Aksumite Empire

Aksumite Empire

The Aksumite Empire or Axumite Empire (sometimes called the Kingdom of Aksum or Axum), (Ge'ez: አክሱም), was an important trading nation in northeastern Africa, growing from the proto-Aksumite period ca. 4th century BC to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD. Its ancient capital is found in northern Ethiopia, the Kingdom used the name "Ethiopia" as early as the 4th century.Stuart Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: University Press, 1991, p. 57.] [Paul B. Henze, "Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia", 2005.] It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the home of the Queen of Sheba. Aksum was also the first major empire to convert to Christianity.


Located in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean.

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 Zoscales, who, besides ruling in Aksum also controlled two harbours on the Red Sea: Adulis (near Massawa) and Avalites (Assab). He is also said to have been familiar with Greek literature. [ [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/periplus.html "Periplus of the Erythreaean Sea"] , chs. 4, 5]

The Kingdom of Aksum 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 Common Era. 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 Egypt to the Arabian Sea and India.

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, 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 effect of the Indian Ocean trading system on the rise of Aksum is described in [http://www.historycooperative.org/proceedings/interactions/burstein.html State Formation in Ancient Northeast Africa and the Indian Ocean Trade] , by Stanley M. Burstein.] In the 3rd century, Aksum began interfering in South Arabian affairs, controlling at times the western Tihama region among other areas. 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. At its height, Aksum controlled northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, northern Sudan, southern Egypt, Djibouti, Yemen, and southern Saudi Arabia, totalling 1.25 million km². [* " [http://www.eeb.uconn.edu/faculty/turchin/PDF/Latitude.pdf East-West Orientation of Historical Empires] ". Peter Turchin, Jonathan M. Adams, and Thomas D. Hall. University of Connecticut. November 2004.]

It was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Persian Empire of the day and declined after the 7th century due to unknown reasons, but informed speculation suggests the rise of Islam heavily impacted its ability to trade with the Far East in the era when shipping was limited to coastal navigation as well as cut it off from its principal markets in Alexandria, Byzantium and Southern Europe.

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. It finally dissolved with the invasion of the pagan or Jewish queen Gudit in the 9th or 10th century, resulting in a Dark Age about which little is known until the rise of the Zagwe dynasty.


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 development. [Pankhurst, Richard K.P. "Addis Tribune", " [http://www.addistribune.com/Archives/2003/01/17-01-03/Let.htm Let's Look Across the Red Sea I] ", January 17, 2003.] 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 Ethiopia and Eritrea at least as early as 2000 BC. [Herausgegeben von Uhlig, Siegbert. "Encyclopaedia Aethiopica", "Ge'ez". Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005, pp. 732.] 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. Adding more to the confusion, there existed an Ethiopian city called Saba in the ancient period that does not seem to have been a Sabaean settlement.

The Empire

The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia northern Djibouti, and northern Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. Today a country village, the city of Aksum was once a bustling metropolis, a bustling 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, Matara, Adulis, and Qohaito, the last three of which are now in Eritrea.

ocietal structure

The Aksumite population consisted of Semitic-speaking people (collectively known as Habeshas), [Crawford Young, "The Rising Tide of Cultural Pluralism: The Nation-state at Bay?", (University of Wisconsin Press: 1993), p. 160] [Rainer Baudendistel, "Between Bombs and Good Intentions: The Red Cross and the Italo-Ethiopian War", (Berghahn Books: 2006), p. 320] [George Kurian, "Dictionary of world politics", (CQ Press: 2002), p. 150] 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.

Foreign relations and economy

Aksum traded with India and Rome (later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoise shell, gold and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. Axum'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. In the 3rd century AD, Axum acquired tributary states on the Arabian Peninsula across the Red Sea, and by 350, they conquered the Kingdom of Kush.

The main exports of Axum 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 principle 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.

Aksum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the seventh century. However, because the Axumites had sheltered Muhammad's first followers, the Muslims never attempted to overthrow Axum as they spread across the face of Africa. Nevertheless, as early as 640, Umar ibn al-Khattāb sent a naval expedition against Adulis under Alkama bin Mujazziz, but it was eventually defeated. [E. Cerulli, "Ethiopia's Relations with the Muslim World" in "Cambridge History of Africa: Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh century", p. 575; Trimingham, Spencer, "Islam in Ethiopia", pp.46.] Axumite 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 Axum, which became Muslim from that point on, though later recovered in the 9th century and vassal to the Emperor of Ethiopia. [Daniel Kendie, "The Five Dimensions of the Eritrean Conflict 1941–2004: Deciphering the Geo-Political Puzzle. United States of America: Signature Book Printing, Inc., 2005, pp.228.]

