Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Axum (also spelled Aksum) played a significant role in international relations around the time of the first millennium. At its height, Axum controlled modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia, and parts of Somalia. Although largely forgotten today, references to Ethiopians can be seen in such seminal works as the Bible, the Qur’an, the Iliad, and the Divine Comedy. Such wide acclaim reflects the power and influence once held by the powerful Axumite Empire.
The local Agaw people of northern Ethiopia first began to populate and expand the city of Axum around 400 BC. By mid-second century BC, Axum had developed into a regionally dominant kingdom. This was in large part thanks to maritime transformations enacted by the ever-expanding Roman Empire. Ideally situated on the Red Sea, “the kingdom was at the crossroads of the three continents: Africa, Arabia, and the Greco-Roman World, and was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia” (UNESCO).
The Horn of Africa was an incredibly fertile land and Axum exported a wide range of agricultural products, such as wheat and barley, and animals, such as sheep, cattle, and camels. The kingdom was also rich in gold, iron, and salt (a precious commodity in those days). Axum was also in command of the ivory trade coming out of Sudan. In exchange for these goods, it ferried tortoise shells, spices, silks, emeralds, and crafted goods between Rome and India. The importance of Ethiopia as a trade hub is attested to in a trader’s handbook from Alexandria dating from the first century AD entitled The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Names, routes and locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.
Names, routes and locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. ( Public Domain )
The Golden Age of Axum
The Kingdom of Axum reached its zenith in the third to fifth centuries AD. This golden age began with the famed King Ezana who converted his country to Christianity in 324 AD. Indeed, coins minted under King Ezana were the first in the world to feature the image of a cross. Ezana also placed a great importance on written documents.
The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana’s conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroë.The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana’s conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroë. ( CC BY 2.0 )
These manuscripts provide much of what is known about Axum today. They are written in the indigenous language Ge’ez, examples of which date back to at least the 8th century BC. Some scholars believe that a scriptorium (scribal school) may have existed in northern Ethiopia, providing scribes for the region as well as for the Nile Valley.
The Kingdom of Axum had a complex social hierarchy and its cities had elaborate settlement patterns. The stratified society had an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. Archaeologists have uncovered administrative documents and tombs which suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae. The towers or obelisks were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows. The tallest of these stelae was 100 feet high (30.48m).
Initially, Christianity was only practiced by Axum’s elite. It did not spread to everyone until the late fifth century when missionaries fleeing from the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) sought shelter in the Kingdom of Axum and were given permission to proselytize. The missionaries came to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church because they maintained a Monophysite doctrine.
Although many of the Western empires accepted Christianity by the fifth century BC, debates raged over the nature of Christ’s status. Monophysitism argued that Jesus Christ had a single nature that was a synthesis of divine and human. This point of view was branded heretical by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.