Saturday, August 30, 2008

Urbanization in the African Horn was the outcome of autochthonous social processes, or was it?

Though a minority clique, there are a few who attribute the Aksumite complex and urbanization in the African Horn to migrants from the Arabian peninsula, rather than a long history of social processes leading to development of distinctive urban centers at different time frames, influenced by both local processes and prevailing environmental and/or external socio-political pressures or influences. Is this so? Researcher Fattovich is quite clear enough by himself, in his layout of urbanization development in the African Horn, in what would eventually become part of the territorial sphere of the modern state of Ethiopia, and so, the present author simply allow the man speak for himself, and then draw the conclusion from the chronological layout:

A relatively elaborate layout from Pre-Aksumite to the Aksumite phases - starting with the Pre-Aksumite phase:

c. 1000–800/700 BC

The Early pre-Aksumite Phase (
c. 1000–800/700 BC). In this phase, the pre-Aksumite cultural area was apparently divided into two regions: (a) central Eritrea and northern Tigray and (b) western Tigray. They probably reflected a cultural division of the plateau going back to late prehistoric times (see Fattovich 1988). It is possible that chiefdoms already existe (Schneider 1976), but no safe archaeological evidence of them is yet available. The people of western Tigray who were definitely in contact with the southern Arabians worked iron, as we can infer from slag found at Gobedra rock shelter near Aksum (see Phillipson 1977; Fattovich 1980; Fattovich 1990c). The late ‘Jebel Mokram Group’ people in the lowlands were in contact with those of western Tigray (Fig. 5).

c. 700/600–300 BC

The Middle pre-Aksumite Phase (c. 700/600–300 BC). The kingdom of Da’amat appeared in this phase. Its territory stretched from western Tigray to central Eritrea. Most likely, the capital was located at Yeha (western Tigray) and monumental and epigraphical evidence stresses a direct link with the kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia. Some rock inscriptions recorded in Eritrea point to contacts with other south Arabian peoples and there were also contacts with the Nubian kingdom of Kush, the Achemenian Empire, and the Greek world. The nomads living in the Atbara and Gash alluvial plains were included in the area of Ethiopian influence (Fig. 6; Drewes 1962; de Contenson 1981; Anfray 1990; Fattovich1990c).

c. 300 BC–100 BC/AD 100

The Late pre-Aksumite Phase (c. 300 BC–100 BC/AD 100). In this phase, the kingdom of Da’amat collapsed, but petty kingdoms probably survived on the plateau. The pre-Aksumite cultural area was again divided into two main regions as in the early phase, and the northern plateau (Rore region) was included in the eastern cultural area. The southern Arabian influence practically disappeared and local traditions emerged again in this phase (Fig. 7;Conti Rossini 1928; Anfray 1968; Fattovich 1979; Anfray 1990; Fattovich 1990c).

c. AD 400–700

The Middle Aksumite Phase (c. AD 400–700). This phase corresponds to the period of major expansion of the kingdom. The western and eastern plateau shared the same material culture, except for some slight differences in the pottery. Coinage was widely used. Churches were widely scattered over the territory of the kingdom. Syrian influences can be recognized in the architecture of this period (Anfray 1972; Anfray 1974; Anfray 1981; Anfray 1990).

c. 700–900 AD

The Late Aksumite Phase (c. 700–900 AD). This phase corresponds to the decline of the kingdom. Coinage was probably no more in use and some important towns, such as Matara and Adulis, were apparently abandoned. Aksum was quite reduced in size (Anfray 1974;Anfray 1990; Michels 1990; Munro-Hay 1991).

The development of urbanism up to medieval times in the northern Horn of Africa can be divided into three main stages. They correspond to different phases of state formation in the region: 

Fattovich continues...

  • The proto-Urban Stage (third–second millennia BC), represented by the ‘Gash Group’ in the lowlands and perhaps the ‘Ona Group A’ on the eastern plateau. It corresponds to the rise of chiefdoms in the region.
  • The Early Urban Stage (first millennium BC), represented by the pre-Aksumite culture in Eritrea and Tigray. It corresponds to the development of the Sabean-like kingdom of Da’amat on the plateau.
  • The Mature Urban Stage (first millennium AD), represented by the Aksumite culture on the plateau. It corresponds to the development of the kingdom of Aksum.

Any interpretation of the development of urbanism in the northern Horn of Africa is still speculative. In my opinion, however, some factors affecting this process can be identified. The main factor was probably the progressive inclusion of the region in the interchange circuit between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean countries. This gave rise to chiefdoms and states since the mid-third millennium BC. In particular, the south Arabian expansion in the late second to early first millennia BC, stimulated the emergence of a state on the plateau. In turn, large residential settlements arose in strategic positions to control the local resources and traderoutes. Eventually, they were the major markets in the local exchange network, as well. On the contrary, the Arab political and commercial activity in northeast Africa at the end of the first millennium AD, caused the progressive isolation of the plateau. This probably affected the collapse of urbanism in late Aksumite times.

