The city of Aksum is located in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, near the Red Sea. The kingdom, of which it was the centre, was founded by Semitic speaking Aksumites or Habash (Abyssinians) and owed its development to a range of factors. The wider region had long been dominated by the Egyptians and by Nubian kingdoms based in Sudan. The Aksum state rose as its nearest rival, the Sudanese kingdom of Meroë, suffered rapid decline as a result of changing political and economic fortunes in the first centuries CE. Aksum took the place of Meroë and, to a lesser extent, Ptolemaic Egypt in international trade networks.
Although located more remotely and without access to either the fertility or easy transport of the Nile that was enjoyed by Egypt and Nubia, the Ethiopian kingdom had distinct advantages. It was closer to the Red Sea and an Arabian sphere of influence that had long been significant in trade in the region, and most importantly, it was sufficiently remote that it did not attract the hostile attention of the Roman or Persian superpowers. As a result, it was never conquered or suffered punitive expeditions that so frequently beset its neighbors and was, thus, left free to develop a unique culture that nurtured some key innovations of the period (Munro-Hay).
The Aksumites developed a sophisticated civilization that contributed a range of innovations in the fields of architecture and ceramics. It developed the Ge`ez or Ethiopic script, which allowed them to leave a legacy of written material and was sufficiently Hellenized for its rulers to also speak Greek. It produced a coinage bearing legends in both Greek and Ge`ez, which name the successive kings of Aksum. From coinage and other inscriptions, a chronology of the period can be reconstructed, while oral histories also tell us something of the political structure of the Aksum state.
The title Negusa Nagast (King of Kings), first established by Aksumite and successive Ethiopian rulers, was used until the death of the late emperor Haile Selassie. In the Aksumite state, other kings and chiefs across Ethiopia were subordinated to the King of Kings, but retained roles as administrators within the new system. The Aksumites had a diverse and difficult territory to subdue, which they seemed to achieve, acquiring dominance over the Red Sea straits and over the sea to what are now the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian coastlands, and beyond.
Perhaps the most spectacular achievements of the Aksumite kingdom were the construction of the great monoliths, of which the example taken by the Italians was the finest. Over 100 such monoliths once stood in Aksum. Carved from hard granite-like rock, the obelisks were erected as funerary markers, or stelae, for deceased members of the aristocracy. The seven largest and most intricately carved obelisks were erected by Ezana, the King of Aksum who converted to Christianity in 325 CE. The carvings depict windows and doors to create the illusion that the obelisks were, in fact, buildings. Funded by trade in such luxuries as turtle shells, ivory, obsidian, rhino horns, emeralds, cattle, and gold, the obelisks are testament to the skill of the Aksumite quarrymen, engineers, and stone carvers, as well as to the power of their rulers. The prosperity and reputation of Aksum was such that, by the third century CE, the Persian philosopher Mani described it as one of the four greatest kingdoms in the world, along with Rome, China, and Persia.
Aksum was strategically located near the Red Sea and maintained close trade relations with Arabia
Aksum also had a key role in the development of the world religions in the region; notably Christianity, and to a lesser extent, Islam. In converting to Christianity, Ezana instituted a radical change in religious practices. Aksumites had hitherto worshipped a pantheon similar to the Greeks and typical of more general late pagan culture in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Conversion required changing inscriptions from the disc and crescent motifs representing the old practices, to the Christian cross. It also aligned the kingdom much more fully with the now Christianized Roman Empire, although the effects of this were unlikely to have been extensive, given the remoteness of the region. Aksum’s first bishop was appointed by Alexandria, and when splits in the Church emerged—first over the Arian heresy and then over the Monophysite doctrine after the Council of Chalcedon in 451—the Aksumite Church remained loyal to the Alexandrian and Eastern Churches, and split from the Imperial Church (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
As with so many ancient civilizations, after a heyday lasting several centuries, Aksum became increasingly unable to maintain its position. During the 6th and 7th centuries, Persia successfully invaded the Yemen, Syria, and Egypt, disrupting Aksum’s trade routes. Arab conquests from the mid 7th century onwards, further transformed the old economic system, partly by blocking the Red Sea route from Adulis to the Roman world, and so Aksum’s prosperity came to an end. Christian Ethiopia was increasingly isolated in a wider Islamic region and it no longer had the allies it needed to maintain its dominance. By 630 CE, Aksum seems to have been abandoned as the political centre of the kingdom, although it has maintained its role as a religious centre and occasional coronation place for later dynasties until the present day.
Despite losing its political preeminence, the civilization of Aksum bequeathed to subsequent Ethiopian kingdoms several important legacies. The first was an independence that managed to preserve some of the characteristics of an ancient way of life. The second was a deep-rooted Christian faith and culture, unique to Ethiopia. The Church continued to sponsor religious arts and culture in Ethiopia after the decline of the Aksumite state, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains Monophysite to the present day. Aksum also gained a reputation for religious tolerance. Ella Saham, an Ethiopian ruler of late Aksumite times, gave protection and shelter to the early followers of the Prophet Muhammad, which earned Aksum a place of respect among Muslims even when religious conflicts in the region continued.
More than 98% of what is left of Aksum has yet to be excavated
These characteristics have, in turn, spawned a fabled place for Aksum in Ethiopian legend. For the people of Ethiopia, it is still regarded as the ancient residence and capital city of the Queen of Sheba, the second Jerusalem, and the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. Although it is not clear when oral myths connecting Ethiopian Christianity to Old Testament stories first began, they may date back to the establishment of Christianity in the 4th century CE. Undoubtedly, both kings and priests would have been eager to establish such a pedigree for themselves (up to the time of the end of the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, the dynasty was held to have descended directly from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba through their mythical son, Emperor Menelik I.
Perhaps the persistence of such legends more credibly reflects the importance of the wider region in the development of world religions. Ethiopian traditions can only claim the Solomon and Sheba story as their own because the Old Testament strongly indicates that the land of Ophir, from where Sheba came, was somewhere in Africa. Although not directly related to the later Aksum civilization, nonetheless, the confusion around Old Testament and more recent Christian traditions indicate the deep-seated nature of the range of monotheistic as well as pagan influences in the wider region of which Ethiopia was a part. It is precisely these influences, as they emerged, flourished, declined and persisted over time, that gave Aksum its prominence in the ancient world, and they leave us with a rich cultural legacy to be explored and enjoyed
- Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Foundations of Aksumite Civilisation” http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/aksu/hd_aksu_1.htm
- Munro-Hay, Stuart, “Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity” (http://users.vnet.net/alight/aksum/mhak1.html), 1991.
- “Obelisk arrives back in Ethiopia.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/4458105.stm)BBC News, 19 April 2005.