King Ezana's Stele in Aksum

The ancient Ethiopian City of Aksum was one of the powerful urban kingdoms of the sub-Saharan societies of Africa flourished in the centuries before and after the time of Christ. The document, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, said it is the "city of the people called Auxumites". (The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea is a Greek periplus, describing navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports like Berenice along the coast of the Red Sea, and others along East Africa and India.)

The Aksumites first began producing coins around 270 CE, under the rule of king Endubis. Aksum was the first African civilization, not including African cities under the Roman Empire, to produce coins. The first Aksumite coins used had writing in Greek, to participate in the highly influenced Greco-Roman trade of the Red Sea.

Aksum, the site of Ethiopia’s most ancient city, is today a small town and lowly town surrounded by dry hills, ignorant of its glorious past. Modern Aksum does not easily shows the evidence of the splendors of its glorious past. Its drab breeze-block houses, roofed with corrugated iron, look little different from those of any other highland settlement and its people seem remarkable only for their impassive stoicism.

Aksum, was a great commercial civilization trading with distant lands, among them Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India and Ceylon. To countries such as these the ancient Aksumites exported gold, ivory, rhinoceros-horn, hippopotamus hide and slaves, and imported all kinds of textiles - cottons and silks, as well as knives, swords and drinking cups, metal for local manufacture into all sorts of objects, and numerous luxury goods, including gold and silver plate, military cloaks for the nobility, olive oil and lacquer ware.

The civilization of Aksum developed in the first centuries of the Christian era, but it roots lie deep in prehistory. In Aeschylus Prometheus Bound said theirs was “a land at the world’s end where tribes of black people live”. Modern day Ethiopian tribes such as the Tigrayans, and Gurage are descendants of these tribes and the language of these tribes are closely related to Ge’ez, the language of Aksum.

The kingdom of Aksum was at the height of its power between 100-700 AD. The Aksumite king Ezana I (320-350 AD) assumed power when Askum, without doubt, was a strong and large empire. The king’s main wealth and power came from his control of foreign trade.

The titles of the kings indicate claims to rule over Saba and Himyar, two important Arabian kingdoms, as well as over the Beja, Kasu, and Noba in Africa. The last two names refer to Kush and Nubia.

Archaeological research has revealed that by the third and fourth centuries AD there was considerable prosperity at Aksum. The rulers were importing silver, gold, olive oil and wine, and exporting luxury goods of glass crystal, brass and copper to Egypt and to the eastern Roman empire. Other important exports to the Greek and Roman world were frankincense, used in burials, and myrrh which had important medicinal properties. Both these highly-valued products were obtained from the resin of particular trees which grew mainly in the mountainous regions of Aksum and southwest Arabia.

The Kingdom of Aksum is notable for a number of achievements, such as the development of its own alphabet, Ge’ez. By 270 AD, Aksumite kings issued a splendid gold coinage at a time when few other economies needed such a sophisticated currency or could have afforded it. The kings also marked their tombs with magnificent stone pillars, or stelae. The tallest of these stelae were the largest stone monuments erected in the ancient world, surpassing in height even the obelisks of the Egyptian pharaohs. In addition to the stelae and the coinage, accomplished styles of pottery making, ivory carving, and glassware production, and metalwork in gold, silver, bronze, and iron all attest to the skill of Aksumite craftsmen and the luxury and sophistication of their capital. The remains of palaces and royal tombs confirm the complete mastery of granite by Aksumite masons, whose decorative motifs were copied on the famous churches at Lalibela.

Under King Ezana, the kingdom adopted Christianity in place of its former polytheistic religion around 325. The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) Church has lasted until the present day. Since the schism with Rome following the Council of Chalcedon (451), it has been an important Miaphysite church, and its scriptures and liturgy are still in Ge’ez. Aksumite Christianity may be one of the foundations for the legend of Prester John. A legend has it that at that time, a foreign boy named Frumentius was made a slave of the royal court, and later a tutor to the royal children. When the king died, the queen asked Frumentius to help rule Aksum. He had declined promised freedom and remained until the queen’s son, Ezana, was old enough to rule. Frumentius established a number of Christian churches, and when Ezana became king he made Christianity the official religion of Aksum. This custom of a slave who teaches kings remained an important tradition for the next few hundred years.
It was a cosmopolitan and culturally important state. It was a meeting place for a variety of cultures: Egyptian, Sudanic, Arabic, Middle Eastern, and Indian. The major Aksumite cities had Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.

By the sixth century Aksum was powerful enough to expand portions of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia northern Somalia, Djibouti, and northern Sudan. The capital city of the kingdom was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. Other important cities included Yeha, Hawulti, Matara, Adulis, and Qohaito, the last three of which are now in Eritrea.

The decline of Aksum in the eight century may have been largely to do with their loss of trade to the Persians and Arabs. But, as with Meroe, it is also likely to have been related to a deterioration in the environment. This was the result of the long-term cutting down of trees and over-exploitation of the soil, leading to the kind of erosion so typical of the region today. By 800 AD the capital of the much-reduced kingdom had been moved to the south, further into the central highland region of the Ethiopian interior. The importance of external trade declined and the state developed in greater isolation as an agricultural community ruled over by a landed aristocracy. Greek and Arab influence was weakened and the more distinctly African Christian culture of Ethiopia came to the fore. Like Christian Nubia, it survived the Islamic onslaught which swept across northern Africa and western Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries.