by Stuart Munro-Hay

1. Introduction

This book is designed to introduce the ancient African civilization of Aksum to a wider readership that has been catered for by specialist publications currently available. The Ethiopian kingdom centered on Aksum in the northern province of Tigray during the first six or seven hundred years of our era is still very little known in general terms. Its history and civilization has been largely ignored, or at most accorded only brief mention, in the majority of recent books purporting to deal at large with ancient African civilizations, or with the world of late antiquity. Perhaps, considering the paucity of published material, authors of such syntheses can hardly be blamed for omitting it; those who do include it generally merely repeat the same vague outlines of Aksumite history as are found in much older works. The excavations of the 1950s-70s in Ethiopia, and the studies of a few scholars in recent years have increased the scope of our information about the country’s history and civilization, and the time has now come when a general introduction to Aksum should be of value to interested readers and students of ancient history alike.

The Aksumite state bordered one of the ancient world’s great arteries of commerce, the Red Sea, and through its port of Adulis Aksum participated actively in contemporary events. Its links with other countries, whether through military campaigns, trading enterprise, or cultural and ideological exchange, made Aksum part and parcel of the international community of the time, peripheral perhaps from the Romano-centric point-of-view, but directly involved with the nations of the southern and eastern spheres, both within the Roman empire and beyond. Aksum’s position in the international trade and diplomatic activity which connected the Roman provinces around the Mediterranean via the Red Sea with South Arabia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and even China, tied it too firmly into the network of commerce to be simply ignored.

Map A. Map showing Aksum with Ethiopia, Sudan, the Red Sea, Arabia, Persia, India and Ceylon.

Whether or not Aksum, as is sometimes claimed (Ch. 4: 5), gave the final coup-de-grâce to the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Meroë in the modern republic of Sudan, it nevertheless had an important influence on the peoples of the Nile valley, and also on the South Arabian kingdoms across the Red Sea (Ch. 3: 6). As far as the history of civilization in Africa is concerned, the position of Aksum in international terms followed directly on to that of Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt and Meroë; each was, before its eclipse, the only internationally recognized independent African monarchy of important power status in its age. Aksumite Ethiopia, however, differs from the previous two in many ways. Its economy was not based on the agricultural wealth of the Nile Valley, but on the exploitation of the Ethiopian highland environment (Ch. 8) and the Red Sea trade; unlike Egypt and Meroë, Aksumite Ethiopia depended for its communications not on the relatively easy flow along a great river, but on the maintenance of considerably more arduous routes across the highlands and steep river valleys. For its international trade, it depended on sea lanes which required vigilant policing.

Most important, Aksum was sufficiently remote never to have come into open conflict with either Rome or Persia and was neither conquered by these contemporary super-powers nor suffered from punitive expeditions like Egypt, South Arabia or Meroë. Even the tremendous changes in the balance of power in the Red Sea and neighboring regions caused by the rise of Islam (Ch. 4: 8) owed something to Aksum. It was an Ethiopian ruler of late Aksumite times who gave protection and shelter to the early followers of the prophet Muhammad, allowing the new religious movement the respite it needed (Ch. 15: 4). Ethiopia, the kingdom of the `Najashi of Habashat’ as the Arabs called the ruler, survived the eclipse of the pre-Islamic political and commercial system, but one of the casualties of the upheaval was the ancient capital, Aksum, itself; various factors removed the government of the country from Aksum to other centers. The Ethiopian kingdom remained independent even though the consolidation of the Muslim empire now made it the direct neighbor of this latest militant imperial power. But eventually, Ethiopia lost its hold on the coastal regions as Islam spread across the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the Aksumite kingdom’s direct successors in Ethiopia, though at times in desperate straits, retained that independence, and with it even managed to preserve some of the characteristics of the ancient way of life until the present day.

