The vigorous trade which Aksum undertook was an important element in the acquisition of its power and position in the early centuries AD and was probably the origin of a good part of its wealth. Policing of the trade-routes was therefore of vital importance, and it is mentioned in the anonymous Monumentum Adulitanum inscription (Ch. 11: 5) that the land route to Egypt, and the defence of the Red Sea coasts on both the African and the Arabian sides, were objects of vigilance to the Aksumite monarchy. Apart from long-distance land and sea routes, internal transport must have depended on some sort of state maintenance of at least the main roads in reasonable condition for porters or pack-animals; a practical move also useful for military purposes. We have no reports about Aksumite bridges, though the Portuguese later built some of which vestiges are still visible today. Ethiopian rivers are scarcely navigable, though some of the lakes are. Lake Tsana, which the Aksumites must have reached, is well-known for its reed boats, which rather resemble ancient Egyptian types. However, the river valleys, when dry, can also supply relatively easy passage from place to place. We have several accounts of the trade of the Aksumite kingdom, both internal and external, and archaeological work has confirmed many of the chief categories of goods being handled. The earliest account of the trade of Ethiopia, that of Pliny, (ed. Rackham 1948: 467) mentions the goods brought to Adulis by the `Trogodites and Ethiopians’. These exports were all animal (or human) products of the region and are listed as ivory, rhinoceros horn, hippopotamus hides, tortoiseshell, monkeys, and slaves. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea includes a brief chapter on Aksum, and as this information is of the first importance for any analysis of Aksumite economic affairs it is here quoted in full (Huntingford 1980: 20-21; for a more recent translation see Casson 1989: 51ff);
“After Ptolemais of the Huntings, at a distance of about 3000 stades, there is the customary mart of Adouli, lying in a deep bay that runs southwards; in front of it is an island called Oreine, which is about 200 stades out in the sea from the inmost part of the bay, lying along the mainland on both sides, where ships entering anchor on account of attacks from the mainland. For at one time they used to anchor right inside the bay at the Island called Of Didoros along the mainland where there was a crossing on foot, by means of which the Barbaroi living there attacked the island. And opposite Oreine on the mainland, twenty stades from the sea, is Adouli, a village of moderate size, from which to Koloe, an inland city and the first ivory market, it is a journey of three days; and from this, another five days to the metropolis called the Axumite, to which is brought all the ivory from beyond the Nile through the district called Kueneion, and thence to Adouli.
For the whole quantity of elephant and rhinoceros which is killed grazes in the interior, though occasionally they are seen by the sea round about Adouli. Out to sea beyond this mart, on the right, lie several small sandy islands called Alalaiou, where there is tortoiseshell, which is brought to the mart by the Ikhthuophagoi.
The end at a distance of nearly 800 stades there is another very deep bay, at the mouth of which on the right hand is a great sandbank, in the depths of which is found deposited the obsidian stone, which occurs in this place only. Zoskales rules these parts, from the Moskhophagoi to the other Barbaria, mean [in his way] of life and with an eye on the main chance, but otherwise high-minded, and skilled in Greek letters. To these places are imported:
Barbaric unfilled cloth made in Egypt, Arsinoitic robes, spurious coloured cloaks, linen, fringed mantles, several sorts of glassware, imitation murrhine ware made in Diospolis, orokhalkos, which they use for ornaments and for cutting [to serve] as money, material called `copper cooked in honey’ for cooking-pots and for cutting into armlets and anklets for women, iron used for spears both for hunting elephants and other animals and for war, axes, adzes, swords, big round drinking cups of bronze, a little money for foreigners who live there, Ladikean and Italian wine, but not much. For the king are imported: silver and gold objects made in the design of the country, cloaks of cloth, unlined garments, not of much value.
Likewise from the inner parts of Ariake: Indian iron and steel, the broader Indian cloth called monakhe, cloth called sagmatogenai, belts, garments called gaunakai, mallow cloth, a little muslin, coloured lac. The exports from these places are ivory, tortoiseshell, rhinoceros horn. The greater part is brought from Egypt to the mart between the month of January and the month of September, that is, from Tubi to Thoth. The best time for the trade from Egypt is about the month of September”.
ports of Aksum came from all over its area of hegemony. Along the route AdulisKoloe-Aksum-Kueneion, starting from the latter (suggested to be the Sinaar region of modern Sudan, Schoff 1912: 61, but possibly meaning the somewhat closer regions over the Takaze/Atbara river), came, according to the Periplus (Huntingford 1980), ivory from the country beyond the Nile. A tusk was found at Adulis (Sergew Hable Sellassie 1972: 74/5), eloquent witness to this part of Aksum’s trade network.
