The Kingdom of Aksum or Axum, also known as the Aksumite Empire and Abyssinia, was an important trading nation in northeastern Africa, existing from approximately 100–940 AD. It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period ca. 4th century BC to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India. The Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own currency, the state established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian peninsula, eventually extending its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom.
Under Ezana (fl 320–360), Aksum became the first major empire to convert to Christianity, and was named by Mani (216–276) as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China. In the 7th century the Muslims, who originated in Mecca, sought refuge from Quraysh persecution by travelling to Aksum (Abyssinia), a journey famous in Islamic history as the First Hijra. Aksum’s ancient capital is found in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.
Aksum is mentioned in the 1st century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as an important market place for ivory, which was exported throughout the ancient world, and states that the ruler of Aksum in the 1st century AD was Zoskales, who, besides ruling in Aksum also controlled two harbours on the Red Sea: Adulis (near Massawa) and Avalites (Assab) located in Eritrea. He is also said to have been familiar with Greek literature.
Aksum was previously thought to have been founded by Semitic-speaking Sabaeans who crossed the Red Sea from South Arabia (modern Yemen) on the basis of Conti Rossini’s theories and prolific work on Ethiopian history—but most scholars now agree that it was an indigenous African development.
Scholars like Stuart Munro-Hay point to the existence of an older D’mt or Da’amot kingdom, prior to any Sabaean migration ca. 4th or 5th c. BC, as well as to evidence of Sabaean immigrants having resided in the region for little more than a few decades. Furthermore, Ge’ez, the ancient Semitic language of Eritrea and Ethiopia, is now known not to have derived from Sabaean, and there is evidence of a Semitic speaking presence in Eritrea and Ethiopia at least as early as 2000 BC.
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 in some sort of symbiosis or military alliance with the civilization of D’mt or some proto-Aksumite state. Confusingly, there existed an Ethiopian city called Saba in the ancient period that does not seem to have been a Sabaean settlement.
Aksum and South Arabia at the end of GDRT’s reign in the 3rd century AD.
The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and northern 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, cultural and economic center. Two hills and two streams lie on the east and west expanses of the city; perhaps providing the initial impetus for settling this area. Along the hills and plain outside the city, the Aksumites had cemeteries with elaborate grave stones called stelae, or obelisks. Other important cities included Yeha, Hawulti-Melazo, Matara, Adulis, and Qohaito, the last three of which are now in Eritrea.
In the 3rd century, Aksum began interfering in South Arabian affairs, controlling at times the western Tihama region among other areas. It dominated states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, making them pay Aksum a regular tribute. By the late 3rd century it had begun minting its own currency and was named by Mani as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China. 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. By 350, they conquered the Kingdom of Kush. At its height, Aksum controlled northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, northern Sudan, southern Egypt, Djibouti, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia, totalling 1.25 million square kilometers.
Aksum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. However, unlike the relations between the Islamic powers and Christian Europe, Aksum (see Aṣḥama ibn Abjar), which provided shelter to Muhammad’s early followers around 615, was on good terms with its Islamic neighbors. Nevertheless, as early as 640, Umar ibn al-Khattāb sent a naval expedition against Adulis under Alkama bin Mujazziz, but it was eventually defeated. Aksumite naval power also declined throughout the period, though in 702 Aksumite pirates were able to invade the Hejaz and occupy Jeddah. In retaliation, however, Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik was able to take the Dahlak Archipelago from Aksum, which became Muslim from that point on, though later recovered in the 9th century and vassal to the Emperor of Ethiopia.
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 Maqurra and Alwa lasted till the 13th century before becoming Islamic. Aksum, isolated, nonetheless still 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 this same time, the Aksumite population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands for protection. Local history holds that a Jewish Queen named Yodit (Judith) or “Gudit” defeated the empire and burned its churches and literature, but while there is evidence of churches being burned and an invasion around this time, her existence has been questioned by some modern authors.
Another possibility is that the Aksumite power was ended by a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the tribe al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama). After a short Dark Age, the Aksumite Empire was succeeded by the Zagwe dynasty in the 11th century or 12th century, although limited in size and scope. However, Yekuno Amlak, who killed the last Zagwe king and founded the modern Solomonic dynasty traced his ancestry and his right to rule from the last emperor of Aksum, Dil Na’od.
Other reasons for the decline are more scientific in nature. Climate change and trade isolation are probably also large reasons for the decline of the culture. Overfarming of the land led to decreased crop yield, which in turn led to decreased food supply. This, in turn with the changing flood pattern of the Nile and several seasons of drought, would make it less important in the emerging European economy.
Foreign relations, trade and economy
Aksum was an important participant in international trade from the 1st century AD (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea) until circa the later part of the 1st millennium when it succumbed to a long decline against pressures from the various Islamic powers leagued against it.
The economically important northern Silk Road and southern Spice (Eastern) trade routes. The sea routes around the horn of Arabia and the Indian sub-continent were Aksum’s specialty for nearly a millennium.
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, tortoise shell, 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 main exports of Aksum were, as would be expected of a state during this time, agricultural products. The land was much more fertile during the time of the Aksumites than now, and their principal crops were grains such as wheat and barley. The people of Aksum also raised cattle, sheep, and camels. Wild animals were also hunted for things such as ivory and rhinoceros horns. They traded with Roman traders as well as with Egyptian and Persian merchants. The empire was also rich with gold and iron deposits. These metals were valuable to trade, but another mineral was also widely traded. Salt was found richly in Aksum and was traded quite frequently.
