The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse
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, Homer’s Iliad, and Dante’s Divine Comedy . Such wide acclaim reflects the power and influence once held by the powerful Axumite Empire.
There are some interesting legends connected to the fallen kingdom as well. The capital of the kingdom, also called Axum, is allegedly the home to the famed Queen of Sheba and stories say the Ark of the Covenant was taken to the kingdom too.
Location of the kingdom of Aksum or Axum. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom of Axum
The local Agaw people of northern Ethiopia first began to populate and expand the city of Axum around 400 BC. By the 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 )
Legends of the Queen of Sheba and the Solomonic Dynasty
Ethiopian legends state that Axum, the capital city of the empire, was the home of the Queen of Sheba . Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings of the Solomonic Dynasty traced their routes to the famous queen and King Solomon of Israel . Stories say that the queen went to see Solomon in Jerusalem after hearing of his wisdom and when she was there he was enthralled by her beauty and after they slept together the Queen of Sheba became pregnant with his child. The baby boy was named Ibn al-Malik, also known as Menelik , and he was the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty. Ethiopian kings, including those from the Kingdom of Aksum, claimed descent from Menelik.
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 much 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 )
Religion in the Kingdom of Axum
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 )
Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?
Legends say that there is another link between Axum and Israel – an important religious connection. When Menelik grew up he asked who his father was and upon discovering it was King Solomon the young man went to see him. Menelik stayed with Solomon for three years but was asked to leave when the Israelites complained about his likeness to the king, which apparently confused them.
When Menelik was sent away, he was accompanied by the eldest son of the high priest, Azariah, and 1000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel . But before they left, Azariah had a dream telling him to take the Ark of the Covenant with him. Azariah took the Ark from the temple and replaced it with a copy and then brought the religious relic with him to his new home. Even today, there is still a strong belief that the Ark of the Covenant is located somewhere in Ethiopia.
Why Did the Kingdom of Axum Fall?
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 in 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 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.
Finally, a series of climate changes devastated the Ethiopian people. The large population of the Axumite Empire placed much 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.
The Obelisk at Axum.: No. XX. / Drawn by Henry Salt.; Engraved by D. Havell. (King George III’s Personal Coloured Views Collection/ British Library )
Top image: Ruins of Aksum (Axum), Ethiopia . Axum was the capital of the kingdom of Axum. Source: siempreverde22 /Adobe
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