From the Blemmyes (Beja), says Kosmas, came emeralds (beryls), taken into India by Ethiopian merchants (Wolska-Conus 1973: 352-3); Olympiodorus (Kirwan 1966: 123) notes that the Beja/Blemmyes controlled the emerald supply by the early fifth century, when he was permitted to visit them, and Epiphanius (ed. Blake, de Vis 1934), writing at the end of the century, confirmed that the Ethiopians obtained emeralds from the Blemmye country. From islands in the Red Sea came tortoise-shell, and obsidian from near the shore (see above), and from Sasu (perhaps the gold-bearing Fazugli region some 200 km. south-south-west of Lake Tsana, in modern Sudan) came gold, which was exchanged for salt, iron and meat (Wolska-Conus 1968: 360). Products from the animal life of the Ethiopian region figure high, as in Pliny’s account, and include monkeys and other live animals, ivory and rhinoceros horn and hippopotamus hides. Aromatics, spices and other vegetable products either local or transhipped, such as incense resins, cassia, and sugarcane (Kosmas, ed. Wolska-Conus 1968: 358), also formed part of the Aksumite trade in the exotic. Frankincense trees even now grow in the region to the south-east of Aksum, and Strabo, in the first century BC already notes that the Sabaeans engaged in the traffic of aromatics, `both the local kinds and those from Aethiopia; to get the latter they sail across the straits in leather boats’ (Page 1930: 349). Human life was also part of the trading wealth of the state, and slaves, noted by both Pliny and Kosmas, may have figured prominently among the exports (Connah 1987: 72, 89).
Salt, which was of sufficient importance to figure in sixth-century internal trade (Kosmas, ed. Wolska-Conus 1968), later became one of Ethiopia’s currency goods; most of it probably came from the low-lying Danakil region east of the highlands. In later times it was transported in blocks called amole (or gayla in Tigrinya). The products of local industries or of agriculture and stock-raising, do not seem to have figured among the exported goods, though in later times hides and leather became an important export. The Muslim hadith mention that leather goods from Mecca were much in demand in Ethiopia (Guillaume 1955: 150-51). The locally manufactured goods would most likely have been solely for the internal markets, and probably not of the necessary quality to be taken on long trade voyages. The contrary was true of the products of the Roman Empire and India, which were much desired and appreciated by the élite of Aksum if we can interpret from the lists of imports, and the finds in tombs and domestic buildings. Iron, though long known in Ethiopia and neighbouring Sudan, was still an important import, both as raw material and in the form of tools and weapons. Articles specially made to order in precious metals, a va ried selection of glass vessels, various fabrics and made-up garments, and some wines, oils, and spices are mentioned as imports by the Periplus, Kosmas, and others. Even some coin, in the form of either brass pieces or Roman, coined money, was imported for trading purposes, apparently long before the decision was taken to facilitate trading exchanges by the issue of the local coinage.
A good deal of the imported material mentioned in the sources has turned up at Aksumite sites, particularly in such tomb deposits as that found in the Tomb of the Brick Arches at Aksum itself. Here was found glass in quantity, of high quality (more was found in a tomb in the Gudit Stelae Field, including two sets of goblets and beakers), iron, bronze, gold, silver, bone and ivory, ceramics, wood and leather. A good deal of this was probably of local manufacture, but some of the metalwork and the glass was certainly imported. From other parts of Aksum and from other Aksumite sites came amphorae in which wine or oils were imported, some of the luxury glass vessels from the Roman world, foreign glazed wares, perhaps from the region of the Persian Gulf, and occasional gold Roman or Indian coins. The presence of such items is the testimony to the success of the Aksumites in developing the potential of their trade from both the interior and overseas trans-shipments into a rich source of revenue. Agriculture, however, probably remained the dominant form of economic activity almost everywhere in the country, except in a few special circumstances, and more or less uniform farming would have reduced the need for much internal traffic in bulky agricultural products (even if there had been the roads and transport facilities to carry them on any but the main routes). Cattle, of course, could be driven for sale as required, as illustrated by the Sasu gold trade where cattle on the hoof formed part of the trade-goods (Kosmas, ed. Wolska-Conus 1968). Certain locally manufactured goods, like pottery, may have been partly made by specialists in certain places where there was a large demand, but in country, areas were perhaps not the work of such specialists. Most towns were probably rather regional markets than trade centres, importing local agricultural produce for their maintenance and distributing some craft products, and acting as local administrative or religious centres. But a few may have been financed to some extent by trade, such as Koloe, the ivory market, and of course Adulis itself. Apart from limited inter-regional movement of goods, the foreign trade, though rich, seems to have been chiefly in luxuries for the few, and it is unlikely that the metalwork, glass, cloth and so on brought to Adulis found a mass-market in Aksumite Ethiopia, any more than the ivory and so forth from Africa met with a very wide distribution outside.
No information is available about the system of taxation employed by the Aksumite rulers, but doubtless, a good deal of the state’s income depended on the categories noted above; population, land and its yield, livestock and trade. Land and population would have formed two basic and permanent taxable factors, relatively easy to administer, and later land-charters show that there was a well-kept record of land ownership (Huntingford 1965) which may well date back to Aksumite times. Foreign trade passed through a customs-post at Gabaza near Adulis, and probably on certain routes, or in the markets themselves, tolls were levied on the movement of trade or manufactured goods. It seems likely that relatively few taxes were paid in money, though such taxes would have stimulated money use and enhanced its profitability for the state. Taxes in kind were probably the norm save in the larger towns or on particularly important trade goods, and very possibly there were state granaries or supply depots where cereals, livestock and other foodstuffs collected as tax was held. From such repositories may have come the materials for the food supplies issued during the forcible transportation of Beja tribes described by Ezana’s inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5), and doubtless, there would have been stating help available to the population in times of shortage. Possibly also there may have been dues such as unpaid labour contributions, and supplies for royal signs of progress, officials travelling on state business, and soldiers in time of war.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell