Aksum is also spelt legitimately as Axum. The Kingdom of Aksum is a state that existed from 100 AD to 940 AD. Its capital was the city of Aksum although it controlled parts of the Arabian Peninsula (modern day Yemen after conquering the Himyarite Kingdom and modern day Saudi Arabia), the region of Nubia, Kush, the region of modern day Eritrea and modern day northern Ethiopia.
The city of Aksum is the seventh oldest continuously inhabited city in Africa, with the first signs of human inhabitancy dating back to 400 BC. Due to this fact, 95% of the archaeological evidence, which lies beneath the currently inhabited city, cannot be explored.
This kingdom was preceded by an Iron Age pre-Axumite kingdom of D’mt (vocalisation unknown), the Kingdom of Meroe and the Himyarite kingdom. The kingdom of D’mt was located in the region of modern day Eritrea and lasted from 980 BC to 400 BC.
Successor states included the Sassanid Empire, the Kingdom of Alodia in southern modern day Sudan, the Kingdom of Makuria in south modern day Egypt and north modern day Sudan, the Zagwe Dynasty in northern modern day Ethiopia and the Kingdom of Medir Bahri in the Horn of Africa.
Modern day states in the region of this Kingdom include Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and parts of Egypt. Due to its size, the kingdom of Aksum controlled an area of 1.25 million square kilometres at its peak. As a comparison the Eastern Roman Empire at its peak covered an area of 1.05 million square kilometres. In a lot of maps the Eastern Roman Empire looks bigger because world maps are not produced to scale: Africa is artificially made smaller and Europe is artificially made bigger.
Expansion of the Kingdom Aksum (UNESCO)
King Endubis, 227-235 CE, is believed to have been the first Axumite monarch to mint coins. Examples of these coins can be seen in the British Museum. The currency in use in Aksum was coinage: of gold, silver or bronze. These coins were minted within the Kingdom. Each type of coin usually had the face of the King on one side and on the other side non-religious mottoes, religious mottoes or symbols such as the sign of the Cross. Some samples of mottoes used by various kings included “let the people be glad”, “gladness let there be to the peoples, “may this please the city [country]”, “may this please the people”. These inscriptions coins were written in either Ge’ez or Axumite writing systems.
Monuments and Architecture
A sample of Axumite monuments and architecture left to us include:
- The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion;
- The Obelisk Of Axum;
- A large temple complex in the region of Yeha (in Tigray, modern day Ethiopia);
- The palace of Dungur;
- The palatial buildings in Ta’akha Maryam extending over an area of 120 metres by 80 metres,
- Various other palaces such as Edna Mikael and Enda Simeon; and
- Various other churches such as Yemrehana Krestos Church.
Palace of Dungur Sketched Reconstruction (Wikipedia)
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It was originally constructed in the 4th century by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, believed to be during the reign of King Ezana the first Christian ruler of Axum, and claims to contain the Ark of the Covenant. It is located in Tigray Ethiopia.
Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (Wikipedia)
The Obelisk of Axum is 24 metres tall (79-feet high), made of granite, weighs 160 tonnes and dates from the 4th century. It is still standing in the Tigray region today. The proper term for this obelisk is a stele. In the local language a more precise name is a Hawelti because the tip at the top is not a pyramid. Although the Hawelti of Axum is the most unique stele in regions inhabited by the Axumites, there were many other stelae. Stelae were generally erected as markers for underground burial chambers.
Obelisk of Axum (UNESCO)
The temple complex of Yeha is located in Tigray Ethiopia and is the oldest standing structure in the Axumite region. It pre-dates the Axumite kingdom to 700 BC based on comparisons to ancient structures in South Arabia. This building may have survived over 2,700 years due to the use of a level the foundation by its builders, according to David Phillipson and its rededicated for use as a church in the sixth century AD.
Maritime Technology, Foreign Relations and Trade
Aksum had the port of Adulis, which at one point was one of the busiest ports in the world. Adulis served as a middle man between Ancient India and Ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka) across the Indian Ocean and Byzantium (the Eastern Roman empire) and Persia to the northwest across the Red Sea.
