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.
Described as one of the greatest empires to ever exist in Africa and famous for its tall stone cut towers known as obelisks, 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, gold and emeralds, and importing silk and spices.
As it dominated trade routes due to its strategic position, the powerful northeast African empire began to issue its own coins. The kingdom first began producing coins around 270 CE, under the rule of king Endubis. To some historians, Endubis was the first king of Ancient Africa to mint coinage. Having come to power after the decline of ancient Egypt and Nubia, it is documented that Aksumite currency was the only native currency to be issued in Africa without direct influence by an outside culture like the Romans or Greeks.
As the kingdom dominated trade routes, Endubis introduced the system of currency to make trade more efficient while standardizing government taxation and collection of other payments, according to Ethiopian History. Aksum saw an economic boom during that period, and this was largely thanks to its currency. Indigenous in creation and design, the coins were issued in gold, silver, and bronze. Endubis used Roman weighting standards to issue his coins, with the first Aksumite coins having writing in Greek. As historians explained, the writing in Greek was to enable the people of Aksum to engage in the profitable Greco-Roman trade of the Red Sea.
Being the first known Aksumite king to mint coins, Endubis had his image on both sides of the first coin issued. His head faced left on both sides of the coin, covered with a headcloth with a “triangular riband hanging on the back”. The first coins often came with Greek writings such as BACIΛΕΥС ΑΞWΜITΜ (meaning king of the Aksumites). It is documented that in between ‘BACIΛΕΥС’ and ‘ΑΞWΜITΜ’, above the king’s head, was often a disc or a crescent symbol; the crescent symbol representing the sun or moon god at a time the Aksumites had not embraced Christianity.
On both sides of the coins were also two ears of wheat or barley surrounding the head. This could have been a symbol of the Aksum empire or likely represented the king’s role as the provider of the state, historians said. By the 4th century when the Aksum embraced Christianity and practiced the Orthodox tradition under the reign of King Ezana, the kingdom became the first civilization anywhere to use the cross of Christ on its coins. Ezana began doing so around 330 CE, replacing the crescent symbols with the cross. The coin essentially became a propaganda tool to spread his religion while demonstrating the kingdom’s wealth.
Subsequent rulers who minted their own coinage started embossing on the coins phrases such as ‘By the grace of God’. Essentially, the coins were used as representations of what was happening when they were minted. Aksum went on to use the coinage system until about the early 7th century when its use began to decline. At the same time, the powerful Kingdom of Aksum also began to fall.
Some historians have attributed the decline of Aksum to climate change, resulting in deforestation and erratic rainfall. Others also base the kingdom’s decline on external political factors, like the rise of other large empires including the Persian and cities like Alexandria and Byzantium (now Istanbul), as well as, the growing power of the Arabs, who were beginning to dominate the Red Sea trade routes that were before then ruled by Aksum.