The Kingdom of Aksum
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Axum or Aksum was a major empire of the ancient world, the kingdom of Aksum arose in Ethiopia during the first century C.E. This wealthy African civilization thrived for centuries, controlling a large territorial state and access to vast trade routes linking the Roman Empire to the Middle East and India. Aksum, the capital city, was a metropolis with a peak population as high as 20,000. Aksum was also noteworthy for its elaborate monuments and written script, as well as for introducing the Christian religion to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.


Aksum was previously thought to have been founded by Sabaeans, an ancient people speaking an Old South Arabian language who lived in what is today Yemen, in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. However, most scholars now agree that before the arrival of the Sabaeans, an African settlement by the Agaw people and other Ethiopian groups had already existed in the territory. Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony.

Aksum was situated in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, in a region called Tigray, near present-day Eritrea. Humans had inhabited the region and the valleys below since the Stone Age and agrarian communities had been there for at least a millennium. But the origins of the kingdom of Aksum are mysterious. People from the kingdom of Saba, across the Red Sea on the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, may have migrated into the area in the first millennium B.C.E. and influenced its culture. In this region, archaeologists have found evidence of a complex society called Di’amat, or D’MT, that preceded the rise of Aksum by several centuries. This culture was based in the village of Yeha, in the Tigray highlands about 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Aksum. Another city-state seems to have existed right next to Aksum on the Bieta Giyorgis Hill. Scientists and historians are still trying to understand the process of cultural and economic development that led to the growth of a wide polity in this region. Nevertheless, by the first century C.E. or thereabouts, Aksum had emerged as a state to unify the area.

The local geography contributed to the rise of Aksum. The city is located some 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level, on a plateau. Its climate, rainfall patterns, and fertile soil made the area suitable for herding livestock and agriculture. Most importantly, the city was strategically positioned at the crossroads of trade routes running in every direction, from the East African coast to the continent's interior.

The Aksumites took full advantage of these commercial opportunities. Gold and ivory were perhaps their most valuable export commodities, but they also trafficked in tortoise shells, rhinoceros horns, frankincense, myrrh, emeralds, salt, live animals, and enslaved people. In exchange, they imported textiles, iron, steel, weapons, glassware, jewelry, spices, olive oil, and wine. Their trading partners included most of the major states in the known world: Egypt, South Arabia, the Middle East, India, and China. Perhaps their most important commercial partners were the Byzantine Romans. Aksum was the first African country to mint its coins—in gold, silver, and bronze—all in the standard weight categories issued by the Roman Empire. These coins have been recovered in multiple foreign locations, including as far away as India.

The kingdom of Aksum reached its peak power between the third and sixth centuries C.E. In those years, it was a prosperous, stratified society, with divisions ranging from high nobles, lower status members of the elite classes, and common folk. The city of Aksum grew in population, size, and the complexity of its development, while smaller towns and rural villages sprang up in surrounding areas. The kingdom exercised administrative and economic control over a swath of territory encompassing Tigray and northern Eritrea, the desert, coastal plains to the south and east, and much of the Red Sea coast (in present-day Djibouti and Somalia).


The Aksumite Empire at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. Today a smaller community, the city of Aksum was once a bustling metropolis and cultural and economic center. By the reign of Endubis in the late 3rd century, the empire had begun minting its own currency. It converted to Christianity in 325 or 328 under King Ezana, and was the first state ever to use the image of the cross on its coins. The kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century.

By 350, Aksum conquered the Kingdom of Kush. Around 520, King Kaleb sent an expedition to Yemen against the Jewish Himyarite King Dhu Nuwas, who was persecuting the Christian/Aksumite community in his kingdom. After several years of military and political struggles, Yemen fell under the rule of Aksumite general Abreha, who continued to promote the Christian faith until his death, not long after which Yemen was conquered by the Persians. According to Munro-Hay, these wars may have been Aksum’s swan-song as a great power, with an overall weakening of Aksumite authority and over-expenditure in money and manpower. It is also possible that Ethiopia was affected by the Plague of Justinian around this time, a disease thought to be the first recorded instance of bubonic plague.

Trading And Culture

Covering parts of what is now northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoiseshell, gold, and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. Aksum’s access to both the Red Sea and the Upper Nile enabled its strong navy to profit in trade between various African (Nubia), Arabian (Yemen), and Indian states.

The empire traded with Roman traders as well as with Egyptian and Persian merchants.

The main exports of Aksum were agricultural products. The land was fertile during the time of the Aksumites, and the principal crops were grains such as wheat and barley. The people of Aksum also raised cattle, sheep, and camels. Wild animals were hunted for ivory and rhinoceros horns.

The empire was rich in gold and iron deposits, and salt was an abundant and widely traded mineral.