The development of complex societies and states improved the agricultural production to sustain more nucleated populations and specialized activities. This possibly caused the selection of more fertile areas as a location for the larger settlements within the range of areas suitable to control the local resources.

The improvement of agricultural production probably caused an increase in the ‘Gash Group’ population in the lowlands, and in the pre-Aksumite and Aksumite ones on the plateau. This increase could have generated a dispersal of the single populations to exploit other areas suitable for cultivation and grazing. In such a way new large settlements arose as markets and administrative centres in the peripheral regions. Political factors surely affected this process. The need to control the local resources and trade routes most likely stimulated the territorial expansion of the pre-Aksumite and Aksumite states. This might have caused the disappearance of some residential settlements with political functions and the establishment of new administrative centres. Moreover, ideological factors connected with the legitimation of the elite might have affected the ceremonial function of the main settlements (e.g. Mahal Teglinos, Yeha, Aksum).

Environmental factors were less significant than the economic and cultural ones. The moister climate of the region in the mid first millennium BC to the mid first millennium AD probably facilitated the establishment of the ‘plough and cereal complex’ on the plateau. It is possible that the generally reduced rainfall in the seventh to tenth centuries AD, together with the progressive exhaustion of the soils and deforestation by human activity in Aksumite times, caused droughts and famines with consequent epidemics. They might have affected the progressive depopulation of the plateau, pushing the population to move southwards. Moreover, the sudden abandonment of Adulis and Matara in the eighth century AD might point to a catastrophic event.On the basis of the above, the following tentative explanation of the development of urbanism in the northern Horn can be suggested:

c.4000 BC

The inclusion of the ‘Butana Group’ people in an interchange circuit with predynastic Egyptian the fourth millennium BC, gave rise to a hierarchical society at the confluence of the Gash and the Atbara river. In turn, this stimulated the transition to cattle-breeding and cultivation of cereals, and the founding of large sedentary settlements.

c. late 4000 BC to early 3000 BC

In the late fourth to early third millennia BC, the Gash progressively shifted from the original confluence with the Atbara river into the present bed (see Sadr 1991). This opened a more direct route from the Nile valley to the Horn of Africa than the Atbara valley. The descendants of the ‘Butana Group’ people followed the shift of the river and settled in the present southern delta. In such a way they occupied a strategic position to control the land route to Nubia and Egypt. At the same time, they were able to exploit better the resources ofthe western lowlands during the seasonal movements from the Gash to the plateau (seeFattovich 1990d).

In the mid-third millennium BC, the ‘Gash Group’ people played a crucial role as intermediaries between Nubia and the regions of the Horn of Africa and southern Arabia. They were directly in contact with the kingdom of Kerma. This stressed the transition from a hierarchical society to a chiefdom and increased agricultural production. Mahal Teglinos was the residential centre of the elite and a crucial node in the trade network from Egypt and Nubia to the Horn and southern Arabia, becoming a proto-urban settlement.

In the early second millennium BC, the ‘Gash Group’ people spread through the western lowlands, as far as the Red Sea coast. Residential villages appeared in the middle Barka valley, along the way from Kassala to the plateau.

In the second half of the second millennium BC, the Red Sea become the main trade route from Egypt to the Horn and southern Arabia. This isolated the lowlands from the circuit, with a regression in social complexity and proto-urban settlements. An Afro-Arabian coastal interchange circuit arose. A port, possibly frequented by the Egyptians, appeared at Adulis. At the same time, the southern Arabians started their commercial activity northwards, along the land routes of western Arabia.

In the same period, the ‘Ona Group A’ people living on the plateau along the route from Kassala to Adulis become the intermediaries between the hinterland and the coast. It is possible that they also were in direct contact with Egypt. A complex society perhaps arose in the eastern plateau and a quite large settlement appeared at Sembel Cuscet.

By the late second millennium BC, the Egyptian trade with the southern regions was interrupted. This facilitated the south Arabian commercial expansion, with the rise of kingdoms in the region. The eastern Tigrean plateau was probably included in the Arab area of commercial activity. A residential settlement appeared at Matara.

In the early first millennium BC, the southern Arabians penetrated in the western Tigrean plateau, most likely to get a direct access to the resources of the western lowlands, particularly ivory. Quite soon the region was included in the area of political and commercial influence of the kingdom of Saba. The contacts with the Sabeans gave rise to the local kingdom of Da’amat. An urban society, reflecting the south Arabian pattern, appeared on the plateau. Yeha become a very important ceremonial centre and the possible residence of the kings. The agricultural production to sustain the new state was improved by the use of plough. The need to control the routes to the Red Sea caused the eastwards territorial expansion of the kingdom. Kaskasè become another important ceremonial centre. An urban settlement arose at Matara.

