The Cross

The Regalia


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The Cross


For a review of the history of the Aksumite Empire see Aksumite Empire


About the Government structure and the Regalia of Aksum I quote the following from Stuart Munro-Hay [1] :


What information we have concerning the theory of government, and the working of the administration and other government functions is episodic, and we may assume that over the centuries the machinery of government did not remain static, but was subject to gradual changes as situations altered. One of the more important changes must have occurred with the acceptance of Christianity. The pre-Christian kings whose inscriptions have come down to us called themselves son of the invincible god Mahrem, the royal tutelary deity, and thus asserted their own claim to divine honours; they may also have been high-priests of the state cult. This semi-divine status, though implicitly abandoned by the Christian kings or at least transformed by the anointing and coronation rituals seems to have lost them little if any authority, since they remained the de facto heads of their own church; one of the advantages of having the titular head of the church in far-away Alexandria (Ch. 10: 2). Ezana, the first Christian king, in order to keep the customary protocol intact in an inscription (Ch. 11: 5, DAE 11) simply replaced the divine filiation with his own real filiation son of Ella Amida, never defeated by the enemy.[2]



Symbol of Aksum on coins of the beginning of the fourth century A.D.

The symbol consists of a disc, symbolizing the empire (of Aksum) and a crescent symbolizing the state. Together the symbol would mean: The State of Aksum. Red for the sun and white for the moon seems likely


Aksumite symbol as on a coin of King Wazena, A.D. 530.

This symbol is a combination of a Greek- and a Latin cross, the first meaning the Christian administrative authority and the second the Christian religious authority. It has to be compared with the socalled Celtic cross, appearing in the 6th century A.D. and the patriarchal cross, appearing in the beginning of the 8th century A.D.. The color in this reconstruction is arbitrary.


Aksumite symbol as on a coin of King Hataz, A.D. 575.

Another combination of the Greek- and the Latin cross.


The Regalia

The kingship was thus of a sacred or semi-sacred character (for a study of this aspect in later times see Caquot 1957). On the coins the reigning monarch is depicted equipped with a regalia formed from various insignia whose significance is in some cases obvious, and in others obscure. The majority of the gold coins show the king wearing a magnificent tiara or arcaded crown on the obverse, and what seems to be a headcloth tied with a ribbon at the back on the reverse. From the presence of the same ribbon on the obverse as well, it may be inferred that this headcloth was also worn under the tiara. The headcloth (if it is so to be identified) is always shown with three gently curving lines radiating from a point at the king's forehead, possibly stretch-lines of the cloth, or possibly some sort of decoration, like an aigrette. It could be that the headcloth owes something to Meroitic antecedents, as some of the Meroitic kings are represented wearing a similar head-covering in their temple or tomb reliefs.



The tiara was not shown by king Endubis on his coins, which have only the headcloth on both obverse and reverse; but it does appear on the coins of Aphilas. Possibly, then, Aphilas was the first king for whom this elaborate tiara was made, though it may well have been in use considerably earlier. The earliest representations show it as consisting of an arcade of three arches separated by columns with bases and capitals (see drawings in Munro-Hay 1984). Surmounting this are four slender oval elements capped with discs, alternating with thin spikes. Such a crown is unique in contemporary iconography, and was doubtless an Aksumite invention based on a number of combined influences. The Roman radiate crown, the variety of complex headdresses of Egyptian type worn by the Meroitic kings, the Indian Kushan dynasty's crowns, or the tiaras and mural crowns of more or less contemporary Sassanian rulers of Persia like Ardashir I or Shapur I may have contributed to both the design and, more important, the idea of using such crowns. Perhaps most interesting of all, the style of the neighbouring Meroitic rulers' crowns was bequeathed to the so-called X-group rulers of Nubia, probably the same Noba who were in close proximity to, and sometimes vassals of, the Aksumite kingdom; and some of their crowns, in silver richly studded with carnelians, have actually been found on the skeletons of the rulers at their tombs at Ballana (Kirwan 1963: 62). We can thus show that the idea of these ornate crowns has very strong contemporary African parallels. It may yet be possible that one or more of the tombs at Aksum, whose excavation has only been briefly commenced, contains an example of the Aksumite tiara. A recent article by Bent Juel-Jensen (1989) notes some survivals of Aksumite royal headgear in illustrations in much later Ethiopian manuscripts.

