Axum: Legendary Kingdom of Ancient Ethiopia
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.
Location of Aksum or Axum ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
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).
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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. ( 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. ( 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.
Coin of the Axumite king Ezana ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
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).
The largest Aksumite stele, broken where it fell. ( CC BY 2.0 )
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.
This Ethiopian icon shows St. George, the Crucifixion, and the Virgin Mary. ( Public Domain )
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.
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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.
Ethiopian Orthodox choir ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Mysterious Disappearance of Axum
Historians are not certain what exactly led to the decline of the Kingdom of Axum 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 Axum’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.
Egyptian-woven woolen curtain or trousers, which was a copy of a Sassanid silk import, which was in turn based on a fresco of King Khosrau I fighting Aksumite Ethiopian forces in Yemen, 5th–6th century. ( Public Domain )
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.
A map of the Byzantine Empire in 550 (a decade after the Plague of Justinian) with Justinian's conquests shown in green. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Finally, a series of climate changes devastated the Ethiopian people. The large population of the Axumite Empire placed a great deal of pressure on the Tigrinya plateau, where the Kingdom was based, ultimately leading to catastrophic levels of soil erosion. Historians believe that this process was accelerated by an apparent decline in the reliability of rainfall around 730-760 AD. This reduced the growing season significantly and was not corrected until well into the ninth century.
Despite its collapse, the city of Axum is still inhabited to this day by approximately 50,000 people, making it the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent.
Top image: Ancient Kingdom of Axum. Source: atolkienistperspective.wordpress.com
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