||This article contains Ethiopic text. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Ethiopic characters.|
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. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba. Aksum was also the first major empire to convert to Christianity.
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.
Located in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean. 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 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 rule in 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, 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.
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 Ethiopia and Eritrea 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.
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, 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. 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.
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.
Aksumites did own slaves, and a modified feudal system was in place to farm the land.
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 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.
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. 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.
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 converted to Islam. Axum, however, remained untouched by the Islamic movements across Africa.
Before its conversion to Christianity the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion. Astar was the main god of the pre-Christian Aksumites; his son, Mahrem (Maher), was to whom 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. 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.
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 the first African polity economically and politically ambitious enough to issue its own coins, 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 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.
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.
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 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 a short Dark Age, 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.
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 of Axum, 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.