The Aksumites developed a civilization of considerable sophistication, knowledge of which has been much increased by recent excavations (Ch. 16). Aksum’s contribution in such fields as architecture (Ch. 5: 4-6) and ceramics (Ch. 12: 1) is both original and impressive. Their development of the vocalisation of the Ge`ez or Ethiopic script allowed them to leave, alone of ancient African states except Egypt and Meroë, a legacy of written material (Ch. 13: 1, Ch. 11: 5) from which we can gain some impression of Aksumite ideas and policies from their own records. In addition, uniquely for Africa, they produced a coinage, remarkable for several features, especially the inlay of gold on silver and bronze coins (Ch. 9). This coinage, whose very existence speaks for a progressive economic and ambitious political outlook, bore legends in both Greek and Ge`ez, which name the successive kings of Aksum for some three hundred years. The coinage can accordingly be used as a foundation for a chronology of the kingdom’s history (Ch. 4: 2).

It may be as well to outline briefly here Aksumite historical development, and Aksum’s position in the contemporary world, discussed in detail in later chapters (Chs. 4 & 3: 6). Aksumite origins are still uncertain, but a strong South Arabian (Sabaean) influence in architecture, religion, and cultural features can be detected in the pre-Aksumite period from about the fifth century BC, and it is clear that contacts across the Red Sea were at one time very close (Ch. 4: 1). A kingdom called D`MT (perhaps to be read Da`motor Di`amat) is attested in Ethiopian inscriptions at this early date, and, though the period between this and the development of Aksum around the beginning of the Christian era is an Ethiopian `Dark Age’ for us at present, it may be surmised that the D`MT monarchy and its successors, and other Ethiopian chiefdoms, continued something of the same `Ethio-Sabaean’ civilization until eventually subordinated by Aksum. A certain linguistic and religious continuity may be observed between the two periods, though many features of Aksumite civilization differ considerably from the earlier material.

The Aksumite period in Northern Ethiopia covers some six or seven centuries from around the beginning of our era, and was ancestral to the rather better known medieval Ethiopian kingdoms, successively based further south in Lasta and Shewa. The Semitic speaking people called Aksumites or Habash (Abyssinians), centered at their capital city Aksum (Ch. 5) in the western part of the province of Tigray, from there came to control both the highland and coastal regions of northern Ethiopia. They were able to exploit a series of favourable situations, some of which we can only guess at at this stage, to become the dominant power group in the region and to develop their very characteristic civilisation in an area now represented by the province of Tigray, with Eritrea to the north where they gained access to the Red Sea coast at the port of Adulis (Ch. 3: 2).

Aksumite inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5), an important, and for Africa this far south, very unusual source of information, mention a number of subordinate kings or chiefs, and it seems that the developing state gradually absorbed its weaker neighbors, but frequently retained traditional rulers as administrators (Ch. 6) under a tribute system. The title Negusa Nagast, or king of kings, used by Aksumite and successive Ethiopian rulers until the death of the late emperor Haile Selassie, is a reflection of the sort of loose federation under their own monarchy (Ch. 7) which the Aksumites achieved throughout a large part of Ethiopia and neighboring lands.

In the early centuries AD, the Aksumites had already managed, presumably by a combination of such factors as military superiority, access to resources, and wealth resulting from their convenient situation astride trade routes leading from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea, to extend their hegemony over many peoples of northern Ethiopia. The process arouses a certain amount of admiration; anyone familiar with the terrain of that region can readily envisage the difficulties of mastering the various tribal groups scattered from the Red Sea coastal lowlands to the mountains and valleys of the Semien range south-west of Aksum. One Aksumite inscription, the so-called Monumentum Adulitanum (Ch. 11: 5) details campaigns undertaken in environments which, in a range of only some 250 km across Ethiopia, varied from the snow and frost of the Semien mountains to the waterless salt plains of the eastern lowlands. The highest point in the mountains reaches about 4620 m and the lowest, in the Danakil desert, is about 110 m below sea level, and although the campaigns would not have touched quite these extremes, the diversity of the country the Aksumites attempted to subdue is well illustrated. The same series of campaigns continued to police the roads leading to the Egyptian frontier region and over the sea to what are now the Yemeni and Saudi Arabian coastlands.

The Aksumite rulers became sufficiently Hellenized to employ the Greek language, as noted quite early on by the Greek shipping guide called the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (Ch. 2: 2), a document variously dated between the mid-first and third centuries AD with a consensus of modern opinion favouring the first or early second centuries. Somewhat later, Greek became one of the customary languages for Aksumite inscriptions and coins, since it was the lingua franca of the countries with which they traded

The Aksumites grew strong enough to expand their military activity into South Arabia by the end of the second or early third century AD, where their control over a considerable area is attested by their Arabian enemies’ own inscriptions (Ch. 4: 3 & 4); a direct reversal of the earlier process of South Arabian influence in Ethiopia already mentioned.

