The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 17th May 2012

Aksum and the End of Meroe

Given by - Michael H. Zach

Reviewed by - Jacopo Gnisci

The annual general meeting of the Society this year was followed by a lecture from Dr. Michael H. Zach of Vienna University. Zach's presentation focused on questioning the idea that the Kingdom of Meroë ended in the middle of the fourth century as a result of a campaign led by the Aksumite ruler Ezana.

During the first part of his presentation Dr. Zach focused on setting the historical framework for his discussion. In particular, he analysed how the emergence of the Aksumite kingdom, with its control over the Red Sea trade routes, led to the impoverishment of the Kingdom of Meroë. Because of their geographic proximity, a clash between the two empires, or "superpowers of the time" as Zach calls them, was inevitable. However, Zach maintained that there is evidence that Aksumite forces had invaded and subjugated the Meroitic Kingdom already at the beginning of fourth century, that is to say prior to the well-known campaign of King Ezana. Moreover, he believes that these two campaigns were part of a wider process of military expansion and consolidation of the Aksumite Kingdom in Meroitic territory.

The core of Zach's argument centred on the existence of archaeological and epigraphical evidence that demonstrates that the Meroitic kingdom did not collapse after Ezana's campaign, which therefore was probably not as devastating as the inscriptions commissioned by the king himself would lead us to think. Instead, the kingdom's existence continued for several decades as a vassal state of the Aksumite Kingdom. The iconography of Aksumite coinage, in Zach's view, substantiates this theory. In fact, in the first half of the fourth century and into the fifth century, Ethiopian emperors are no longer represented on coinage wearing the headband that was traditionally used by Ethiopians as a symbol of royalty. Rather, according to Zach, they are depicted wearing a crown ornamented with snakes that was a symbol of regalia for the Meroitic rulers.

Zach interprets this change in the iconography of Aksumite coins, along with the adoption of Meroitic titles by the Ethiopian rulers, as a clear sign of Aksumite domination over the area. The supremacy of Aksum over Meroitic territory was probably weakened by the emergence of the kingdoms of Makuria, Nobadia, and Alodia, whereas the conquest of Egypt by Islamic armies in the seventh century gave the definitive blow to the presence of the Aksumite kingdom in the area.

Zach's well-researched presentation, which was delivered with both verve and humour, was thoroughly appreciated by a large audience.

First Published in News File Winter 2012

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