Adulis was located on the coast of the Red Sea and its importance predated the start of the Axumite period. The port of Adulis is thought to have included the modern town of Zula. Imports from India and exports from Africa, the Middle East and Europe went through Adulis. Examples of exports included salt, agricultural products, gold, iron, steel, cotton, ivory, rhinoceros horns and hides.
Locally produced crops included wheat and barley. The people of Axum also raised cattle, sheep and camels. The empire was rich in gold and iron ores. Salt was ubiquitous in the empire.
The Kingdom of Aksum was a key intermediary in the global trading channels that included the silk routes. The communications and maritime trade business of the kingdom was only part of the transport network. The Kingdom of Aksum also controlled key roads that caravans travelled to reach Egypt, the Middle East and Rome. Some of the Aksum military campaigns related to punitive expeditions to punish those peoples that tried to raid caravans on Axumite roads or caravans that carried Axumite citizens.
Axum was considered one of the top four world powers by a Manichaei prophet called Mani (died 274 AD). The other states considered world powers were Persia, Rome and China. Ancient India could have made a list of the great powers at that time, too.
Saint Frumentius born in Tye is credited with bringing Christianity to Axum during the 4th century. He is also considered the first bishop of Ethiopia. Knowledgeable Christians will remember Philip the Evangelist, the Discipline of Jesus Christ, baptising an Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8; and may have been puzzled at my previous sentence. The conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch related to the Kingdom of Kush (a predecessor state to Aksum and located around modern day Sudan). The kingdom of Kush was ruled by female monarchs at various points; an example was during the time of the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8. The term Ethiopian in Greek and Roman times at the time of writing the Book of Acts related to black people in general and it meant “people with burnt skin”. Saint Frumentius is credited with bringing Christianity to Axum because he went to an area different to Kush. He went to the city of Axum, the seat of power of the Kingdom of Aksum.
Due to its trading relationship with India, the Kingdom of Aksum provided a base to plant churches in India and for Axumite bishops to travel to India to have fellowship with churches already established in India.
Prior to the adoption of Christianity, the pre-Aksumites believed in various gods, some which were shared with the Arabia Peninsula, Greece and Rome, conceptually. Jews and Christians were within the Aksumite region but not prominent.
The Abdication of King Kaleb
The conquest of Himyarite was due to Jewish persecution of Christians around 520 AD in the Arabia Peninsula. King Kaleb sent an expedition to Yemen which deposed king Dhu Nuwas, killed him and installed a Christian Himyarite king Esimiphaios (“Sumuafa Ashawa”) to serve as a viceroy. His viceroy was later also deposed by a rebel Axumite general Abraha who crossed over to settle in Yemen and withheld tribute from king Kaleb. An expedition sent to reclaim Yemen defected by killing their commander and joining general Abraha.
This episode in the history of Aksum provided an interesting decision by a ruler. For one reason or another, King Kaleb lost interest in his position, perhaps due the wastage of money and manpower on empire, or in relation to the Plague of Justinian around his time. King Kaleb abdicated and when to join a monastery.
Axumite writing and Literature
The earliest linguistic evidence dates to 2000 BC. Earliest writing relates to the Kingdom of Kush, Meroe which wrote in Meroitic and the King of D’mt which wrote in a related form to Sabaean. Literature during the axumite period was written in Ge’ez a system of writing indigenous to Ethiopia. The earliest writing in Ge’ez was on the Hawulti obelisk in Matara, Eritrea. Early Axumite royals had inscriptions written in both Greek and Ge’ez while later kings chose to use only Ge’ez. Examples of works in Ge’ez include the Ethiopic bible, the treatise of Saint Cyril (known locally as Hamanot Rete’et or De Recta Fide), the religious document Ser’ata Paknemis (the monastic rules of Pachomius) and an Ethiopic translation of the work on natural history, Physiologus by an unknown author (the predecessor to the books of beasts called bestiaries). In the post-axumite period (1200 – Present) many more works of literature were also produced. Due to the time span during which the people of these regions produced complex written works, only a sample of the works in existence are listed. Also, some of the works in existence are so old, they are indecipherable to modern scholars.
