History of the Kingdom of Aksum

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Chapel of the Tablet in Aksum, Ethiopia

The Kingdom of Aksum, also known as the Aksumite Empire, was an old kingdom centered in Northern Ethiopia, the Tigray region, and Eritrea. Axumite rulers styled themselves as king of kings – king of Aksum, Beja, Himyar, Salhen, Raydan, Saba, Kush, and Tsiyamo. Commanded by the Aksumites, it existed from approximately 80 BCE to 825CE. The republic was concentrated in the city of Axum and developed from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period around the 4th century BCE to achieve prominence by the 1st century CE. Aksum became a major player on the commercial route between Ancient India and the Roman Empire. 

Let’s explore the Origin and History of the Kingdom of Aksum.

Origins of the Kingdom of Aksum

Primarily based on Carlo Conti Rossini’s prolific work and theories on Ethiopian history, Aksum was earlier thought to have been founded by the Sabaeans. They spoke a language from the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Data hints that Semitic-speaking Aksumites semiticized the Agaw people, who formerly spoke other Afroasiatic languages from the family’s Cushitic branch, and had already secured an independent civilization in the territory before the arrival of the Sabaeans.

Scholars like Stuart Munro-Hay thus guide to the presence of an older kingdom known as D’mt, which prospered in the area between the tenth and fifth centuries BCE, before the stated Sabaean migration in the fourth century BCE. They also cite signs showing that Sabaean settlers lived in the region for little more than a few decades. Sabaean influence is now believed to have been minor, restricted to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps signifying a military or trading colony in some symbiosis or military alliance civilization of D’mt or some proto-Aksumite state. As George Hatke put it:

The most lasting and significant impact of these colonists was the institution of a writing system and Semitic speech introduction—both of which the Ethiopians altered considerably.

The Ge’ez language is no longer universally thought of, as previously assumed, to be an offshoot of Old South Arabian or Sabaean, and there is some linguistic sign of Semitic languages being spoken in Ethiopia and Eritrea since around 2000 BCE. However, the Ge’ez script later replaced Epigraphic South Arabian in the Kingdom of Aksum.

Aksumite Empire

The Kingdom of Aksum was a trading empire centered in Northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. It survived approximately 100CE–940 CE, growing from the Iron Age proto-Aksumite period c. fourth century BC to gain fame by the first century AD.

According to the Book of Aksum, Aksum’s original capital, Mazaber, was established by Itiyopis, son of Cush. The capital was later changed to Axum in northern Ethiopia. The civilization used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the fourth century.

The Empire of Aksum at its height at times stretched across most of present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Yemen, and parts of Sudan. Today a smaller community, the city of Aksum, was once a bustling cultural, metropolis, and economic center. Two streams and two hills lie on the east’s east and west expanses, perhaps providing the primary reason for settling this area. Along the plain and hills outside the city, the Aksumites had cemeteries with ornate gravestones called obelisks or stelee. Other important cities included Hawulti-Melazo, Yeha, Adulis, Matara, and Qohaito, the last three in Eritrea. By the reign of Endubis in the late third 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 the Roman Empire, the Sasanian Empire, and India. The Aksumites adopted Christianity as its state religion in 325 or 328 AD under King Ezana and were the first state ever to use the cross’s image on its coins.

About the 3rd century, the Axumites led by Sembrouthes were triumphant over the Sesea, with Sesea becoming a branch of the Kingdom of Aksum. Around 330, Ezana of Axum drove his army into the Kingdom of Meroë, sacking and conquering the town itself. A large stone monument was left there, and the conquest is also linked to Ezana Stone.

The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana’s conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroë.

King Kaleb

Around 520, King Kaleb sent an army to Yemen against the Jewish Himyarite king Dhu Nuwas, who persecuted the Christian community there. For nearly half a century, south Arabia would become an Ethiopian jurisdiction under Abraha and his son Masruq. Dhu Nuwas was removed and killed, and Kaleb appointed a Christian Himyarite, Esimiphaios (“Sumuafa Ashawa”), as his representative. However, around 525, this viceroy was removed by the Aksumite general Abraha with Ethiopians who had settled in Yemen and denied tribute to Kaleb. When Kaleb sent another campaign against Abraha, this force abandoned, killing their commander, and joining Abraha. Another trip sent against them was defeated, leaving Yemen under Abraha’s rule, although payment of a tribute continued, where he proceeded to advance the Christian faith until his death.