As the consolidated Aksumite kingdom grew more prosperous, the monuments and archaeological finds at Aksum and other sites attest to the development of a number of urban centres (Chs. 4 & 5) with many indigenous arts and crafts (Chs. 12 & 13: 3) demonstrating high technological skills, and a vigorous internal and overseas trade (Ch. 8). The inscriptions and other sources imply a rising position for Aksum in the African and overseas political concerns of the period. In the towns, the lack of walls even at Aksum seems to hint at relatively peaceful internal conditions, though the inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5) do mention occasional revolts among the subordinate tribes. Exploitation of the agricultural potential of the region (Ch. 8: 2), in places probably much higher than today and perhaps enhanced by the use of irrigation, water-storage, or terracing techniques, allowed these urban communities to develop to considerable size. Perhaps the best-known symbols of the Aksumites’ particular ideas and style are the greatly carved monoliths (Ch. 5: 6), some of which still stand, erected to commemorate their dead rulers; they also record the considerable skill of the Aksumite quarrymen, engineers, and stone-carvers, being in some cases among the largest single stones ever employed in ancient times.

The prosperity which such works bespeak came from Aksum’s key position in the exploitation of certain costly luxuries, either brought from areas under Aksum’s direct control, traded locally, or transhipped from afar (Ch. 8: 4). We have accounts of trade in such precious items as turtle-shell from the Dahlak Islands near Adulis, obsidian, also from Red Sea islands, ivory from across the Nile, rhino-horn, incense, and emeralds from the Beja lands in the Red Sea hills. Gold from Sudan was paid for by salt from the Danakil desert, cattle, and iron. Other commodities such as civet, certain spices, animal skins, and hides seem also to have been among Aksum’s exports. Royal titles on inscriptions attest (Ch. 7: 5) to Aksum’s claim to control the catchment area of some of these exports, including parts of such neighbouring regions as the old Kushite or Meroitic kingdom, the lands of the Noba and Beja peoples, other now-unidentifiable African districts, and even parts of South Arabia. To some extent such claims may be wishful thinking, but the general prosperity and reputation of the country led the Persian religious leader Mani to label Aksum as the third of the kingdoms of the world in the later third century, and something of this reputation is substantiated by the production of an independent coinage (Ch. 9) at about this time. It paralleled the country with the few other contemporary states with the wealth and political status to issue gold coinage; Rome, Persia (to a lesser degree), and, into the third century, the Kushana kingdom in northern India.

Aksum’s considerable imports (Ch. 8), ranging from wines and olive oil to cloth, iron, glass, and objects of precious metals, are reported by various ancient writers, but containers for the foodstuffs and examples of some of the others have also been found in tombs and domestic buildings excavated at the capital and other towns. From such discoveries, some ideas can be suggested concerning the social structure and way of life of the Aksumites (Ch. 14), while the tombs reveal something of their attitude to death and expectations of an afterlife. There was a radical change in this sphere in the second quarter of the fourth century, when the Aksumite king Ezana, previously a worshipper of gods identified with such Greek deities as Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares, was converted to Christianity (Ch. 10). From then on the coins and inscriptions show royal support for the new religion by replacing the old disc and crescent motifs of the former gods with the cross, though it may have taken a considerable time for Christianity to spread into the remoter regions under Aksumite control. Aksumite inscriptions from this period are in three scripts and two languages; Ge`ez, the local language, written both in its own cursive script and in the South Arabian monumental script (Epigraphic South Arabian, or ESA), and Greek, the international language of the Red Sea trade and the Hellenized Orient.

