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Les bâtisseurs sur les deux rives de la mer Rouge

Jean-François Breton


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1For more than a century, the relations between South Arabia and northern Ethiopia (in the broadest sense) in Antiquity have repeatedly been appealed to as new archaeological discoveries have been made. Already in 1907 the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition noted certain similarities between the decorative motifs found at Axum and Yemen. Since that time, as both excavations and chance discoveries have yielded more and more significant material, the discussion has intensified considerably and led to increasingly specialized publications.

2The subject matter of this book fits into the general framework of the relations between South Arabia and Ethiopia between the first millennium BC and the first millennium AD. But its focus is limited to a consideration of the techniques of building and architecture. Issues of language religion, cultures and art, which provide the indispensable background for such an “intersecting” history, have certainly not been excluded, but they are not accorded a treatment of their own.

3In light of a certain degree of mutual ignorance regarding the current state of the field in each of the two regions, we felt it would be useful to provide a bilingual French-English handbook presenting, as systematically as possible, a list of the architectural elements involved. Such an approach may appear restrictive inasmuch as it puts the primary focus on excavations that have been completed or are currently in progress; but at the same time it is broad enough to encompass perspectives for the future;

  • 1 Le Goff, Faut-il vraiment découper l’histoire en tranches?, 2014: 15.

4Carrying out a comparison between South Arabia and Northern Ethiopia requires first of all the establishment of a chronological frame that is as precise as possible. Of course any division into periods or stages has to be provisional, given our limited state of knowledge; but as Le Goff says, “If periodization helps us in gaining control over time or in making use of it, it nonetheless raises problems regarding our perception of the past”1.

5Both for pedagogical reasons and for the sake of simplicity, this work draws the established chronological frameworks in “popular works”, not deliberately seeking to call them into question.

6Thus, for Tigray, F. Anfray and H. de Contenson proposed in the 1960s the following periodization:

  1. Period of South Arabian influence: 5th-4th cent. BC
  2. Transition period, perhaps with Meroitic influence: 3rd cent. BC-ist cent. AD
  3. Pre-Christian Axumite period: 1-mid 4th cent. AD
  4. Christian Axumite period: mid 4th-8th cent. AD

7More recently, R. Fattovich and K. Bard have schematically divided up the major periods of northern Ethiopia, and particularly Tigray, as follows:

  1. Ethio-Sabaean state of Da’mat (middle of the first millennium BC)
  2. Proto-axumite period (ca. 4000-150 BC)
  3. Axumite period (ca. 150BC-700 AD)

8S. C. Munro-Hay has proposed a more detailed chronology of the Axumite period, notably on the basis of coinage:

9Period 1: old Axumite period up to the reign of GDRT (ISt-2nd cent. AD)

10Period 2: from the reign of GDRT to that of Endubis (beginning of the 3rd cent. Until 270 AD)

11Period 4: from the reign of Ezana (after his conversion to Christianity) to that of Kaleb (330-520)

12Period 5: from Kaleb up to the cessation of coinage (520-beginning of the 7th century).

13These periodizations are constantly being called into question and reassessed as archaeological research advances. Thus the excavations at Yeha have now shown that the Sabaean settlement might go back to the 9th-8th cent. BC; and the sanctuary of Meqaber Ga’ewa could be dated, in its earlier phase, to the 8th-6th cent. BC.

14For South Arabia, in general terms, the terminology used in this work is as follows:

  1. Archaic period (9th-7th cent. BC)
  2. “Classical” period or “Old South Arabian” period corresponding to the period of Sabaean domination (7th-5th cent. BC)
  3. “Period of the “caravan kingdoms”, i.e. the kingdoms of Saba’, Ma’în, Nashshân, Qatabân and Hadhramawt (7th-1st cent. BC)
  4. Kingdoms of the highlands and the kings of Saba’ and dhû-Raydân (1st cent. BC-3rd cent. AD)
  5. Himyarite empire (3rd-6th cent. AD)
  6. Abyssinian domination (525-570 AD)2

15The present work does not seek to revise this division into historical periods, so patiently worked out by epigraphists, historians and archaeologists, but to make use of it for the practical purpose of situating the principal buildings erected on both sides of the Red Sea.

