Aksum Empire-cradle to grave, Dazzling story of 1 century

Aksum -

Aksum Empire was an indigenous African civilization which was located in northern highlands of current day Ethiopian and Eritrea between the periods of 100 to 940 AD. Advancement in agriculture and control over trade routes in the red sea area led the Aksum Empire to flourish in the era. After the control of the trade route, Aksum Empire became a strong agent on international trade, some of the trade partners were the Roman Empire and India – exporting ivory, gold, and minerals.

Aksum was regarded as a superpower along with China, Rome, and Persia, the power of Aksum was far greater than any African civilization even from Egyptian civilization. Its navy power played a role in protecting its national interest on red seas routes. Aksum

Aksum Empire was also known for its advancement in the cultural aspect. It created its own language Ge’ez which survived in the Ethiopian Orthodox church until today.

Who founded the kingdom of Aksum?

Many researchers believed Aksum Empire was founded by immigrants from the Arab world namely south Arabia and Yemen, but it was later proved that the Aksum empire was, in fact, an indigenous civilization. The existence of Da’mat civilization prior to the Aksum Empire laid the foundation for the beginning of the Aksum Empire. The name Aksum came from a Ge’ze word for water, which refers to a large presence of ancient rock reservoirs in the capital city of Aksum

Where does the Aksum Empire begin?

In the beginning, the Aksumite state was dominated by landowners who derived much of their income from agriculture. Later on, the Aksumite economy became highly dependent on the income from the Red sea trade, which it dared to monopolize. On the Red Sea coast, on the ancient port of Adulis, through which several foreign merchants came to Aksum. This port rendered shipping services for which the merchants have to pay. From this port, a very important trade route also stretched into the interior of Aksum Empire. So, the Aksumite controlled both the internal and external trade and became very much prosperous. Particularly, when Aksum took over the control of the port of Adulis, its prosperity became complete.

How Did Aksum Empire Become Powerful ?

The local and internal trade contributed very much to the development of important towns including Aksum itself. Aksumite kings further promoted the trade by issuing coins of gold, silver, and bronze, which bear their images. It seems that they were using these coins for international trade. This trade brought immense wealth and prosperity to Aksum.

With this income, the Aksumite kings build magnificent stales, palaces, and churches, which are indications of advancements of the building technology of Aksumite civilization. In order to protect these lucrative trade and trade routes from rivals, the Aksumite rulers built a strong military force using the income from the Red sea trade.

Moreover, they began to expand their territories in different directions by the use of this army. In its heydays Aksum’s territorial extents came to include the whole region between the Red Sea coast in the east, the highland region overlooking the Blue Nile (Abbay) river in the west, the northern tip of Eritrea in the north, and northern Shawa in the south. Even some sources indicate that the Aksumite influences extended beyond these areas. A book entitled The Christian Topography, written by Greek traveler called Cosmas Indicopleustes, stated that the Aksumite merchants visited lands to the south of Abbay to buy gold for the ruling class.

There were, however, intense rivalry and clashes between Aksum and the kingdom of Meroe in Sudan. Some historical pieces of evidence indicate that Aksum had controlled territories in parts of South Arabia Probably in a desire for controlling the Red sea trade on both sides. This was between the third and sixth centuries of the Christian era when Aksumite rulers had strong military power.

Aksum established closer diplomatic and commercial relations with the Eastern Roman Empire and other states in the Middle East, Near East, and other counties on the Indian Ocean coast. So, Aksum was already exposed to the Greco-Roman world even during its pre-Christian days.

In the middle of the four-century, during the reign of King Ezana, Christianity was introduced to Aksum. This further reinforced the exposure of Aksum to the outside world. This event was a far-reaching development in the history of Aksum. The introduction of Christianity to Aksum was not a well-planned missionary activity. Rather it was an incident, affected because of the diplomatic and commercial relations between the two countries.

Aksum -

What was the Aksum empire known for?

The Aksum Empire was a powerful trading Empire which its kingdom extended across present-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Its capital city was Aksum. Two streams lie on the east and west part of the city, perhaps it was these streams that catalyst the beginning of the empire on that specific location. Other notable cities include Yeha, Hawulti, Matara, Aulis, and Qohaito

The Aksumite adopted Christianity through king Ezana and it was the first empire that coined cross on its coins. King Ezana led his Army to Yemen against Jewish powerhouse who was persecuting the Christian community there. Ethiopian Culture is highly influenced by Aksum Orthodox Christian Religion. Aksum is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of Covenant.

Technology and material culture including-

• Pottery

• Metalwork was common mainly in the making of weapons, coins, and tools. Sometimes for construction as well

• Stone was used mainly for construction

• Glass and ivory art were also common

What Was the Economy and Foreign Relations of The Aksum Empire?

