important ancient coastal trading center in Ethiopia (now in Eritrea; 15°17′ N, 39°40′ E). Located on the deep Gulf of Zula (Annesley Bay), Adulis was the Red Sea port of ancient Axum. This was where Roman traders transshipped goods to vessels headed for southern India. From Adulis, ivory collected in northern Ethiopia was shipped to the eastern Mediterranean. Although the site was occupied before the Aksumite period, the period of its activity as a trading center was from the first through the eighth century CE.

The first extensive note about Adulis and the first mention of Axum appears in a Greek merchant's handbook, the Periplus of the Erythraean [Red] Sea, datable to 40–70 CE. According to this source, the journey from Adulis to Koloē, an inland city and the first trading post for ivory, took three days. From there it was five days to the metropolis called Axōmitēs. The ruler of these regions was Zōskalēs, who was well versed in reading and writing Greek. Major exports of Adulis were ivory, tortoise shell, and rhinocerus horn; imports included clothing from Egypt, millefiori glass, brass, iron, wine, olive oil, Indian iron, and steel (Periplus, 4–6).

The land route went up the northern Ethiopian escarpment to Koloē of the Periplus (perhaps the site known currently as Maṭara) and then west to Axum. Fragments of Mediterranean amphorae, glass, and iron in later chronological levels at Adulis, Axum, and Maṭara demonstrate the continued importance of Axum's import trade.

The author of the Christian Topography (recently identified as Costantine of Antioch) visited Adulis about 520 CE. The port of the Axumites, he wrote, was visited by merchants of Alexandria and Eilat [Alia]. At Adulis he copied the Greek inscription of a marble victory throne of an unidentified Axumite ruler (the Monumentum Adulitanum) and the Greek inscription of a basalt stele of Ptolemy III. The search for the Monumentum Adulitanum inspired nineteenth-century interest in the ruins of Adulis.

Roberto Paribeni excavated at Adulis In 1906, followed by Francis Anfray In 1961 and 1962. Like Axum and Maṭara, Adulis was unwalled. The monumental architecture complexes of the northern and northeastern portions of the site reveal characteristic traits of Axumite architecture—stepped podia platforms with projecting and re-entrant walls, and adjacent annex constructions. Anfray's excavations revealed specific similarities between Adulis and Maṭara. He uncovered an area at the western part of the site with popular two- to three-room dwellings that appear to have been part of a much larger architectural complex.


ADULIS. Figure 1. Marble chancel posts and panels. Sixth century CE. Archaeological Museum, Asmara. (Courtesy M. E. Heldman)

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Unlike the churches at inland Axumite sites, those at Adulis yielded fragments of prefabricated marble ecclesiastical furnishings from the eastern Mediterranean (see figure 1). These are datable to the sixth century. Fragments of similar or identical marble chancel panels and posts are found at Constantinople and Ravenna as well as at churches in Byzantine Palestine. The prefabricated marbles found at Adulis must have been carved at eastern Mediterranean quarries, sent overland through the Negev, and shipped from a port at the northern end of the Red Sea, probably Aila.

These marble fragments found at Adulis are associated with churches built in Axumite style. Their plan (like the church in complex F at Maṭara) is a basilica with an inscribed eastern apse. The latter feature is typical of sixth-century churches in Byzantine Palestine. In the complex that includes the northern church, Paribeni found fragments of marble reliefs carved with a six-armed star disk. This design prompted him to identify the architectural mass below the church as a pagan ara del sole (“altar of the sun”). However, the six-armed star disk is typical of the repertoire of designs carved on prefabricated marble chancel and ambo (pulpit) furnishings; these fragments should also be dated to the sixth century.

Ash layers and charcoal provide ample evidence of fire at Adulis, but the port city was not destroyed in the second quarter of the seventh century as some have assumed. International trade routes were deflected from the Red Sea from the late sixth century onward, and the importance of Adulis waned.

[See also Axum; Ethiopia; Matara.]


  • Anfray, Francis. “Deux villes axoumites: Adoulis et Matara.” In IV Congresso Internazionale di Studi Ethiopici – Rome 1972, pp. 745–766, pls. 1–6. Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Quaderno no. 191. Rome, 1974. Includes a discussion of the findings of the 1961–1962 mission of the Ethiophian Institute of Archaeology (led by Anfray).
  • Casson, Lionel. The “Periplus Maris Erythraei”: Text with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Princeton, 1989. Presents the most recent discussion of the date of the Periplus.
  • Heldman, Marilyn E. “Early Byzantine Sculptural Fragments from Adulis.” In Études éthiopiennes, Actes de la Xe conférence internaitonale des études éthiopiennes – Paris 1988, edited by Claude Lepage, vol. 1, pp. 239–252 Paris, 1994.
  • Munro-Hay, Stuart. “The British Museum Excavations at Adulis, 1868.” Antiquaries Journal 69.1 (1989): 43–52 pls. 3–6 With an inclusive bibliography.

Marilyn E. Heldman