Ye olde travel guide: Aksum AD 537

Elizabeth Wein invites visitors to sample the delights of an ancient kingdom where wild animals prowl the streets at night

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the January 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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When to go

The kingdom of Aksum in the Horn of Africa can be reached by overland trade routes and through the thriving Red Sea port of Adulis. Travel is impossible during the Great Rains from June to September, but when they are over, favourable northerly winds make October to March the ideal time to visit.
September marks the beginning of summer in the highland plateaux – and early in the season the fields around the capital city will be superb with golden wildflowers – but be aware that mountain roads may still be washed out.

What to take with you

The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is the standard guide for Indian Ocean traders and contains a useful section on Aksum. You will need camping equipment and goatskins for water, but there are plenty of market towns between the port of Adulis and the capital where you can restock. It is about 10 days from Adulis to the capital city, also named Aksum, where, at 2,200 metres above sea level, the nights are chilly. Pack lightly for the lowland journey and purchase a locally made cloak en route.

Costs and money

Gold, silver and copper coins minted during the reign of Kaleb are all in use. An alternative to coin is, of course, salt. Salt bars from the Afar desert are considered legal tender throughout the kingdom and small quantities can be cut from a larger bar to ‘make change’.
The official language of Aksum is Ge’ez but if you are uncertain of that, a good way to negotiate with traders is through ‘dumb bargaining,’ using hand signals.

Sights and activities

Don’t miss the kingdom’s stunning capital city, approached by its imposing avenue of bronze statues and granite thrones. Mai Shum, the reservoir that provides the city’s water, is an impressive piece of engineering and Kaleb’s four-towered palace, adorned with bronze unicorns and coffered ceilings, is a must-see. If you are lucky you may catch a glimpse of the king himself in his golden chariot drawn by four elephants.
The stately monoliths marking the tombs of the Aksumite kings will likely stand for a thousand years and more. The tallest of these stelae is a towering 33 metres, and many of them pre-date Aksum’s conversion to Christianity in AD 324.
You may also be able to observe a service at Mariam Tseyon (Our Lady Mary of Zion), the holiest cathedral in the kingdom. Some of the chants in use here were written by the priest Yared, who is said to have once been so enraptured with a musical composition that he did not notice when he accidentally stabbed his own spear through his foot.

Dangers and annoyances

Kaleb’s recent war against Himyar means that there are a good many crippled veterans short of work throughout the city. While you may find their disfigurements hideous and their solicitations annoying, try to treat them with courtesy.
Be aware that even in urban areas, hyenas, wild pig and occasionally lions prowl the streets at night. Do not worry about the so-called ‘carnivorous bull’, which does not exist.

Sleeping and accommodation

In the capital of Aksum, the most gracious of stone-built villas will accommodate you on several storeys. They have grand staircases and reception rooms lit by oil lamps housed in glass casings. If such accommodation is beyond your budget, then simpler houses with flat turf or conical thatched roofs are the norm.

Eating and drinking

Bread and beer are such staples of the kingdom’s diet that the barley ear appears on all Aksumite coins. Meat of various types is popular (except during Lent), along with pulses, grapes, almonds, bananas and honey. Imported wine is available but why not try some locally made mead (mes or tej) or beer (sewa)?

Shopping

In the capital city, the local long-necked pots are attractively decorated with appliqué designs of birds or palm leaves. You may be tempted by the abundant exotically coloured glassware, but it is mostly imported and can be expensive. Spices, pearls, obsidian from the Red Sea islands and ivory are all available but make sure you buy ivory from a reputable dealer because elephant hunting is banned for peasants and the ivory trade falls under royal authority.

Getting around

You may travel by camel in the torrid lowlands, but in mountainous areas the mule is the most sensible and efficient way to go. As well as  Ge’ez, the Greek language is also in common use and you should have no trouble communicating in this lingua franca of the Red Sea traders.
Elizabeth Wein is author of the Mark of Solomon series of novels, set in sixth-century Aksum