Kingdom of Aksum Emerges Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Aksum was the center of an expansive ancient kingdom that developed a civilization of considerable sophistication, one that had a lasting influence on subsequent Ethiopian polities.

Summary of Event

The kingdom of Aksum grew in one of the earliest centers of plow-based agriculture. Northern Ethiopia was largely populated by peoples speaking Cushitic and Semitic languages belonging to the Afro-Asiatic family. Intimate contacts between northern Ethiopia and South Arabian communities, beginning as early as the end of the second millennium b.c.e., led to common cultural spheres on both sides of the Red Sea. This cultural fusion was in evidence in the political, religious, architectural, and linguistic features of the kingdom of Yeha (Da’amat), the first known state in Ethiopia, which arose around the mid-fifth century b.c.e. Zoskales Ezana

The highlands of northern Ethiopia broke once again into petty kingdoms after the collapse of the kingdom of Yeha at the end of the first century b.c.e. One of these principalities, Aksum, emerged as the most dominant regional power in the first century c.e. The name Aksum, which initially referred to the city, came to signify also the kingdom over which it ruled. Although certain linguistic and religious features of Yeha continued to be observed throughout northern Ethiopia, many features of Aksumite civilization began to differ considerably as it encompassed increasingly diverse Cushitic and Nilo-Saharan cultural and ethnic groups farther south and west toward the Nile Valley.

Aksum was strategically positioned to control both the plateau and coastal regions of northeast Africa, including the shores of the Red Sea, one of the most important arteries of commerce in the ancient world. Aksum was also conveniently located within reach of the rich resource areas of the interior of northern Ethiopia.

Aksum’s entry into a wider network of commerce was further stimulated by the growth of Greco-Roman interests in the Red Sea and the eastern trade. Aksum embarked on intense military and diplomatic campaigns that expanded the kingdom in the direction of the major trade routes issuing from the capital and its principal port, Adulis, to the Nile and Egypt, south toward the gold-producing areas, and southeast to the Somali Coast, where they obtained incense (a major Aksumite export commodity). By the end of the second century c.e., Aksum had begun extending its military activity into South Arabia, thereby effectively policing the Red Sea and becoming a major partner in the profitable trade in valuable goods along the routes that crisscrossed Arabia to the markets of the Roman Empire.

Aksum’s hegemony on both sides of the Red Sea coast considerably enhanced its position in the growing international market. In addition to trading with Arabia and the Greco-Roman areas, the Aksumites traded with Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and China. Aksum’s exports included items such as gold, emeralds, ivory, turtle shell, incense, civet, rhinoceros horn, and a variety of exotic animal skins. It imported textiles, iron, wines, olive oil, glass, and other luxury items.

Evidence of Aksum’s advanced commercial economy is seen in the extensive use of locally minted currency. Most of the Aksumite kings who reigned between the second and the sixth centuries c.e. issued currencies in gold, silver, iron, and bronze. Aksumite coins depicted the effigies of the kings and bore legends in both Greek and Ge’ez. These coins were used in both external trade and internal markets. Archaeological excavations of the elaborate tombs, temples, platforms, mansions, and other material relics in the city of Aksum and in dozens of other urban centers along the trade routes, such as Adulis, Coloe, Malazo, Kaskase, Matara, Qohayto, and Tekondo, attest to a highly sophisticated and affluent urban society.

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The most important testimony to Aksum’s greatness is the towering obelisks that were carved from single pieces of stone. Some of these monoliths, which are thought to be among the largest single stones ever used in ancient times, weigh more than 500 tons. The tallest of them (which now is broken) was 36 yards (33 meters) high. These soaring monuments, representing an enormous display of power, resources, and skill, were probably erected to commemorate Aksum’s dead rulers. They are carved to resemble conventional multistoried buildings, complete with elaborately decorated doors and windows. Only two of the obelisks remain standing, one in Aksum itself, the other in Rome, where it was transported by order of Benito Mussolini during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in the 1930’s.

