Described as one of the greatest empires to ever exist in Africa, the Kingdom of Aksum lasted from around 100 AD to 940 AD, and extended across East Africa and beyond, including modern-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Sudan. Located in the northern province of Tigray, Aksum remained the capital of Ethiopia until the seventh century CE. At its peak, the kingdom controlled territories as far as southern Egypt, east to the Gulf of Aden, south to the Omo River, and west to the Cushite Kingdom of Meroe.
The local(Tigrian and Agew) people of northern Ethiopia first began to populate and expand the city of Aksum around 400 BC. By mid-second century BC, Aksum 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 Empire issued its own coins
The Horn of Africa was an incredibly fertile land and Aksum exported a wide range of agricultural products, such as wheat and barley, and animals, such as sheep, cattle, and camels. Aksum was situated in a strategic position in the middle of a large trade route that extended from Rome to India. It was involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoiseshell, and emeralds, and importing silk and spices. The kingdom was also rich in gold, iron, and salt (a precious commodity in those days).
Aksum was also in command of the ivory trade coming out of Sudan. In exchange for these goods, it ferried tortoise shells, spices, 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 Eritrean Sea. As it dominated trade routes due to its strategic position, Aksum became one of the first African empires to issue its own coins. These coins were used as representations of what was happening when they were minted. The coins, minted in gold, silver, bronze, and copper, bore legends in Ge’ez and Greek.
Aksum developed a civilization and empire whose influence, at its height in the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., extended throughout the regions lying south of the Roman Empire, from the fringes of the Sahara in the west, across the Red Sea to the inner Arabian desert in the east. Ezana also placed a great importance on written documents. The Aksumites developed Africa’s only indigenous written script, Ge’ez. They traded with Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean and Arabia.
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.
Aksumite Empire’s unique obelisks
The kingdom is famous for its tall stone cut towers known as obelisks. These vertical structures were carved out of a single stone and were basically tombstones that were built to mark graves and underground burial chambers. 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). Which is one of the most famous obelisks available is the Obelisk of Aksum, which is 1,700 years old. History says Italian soldiers moved it to Italy after the war with Ethiopia in 1937. In 2008, it was, however, returned to Ethiopia and erected again in Aksum.
The First African Christian Empire
The Kingdom of Aksum 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. The king had been converted by Frumentius, a former Syrian captive who was made Bishop of Aksum. On his return, Frumentius had promptly baptized King Ezana, who then declared Aksum a Christian state, followed by the king’s active converting of the Aksumites.
Initially, Christianity was only practiced by Aksum’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 Aksum 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.
Powerful Rome and Constantinople believed in dyophysitism, that is, that Jesus Christ maintained two natures: one divine and one human. This debate, heavily influenced by political and cultural rivalries, led to the final schism of the Oriental Orthodox Churches from the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Axumite Empire ultimately declined, however, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is still a thriving sect of Christianity, administering to roughly 45 to 50 million people worldwide.
The Keeper of ‘Ark of the Covenant’
“They shall make an ark of acacia wood,” God commanded Moses in the Book of Exodus, after delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. “And so the Israelites built an ark, or chest, gilding it inside and out. And into this chest, Moses placed stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments, as given to him on Mount Sinai. Thus the ark “was worshipped by the Israelites as the embodiment of God Himself,” writes Graham Hancock in The Sign and the Seal. “Biblical and other archaic sources speak of the Ark blazing with fire and light…stopping rivers, blasting whole armies.”
According to the First Book of Kings, King Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem to house the ark. It was venerated there during Solomon’s reign (c. 970-930 B.C.) and beyond. Then it vanished. Much of Jewish tradition holds that it disappeared before or while the Babylonians sacked the temple in Jerusalem in 586 B.C. But through the centuries, Ethiopian Christians have claimed that the ark rests in a chapel in the small town of Aksum, in their country’s northern highlands. It arrived nearly 3,000 years ago and has been guarded by a succession of virgin monks who, once anointed, are forbidden to set foot outside the chapel grounds until they die.
The story is told in the Kebra Negast (Glory of the Kings), Ethiopia’s chronicle of its royal line: the Queen of Sheba, one of its first rulers, traveled to Jerusalem to partake of King Solomon’s wisdom; on her way home, she bore Solomon’s son, Menelik. Later Menelik went to visit his father, and on his return journey was accompanied by the firstborn sons of some Israelite nobles—who, unbeknown to Menelik, stole the ark and carried it with them to Ethiopia. When Menelik learned of the theft, he reasoned that since the ark’s frightful powers hadn’t destroyed his retinue, it must be God’s will that it remain with him.
Many historians—including Richard Pankhurst, a British-born scholar who has lived in Ethiopia for almost 50 years—date the Kebra Negast manuscript to the 14th century A.D. It was written, they say, to validate the claim by Menelik’s descendants that their right to rule was God-given, based on an unbroken succession from Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But the Ethiopian faithful say the chronicles were copied from a fourth-century Coptic manuscript that was, in turn, based on a far earlier account. This lineage remained so important to them that it was written into Selassie’s two imperial constitutions, in 1931 and 1955.
It is not certain what exactly led to the decline of the Kingdom, but several factors are thought to have been at play. One of the first acts in the empire’s fall came in 520 when King Kaleb led a campaign against the Jewish Himyaritic King Dhu Nuwas who was persecuting Christians in Yemen. Although the Axumite forces won the conflict and secured Christianity in Yemen (at least until the advent of Islam), the years of battle over-extended Aksum’s wealth and manpower. Moreover, the foray may have invited into Axum the Plague of Justinian, which struck Ethiopia around the same time. The Plague, which ravaged much of the Byzantium Empire in the sixth century, is thought to be the first recorded instance of the bubonic plague.
To add to the woes of warfare and pandemic, in the seventh century AD the Islamic Empire was beginning its rapid spread advancement across Arabia and Northern Africa. Between the seventh and eighth centuries, Axum lost control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile. Not only did this leave Axum in economic isolation but it also forced most of the city’s Christian inhabitants to move further inland for protection.