In the late first millennium BC, after the decline of the kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia, the kingdom of Da’amat collapsed. The plateau was probably divided into petty kingdoms, including Aksum. Towns seem to disappear in the western plateau. Yeha remained an important ceremonial centre, but much reduced in size. The eastern plateau was progressively included in the Greek-Roman trade circuit along the Red Sea. This probably enabled the local populations to maintain a form of urban society.

By the first century BC, the western Tigray was included, as well, in the Roman trade circuit. **Aksum** probably become a gateway in the trade with the hinterland. An urban settlement arose at this site since the first century AD. Initially, it was a ceremonial centre connected with the funerary cult of the elite ancestors.

In the second to third centuries AD, with the progressive conquest of the other petty kingdoms, Aksum become the dominant state on the plateau. The kingdom was at this time the main African commercial partner of the Roman empire along the Red Sea route. An urban society, reflecting a local pattern, arose again on the plateau and agricultural production was surely improved.

In the mid-first millennium AD, after the introduction of Christianity, the kingdom reached its maxim expansion. It was an important political and commercial partner of the Byzantine empire. The population increased remarkably and urbanism reached its peak.

By late first millennium AD

The increase in population and agricultural production probably caused the exhaustion of the soils and the deforestation. Rainfall also reduced, which might have caused droughts and famines, and the depopulation of the plateau in the late first millennium AD. At the same time, the Arab political and commercial expansion through northeast Africa and along the Red Sea isolated the kingdom from the main interchange circuits. The Christian kingdom survived, but its centre shifted southwards.

In the first half of the second millennium AD, towns apparently no longer existed on the Tigrean plateau, but a few Islamic ports, connected with the Arab commercial activity along the Red Sea, occurred along the coast. - ends - by Fattovich

In relation to the above,...

"researchers have been confronted with archeological indicators which suggest that its [D'mt's] relationship with the Sabean complex across the red sea, which was experiencing its golden age then, allowed the Sabean complex's good fortunes to spill over to D'mt. It has to be kept in mind that "having influenced" is not the same thing as "being responsible for the origins" of an entire cultural complex. Both regions on either side of the Red sea have influenced the other side at some point or another over the course of history." - by Mystery Solver

Conclusion - Present author's input: Urbanization processes, as relayed in the layout above, are largely the product of in situ social processes at different time frames, each impacted by the prevailing environmental and external socio-political influences or pressures specific to the times in question. Thus, social complexes like Da'amat, for example, should be viewed within the context of ongoing in situ urbanization in the area, impacted by the then existing trade-network environments of each development phase.

On different note, interesting, is the Aksumite architecture of the Stelae:

Between ~ 3rd & 4th century:
The stelae were carved mainly from solid blocks of nepheline syenite, a weather-resistant rock similar in appearance to granite, and are believed to have come from the quarries of Wuchate Golo several miles to the west of Aksum. After being cut from the rock walls there, they would have been dragged by organized manpower to the site of their installation, where finer carving awaited a few of the stelae. The impetus for this organizational effort appears to have been commemorative: there are many burials in this area and elaborate tombs are situated near the foremost group of the largest stelae. The wide variation in size and carving sophistication is most likely due to the varying degrees of social status and wealth of the deceased. Although the identities of the persons who sponsored them are not known, the tallest stelae probably commemorated royalty while smaller works were most likely commissioned by local elite. - Courtesy

An ancient African tradition; and possible ties to ancient "Sudanese" architectural traditions; from Stuart Munro-Hay:

Aksumite Domestic Architecture

...It is possible that the original inspiration for the design of the decorated stelae came from the South Arabian mud-brick multi-storey palaces familiar to the Aksumites from their involvements in that country, rather than from Ethiopian examples. On some of the Aksumite podia there could conceivably have been erected high tower-like structures of mud-brick around a wooden frame, such as that found at Mashgha in the Hadhramawt (Breton et al. 1980: pls. VIII, X) looking rather like the great stelae. But no evidence for such Yemeni-style buildings actually survives in Ethiopia, nor is there any archaeological indication there for mud-brick architecture. Alternatively, and more probably, the stelae could have been exaggerated designs based on the Aksumite palaces; and here there is archaeological support, since the structure called the `IW Building' partly cleared by the excavations of Neville Chittick (Munro-Hay 1989), included just such wood-reinforced walls.

