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Extract from 'Letters of Sir Roger Hamley' (Vol. 1)

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Nov. 8th. 1833.

Obelisk at AksumI address you this evening, my dear Molly, from the ancient city of Axum, having arrived here without incident a little over a week ago. It is salutary to reflect that when our ancestors were Painted Barbarians shaking their spears at the Roman armies, the Abyssinians were writing learned commentaries on the Bible, & erecting obelisks of solid granite of a height that would severely tax the ingenuity of our modern engineers. One still stands to this day—you will have to imagine its grandeur, Molly, for no sketch, however skilled the artist, c’d convey the wonder of the thing. ‘But time & chance happeneth to them all’, as King Solomon is supposed to have said, & by the time the Normans had replaced the Romans, the great city was in ruins & its Empire overthrown—but I shall not wear out my pen by a repetition of the history of the Axumites, which others more qualified by far than I have described before me. The modern town can scarcely be distinguished from Adowa, though rather smaller—& its citizens pay as much heed to the antiquities peppering their streets as our Salopian farmers do to the wild roses decorating the hedgerows. It is as if Buonaparte had sacked our fair capital &—a thousand years hence—Londoners dwelled in a huddle of huts beside the Thames—yet the column of the Monument still stood proudly erect, & everyone passed it on the way to the marketplace without once turning their heads.

I plan to remain in the town several further weeks, with the aim of undertaking excavations at a number of promising sites, which I hope might shed more light on the question of whether the Axumite culture originated on this Continent, or was imported from S. Arabia—as Mr. Gibbon believed. My cook, a man named Wasie, hails from a nearby village, & has supplied 14 relatives—from matrons of Lady Cumnor’s age & venerability to children barely past the crawling phase of locomotion—to assist in the labour. The fellow’s culinary endeavours, by the by, taste most peculiar to the English palate, & now that I understand a little of his language I discover that he finds the practice of roasting meat barbarous—yr. Mamma w’d approve the sentiment, though perhaps not the resulting dish.

17th.— Wasie’s family have proved more gifted at archaeology than he is at cooking—his young nephew today sent up a cry of ‘shiny, shiny’ that, when investigated, denoted a gold coin. At first I was in doubt of the boy giving up his prize, but gold is so common here as to be held in little regard, & he exchanged the coin most willingly for one of my spare razors—though as his years can number no more than 10, I am at a loss as to what use he might make of his new possession. Tekle informs me that razors, knives, scissors, steels, &, indeed, worked metal objects of all kinds are much in demand across the interior.

The coin I judge to be a little smaller than a sovereign, though rather thicker in the centre. The gold—as far as I can tell—is of a high purity, & worked with considerable skill. The inscription seems to be in Greek, but is too worn to make out. One side bears the image of a king wearing a high crown & carrying a rod, while on the obverse he is attired in a simple head-cloth, each royal bust being flanked by plump ears of wheat. The portrait, with its hawk-like nose & prominent eyes & lips, perhaps leans toward a man of African stock, but it is as hard to fix upon a definite racial identification as it would be to recognise our monarch from his numismatic portrait, sh’d one happen to pass him on Gower St. I have assayed a rubbing of both sides at the foot of this sheet, so that you might judge for yourself, Molly.

Further investigation of the site—which appears to represent an ancient well—brought out nothing more than pottery shards decorated with simple geometrical designs, & a little brightly coloured glass. My ignorance on the subject of antiquities prevents me even from hazarding a guess as to whether they might be of local manufacture, or imported across the Red Sea—but I trust that they will prove less puzzling to the worthies of the Soc. Antiq., who put my daily bread on the table this month. The most notable find—if this amateur can be allowed to judge—comes from another location to the W. of the town, beside a prominent fallen obelisk—a terracotta vessel, 12’’ high, whose neck is fashioned into the likeness of a female head, with hair as elaborately styled as any English lady attending a ball. Wasie—who has taken a proprietary interest in all my discoveries—names it as a portrait of the Queen of Sheba, the supposed founder of the city—the natives fancifully claim the place for her tomb—but in truth, it bears a close resemblance to one of the fellow’s nieces, a pretty young lass with skin the colour of coffee. Might this be evidence that the ruling caste of the ancient city were—at least in part—African?Aksumite coin

23rd.—Yr. letter of Sept. 17th arrived this afternoon, & gave me more joy than an entire hoard of gold coins, despite the grave news that you relate. A stay in Spa sh’d recruit Lady Cumnor’s health, but—as yr. Father fears—such a long journey will inevitably place a severe strain on her constitution. You remain in good health, I hope, despite the sultry weather you mention? It is a pity yr. Mamma’s troubles in finding a suitable replacement for Maria—poor girl—prevent you from spending the autumn at Hollingford, for I am convinced that you w’d find the country air more agreeable. I honour yr. delicacy in not ‘imposing’, as you phrase it, at Hamley Hall—you must, of course, be allowed to judge for yourself whether Aimée w’d suffer more by my Father’s too-evident preference for the English rose over the French lily, than she w’d gain with you as her companion, & gentle champion. I am glad—if you are to be confined to the metropolis—that my shy little Molly has become so intimate with her sister’s relations as to call on them while Mrs. Henderson is abroad. I know that you will have wished all the joys that marriage can bring to Miss Helen K.—now Mrs. Edward Murray, no doubt—& as I write these words, they will be on their wedding journey, & finding them all out for themselves.

Day upon day spent on this arid plain sifting the relics of a people whose time for marrying & being given in marriage passed a thousand years ago has begun to tell on me, & I am eager to resume my survey of the Abyssinian flora & fauna before winter sets in, for the country S. of Axum is wild & little travelled. The great mountain range that covers much of the Abyssinian heartland dominates the view in that direction, & is notable not merely for its height—which is as great as the Alps—but also for the varied & unusual forms which the mountains assume. It is as if their Creator tired of simple cones, & assayed pyramids, tetrahedra, cubes, cuboids, cylinders, & every type of prism. Some rise as lofty narrow columns from a broader base, others are akin to giant paving slabs perched upon one edge, looking as if a gust of wind might blow them over, & yet others take the form of inverted pyramids, balanced most fantastically upon their apex—but you will think that I jest, Molly, when I merely try to put into plain words the wonders that I see around me. The most common form is as if some giant had taken up a mountain like a lump of cheese, & lopped off the top with a gargantuan knife for his supper. The elevated plateau that results is frequently occupied by a fortress, prison, monastery, or like structure—which the natives call ambas—defended from all angles by the nearly sheer sides so that access is often possible by rope alone. It is beyond my imagination how the forces of volcanism & erosion might unite to create these curious formations.

24th.—As I re-peruse my earlier words before entrusting this letter to an Arab trader bound for Zeyla, it is impossible, as a zoologist, not to speculate that—just as civilisations rise & fall, & mountains thrust heavenwards & erode—so too must the members of the Kingdom Animalia flourish & decay. Was there, perhaps, a time before Adam took up his spear & Eve her spindle, when some other species—now so reduced in might that we cannot even hazard a guess as to which—dominated this Earth? M. Cuvier has documented colossal Mammoths & Mastodons, more fearsome by far than their cousins the Elephants which now walk this Continent—& there must be other species still greater, yet to be discovered.

Yr. very affectionate Husband

R. H.

P. S.—I have sent several cases of specimens to Lord Hollingford—11 in all—but have had no word of their safe arrival—& I dream repeatedly that my beautiful birds have been consumed by beetles until only the skeletons remain. C’d you call at Curzon St., if Lord H. is in London when you receive this—or write if not—& enquire as to their fate? I hope to reach Gondar before the New Year if not delayed by snowfall on the high passes.