English translation and commentary on the “Monumentum Adulitanum”

Adulis was a settlement located along the coast of the Red Sea on the Gulf of Zula south of Massawa in modern-day Eritrea. Historically, it has been active under several kingdoms and empires, from both abroad and local. It is even believed to have been a major port under the ancient “Puntite” kingdom and continued to function as such until its unfortunate demise during the decline of the Aksumite Empire. The now-lost throne of Adulis perfectly encapsulates and reflects the cultural and linguistic diversity this city was subject to — being written in Ge’ez (in both the local script and the musnad) and also Greek. How are historians aware of this throne if archaeologists have failed to discover it? Mr. Cosmas Indicopleustes. He was a merchant and geographer who travelled across the Red Sea and is known to have ranked Aksum among the three most important trading nations to maintain a steady traffic of commerce with Sri Lanka. When he stumbled upon this inscription written in Greek, he copied it down and thought it was about a mighty Ptolemaic king (Adulis used to be ruled by the Ptolemaic dynasty), but little did he know about preserving the tale of one of the most extraordinary African conquests, which would have otherwise been swept under the Eritrean sand dunes of history. Enjoy.

The English is based on Glen Bowersock’s translation and the inscription reads as follows:

“[…] afterwards I grew to manhood and bade the nations closest to my kingdom to keep peace. I waged war and subjugated in battle the following peoples. I fought the tribe of Gaze, then won victories over the Agame and Siguene. I took as my share half their property and their population…”

Unfortunately, the initial lines of this inscription is lost (which could explain the anonymity of this king). The identification of the many toponyms and tribes remains somewhat uncertain but some connections can still drawn. The “tribe of Gaze” could be synonymous to people of Agʿāzī residing in the Akele-Guzay region of southern Eritrea. The “Siguene” could refer to the town of Soguet near Adigrat (Tigray). So far, the places highlighted here are in the northern Ethiopian plateau between the regions of Tigray and southern-Eritrea. Today, this would constitute the Tigrinya-speaking peoples of the Horn of Africa.

“… The Aua, Zingabene, Aggabe, Tiamaa, Athagaoi, Kalaa, and Samene, people who live beyond the Nile in inaccessible and snowy mountains, in which there are storms, and ice and snow so deep that a man sinks in up to his knees — these people I subjugated after crossing the river…”

Based on reports from a Byzantine diplomat, Nonnosus, “Aua” lies on the way from Adulis to Axum and can be identified as Adwa. However, the people of “Zingabene”, “Aggabe” and “Kalaa” remain obscure to this day but according to the German orientalist Ludwig Littmann, the king is referring to tribal regions he invaded as he moved southwards into the Ethiopian highlands. This seems to be the most rational considering the mention of “Samene” which is identified as the Simēn mountains further south of the highlands near the Gondar region, today home to predominantly Amharic-and Agaw-speaking tribes.

“… Then I subjugated the inhabitants of Lasine, Zaa, and Gabala who live by a mountain with bubbling and flowing streams of hot waters. I subjugated the Atalmo and Beja and all the peoples of the Tangaitai with them, who dwell as far as the frontiers of Egypt. I made passable the road from the places of my kingdom all the way to Egypt…”

“Lasine”, “Zaa”, “Atalmo” and “Gabala”, are unknown but the reference to hot springs point precisely to such waters that can be found in the regions of Anseba located in northern-Eritrea. “Beja” brings a recognizable territory located in the northern-lowlands close to the Kushite city of Meroë, modern-day Sudan. This description corresponds to the king moving up north into the Cushitic-speaking peoples which is a rather odd trajectory from the southern highlands of Ethiopia.

“…Then I subdued the “inhabitants of Annene and Metine on craggy mountains. I fought the Sesea people, who had gone up onto the greatest and most inaccessible mountain. I surrounded them and brought them down, and I chose for myself their young men, women, boys, girls, and all their property. I subjugated the peoples of Rauso who live in the midst of incense-gathering Barbarians between great waterless plains, and I subjugated the people of Solate, whom I ordered to guard the coasts of the sea. All these people, enclosed by mighty mountains, I myself conquered in person in battle and brought them under my rule. I allowed them the use of all their lands in return for the payment of tribute. Many other peoples voluntarily subjected themselves to me by paying tribute…”

After the conquests that brought the king within range of the Egyptian frontier, he turned his attention to five other regions/tribes; “Annene”, “Metine”, “Sesea”, “Rauso”, and “Solate.” All are unknown but the king’s geomorphological description and geographic framework show the “Sesea” live in an inaccessible mountain but the “Rauso” and “Solate” seem to be a people near the seacoast. The allusion to “waterless plains” and “incense-gathering barbarians” suggests that the king moved further southeast into coastal nations of modern-day Djibouti or Somalia, near Berbera (known to the Greeks as “barbaros”). This region is home to the Afar-and Somali-speaking nomads.

“… I sent both a fleet and an army of infantry against the Arabitai and the Kinaidocolpitai who dwell across the Red Sea, and I brought their kings under my rule. I commanded them to pay tax on their land and to travel in “peace by land and sea. I made war from Leukê Kômê to the lands of the Sabaeans. I was the first and only king of any down to my time to subjugate all these peoples. That is why I express my gratitude to my greatest god, Ares, who also begat me, through whom I brought under my sway all the peoples who are adjacent to my land, on the east as far as the Land of Incense and on the west as far as the places of Ethiopia and Sasou. Some I went and conquered in person, others by dispatching expeditions. Having imposed peace on the entire world under me, I went down to Adulis to sacrifice to Zeus, to Ares, and to Poseidon on behalf of those who go under sail. Once I had brought together my forces and united them, I encamped in this place and made this throne as a dedication to Ares in the 27th year of my reign.”

The ending is without a doubt the climax of this inscription. What’s most interesting is how this king continues to describe the subjection of the Sabaean (modern-day Yemen) nation by sending an army across the Red Sea. The “Arabitai” and “Kinaidocolpitai” are referring to the nomadic Arabic-speaking tribes scattered across the north-west of the Arabian peninsula bordering the Nabatean Kingdom. Based on other documentations from Ptolemy’s “Geography” and a chronicle from St. Hippolytus, both from 2nd century AD, identify the “Kinaidocolpitai” (bay or gulf of homosexuals) people which has been identified as the modern-day Ḥijāz. The king also describes starting his initial conquest against the Sabaeans from “Leukê Kômê” which is identified as Al Wajh located in modern-day Saudi Arabia within the territory of “the Kinaidocolpitai”. The reference to the Greek gods are appropriated to reflect the local pagan deities such as Maḥrem who was the equivalent of Ares.

It’s quite important to mention that this inscription isn’t a work of fiction. There exists real archaeological evidence and other preserved inscriptions in the South Arabian script dating to the early 3rd century which details the very conquest and aftermath attesting to the historicity of the event. To end on a positive note, these South Arabian inscriptions even fills some gaps on identity of this ruthless and mighty warrior.

Yonathan Alem

Welcome to ‘Ālem’s ‘ālam. Limitless ‘Ālem in an ‘Ālem-less ‘ālam.

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