This exploration has revealed a rare glimpse into the ‘Lost Kingdom’ of Aksum, located in the dusty Northern plains of Ethiopia. An ancient buried and lost city that existed more than 1,400 years ago has recently been uncovered by archaeologists.
‘That’s what’s great about Ethiopia,’ explained archaeologist Michael Harrower from the John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland to New Scientist magazine.
‘In Greece and Rome, a lot of places have been explored and studied, so there’s not a lot of discoveries of major ancient towns anymore.’
This newly discovered citadel, as it was described inAntiquity in December, was the centre of a relatively unknown ancient North African civilisation. It dominated East Africa around 80 BC to 825 AD and as a result, traded with leading powers at the time including the Roman Empire, the Persian Empire and the Chinese Empire.
Its capital, also known as Aksum, still exists today and is famous for its many tall, stone obelisks. But there are still very few remains left behind of this civilisation.What researchers know is that it came from a so-called ‘pre-Aksumite’ society, the name of which is unknown. The earlier civilisation may have been based around Yeha in northern Ethiopia and that’s why researchers have been surveying the surrounding area.
After discussions with the local people, they started to excavate a hill near a village. There, they found a grid of stone walls, either buildings or workshops, spread over 14 hectares of land which turned out to be a tell – a mound created by ruins. The city is currently being called Beta Samati by researchers, which means ‘house of audience’ in the local Tigrinya language.
This discovery is ‘highly significant’ to Jacke Phillips from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
‘Most of our known Aksumite and pre-Aksumite sites are old excavations, hastily conducted and badly published by today’s standards.’
Radiocarbon dates of the site span from 771 BC to 645 AD. That means that Beta Samati existed during the pre-Aksumite period and also during the rise of Aksum… until its mysterious decline. For researchers, this data is particularly significant because it suggests that the pre-Aksumite colonies weren’t abandoned when the Empire emerged as previously believed. There also may not have been a sharp political break between the two civilisations as archaeologists had previously suspected.
A large rectangular building, most likely a Roman-style basilica, has also been identified in the ancient, buried city. In the Roman Empire, these basilicas were used for public administration and courts before later being used as places of Christian worship. As for Aksum, it originally had a polytheistic religion which seems to have been influenced by traditions from the Saba Kingdom in what is now Yemen, before it was converted to Christianity in the 4th century by King Ezana. Or at least, that’s what Ethiopian tradition leads us to believe. In fact, the discovery of this basilica confirms that the presence of Christianity in North-Eastern Aksum arrived very early. Archaeologists also even found a stone pendant marked with a Christian cross.
At a crossroads
Moreover, scientists have known for a long time that Aksum was a large, commercial civilisation due to its ideal position close to the Red Sea and the commercial route to India. Among other things, it was particularly well-known for exporting gold, ivory, elephants and baboons.
The objects found in Beta Samati confirm this trading and also the mix of foreign influences. The team has also found amphorae from Aqaba in what is now Jordan, and a glass bead probably from the eastern Mediterranean. A ring resembling a Roman jewel, but with a few differences in the style, has also been found, which shows that they even adapted some Roman designs to match their own culture.
‘Future research at the site has the potential to clarify a range of topics, including the rise of one of Africa’s first complex polities, the development of Aksum’s trade connections, the conversion from polytheism to Christianity and the eventual decline of the Empire of Aksum,’ concluded the archaeologists in their study.
There are currently plans to return to Beta Samati soon to carry out further excavations and obtain more information about this complex, yet still rather mysterious, society.