…The origins of the stelae are very difficult to disentangle. Attributions of stelae in Ethiopia to the pre-Aksumite period, though customarily accepted (Munro-Hay 1989: 150), are not necessarily correct (Fattovich 1987: 47-8). A stele tradition appears nevertheless to have existed in the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderlands, and in parts of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea in pre-Aksumite times. Fattovich suggests, plausibly enough, that stelae belong to an ancient African tradition. In the case of the stelae at Kassala and at Aksum — despite the difference in time and the difference in the societies which erected them — he sees a similarity in several features. These include the suggestion that `the monoliths are not directly connected with specific burials' (Fattovich 1987: 63). However, this is questionable as far as the Aksum stelae are concerned, now that it has been possible to analyse the results of Chittick's work. Though it is not yet easy to identify tombs for all the stelae, it does seem that, at the Aksum cemeteries, wherever archaeological investigations have been possible there is a case for suggesting that stelae and tombs are directly associated.
- S. Munro-Hay

Setting the record straight? With regards to Munro-Hay's reference to Fattovich, pertaining to the association of Aksumite Stelae with burials, the said attribution of the former to the latter had been contested elsewhere, and this is how it was followed up:

"The Aksumite culture emerged from local traditions, including partly the pre-Aksumite one. A typical feature of this culture was the large funerary stelae, up to 33 m high, probably deriving from the stelae marking the ‘Gash Group’ burial grounds, suggesting a cultural link with the late prehistorical chiefdoms of the lowlands (Fattovich 1987b; Fattovich 1988)." - R. Fattovich, 2002.

The present author's reaction to the above was: It is interesting that Fattovich should mention the above, in his publication of The development of urbanism in the northern Horn of Africa in ancient and medieval times, 2002, when Mr. Munro Hay has this to say about his work from 1987:

"Fattovich suggests, plausibly enough, that stelae belong to an ancient African tradition. In the case of the stelae at Kassala and at Aksum — despite the difference in time and the difference in the societies which erected them — he sees a similarity in several features. These include the suggestion that `the monoliths are not directly connected with specific burials' (Fattovich 1987: 63)..." - S. Munro-Hay, 1991.

Mr. Munro Hay does mention the date and page of the particular source he is supposedly referencing from, though unfortunately, the title of the particular Fattovich work had not been provided to the extent to which the present author is able to access the work [of Mr. Munro Hay]...which, seems to be a reasonable portion of the work in question (Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity), i.e., as far one's understanding of the message being communicated goes. This aforementioned Munro Hay publication came out back in 1991. The 1987 Fattovich publications that Munro Hay's reference could possibly be taken from, are the following:

R. Fattovich: Remarks on the peopling of the northern Ethiopian-Sudanese borderland in ancient historical times, 1987a

R. Fattovich: Some Remarks on the Origins of the Aksumite Stelae’, 1987b

So Munro Hay's reference, if they were taken from either of the above mentioned publications, then those are the only two 1987 publications the present author was able to come across. So, the p63 of either work, might contain R. Fattovichs claim on "monoliths".

In any case, R. Fattovich has made his viewpoint clear in the aforementioned publication of the title, The development of urbanism in the northern Horn of Africa in ancient and medieval times, as of 2002! — Follow up ends.


Proud Canadian said...

I wonder if the rock carvings, stela, monuments etc might not also have a link with the Saharan region. I am thinking of Wendorf's work which indicates the ancient desert dwellers moving into Egypt and perhaps other parts of northeast Africa and the Horn. The Nabata Playa where these people dwelt in in that Saharan zone, well withing striking distance of Ethiopia.

"The basin shows evidence of a culture marked by growing sophiscation, including deep wells for water access, and "the emergence of a regional ceremonial center with megalithic alignments, stone circles, cattle burials, and other large-scale constructions."

In Egypt, they were "a critical factor in the rise of social complexity and the subsequent emergence of the Egyptian state in Upper Egypt (Hoffman 1979; Hassan 1988). If so, Egypt owes a major debt to those early pastoral groups in the Sahara; they may have provided Egypt with many of those features that still distinguish it from its neighbors to the east."

Wendorf holds that a Saharan origin must be balanced with caution since there are a number of the unique elements which did not carryover to the Nile Valley, including extensive megaliths. Nevertheless he maintains, "One of the fascinating aspects of the evidence for the working of large stones is that it seems to anticipate later Egyptian developments."

Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 17, 97-123 (1998), "Nabta Playa and Its Role in Northeastern African Prehistory," Fred Wendorf and Romuald Schild

I wonder if it can be fairly said that part of the Saharan influence is reflected in the Horn and Ethiopia as well- the stonework being part of that general ancient tradition you mention. There need be little significant South Arabian influence at all in the formative periods.

Mystery Solver said...

Not sure about specific Saharan influences in the region, though it does appear that E-M78 ancestors had been in the region -- above the African Horn sometime in the Upper Paleolithic, but cultural influences from the Sudanese Nile Valley region have been noted in elements like for example, the early pottery of the region, and architectural traditions like the Stele.