16Those buildings lie at the heart of the matter. They testify at once to a particular conception of architectural patterns and layout; to implementation of building techniques; and to a particular arrangement of well-defined architectural elements. It is noteworthy that these three themes, originally elaborated quite early in the history of South Arabia (no doubt in the archaic period), spread far beyond the time and the place of their birth. Consider two examples. First, the use of stone platforms, incorporating compartments so as to form a strong foundation, topped with upper storeys built of a variety of materials, was to serve as a model over the centuries for both civil and religious buildings. Second, the use of wood either for upper storey wall frameworks or as a massive and integral part of the wall construction is attested both in South Arabia and Tigray at very different periods; the same principle can even be seen in medieval churches.

17There are also a number of traditions which run through most of the historical periods mentioned above. But it is important to note both the contribution and the limitation of such statements. To emphasize (correctly) that wood was used in upper-storey walls for over a millennium in both Ethiopia and ancient Yemen is little more than an empty statement if it is not backed up with concrete results of excavations and hence with more or less precise dates. The use of wood must have been known even in the second millennium BC; but it was the Sabaeans who introduced the system of wooden frameworks, as is shown at Yeha (9th-8th cent. BC). That this usage was perpetuated even down to the Axumite buildings of the 1st-5th cent. AD, can only be explained through the continued existence of ancient wooden buildings themselves and thus through the visual memory of the builders: they (or their ancestors) would actually have seen the ancient buildings. Similarly, we can assume that the latest of the Axumite wooden buildings must have inspired the architects of the local medieval monasteries (e.g. at Debre Damo). But the limits of this approach are obvious: it can become like an automatic formula or mantra. A number of recent publications purport to illustrate superficial continuities simply by juxtaposing D. Krencker’s sketch of wooden door-frames and window-frames, based on the Axum stelae with, views of the monastery of Debre Damo. This is true as far as it goes. But there are much deeper and more significant discontinuities in the way wood was used. Thus the use of true structural frames of wood to build the walls, common at Yeha, is apparently non-existent in walls elsewhere in Tigray.

18Indeed, any attempt to highlight continuities in architecture must also highlight discontinuities. The Sabaeans introduced into ancient Tigray (notably at Yeha but also at Nole Kabba (Waraqa) various architectural formulas or patterns (e.g. a temple with a propylon opening onto a building with two or four rows of pillars and there cellae), and regular assembly techniques using modules and decorative motifs belonging to the Sabaean architecture of Sirwâh and Mâ’rib. To the best of our knowledge, no buildings in Tigray prior to the 9th cent. BC show such characteristics. But it remains to be rigorously demonstrated whether or not these formulas and assembly techniques continued to flourish and were copied in the centuries that followed. No pre-Axumite sanctuary (8th cent. BC-1st cent. BC) demonstrates this in a convincing way.

19Another discontinuity can be mentioned, this time in South Arabia. The earliest fortifications to be built in Sabaean territory, such as al-Asâhil or Khirbat Sa’ûd (8th-7th cent. BC), are made of a stone-wall, 3-4 m thick and fairly high, reinforced with salients at regular intervals. But, starting form ca. the 7th cent. BC, the walls began instead to be made of a thick massif of mud-brick, doubled by an ashlar stone-wall on the exterior and connected to it by a system of headers deeply embedded into the mud-brick massif. This is a major change. And it enjoyed some degree of success, spreading to most of the ramparts of the “caravan cities”.

20Still another example, this time from Tigray. The use of iron or bronze wedges to split stones in the quarry seems not to have existed before the beginning of the Common Era. This technique, attested in Egypt since the Roman period, would thus have been introduced around this time, profoundly affecting the work of the quarrymen.

21The present work seeks to attain a balance: to do justice both to the local or regional “traditions” and to technical and architectural innovations, drawing on examples which are themselves certain even if they may sometimes be of uncertain dating. By overenthusiastically seeking for traditions that are common to South Arabia and Tigray, we run the risk of underestimating the local particularities of each of the two regions.

22South Arabia in the archaic period was a fairly isolated world. It is thus reasonable to suppose that new and original techniques of construction would have developed there. In fortifications built of ashlar masonry, headers occur intercalated regularly every 3 meters in every other course of stretchers. This system of connecting the outer stone-wall to its inner mud-brick massif is found in the walls in the Jawf valley (probably from the 7th cent. BC). Similarly, the angles of temple walls and of certain city-walls are reinforced by imbricating two series of alternating headers. We see here an evolution: the system of vertical chains of headers buried deep in the mud-brick massif behind the main face of the wall would have evolved into a system for reinforcing the angles, but without giving up its original role. All these techniques seem to be fundamentally South Arabian.

