Focuses on the Aksumite state of the first millennium AD in northern Ethiopia and southern Eritrea, its development, florescence and eventual transformation into the so-called medieval civilisation of Christian Ethiopia. This book seeks to apply a common methodology, utilising archaeology, art-history, written documents and oral tradition from a wide variety of sources; the result is a far greater emphasis on continuity than previous studies have revealed. It is thus a major re-interpretation of a key development in Ethiopia's past, while raising and discussing methodological issues of the relationship between archaeology and other historical disciplines; these issues, which have theoretical significance extending far beyond Ethiopia, are discussed in full.
The last millennium BC is seen as a time when northern Ethiopia and parts of Eritrea were inhabited by farming peoples whose ancestry may be traced far back into the local 'Late Stone Age'. Colonisation from southern Arabia, to which defining importance has been attached by earlier researchers, is now seen to have been brief in duration and small in scale, its effects largely restricted to élite sections of the community. Re-consideration of inscriptions shows the need to abandon the established belief in a single 'Pre-Aksumite' state. New evidence for the rise of Aksum during the last centuries BC is critically evaluated.
Finally, new chronological precision is provided for the decline of Aksum and the transfer of centralised political authority to more southerly regions. A new study of the ancient churches - both built and rock-hewn - which survive from this poorly-understood period emphasises once again a strong degree of continuity across periods that were previously regarded as distinct.
David W Phillipson —
David W. Phillipson is the former Director, Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Professor of African Archaeology, Cambridge University. He is currently an Emeritus Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and an Hon. Professor, University College, London.
Phillipson, David W. Foundations of an African civilization: Aksum & the northern Horn, 1000 BC-1300 AD. James Currey, 2012. 293p bibl index; ISBN 9781847010414. Reviewed in 2013feb CHOICE.
For most of the first millennium CE, the kingdom of Aksum in northern Ethiopia and Eretria--the capital of the first Christian state in Africa--dominated the Red Sea. This welcome synthesis of current scholarship concerning Aksum is divided into three unequal segments. The first two chapters treat the period before the emergence of Aksum, surveying the region's history in the first millennium BCE. The 13 chapters in the second section comprehensively analyze the sources, political history, and religious and material culture of the kingdom of Aksum. The final two chapters briefly treat the history of the period after the decline of Aksum, discussing the Zagwe Dynasty and the development of the famous rock-hewn Ethiopian churches. Particularly welcome is Phillipson's emphasis on the northeast African roots of Aksumite culture, instead of treating the kingdom simply as an Arabian colony in Africa. More controversial will be his suggestion that a major kingdom centered at Adulis occupied the Red Sea coast prior to the emergence of Aksum. An important contribution to African history that belongs in all university libraries.
Summing Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates and above. -- S. M. Burstein, emeritus, California State University, Los Angeles