Aksum Controls International Trade Aksum’s location and expansion made it a hub for caravan routes to Egypt and Meroë. Access to sea trade on the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean helped Aksum become an international trading power. Traders from Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India, and the Roman Empire crowded Aksum’s chief seaport, Adulis, near present-day Massawa.

Aksumite merchants traded necessities such as salt and luxuries such as rhinoceros’ horns, tortoise shells, ivory, emeralds, and gold. In return, they chose items such as imported cloth, glass, olive oil, wine, brass, iron, and copper. Around A.D. 550, an Egyptian merchant named Cosmas described how Aksumite agents bargained for gold from the people in southern Ethiopia:

Aksum Empire benefited from a transformation of the maritime trading system that linked the Roman Empire and India. The change took place around the Common Era. Around 100 BC a route from Egypt to India established, making use of the Red sea and Adulis port which at the time was the main port of the Aksum Empire. By the time 100 Ad the volume of traffic being shipped on the route dramatically increased as Roman goods demand increased from India, resulting in a greater number of ships docking at Aksum ports.

Adulis soon became the main port of African goods, Such as incense, gold, exotic animals, and ivory. But this trading opportunity didn’t come without a fight, A rival and much older civilization existed namely Kush existed, it had a wide trading network with other kingdoms. However, Aksum had gained control over the Kush Empire and changed it’s exporting locating to Adulis than Meroe, the capital of the Kushite Empire.

Another major Expansion happened during king Kaleb time, the kingdom keen to occupancy a territory of 300 km by 150 km Dimensions which is not large physically but it was key to control trade routes. Kings also keen to control over the trading vessels that sailed down the straits of Bab-al-Mandeb, on the busiest sea routes in the ancient world

What Was the Religion of The Aksum Empire?

king of Aksum empire, Ezana I, officially adopted Christianity. Prior to that, the people of Aksum Empire had practiced an indigenous polytheistic which was prevalent on both sides of the Red Sea with some local additions such as Mahram, the god of war, upheaval, and monarchy, who was the most important Axumite god. Other notable gods included the moon deity Hawbas, Astar, the representation of the planet Venus and the chthonic gods Beher and Meder. Such gods, as well as ancestors, had sacrifices made in their honor, especially cattle – either living animals or votive representations of them.

There were many trades and diplomatic connections directly between Constantinople and Aksum empire, and it is probable that this passage of individuals to and from also introduced Christianity into Ethiopia. It is important to note, though, that the more ancient indigenous religious beliefs likely carried on for some time, as indicated by the careful wording of rulers’ inscriptions so as not to alienate that part of the population which did not accept Christianity.

tigray people

It was Frumentius, a 4th-century CE shipwrecked traveler from Tyre, who introduced Christianity to the kingdom. Frumentius gained employment as a teacher to the royal children, and then he became treasurer and advisor to the king, probably Ella Amida. When Ella Amida was succeeded by his son Ezana I, whom Frumentius had even greater sway over given that he had been his childhood tutor, the king was persuaded to adopt Christianity.

Frumentius next traveled to Alexandria to receive an official title from the Patriarch there in order to aid his missionary work, then he returned to Axum and became the first bishop of the kingdom. The dates of exactly when all this happened are wildly different depending on one’s ancient source and range from 315 to 360 CE, with the latter end of that range being the more likely according to modern scholars. Frumentius was later made a saint for his efforts in spreading the Gospel in East Africa.

The form of Christianity at Aksum was similar to that adopted in Coptic Egypt; indeed, the Patriarch of Alexandria remained a strong figurehead in the Ethiopian Church even when Islam arrived in the region from the 7th century CE. Churches were built, monasteries founded, and translations made of the Bible, the most important church was at Axum, the Church of Maryam Tsion, which, according to later Ethiopian medieval texts, housed the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is supposed to be still there, but as nobody is ever allowed to see it, confirmation of its existence is difficult to achieve.

The most important monastery in the Aksum empire was at Debre Damo, founded by the 5th-century CE Byzantine ascetic Saint Aregawi, one of the celebrated Nine Saints who worked to spread Christianity in the region by establishing monasteries. From the 5th century CE, the rural population was converted, although, even in cities, some temples to the old pagan gods would remain open well into the 6th century CE. The success of these endeavors meant that Christianity would continue to be practiced in Ethiopia right into the 21st century CE.

Even if Christianity was the state religion Judaism also exists. A group of people called ‘’Bete Isreal also known as Black Jews have a substantial impact on the kingdom. Between 1985 and 1991 almost the whole ‘’Bete Israel’’ population moved to Israel.