Eventually, the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile, forcing Axum into economic isolation. However, it still had relatively good relations with all of its Muslim neighbors. Two Christian states northwest of Axum (in modern day Sudan), Maqurra and Alwa, survived until the thirteenth century when they were finally forced by Muslim conversion to become Islamic. Axum, however, remained untouched by the Islamic movements across Africa.


Before its conversion to Christianity the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion not unlike the Greek’s system. Astar was the main god of the pre-Christian Aksumites, and his son, Mahrem (Maher), was who the kings of Aksum traced their lineage. In about 324 AD 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 Axumites 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 around 330 AD Alexandria never reigned Aksum in tightly, rather allowing its own form of Christianity form, however, the church did retain a minor influence. 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 Mary of Zion by Menelik I for safekeeping.

Cultural achievements

The Empire of Aksum is notable for a number of achievements, such as its own alphabet, the Ge'ez alphabet (which evolved from Epigraphic South Arabian during the late pre-Aksumite and proto-Aksumite period), which was 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') tombstones (underground grave chambers) were constructed, the most famous of which is the Obelisk of Axum.Under Emperor Ezana, Axum 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 1959), 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 are still in Ge'ez.

It was a cosmopolitan and culturally important state. It was a meeting place for a variety of cultures: Ethiopian, Egyptian, Sudanic, Arabic, and Indian. The major Aksumite cities had Sabean, Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.


The Empire of Aksum was also the first African polity to issue its own coins. 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 Axumite 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.

Ark of the Covenant

Aksum is the purported home of the Ark of the Covenant. According to regional tradition, the Ark is said to be housed in the Church of Mary of Zion, and is guarded heavily by the priests there. The Ark, according to legends, was brought to Aksum by King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba's son and placed under guard. Controversy still surrounds this building, since no one but the one guard priest is allowed in, and thus no one can verify the Ark's existence.


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.


Aksum began to decline in the 7th century, and the population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands, eventually being defeated "c." 950. Local history hold 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 Axumite power was ended by a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the tribe al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama). After this period, the Axumite Empire was succeeded by the Zagwe dynasty in the eleventh century or twelfth 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 Axum, Dil Na'od.

Other reasons for the decline are less romantic and more scientific. 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.

Aksumite Empire in Fiction

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.


* Francis Anfray. "Les anciens ethiopiens." Paris: Armand Colin, 1991.
* Carlo Conti Rossini. "Storia d'Etiopia." Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d'Arti Grafiche, 1928.
* Rodolfo Fattovich "et al." "The Aksum Archaeological Area: a preliminary assessment." Naples: Istituto Universitario Orientale, 2000.
* Stuart Munro-Hay. "Aksum: A Civilization of Late Antiquity." Edinburgh: University Press. 1991. ISBN 0-7486-0106-6
* Yuri M. Kobishchanov. "Axum" (Joseph W. Michels, editor; Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, translator). University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 1979. ISBN 0-271-00531-9
* Karl W. Butzer. Rise and Fall of Axum, Ethiopia: A Geo-Archaeological Interpretation. American Antiquity, Vol. 46, No. 3. (Jul., 1981), pp. 471-495.
* Joseph W. Michels. "Changing settlement patterns in the Aksum-Yeha regionof Ethiopia: 700 BC - AD 850" (BAR International Series 1448) Oxford: Archaeopress, 2005.
* Mukhtār, Muḥammad Jamāl al-Dīn. 1981." Ancient civilizations of Africa". General history of Africa, 2. London: Heinemann Educational Books.ISBN 9780435948054
* David W. Phillipson. "Ancient Ethiopia. Aksum: Its antecedents and successors." London: The British Brisith Museum, 1998.
* David W. Phillipson. "Archaeology at Aksum, Ethiopia, 1993-97." London: Brisith Institute in Eastern Africa, 2000.
*Williams, Stephen. "Ethiopia: Africa's Holy Land". "New African", Vol. 458. ( Jan., 2007), pp 94-97.


ee also

*History of Ethiopia
*Kings of Axum

External links

* [http://jwsr.ucr.edu/archive/vol12/number2/pdf/jwsr-v12n2-tah.pdf East-West Orientations of Historical Empires]
* [http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CIVAFRCA/AXUM.HTM Civilizations in Africa: Axum]
* [http://www.hp.uab.edu/image_archive/um/umn.html Ancient Horn of Africa:Axum]
* [http://www.ethiopiantreasures.toucansurf.com/pages/aksum.htm Ethiopian Treasures - Queen of Sheba, Aksumite Kingdom - Aksum]
* [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/nubia1.html Ancient History Sourcebook: Accounts of Meröe, Kush, and Axum]

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