterland that made Axum one of the principal sources of gold for the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity.
That country known as that of Sasu (Somalia?) is itself near the ocean, just as the ocean is near the frankincense country, in which there are many gold mines. The King of the Axumites accordingly, every other year, through the governor of Agau (SW of Axum, near L. Tana) sends thither special agents to bargain for the gold, and these are accompanied by many other traders-upwards, say of five hundred-bound on the same errand as themselves. They take along with them to the mining district oxen, lumps of salt, and iron, and when they reach its neighborhood they make a halt at a certain spot and form an encampment, which they fence round with a great hedge of thorns. Within this they live, and having slaughtered the oxen, cut them in pieces, and lay the pieces on the top of thorns, along with the lumps of salt and the iron. Then come the natives bringing gold in nuggets like peas, called tancharas, and lay one or two or more of these upon what pleases them-the pieces of flesh or the salt or the iron, and then they retire to some distance off. Then the owner of the meat approaches, and if he is satisfied he takes the gold away, and upon seeing this its owner comes and takes the flesh or the salt or the iron. If, however, he is not satisfied, he leaves the gold, when the native seeing that he has not taken it, comes and either puts down more gold, or takes up what he had laid down, and goes away. Such is the mode in which business is transacted with the people of that country, because their language is different and interpreters are hardly to be found.
The time they stay in that country is five days more or less, according as the natives more or less readily coming forward buy up all their wares. On the journey homeward they all agree to travel well-armed, since some of the tribes through whose country they must pass might threaten to attack them from a desire to rob them of their gold. The space of six months is taken up with this trading expedition, including both the going and the returning. In going they march very slowly, chiefly because of the cattle, but in returning they quicken their pace lest on the way, they should be overtaken by winter and its rains. For the sources of the river Nile lie somewhere in these parts, and in winter, on account of the heavy rains, the numerous rivers which they generate obstruct the path of the traveler. The people there have their winter at the time we have our summer. It begins in the month Epiphi of the Egyptians and continues till Thoth (i.e., June through August), and during the three months the rain falls in torrents, and makes a multitude of rivers all of which flow into the Nile.
Not all relations with the tribes of the interior were so benign as Cosmas points out in the following commentary.
For most of the slaves which are now found in the hands of merchants who resort to these parts are taken from the tribes of which we speak. As for the Semenai, where he (a Greek merchant Cosmas consulted) says there are snows and ice, it is to that country that the King of the Axumites expatriates anyone he has sentenced to be banished.
The Introduction of Christianity to Axum
The Christianization of Axum in the mid-fourth century A.D. was a fundamental turning point in the history of Ethiopia. It strengthened the cultural ties between Axum and Christian Egypt at the expense of the bonds that had linked it to South Arabia, thereby laying the foundation for the tension between Christian Ethiopia and Islam that has persisted to this day. In this passage the late fourth century A.D. Latin Church historian Rufinus tells the story of the Christianization of Axum as recounted to him by one of the main figures in the process, Aedesius, Bishop of Tyre. Particularly worth noting is the important role played by Christian merchants from the Roman Empire in the introduction of Christianity to Axum.
One Metrodorus, a philosopher, is said to have penetrated to further India (probably not India proper, but Ethiopia) in order to view places and see the world. Inspired by his example, one Meropius, a philosopher of Tyre, wished to visit India with a similar object, taking with him two small boys who were related to him and whom he was educating in humane studies. The younger of them was called Aedesius, the other Frumentius. When, having seen and taken note of what his soul fed upon, the philosopher had begun to return, the ship on which he traveled put in for water or some other necessary at a certain port. It is the custom of the barbarians of these parts that, if ever the neighboring tribes report that their treaty with the Romans is broken, all Romans found among them should be massacred. The philosopher's ship was boarded; all with himself were put to the sword.
The boys were found studying under a tree and preparing their lessons, and, preserved by the mercy of the barbarians, were taken to the king (probably King Ella Amida). He made one of them, Aedesius, his cupbearer. Frumentius, whom he had perceived to be sagacious and prudent, he made his treasurer and secretary. Thereafter, they were held in great honor and affection by the king. The king died, leaving his wife with an infant son (Ezana) as heir to the bereaved kingdom. He gave the young men liberty to do what they pleased but the queen besought them with tears, since she had no more faithful subjects in the whole kingdom, to share with her the cares of governing the kingdom until her son should grow up, especially Frumentius, whose ability was equal to guiding the kingdom - for the other, though loyal and honest of heart, was simple.