After Abraha’s death, his son Masruq Abraha continued the Axumite vice-royalty in Yemen, continuing tribute payment to Axum. However, his half-brother Ma’d-Karib resisted. After being denied by Justinian, Ma’d-Karib sought help from Khosrow I, the Sassanid Persian Emperor, thus starting the Aksumite–Persian wars. Khosrow sent an army and a small fleet under commander Vahrez to oust the current king of Yemen. The war culminated with the Siege of Sana’a, the capital of Axumite Yemen. After its fall in 570 and Masruq’s death, Ma’d-Karib’s son, Saif, was put on the throne. In 575, the war continued again, after Axumites killed Saif. The Persian general Vahrez led other men of 8000, ending Axum rule in Yemen and becoming an inherited Yemen governor. According to Munro-Hay, these wars may have been Aksum’s swan-song as a royal power, with an overall weakening of Aksumite influence and over-expenditure in money and workforce.

Decline

After a second golden age in the preceding 6th century, the empire began to decline, eventually halting its production of coins in the early 7th century. Around this same time, the Aksumite population was compelled to go farther inland to the highlands for security, abandoning Aksum as the capital. Arab writers continued to describe Ethiopia (no longer referred to as Aksum) as a powerful and extensive state. However, they had lost control of most of the shoreline and their offshoots. While the land was lost in the north, it was achieved in the south; and, though Ethiopia was no longer an economic power, it still captivated Arab merchants. The capital was moved to a new location, unknown, though it may have been called Jarmi or Ku’bar.

Ultimately, the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate took control of Egypt and the Red Sea by 646, pushing Aksum into financial isolation. Northwest of Aksum, in modern-day Sudan, the Christian states of Makuria, Nobatia, and Alodia lasted till the 13th century before turning Islamic. Aksum, isolated, nonetheless remained Christian.

Under the reign of Degna Djan, during the 10th century, the empire kept expanding south and sent troops into the modern-day region of Kaffa, while at the same time undertaking missionary activity into Amhara and Angot.

The End of an Era

Local account holds that, around 960, a Jewish Queen named Yodit (Judith) or “Gudit” destroyed the empire and burned its literature and churches. While there is proof of churches being smoked and an invasion around this time, some Western authors have challenged her existence. Another likelihood is that the Aksumite power was ended by a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the tribe al-Damutah or Sidama (Damoti). It is clear from modern sources that a female usurper did indeed rule the country at this time, and that her reign ceased sometime before 1003. After a short Dark Age, the Aksumite Empire was replaced by the Agaw Zagwe dynasty in 1137CE, although limited in scope and size. However, Yekuno Amlak, who removed the last Zagwe king and instituted the modern Solomonic dynasty around 1270, traced his heritage and his right to rule from Aksum’s previous emperor, Dil Na’od. It should be stated that the end of the Aksumite Empire didn’t mean the end of Aksumite traditions and culture; for instance, the architecture of the Zagwe dynasty at Yemrehana Krestos and Lalibela Church shows the heavy Aksumite influence.

Aksumite architecture – the monastery of Debre Damo.

Trade Relations 

Covering parts of what is now northern Ethiopia and southern and eastern Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting tortoiseshell, ivory, emeralds, and gold, and importing silk and spices. Aksum loved South Indian spices so much that they learned regional Tamil and Malayalam language to negotiate the quantity and quality better. Aksum would bring Indian merchants to their capital and learn arts, culture, and Indian spices’ secrets. This answers why many Indians from South India origin have settled in the Middle East. 

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.

As would be expected of a state during this time, the principal exports of Aksum were agricultural products. The land was much more fertile during the Aksumites than now, and their top crops were grains such as barley and wheat. The people of Aksum also raised sheep, cattle, and camels. Wild animals were also killed for things such as rhinoceros horns and ivory. They traded with Egyptian traders as well as with Roman and Persian merchants. The empire was also rich with iron deposits and gold. These metals were valuable to trade, but another mineral was also widely traded: salt. Salt was plentiful in Aksum and was traded quite often.

Society, Religion and Culture

The Aksumite population comprised of Semitic-speaking people, known as Habeshas, Nilo-Saharan-speaking people, and Cushitic-speaking people.

The Empire of Aksum is famous for several achievements, such as its alphabet, the Ge’ez script, which was ultimately modified to insert vowels, becoming an Abugida. Furthermore, in the olden times of the empire, around 1700 years ago, giant obelisks to mark nobles’ (and emperors’) tombs (underground grave chambers) were built, the most famous is the Obelisk of Aksum. Before converting to Christianity, the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion comparable to the religion followed in southern Arabia. This included the use of the crescent-and-disc symbol used in south Arabia and the northern horn.

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