Aksum is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of Covenant. The Ark is housed in the church of Mary of Zion, and heavily guarded by the priests there; The Ark is believed to be brought by queen of Sheba and King Solomon’s son. Controversy surrounds this situation as no one can verify its existence as the only priest is allowed to enter the church.

lalibela cross

What Were the Early Ethiopian Crosses?

All four parts of equal length.

• Similar to the ‘Greek cross’ rather than the ‘Latin cross’.

• These crosses were used on Aksumite Coins

• They are also depicted in drawings/paintings, artifacts, or as architectural motifs in windows and reliefs.

What Was the Aksum Empire Culture?

The Aksum Empire is noble for a number of its achievements, like its own language and alphabet, Furthermore, in the early times of the empire, around 1700 years ago; giant Obelisks to mark emperor’s tombstones were constructed. Under Emperor Ezana, Aksum adopted Christianity in place of its former polytheistic and Judaic religions around 325. This gave rise to the present-day Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church.

Aksum was a cosmopolitan and culturally important state. It was a meeting place for a variety of cultures, the major Aksumite cities had Sabean, Jewish, Nubian, Christian, and even Buddhist minorities.

What Was the Exchange Currency of the Aksum Empire?

The Empire of Aksum was also the first African state to issue its own coin. Issuing coinage in ancient times was an act of great importance in itself, for it proclaimed that the Aksum Empire considered itself equal to its powerful allies like Byzantine Empire. The inscription on Ezana’s stele was written in Ge’ez, the language brought to Aksum by its early Arab inhabitants. Aside from Egypt and Meroë, Aksum was the only ancient African kingdom known to have developed a written language. It was also the first state south of the Sahara to mint its own coins.

Made of bronze, silver, and gold, these coins were imprinted with the words, “May the country be satisfied.” Ezana apparently hoped that this inscription would make him popular with the people. Every time they used a coin, it would remind them that he had their interests at heart. In addition to these cultural achievements, the Aksumites adapted creatively to their rugged, hilly environment. They created a new method of agriculture, terrace farming. This enabled them to greatly increase the productivity of their land. Terraces or step-like ridges constructed on mountain slopes, helped the soil retain water and prevented it’s being washed downhill in heavy rains.

What Was the Aksum Empire Art?

The Aksum Empire had a unique architectural an everyday object that depicts the creativity of the nation. From these, the top is the Aksum stelae, the architecture of the town, and the everyday objects.

The Aksum Empire Stelae

The Stelae are perhaps the most identifiable part of the Aksum Empire, these stone towers served to mark the grave location. The largest of these Stelae measures 33 meters high. The stone was often engraved with a pattern depicting the king’s symbol.

Art in Aksum Empire

Axum potters produced simple red and black terracotta wares but without using a wheel. Wares are usually matt in finish, and some are coated with a red slip. Forms are simple cups, bowls, and spouted jugs. Large-scale statues have been discovered from the kingdom but there are stone bases. One example has indentations for feet carved into it with each foot space measuring 90 cm (35 inches) which would make the standing figure three-times life-size. An inscription on the base indicates that there once stood a large metal figure on it, probably of a divinity. The same inscription mentions other statues of gold and bronze.

The stone thrones found near stelae may also have had seated metal statues on them. Small scale figurines abound and these depict nude females and animals. Unfortunately, the impressive stone chamber tombs of the kingdom were all looted in antiquity and only broken fragments of precious materials and pieces of storage chests and boxes indicate what has been lost to posterity.

axum church
“Ethiopian Orthodox Church” by Rod Waddington is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Aksum Empire and Architecture

• Monumental Architecture (a high level of artistic ability, advanced engineering, and mathematical skills)

• Expression of the desire to build a multi-story building

• Their ambition to build a high-rise building is clearly stated in their stele, 8 – 10 stories

• Well dressed and decorated steles

• Decorations on the steles were main elements and construction techniques of buildings at that time

Aksumite Architecture

Aksum Kingdom Palaces

• Grand entrance stairs mainly at palace buildings, Courtyards, Strong and well-dressed corner walls, Strong stone buttresses, Multistory

Construction technique: The ‘Monkey-head’

Typical structural method of the Axumite period and in the later Tigray vernacular architecture

  • • The walls are made of small stone –and-clay masonry
  • • The walls had to be strengthened at narrow intervals with long squared timbers.
  • • These were then held by short round cross-pieces the ends of which became visible as rows of protruding and smoothly rounded “Monkey heads”.
  • •Axumite window and door frames were made of timbers cut into each other, with no nails but with shallow recesses and projections.