While they lived there and Frumentius held the reins of government in his hands, God stirred up his heart and he began to search out with care those of the Roman merchants who were Christians and to give them great influence and to urge them to establish in various places religious buildings to which they might resort for prayer in the Roman manner. He himself, moreover, did the same and so encouraged the others, attracting them with his favor and his benefits, providing them with whatever was needed, supplying sites for buildings and other necessaries, and in every way promoting the growth of the seed of Christianity in the country. When the prince for whom they exercised the regency had grown up, they completed and faithfully delivered over their trust, and, though the queen and her son sought greatly to detain them and begged them to remain, they returned to the Roman Empire.
Aedesius hastened to Tyre to revisit his parents and relatives. Frumentius went to Alexandria, saying that it was not right to hide the work of God. He laid the whole affair before the bishop and urged him to look for some worthy man to send as bishop over the many Christians already congregated and the churches built on barbarian soil. Then Athanasius -- for he had recently assumed the episcopate -- having carefully weighed and considered Frumentius' words and deeds, declared in a council of the priests: "What other man shall we find in whom the Spirit of God is as in you, who can accomplish these things?" And he consecrated him and bade him return in the grace of God whence he had come. And when he had arrived in India (i.e., Ethiopia) as bishop, such grace is said to have been given to him by God that apostolic miracles were wrought by him and a countless number of barbarians were converted by him to the faith. From which time Christian peoples and churches have been created in the parts of India and the priesthood has begun. These facts I know not from common report but from the mouth of Aedesius himself, who had been Frumentius' companion and was later made a priest in Tyre.
(an Ethiopian version of these events may be found here)
The Aksumite Negusa-Nagast, Ezana I (330-356)
Axum in the Sixth Century A.D.
Despite the drama of the Christianization of Nubia, geography dictated that the later Roman Emperors would seek the alliance of Axum and not the Nubian kingdoms in their struggle with Sassanid Persia for hegemony in the Red Sea basin. This summary of the lost memoir of Nonnosus, a member of a family that had served the Roman Empire as ambassadors to the peoples of the Red Sea for three generations, provides a revealing glimpse into the complicated politics of the region and a clear idea of the extent of Roman knowledge of Axum during the reign of Justinian I (527-565 A.D.). Particularly noteworthy is Nonnosus' connection of the monsoon rains in the highlands of Ethiopia with the Nile flood, the most accurate account of the causes of the flood to be found in any classical writer. The following text is preserved in the "Bibliotheca" of Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople (858-867, 878-886)
Read the History of Nonnosus, containing a description of his embassy (c. 530) to the Ethiopians, Himyarites, and Saracens, then a most powerful nation, as well as to other Eastern peoples. At this time Justinian (527-565 C.E.) was emperor of the Romans, and Qays chief of the Saracens. This Qays was grandson of Arethas, himself, a chief, to whom Nonnosus's grandfather was sent as ambassador, during the reign of Anastasius (491-518 C.E.), to conclude a treaty of peace. Nonnosus's father Abrames had in like manner been sent on an embassy to Alamundarus (Mundhir, chief of the Lakhmids, an Arab tribe in NW Arabia), chief of the Saracens, during the reign of Justin 1 (518-527 C.E.), and was successful in procuring the release of Timostratus and John, two Roman generals who were prisoners of war. Qays, to whom Nonnosus was sent, was chief of two of the most illustrious Saracen tribes, the Kindites and Maadeni. Before Nonnosus was appointed ambassador, his father had been sent to this same Qays by Justinian, and had concluded a treaty of peace, on condition that Qays's son Mavias should be taken as a hostage to Byzantium. After this, Nonnosus was entrusted with a threefold mission: to Qays, to induce him, if possible, to visit the emperor, to Elesbaas (Kaleb), king of the Axumites, and then to the Himyarites.
Axum is a very large city, and may be considered the capital of Ethiopia; it lies more south and east than the Roman empire. Nonnosus, in spite of the treacherous attacks of tribesmen, perils from wild beasts, and many difficulties and dangers on the journey, successfully accomplished his mission, and returned in safety to his native land.
He relates that Qays, after Abrames had been sent to him a second time, set out for Byzantium, having previously divided his chieftaincy between his brothers Ambrus and Yezid. He brought a large number of his subjects with him, and was appointed administrator of Palestine by the emperor ....