            As the Aksumite dynasty continued, the depiction of the crown grew simpler; the oval elements were reduced to three, and an arcade-less version appears, sometimes with a cross in the centre. Presumably the crown was at least partially made of metal, perhaps gold, or silver like the `X-Group' crowns noted above. The crown and royal robes Kaleb is said to have sent to Jerusalem are supposed to have been valuable items; but the story only survives in a late record (Budge 1928: III, 914).

            The idea has been advanced that the tiara was worn by the Aksumite king in his capacity of `king of kings', whilst the headcloth would indicate his position as the `king of the Aksumites' only. Alternatively, the two representations might indicate the rôle of the king in the different capacities of warlord or giver of peace (Munro-Hay 1978: 44; Anzani 1926: 22). An inlaid halo of gold surrounds the royal portrait on some silver and bronze coins, even in the Christian period, giving the portrait special prominence; on other coins the king's crown is gilded, but otherwise this honour is only shared by the cross.


In his hands the king holds a sword (rarely) or, more usually, a spear, sceptre, or short baton. In the fifth century the characteristic hand-cross appears. On the reverse of many gold coins the king carries an unusual object, possibly a fly-whisk or alternatively (or still as a fly-whisk) some sort of branch with berries. Some of the best examples show five branches or filaments, each with a little dot at the end. In a land-grant of the Zagwé king Lalibela's time (1225) the title of aqabe tsentsen, keeper of the fly-whisks, occurs (Dictionary of Ethiopian Biography 1975: 36), and in the later account of Zara Ya`qob's coronation, the nebura-ed of Aksum and the Tigray makonnen are mentioned as standing to left and right on the king's entry into Aksum waving olive-branches as fly-whisks; very evocative of this item of Aksumite regalia.

            The kings are shown on their coins elaborately robed, at first in what seems to be a round-necked overgarment covering an under-robe, leaving the arms free. Sometimes what appear to be fringes are shown. Later, with the more frequent depiction of the facing bust, the robes are shown in different ways; most often with a central panel of horizontal lines on the chest flanked by vertical lines over the shoulders, or in two or three panels containing the king's arm, a hand-cross held in front of the chest, or the lines of the drapery.

            A Byzantine ambassador's report (see below) mentions that the ruler of Aksum wore much gold jewellery, and this is confirmed by the coins. The king appears lavishly bejewelled, almost always wearing earrings, bracelets and armlets on which the jewels are depicted by dots, sometimes necklaces, and very probably finger-rings (too small to appear on the coinage designs).


To which I may add:

As for the crown I may mention the so-called Crown of Agilulf which was depicted in a 18th century Chronicle by A.F. Frisi. The accompanying engraving shows a crown with five arcades resting on pillars, under which are the figures of a blessing Christ between two angels. Under the outer arcades are what seems to be the evangelists. On the lower ring is a long text which mentions King Agilulf (r. 590-616). [3]


â As for the elements surmounting the arcades, I propose uraeuses with red discs above their heads  as common from ancient times in Egyptian iconography. Such uraeuses were still on the rim of the Nubian crowns from the Ballana Period (4th to 6th c. AD.) mentioned by Munro-Hay and today in the Egyptian Museum in Kairo. [4]



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© Hubert de Vries 2009-04-21


[1]  Munro-Hay, Stuart: Aksum, An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity. 1991. PDF version

[2]  Munro-Hay, Stuart op. cit. Ch. 6. 1

[3]  Bárány-Oberschall, Magda von- Die Eiserne Krone der Lombardei und der Lombardische Königsschatz. Wien 1966.

[4]  For a picture of this crown see: Nubië aan de Nijl. Den Haag, 1979 cat. nr. 267.