It benefited from a major transformation of the maritime trading system that linked the Roman Empire and India. This change took place around the start of the 1st century. The older trading system involved coastal sailing and many intermediary ports. The Red Sea was of secondary importance to the Persian Gulf and overland connections to the Levant. Starting around 100 BC 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. By about 100 AD the volume of traffic being shipped on this route had eclipsed older routes. Roman demand for goods from southern India increased dramatically, resulting in greater number of large ships sailing down the Red Sea from Roman rule in Egypt to the Arabian Sea and India.
Aksumite-era Amphora from Asmara.
The Kingdom of 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, slaves, and exotic animals. In order to supply such goods the kings of Aksum worked to develop and expand an inland trading network. A rival, and much older trading network that tapped the same interior region of Africa was that of the Kingdom of Kush, which had long supplied Egypt with African goods via the Nile corridor. By the 1st century AD, however, Aksum had gained control over territory previously Kushite. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea explicitly describes how ivory collected in Kushite territory was being exported through the port of Adulis instead of being taken to Meroë, the capital of Kush. During the 2nd and 3rd centuries the Kingdom of Aksum continued to expand their control of the southern Red Sea basin. A caravan route to Egypt was established which bypassed the Nile corridor entirely. Aksum succeeded in becoming the principal supplier of African goods to the Roman Empire, not least as a result of the transformed Indian Ocean trading system.
The Aksumite population consisted of Semitic-speaking people (collectively known as Habeshas), Cushitic-speaking people, and Nilo-Saharan-speaking people (the Kunama and Nara).
The Aksumite kings had the official title ነገሠ ፡ ነገሠተ ngś ngśt – King of Kings (later vocalization Ge’ez ንጉሠ ፡ ነገሥት nigūśa nagaśt, Modern Ethiosemitic nigūse negest).
Aksumites did own slaves, and a modified feudal system was in place to farm the land.
Egyptian-woven woolen curtain or trousers, which was a copy of a Sassanid silk import, which was in turn based on a fresco of King Khosrau II fighting Aksumite Ethiopian forces in Yemen, 5th–6th century.
The Empire of Aksum is notable for a number of achievements, such as its own alphabet, the Ge’ez alphabet which was eventually modified to include vowels, becoming an abugida. Furthermore, in the early times of the empire, around 1700 years ago, giant Obelisks to mark emperor’s (and nobles’) tombs (underground grave chambers) were constructed, the most famous of which is the Obelisk of Aksum.
Under Emperor Ezana, Aksum adopted Christianity in place of its former polytheistic and Judaic religions around 325. This gave rise to the present day Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (only granted autonomy from the Coptic Church in 1953), and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (granted autonomy from the Ethiopian Orthodox church in 1993). Since the schism with orthodoxy following the Council of Chalcedon (451), it has been an important Miaphysite church, and its scriptures and liturgy continue to be in Ge’ez.
It was a cosmopolitan state. Culturally, it was a meeting place for a variety of people: Ethiopian, Egyptian, Sudanic, Arabic, and Indian. The largest cities of the realm had Sabean, Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.
Ruins of Dungur palace in Aksum.
Typical Aksumite architecture — the monastery of Debre Damo.
Before its conversion to Christianity the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion. Astar was the main god of the pre-Christian Aksumites; his son, Mahrem, was to whom the kings of Aksum traced their lineage. Around AD 324 the King Ezana II was converted by his slave-teacher Frumentius, the founder of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Frumentius taught the emperor while he was young, and at some point staged the conversion of the empire. We know that the Aksumites converted to Christianity because in their coins they replaced the disc and crescent with the cross. Frumentius was in contact with the Church in Alexandria and was appointed Bishop of Ethiopia circa 330. The Church of Alexandria never reined Aksum in tightly, rather allowing its own form of Christianity to develop; however it did retain some influence and the Ethiopian Church followed the Coptic Church of Alexandria into Monophysitism after the Council of Chalcedon. Aksum is also the alleged home of the holy relic the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is said to have been placed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion by Menelik I for safekeeping.
Coins of king Endybis, 227–35 AD. British Museum. The left one reads in Greek “AΧWMITW BACIΛEYC”, “King of Aksum”. The right one reads in Greek: ΕΝΔΥΒΙC ΒΑCΙΛΕΥC, “King Endybis”.
The Empire of Aksum was the first African polity economically and politically ambitious enough to issue its own coins,[dubious – discuss] which bore legends in Ge’ez and Greek. From the reign of Endubis up to Armah (approximately 270 to 610), gold, silver and bronze coins were minted. Issuing coinage in ancient times was an act of great importance in itself, for it proclaimed that the Aksumite Empire considered itself equal to its neighbors. Many of the coins are used as signposts about what was happening when they were minted. An example being the addition of the cross to the coin after the conversion of the empire to Christianity. The presence of coins also simplified trade, and was at once a useful instrument of propaganda and a source of profit to the empire.
Aksum obelisk, symbol of the Aksumite civilization
The Stelae are perhaps the most identifiable part of the Aksumite legacy. These stone towers served to mark graves or represent a magnificent building. The largest of these towering obelisks would measure 33 meters high had it not fallen. 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.
The Aksumite Empire is portrayed as the main ally of Byzantium in the Belisarius series by David Drake and Eric Flint published by Baen Books. The series takes place during the reign of Kaleb, who in the series was assassinated by the Malwa in 532 at the Ta’akha Maryam and succeeded by his youngest son Eon bisi Dakuen.
In Elizabeth Wein’s series The Lion Hunters, Mordred and his family take refuge in Aksum after the fall of Camelot. Kaleb is the ruler in the first book; he passes his sovereignty onto his son Gebre Meskal, who rules during the Plague of Justinian.