Before Aksum: Excavating Ethiopia’s Earliest Civilisation

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In the 1st millennium AD, Ethiopia was home to the great civilisation of Aksum, one of the world’s first Christian kingdoms. But what came before Aksum? A joint Ethiopian-German project near Wuqro in the Tigray highlands is uncovering unprecedented finds and revealing a fascinating picture, as Steven Matthews and Saskia Büchner explain.

Excavation on the mound of Ziban Adi during 2015, revealing a large pre-Aksumite building.
The pre-Aksumite temple dedicated to the Sabaean god Alamaqah on the site of Meqaber Ga’ewa, near Wuqro.

The mighty civilisation of Aksum, centred on the verdant Ethiopian highlands of Tigray, thrived for much of the 1st millennium BC. Once described as one of the four greatest kingdoms on earth, along with Rome, China, and Persia, it was an important trading empire ruled by a wealthy elite. Its connections stretched from Europe to China, bolstered by a lucrative trade in indigenous frankincense, myrrh, and gold. Yet with the passage of time, the kingdom fell from wider memory. Despite over a century of excavations, the archaeology of Aksum – with its wealthy settlements and iconic field of towering stone-carved stelae – remains little known when compared to the sites of Rome or Persia.

Yet what of the period before Aksum? In this so-called ‘pre-Aksumite’ era, we enter even less well-known territory, but it is equally fascinating. Here we witness a world of elegantly austere monumental temples, and a mysterious merging of cultures across the Red Sea with ancient Yemen and the kingdom of Saba, commonly thought to be the biblical land of ‘Sheba’. Stretching back to the early 1st millennium BC and beyond, this is Ethiopia’s earliest known civilisation.

While previous research has revealed something of the religious aspects of pre-Aksumite Ethiopia, we are now beginning to shed light on their intriguing residential life. Indeed, since 2007, our team from the German Archaeological Institute, in cooperation with the Tigray Culture and Tourism Bureau, has been investigating a series of pre-Aksumite sites dating to the 1st millennium BC in the hinterlands of Wuqro, a rapidly growing town in eastern Tigray. The results have been spectacular.

Images: DAI/ P Wolf

This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 79.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

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