Axumite Dry Stone Masonry Construction

Large and squarely dressed stones at the corners, Small broken stones for the main bulk of walls, Slabs of slates or similar flat stones to cover the many narrow “shelves” which are formed because the walls are stepped inwards at regular intervals, the walls are much wider at the bottom higher up

Design principle: The ‘equal-equal’

The principle of ‘equal-equal’ generates the square, the cube, and the 450 angles and the octagonal shape. ‘Equi-dimensional’ of the Aksumite principle is different from the ‘Central symmetrical’ of the European/ Byzantine tradition. The proportion in Aksumite architecture was not by “the golden section” or any similar complicated geometrical procedure but by straight forward arithmetical counting of numbers and units. Like 2:3 or 3:4, The Square was the main dominant geometry being used as a basic design module.

Ship Building in Aksum Empire

Shipbuilding technology was also well known in the port town of Adulis. The construction of obelisks and temples and the use of writing in Greek, Sabean, and Ge’ez languages indicated the development of craft and literature. Those ruins have become among the known centers of tourism in Ethiopia today.

yeha axum aksum

How Did the Aksum Empire Fall?

Aksum begins its decline in the 7th century and finally defeated around 950 AD. Local history holds the Jewish queen Judith also known ‘’Yodit Gudit’’ in Ethiopia, responsible for the fall of the Aksum Empire and the burning of its many historic churches. The Aksum Empire was later succeeded by the Zagwe dynasty in the 12 century, and after King Yekuno Amlak, killed the last Zagwe king and the Solomon dynasty followed.

Another less dramatic reason for the fall of the Aksum Empire is climate change and trade isolation.

Aksum empire started to decline in the mid-6th AD. Few reasons are raised for the fall of the Aksum empire, some of which are the Persian influence in the gulf and the spread of a very dangerous disease called bubonic plague and the major one the rise of the Rashidun Caliphate which is a sunny Muslim caliphate the caliphate controlled most of middle east which led them to control most of the trade influence that was formerly held by the Axumite kingdom thus leading to the shrinking of the kingdom of Axum.

After a second golden age in the early 6th century, the empire began to decline in the mid-6th century eventually stopping its production of coins in the early 7th century. Around this same time, the Aksumite population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands for protection the Axumite kingdom keeps on loosing most of its money tributary which in turn leading to the abundance of their city in northern Ethiopia though Ethiopia was no longer an economic power it has started to hold ground in the south, it still attracted Arab merchants and The capital was moved unknown new location. The Aksumite power was ended by a southern queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah,

possibly of the tribe al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama). Although it is not a clear source a female queen form south of the country indeed has ruled the country for a short period of time then Aksumite Empire was succeeded by the Agaw Zagwe dynasty in the 11th or 12th century most likely around 1137.

Why Should Aksum Be Preserved?

Unlike many other centers of civilization like Yeha, Mattara, and Adulis, Aksum continued to exist as the biggest center of a highly developed civilization for several centuries. Some of the legacies are: –

  • Aksumite temples
  • Iron tools
  • Obelisks
  • Ornaments
  • Bricks construction
  • Pottery
  • Coins and tombs

Why Do I need to Visit Axum City in Ethiopia?

Axum is rich in its real and potential attractions. Some are spectacular in their own right – others can support interesting stories or embody potentially memorable experiences that can, with appropriate development, enrich a visit lasting several days. Axum is a small town with areas of major interest concentrated in a compact zone around the main Stele Park and the Cathedral. Stelae, tombs, thrones, and palaces are the distinctiveness of Axumite Civilization at the height of the Empire. Many visitors are drawn to Axum because of the spectacular Stelae.

Religious traditions in Axum are part of a living culture that has its roots at a time when much of Europe was in a state of barbarism during and after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Traditional religious paintings are used as the major element conveying narrative and atmosphere.


Aksum empire established in the ­1rst century to the 7th century AD at the north of Abyssinia the now Ethiopia, Axum served as a major trade route between roman and Indian empire in the past the kingdom of Axum has controlled over the northeast of Africa and south of Arabiya like HImyar, Raydan, saba, salhen, tsiyamo, Beja and kush.

The Axumite kingdom becomes a major trading route after traders learned that they can use the autumn wind to sell through the Arabian sea this created a good trading opportunity for the countries alongside the trade route between the Arabian sea and Indian ocean taking this as an advantage the Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by creating and minting their own currency they majorly trade ivory, tortious shell incense, gold, slaves and rhino horns the kingdom grow to become one of the major trade outlets for Africa when the kingdom become an empire they take the name Nuguse Negest which means king of kings.

By the mid-4th century, the empire reached its peak and started using the name Ethiopia.

Cover: “File:Obelisken in Aksum (6821531495).jpg” by Martijn.Munneke from Netherlands is licensed under CC BY 2.0