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Aksum was the capital of an important kingdom in northeast Africa, including most of what is now Ethiopia, during the first millennium CE. With a mix of African, Mediterranean, and southern Arabian cultures, it was also the religious center of the earliest Christian state in Africa.
At the peak of its power in the fourth and fifth centuries, the African capital of Aksum ruled an empire that extended from Kush in the modern Republic of Sudan to Saba (Sheba) in Yemen and included much of contemporary Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. It is understandable, therefore, that the third-century Iranian religious leader Mani ranked Aksum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great empires that divided the inhabited world among them.
Sources of Aksumite History
Although Ethiopia has an extensive literature, it provides little information about historical Aksum, emphasizing instead the legend that the kings of medieval and modern Ethiopia were the lineal descendants of Menelek (late tenth century BCE), the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who reigned at Aksum until being exiled by usurpers in the early Middle Ages. The principal sources for the history of ancient Aksum, therefore, are Aksumite royal inscriptions and coins, references to Aksum in ancient classical and Christian literature, Sabaean inscriptions, and archaeology. The most important of these sources are the royal inscriptions, which Aksumite kings set up to commemorate their victories. These inscriptions are written in Greek and two Semitic languages—Geez and Sabaean—and provide important information about Aksumite government and foreign relations. Aksum also issued the earliest native African coinage, which provides the only evidence for the existence of several Aksumite kings. In addition, classical and Christian literature frequently mentions Aksum because of the important role it played in late Roman and early Byzantine foreign policy and commerce in the Red Sea basin. After Aksum ceased to be the royal capital in the early Middle Ages, the city fell into ruin. Archaeological exploration of the ruins of Aksum, which began only in the twentieth century, is providing important evidence for the origins and early history of the city.
Aksum and Its Neighbors
The early history of Aksum is obscure. Although there is archaeological evidence for incipient state formation in Ethiopia as early as the third millennium BCE, the origins of the Aksumite state date to the first half of the first millennium BCE, when Sabaean colonists settled in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. Sabaean inscriptions and monumental architecture and sculpture attest to the emergence of several kingdoms in the region. Aksumite history proper begins when the rulers of one of these states, the Habasha (or Abyssinians), made Aksum their capital, probably in the first century bce or the first half of the first century CE, when classical sources refer to the city as a royal capital and important trading center.
Geography was the key to Aksum’s growth. Its location high on the Ethiopian plateau gave it ready access to the upper Nile Valley and its hinterlands on the west and to the Red Sea on the east and enabled Aksum to profit from its position astride the trade routes that linked Roman Egypt to northeastern Africa, southern Arabia, and especially India. By the late first century CE, Aksum was the chief commercial center of the southern Red Sea basin. The fact that its ruler at that time was literate in Greek combined with the presence of resident foreign traders in Aksumite territory attests to the existence already of close ties between Aksum and Roman Egypt. Aksumite power grew rapidly thereafter. By the mid-third century Aksum had displaced Kush as the principal supplier of African goods to Rome. With the conquest of Kush and the destruction of its capital, Meroe, by the mid-fourth-century king Ezana, Aksumite territory reached its maximum extent. Ezana’s conversion to Christianity also strengthened Aksum’s ties to Rome, and for the next three centuries Aksum was Rome’s principal ally in the struggle to prevent the expansion of Sassanid Persian influence in southern Arabia.
Government and Culture
Little is known about how the Aksumites governed their empire. Aksumite kings styled themselves “king of kings” and listed numerous peoples they claimed to rule in their inscriptions. Combined with references to various local rulers, this suggests that the king of Aksum and his family controlled the central government and military, while local royal families continued to rule the empire’s various provinces. The frequent references to rebellions in the sources highlight the difficulties of controlling such a vast and decentralized state. By the early sixth century Aksum had lost its frontier provinces in the Nile Valley and South Arabia, although control of its Ethiopian and Eritrean core territories remained firm. Aksumite prosperity depended, however, on its key role in the lucrative Red Sea and Indian Ocean trade. The disruption of that trade by the Arab conquest of Egypt as well as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and Iran sapped Aksum’s prosperity and resulted in the gradual decline and ultimate abandonment of the city in the eighth century, when its last kings moved their capital to a more defensible site in the interior of Ethiopia.
Aksum flourished for over half a millennium, producing a rich culture that created in the great stelae of Aksum some of the most spectacular monuments of the ancient world. Unfortunately, little is known about other aspects of Aksumite culture. Christianity has been the dominant religion of Ethiopia since the mid-fourth century. Conversion to Christianity was, however, followed by repudiation of many of the pagan traditions of Aksum. Thus, although the Geez translation of the Bible and the trilingual royal inscriptions clearly indicate that pre-Christian Aksum had a literary tradition, no Aksumite literature survives. (It is thought that in the abandonment of Askum as the royal capital, the early manuscripts were lost.) Likewise, only a small amount of Aksumite art, predominantly architectural and numismatic, still exists.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Aksumite culture was a blend of African, Mediterranean, and southern Arabian traditions in which the southern Arabian strand dominated. Thus, the official language of Aksum was Geez, a Semitic language, which was written in an alphabetic script derived from South Arabia. Aksumite architecture followed South Arabian models and the kings of Aksum applied South Arabian hydraulic engineering techniques to ensure a reliable water supply for Aksum. The Aksumites also worshipped South Arabian gods. The most important of these gods was Mahrem, the war god, who was reputed to be the ancestor of the kings and their helper in battle. Presumably, much Aksumite tradition survives in the Christian culture of medieval and modern Ethiopia, but at present such survivals cannot be identified with certainty.
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