He tells us that most of the Saracens, those who live in Phoenicon as well as beyond it and the Taurenian mountains, have a sacred meeting-place consecrated to one of the gods, where they assemble twice a year. One of these meetings lasts a whole month, almost to the middle of spring when the sun enters Taurus; the other lasts two months, and is held after the summer solstice. During these meetings complete peace prevails, not only amongst themselves, but also with all the natives; even the animals are at peace both with themselves and with human beings. Other strange, more or less fabulous information is also given.
He tells us that Adulis is fifteen days' journey from Axum. On his way there he and his companions saw a remarkable sight in the neighborhood of Aue midway between Axum and Adulis; this was a large number of elephants, nearly 5000. They were feeding in a large plain, and the inhabitants found it difficult to approach them or drive them from their pasture. This was what they saw on their journey.
We must also say something about the climatic contrarieties of summer and winter between Aue and Axum. When the sun enters Cancer, Leo, and Virgo, it is summer as far as Aue, as with us, and the atmosphere is extremely dry; but from Aue to Axum and the rest of Ethiopia, it is severe winter, not throughout the day, but beginning from midday, the sky being covered with clouds and the country flooded with violent rains. At that time also the Nile, spreading over Egypt, overflows and irrigates the land. But when the sun enters Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces, the atmosphere, conversely, floods the country of the Adulites as far as Aue, while it is summer from Aue to Axum and the rest of Ethiopia, and the fruits of the earth are ripe.
During his voyage from Pharsan, Nonnosus, on reaching the last of the islands, had a remarkable experience. He saw there certain creatures of human shape and form, very short, black-skinned, their bodies entirely covered with hair. The men were accompanied by women of the same appearance, and by boys still shorter. All were naked, women as well as men, except for a short apron of skin round their loins. There was nothing wild or savage about them. Their speech was human, but their language was unintelligible even to their neighbors, and still more so to Nonnosus and his companions. They live on shellfish and fish cast up on the shore. According to Nonnosus, they were very timid, and when they saw him and his companions, they shrank from them as we do from monstrous wild beasts.
Meeting with a King of Axum
In 530/31 A.D. Justinian I attempted to enlist the aid of the contemporary Axumite king Kaleb in a war against the South Arabian ruler Dhu Nuwas, who had converted to Judaism and was alleged to be persecuting the Christian inhabitants of his realm. In this excerpt from his report the Roman ambassador Julian provides a unique and vivid description of an Axumite king dressed in his full royal regalia. The following text is from the Chronographia of Theophanes..
In the same year (527), the Romans and Persians broke their peace. The Persian war was renewed because of the embassy of the Homeritan Indians (Himyarite Arabs) to the Romans. The Romans sent the Magistrianos Julian from Alexandria down the Nile River and through the Indian Ocean (i.e., the Red Sea) with sacral letters to Arethas (in fact, King Kaleb), the king of the Ethiopians. King Arethas (Kaleb) received him with great joy, since Arethas longed after the Roman Emperor's friendship.
On his return (to Constantinople), this same Julian reported that King Arethas was naked when he received him but had round his kidneys a loincloth of lien and gold thread. On his belly he wore linen with precious pearls; his bracelets had five spikes, and he wore gold armlets by his hands. He had a linen and gold cloth turban round his head, with four cords hanging down from both its straps.
He stood on (a carriage drawn by) four standing elephants which had a yoke and four wheels. Like any stately carriage, it was ornamented with golden petals, just as are the carriages of provincial governors. While he stood upon it, he held in his hands a small gilded shield and two gold javelins. His counselors were all armed, and sang musical tunes.
When the Roman ambassador was brought in and had performed the prostration, he was ordered to rise by the king and was led before him. Arethas accepted the Emperor's sacral letters and tenderly kissed the seal which had the Emperor's image. He also accepted Julian's gifts and greatly rejoiced.
When he read the letter, he found that it was urgent for him to arm himself against the Persian king, devastate Persian territory near him, and in the future no longer make covenants with the Persian. Rather, the letter arranged that the land of the Homeritai would conduct its business with Egyptian Alexandria by way of the Nile River (thereby diverting trade from the Sassanian threat in the Red Sea).
In the sight of the envoy, King Arethas immediately began to campaign: he set war in motion against the Persians and sent out his Saracens. He himself also went off against Persian territory and pillaged all of it in that area. After conquering, King Arethas gave Julian a kiss of peace on the head and sent him off with a large retinue and many gifts.