The adoption of Christianity must have aligned the kingdom to some extent towards the Roman empire, but this seems not to have been a slavish obedience for political ends. The Alexandrian patriarch Athanasius appointed, about 330AD, a Tyrian called Frumentius, who had lived in Aksum for some years, as Aksum’s first bishop (Ch. 10: 2), and this apparently founded a tradition of Alexandrian appointments to the see of Aksum. In about 356AD the emperor Constantius II wrote to Ezana trying to persuade him to submit Frumentius to doctrinal examination by his own appointee to Alexandria, the bishop George of Cappadocia, who, with the emperor, subscribed to the Arian heresy. In such matters of church politics, Aksum seems to have followed Alexandria’s lead and refused to adopt Constantius’ proposed changes. After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the international church was divided, and Aksum, with Egypt and much of the east, split from the so-called Melkite or imperial church and followed the monophysite interpretation of Christ’s nature which Ethiopia still retains.

Little is known about fifth century Aksum, but in the sixth-century king Kaleb (Ch. 4: 6 & 7) reiterated Aksumite claims to some sort of control in Yemen by mounting an invasion. This was ostensibly undertaken to prevent continued persecution thereof the Christians by the recently emerged Jewish ruler, Yusuf Asar, through interference with foreign traders, and perhaps fears of a new pro-Persian policy in Arabia may have been strong incentives for Aksum, with Constantinople in the background, to interfere. The invasion succeeded, and Kaleb appointed a new ruler. However, Aksum does not seem to have been able to maintain its overseas conquests, and a military coup soon deposed Kaleb’s client king, who was replaced by a certain Abreha. The latter maintained himself against subsequent Aksumite invasion forces and is said by the contemporary historian Procopius to have come to terms with Kaleb’s successor.

In any event, as the sixth and seventh centuries progressed Aksum’s position grew more difficult. The independence of Yemen was followed by its conquest by Persia during the reign of the Sassanian king Khusro I (531-579), and further Persian disruption of the Roman east followed with the conquest of Syria and Egypt under Khusro II. This seems to have dried up some of Aksum’s flow of trade, and the kingdom’s expansionist days were over. Arab conquests followed in the mid-seventh century, and the whole economic system which had maintained Aksum’s prosperity came to an end. Christian Ethiopia retained its control of the highlands but seems to have turned away from the sea in the centuries after the advent of Islam and begun to look more southwards than eastwards during the following centuries.

The center of the kingdom being moved from Aksum, the city became a politically unimportant backwater (Ch. 15). In the archaeological excavations conducted there (Ch. 16), nothing significant was found in the tombs or buildings which could certainly be attributed to a later date, and it seems that by about 630 the town had been abandoned as a capital, although it continued on a much-reduced scale as a religious center and occasional coronation place for later dynasties. The large residences in the town were first occupied or built around by squatters, in some cases, apparently, even during the reigns of the last coin-issuing kings, then gradually covered by material brought down by run-off from the deforested hills. The exhausted state of the land and climatic changes (Ch. 15) combined with a number of other factors must have compelled the rulers finally to shift their capital elsewhere. Geez, accounts suggest that the Najashi (negus or king) whose death is noted by Arab records in 630, and who was contemporary with Muhammad, had already done this. He is said to have been buried at Weqro (Wiqro, Wuqro) south-east of Aksum rather than in the ancient royal cemetery. The names of other Ethiopian capitals begin to be mentioned by Arab authors from about this time (Ch. 4: 8).

It seems, therefore, that the city of Aksum probably lasted as an important center from about the first to the seventh centuries AD. The wealth it gained from its control of much of highland Ethiopia, and its rich trade with the Roman world maintained it until the late sixth century, but after that first Persian and then later Arab conquests first disrupted this commerce and then prevented any re-establishment of the Red Sea route from Adults to the Roman world. Though a powerful Ethiopian state continued in the highlands, the old centre of Aksum, its trading advantages gone, and its hinterland no longer able to support a large population, shrank to small town or village status, with only the particularly sacred precincts of the Cathedral of Mary of Zion, the stelae, mostly fallen, and a vast store of local legends about its history (Ch. 2: 1) to preserve its memory.

1. Introduction

2. Legend, Literature, and Archaeological Discovery

3. The City and the State

4. Aksumite History

5. The Capital City

6. The Civil Administration

7. The Monarchy

8. The Economy

9. The Coinage

10. Religion

11. Warfare

12. Material Culture; the Archaeological Record

13. Language, Literature, and the Arts

14. Society and Death

15. The Decline of Aksum

16.The British Institute in Eastern Africa’s Excavations at Aksum