23Tigray, too, can plausibly be considered, in the pre-Axumite and Axumite periods, a world standing apart from the great currents of the time. And again one would expect its architecture to have mainly resulted not from imported elements but from elaboration of native formulas and patterns. One of the most highly developed architectural genres at Axum in the first centuries AD was the erection of giant monolithic stelae. Other stelae of smaller dimensions were certainly erected over the centuries, especially in Ethiopia (more rarely in South Arabia), but these never approached such a size. The largest, stela n° 1, is 33 m high and weighs an estimated 520 tons; stela n° 2 is 24.6 m high (above ground) and roughly 170 tons; stela n° 3 is 20.60 m high (above ground) and roughly 160 tons. Never in Classical Antiquity were such huge monoliths erected. Even ships’ carpenters—the only group who would have been able to hoist such stelae to vertical position (cf. the raising of ships’ masts)— give no sign of ever having attained such technical mastery.

24As a result of all these factors, notably the weight of the architectural traditions and the relative isolation of South Arabia and Tigray, we have felt it inadvisable to organize this work primarily in terms of a division into historical periods. Our aim, rather, has been to study first of all the conditions of development of this architecture in each of these two worlds. By “conditions” we mean the geological context, the types of materials (limestone, granite, basalt, sandstone and tuff), the conditions of their extraction at the quarry, their dressing, and the way they were used. Among these materials we have tried to give as much attention as possible specifically to mud-brick and wood—neither of which, unfortunately, have left much in the way of remains, especially in Tigray.

25We also study, as systematically as possible, the walls—their typology, masonry, and assembly— over a long period covering roughly the entire 1st millennium BC.

26First we treat stone architecture at some length, with its principal elements: platforms, superstructures, pillars, propylons, benches, stelae. Earthen architecture (mud-brick or adobe) has not been neglected although earthen remains have often been under-studied or unstudied due to their poor state of preservation. As much as possible, datings for all these elements have been given, with due regard to the inevitable uncertainties and approximations, as explained in the literature. To those who object that any classification may seem invalid in light of the uncertainty in precise date of origin of many of these architectural elements, one can respond that expansion of the excavations, expected in the near future, should complement our present knowledge in many ways. This is especially the case for many civil buildings both in South Arabia, where they can be more or less dated by their dedicatory inscriptions, and in Tigray, where these indications are generally lacking. In such cases, to make use of traditional terms is merely a stop-gap while awaiting the results of new excavations.

27A chapter is devoted to fortifications, and here some comment is in order. South Arabia developed its own characteristic form of military architecture which raised the craft of building to an art, and which played a decisive role in the process of urbanization. Furthermore, the dedicatory inscriptions that were incorporated in the walls testify to the role of the kings or tribes who were involved in their construction. It is noteworthy that this kind of architecture has no equivalent in the Tigray highlands, and we need to investigate the reasons for this.

28The concluding chapter is devoted to a later period, the first several centuries AD, and summarizes the essential architectural developments of that time. We present first of all the characteristic features of Axumite architecture en bloc; to distribute these across the various chapters of the book would have blurred their unity and their coherence. For what is at issue here is a new and original form of architecture, relatively little indebted to external influences from Egypt or South Arabia. By contrast, in the area of decorative architecture (in both stone and bronze), South Arabia does show several fine examples of royal court art copied from Hellenistic models. Such importation of bronze statues or of decorative motifs can best be seen in certain Himyarite royal residences or in the palace of Shabwa. But in fact Hellenization left only a very light imprint on South Arabia.


1 Le Goff, Faut-il vraiment découper l’histoire en tranches?, 2014: 15.

2 For A. de Maigret, the historical periods are as follows: 1. “The caravan kingdoms” and the “mukarribs” of Saba’ (9th-5th cent. BC), 2. “The caravan kingdoms” and the kings of Saba’ (5th-1st cent. BC), 3. The kingdoms of the highlands and the kings of Saba’ and dhû-Raydân (1st cent. BC-3rd cent. AD), 4. Himyarite empire (4th-6th cent. AD).

© Centre français des études éthiopiennes, 2015

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