Contemporary written records confirm Aksum’s dominant position in the international arena. Mani, a third century c.e. Persian author, mentions Aksum as one of the four great kingdoms in the world together with Rome, Persia, and China. Increased commercial and diplomatic contacts with the Mediterranean world resulted in the spread of the Hellenic influence in Ethiopia. The Periplus Maris Erythraei (also known as Periplus, first century c.e.; Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, 1912), a shipping guide written by a Greek merchant, mentions that the Aksumite king Zoskales was well versed in the Greek language and literature. Many inscriptions and coins dating from the second to the fourth century c.e. attest to a fairly widespread use of the Greek language in the Aksumite kingdom. Some of the Greek alphabets were absorbed into the Ethiopic (Ge’ez) script. Greek gods such as Hercules, Hermes, Zeus, Ares, and Poseidon were commonly worshiped side by side with the local and South Arabian gods.

Close interaction with the eastern Mediterranean world culminated in the introduction of Christianity into the Aksumite kingdom and its adoption as the official religion of the state by King Ezana in the middle of the fourth century c.e. With state sponsorship, Christianity began to spread deep into the interior of the kingdom, effectively replacing the worship of local, South Arabian, and Greek gods. The introduction of Christianity further stimulated the growth of the locally developed Ge’ez script (inspired by the Sabean writing system) and the evolution of a unique Ethiopian literary tradition.

The reign of Ezana marked the zenith of Aksumite power. Four of his inscriptions written in Greek and Ge’ez clearly indicate intensive military activities involving imperial expansion and consolidation. In addition to his usual titles, Ezana refers to himself as king of Himyar, Raydan, and Saba (indicating Aksum’s continuing political supremacy in Arabia). It was also during this period that Aksum gave the coup de grace to the tottering kingdom of Meroë and placed much of the Sudanese region under its control. The use of the title of nugusa nagast (king of kings) by Aksumite rulers indicates the development of a governmental system that relied on retaining traditional rulers over the conquered territories and exacting tribute as a sign of dependence.

Significance

Aksum, the precursor of the modern Ethiopian state, developed a successful urban civilization based on efficient exploitation of local resources, significant development of an internal market, and vigorous participation in the international trade. Although Aksum’s political prominence had dissipated by the end of the first millennium c.e., its legacy continued to influence successive Ethiopian polities. As the center of political gravity shifted farther south in the course of the second millennium c.e., Aksum’s political, literary, religious, and architectural traditions moved along with it, providing a common reference to the diverse communities that constituted the Ethiopian state.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butzer, K. W. “Rise and Fall of Axum, Ethiopia: A Geo-archaeological Interpretation.” American Antiquity 46 (1981). A concise and interesting perspective, especially on the demise of Aksumite power.
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    xlink:type="simple">Chittick, N. “Excavations at Aksum: A Preliminary Report.” Azania 9 (1974). A brief description of the archaeological works in Aksum undertaken by the author for the British Institute in Eastern Africa from 1972 to 1974.
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    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. “On the Antiquity of Agriculture in Ethiopia.” Journal of African History 20 (1979). A history of the early beginning of agriculture in the Ethiopian highlands.
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    xlink:type="simple">Kobishchanov, Yuri. Axum. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979. One of the best standard works on the history of Aksum.
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    xlink:type="simple">Monro-Hay, S. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. One of the latest and most comprehensive works on the history of the Aksumite civilization.
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    Periplus Maris Erythraei. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. This ancient handbook, written by a Greek merchant, describes the countries on both sides of the Red Sea. Translated with a commentary and introduction by Lionel Casson.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sergew Hable Sellassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: Addis Ababa University, 1972. Covers the most important highlights of Ethiopian history from the earliest times to the medieval period, with detailed reproductions of the ancient Sabaean, Greek, and Ge’ez inscriptions and Aksumite coins.
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