Aksum in Classical and Medieval Writing
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea
Periplous of the Erythraean Sea (English version) (Wikipedia)
The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea or Periplus of the Red Sea is a Greco-Roman periplus written in Koine Greek that describes navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports like Berenice Troglodytica along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along Horn of Africa, the Sindh region of Pakistan, along with southwestern regions of India. A periplus is a manuscript document that lists the ports and coastal landmarks, in order and with approximate intervening distances, that the captain of a vessel could expect to find along a shore. The author is unknown. At one point Aksum was considered the Kingdom of Zoscales in the first century (Za-Hecale of the Aksum kings’ list) in certain periplus documents.
Claudius Ptolemy was born in Egypt in 100 AD and died in Alexandria in 170 AD aged 69-70. He was a Greco-Roman mathematician, astronomer, geographer, astrologer, and poet of a single epigram in the Greek Anthology. He lived in Alexandria. His first name was Roman and surname Greek Egyptian. Claudius Ptolemy is famous for Almagest a treatise in 13 books providing mathematical theory on the motions of the Sun, Moon and Planets. His work was not superseded until the 16th century, over a thousand years later. In some of his works Claudius Ptolemy also wrote about Aksum.
Pliny the Elder
Born Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny was a Roman author, naturalist, natural philosopher, and a naval and army commander during the first century. He is known for writing Naturalis Historia (Natural History), which became the editorial model for encyclopedias. Pliny received training as a law maker before entering the Roman army as a junior officer. Pliny spent time in the Africa Province, possibly as a procurator. His military and naval career gave him the opportunity to provide a blog for future generations, in his work Periplus.
The Book of Aksum
The Book of Aksum is the name accepted since the time of James Bruce for a collection of documents from St. Mary’s Cathedral of Aksum providing information on Ethiopian history. The earliest parts of the collection date to the mid-15th century during the reign of Zar’a Ya`qob (r. 1434-1468).
- Aksum was a contemporary of the Eastern Roman empire during 100 AD to 940 AD. It was also a contemporary of China and Persia, as a world power of its time.
- It had many impressive works of literature and architecture
- It had a sophisticated political and social structure that compared well to any contemporary of its time
- It was a major trade intermediary between Rome and the Persians on one hand and India and China across the Indian Ocean.
- It covered 1.250 million square kilometres compared to the Eastern Rome empire’s 1.05 million square kilometres
- It had a strong economy and good foreign relations with all the known empires of its time
- It had global-standard infrastructure and institutions for its time including key ports, key roads, a strong moral code and rule of law.
Munro-Hay, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: University Press, 1991
Munro-Hay, Ethiopia, the unknown land: a cultural and historical guide (London: I.B. Tauris, 2002)
Coin comparison for 270-300, Axum gold of: St Munro-Hay & B.Juel-Jensen Axumite Coinage (1995): Coin numbers for Endubis 1,2 & 79. Roman Imperial Coinage of Probus: 139, 141, 143, 307.
Coin comparison for 570-600, Axum for Israel of Axum Munro-Hay & Juel-Jensen Axumite Coinage, for Israel: Coin numbers 143, 144. Byzantine (Sear index) of Maurice Tiberius: Coin number 474, 477, 478, 524.
Sear, David R.; Bendall, Simon; O’Hara, Michael Dennis (1987). Byzantine Coins and their Values. London, United Kingdom: Seaby.
Chittick, Neville (1975). An Archaeological Reconnaissance of the Horn: The British-Somali Expedition. pp. 117–133.
Wolfgang, “Coinage” in Siegbert, ed. Encyclopaedia, p. 767.
Hahn, Wolfgang, “Coinage” in Uhlig, Siegbert, ed., Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: A-C. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2003.
“Promising results from Eritrean gold campaign”, Mining Weekly Online. June 6, 2006.
Obelisk, new finds unleash debate in Ethiopia. The Seattle Times Online. 28 December 2005
Sergew Hable Selassie, Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. United Printers: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1972, p. 190.
Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), p. 31 n.18.
Islam Online. “Axum: The Ancient Civilization of Ethiopia”. Accessed 21 July 2006.
David W. Phillipson, Ancient Churches of Ethiopia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009)
E. Bernand, A.J. Drewes, R. Schneiderm Recueil des inscriptions de l’éthiopie des périodes pré-axoumite et axoumite. Académie des inscriptions et belle-lettres. Diffusion de Broccard: Paris, 1991