Aksum benefited from a major transformation of the maritime trading system that linked the Roman Empire and India. Starting around 100 BCE, a route from Egypt to India was established, making use of the Red Sea and using monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea directly to southern India. Aksum was ideally located to take advantage of the new trading situation. Adulis soon became the main port for the export of African goods, such as ivory, incense, gold, and exotic animals. Slaves were also traded along the same routes. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the Kingdom of Aksum continued to expand its control of the southern Red Sea basin. A caravan route to Egypt, which bypassed the Nile corridor entirely, was established. Aksum succeeded in becoming the principal supplier of African goods to the Roman Empire.

A gold coin of the Aksumite king Ousas, specifically a one-third solidus, diameter 17 mm, weight 1.50 gm. The Aksumite Empire was one of the first African polities economically and politically ambitious enough to issue its coins, which bore legends in Ge’ez and Greek.
The Rome Stele (known also as the Aksum Obelisk) in Aksum (Tigray Region, Ethiopia). The Stelae (hawilt/hawilti in local languages) are perhaps the most identifiable part of the Aksumite legacy. These stone towers served to mark graves and represent a magnificent multi-storied palace. They are decorated with false doors and windows in typical Aksumite design. The Stelae have most of their mass out of the ground but are stabilized by massive underground counter-weights. The stone was often engraved with a pattern or emblem denoting the king’s or the noble’s rank.


Eventually, the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile, forcing Aksum into economic isolation. Northwest of Aksum, in modern-day Sudan, the Christian states of Makuria and Alodia lasted until the 13th century before becoming Islamic. Aksum, isolated, nonetheless remained Christian.

After a second golden age in the early 6th century, the empire began to decline, eventually ceasing its production of coins in the early 7th century. Around the same time, the Aksumite population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands for protection, abandoning Aksum as the capital. Arab writers of the time continued to describe Ethiopia (no longer referred to as Aksum) as an extensive and powerful state, although it had lost control of most of the coast and its tributaries. While land was lost in the north, it was gained in the south, and Ethiopia still attracted Arab merchants. The capital was moved to a new location, currently unknown, though it may have been called Ku’bar or Jarmi.

There exist different hypotheses as to why the empire collapsed, but historians agree that climate changes must have greatly contributed to the end of Aksum. As international profits from the exchange network declined, Aksum lost its ability to control its raw material sources, and that network collapsed. The already persistent environmental pressure of a large population to maintain a high level of regional food production had to be intensified. The result was a wave of soil erosion that began on a local scale circa 650 and attained catastrophic proportions after 700. Presumably, complex socio-economic inputs compounded the problem. These are traditionally reflected in declining maintenance, deterioration, and partial abandonment of marginal cropland, shifts to destructive pastoral exploitation, and eventual wholesale and irreversible land degradation. This syndrome was possibly accelerated by an apparent decline in rainfall reliability beginning in 730–760, with the presumed result that an abbreviated modern growing season was re-established during the 9th century.


Aksum also enlarged its territory through warfare. Led by King Ezana I, Aksumites conquered the city-state of Meroe (part of present-day Sudan) in the early fourth century C.E. In the sixth century, the Aksumite King Kaleb sent a force across the Red Sea to subdue the Yemenites, subjugating them as vassals for several decades. The Roman emperor at Byzantium supported Aksum in this venture, largely in retaliation for Yemen’s persecution of Christians.

Aksum had become Christianized in the fourth century C.E. and became the first sub-Saharan African state to embrace the new Semitic religion. A figure named Frumentius is given credit for spreading the gospel to Ethiopia. Frumentius came from the Phoenician city of Tyre (present-day Lebanon). He became an advisor to the court at Aksum and a tutor to the crown prince, Ezana. After assuming the throne, Ezana proclaimed Christianity the state religion. It is unclear whether this policy decision was spurred by the kingdom’s diplomatic and trade relations with Rome, since over a hundred years before, Roman traders had already brought knowledge of the Christian religion to the Aksumite mercantile network.

The Ethiopian written language, known as Ge’ez, was derived from the Sabaean script that originated in the Arabian kingdom of Saba. Some inscribed stone slabs from the time of Aksum’s King Ezana are engraved in three languages: Ge’ez, Sabaean, and Greek. Ge’ez, though no longer the vernacular in the region, remains in use in Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church.

The kingdom’s power had eroded entirely by the end of the eighth century. One reason for its decline was the migration of the nomadic Beja peoples into the area; their independent herding activities threatened Aksum’s territorial dominance. The Aksumites lost their hold on southern Arabia, and the Persians subsequently conquered Yemen around 578 C.E. The decisive blow was the ascendance of the Arab Muslims, who became the region’s dominant power in the seventh century and assumed naval control of the Red Sea. The loss of mercantile revenue undermined the capacity of Aksum’s nobility to hold an expanded state together. Environmental factors, most notably the degradation of soils from overuse and a decline in the abundance of rainfall created additional pressures.

Political power shifted to a new group of elites, the Agau people, who instituted the Zagwe Dynasty based in the city of Lalibela. The city of Aksum remains inhabited in the 21st century. The remnants of the old city were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1980.


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