The Kingdom of Aksum, described as one of the greatest empires to ever exist in Africa, 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.
Aksum embraced Christianity and practiced the Orthodox tradition in the 4th century. This was when it was under the reign of King Ezana. Before converting to Christianity, the Aksumites worshipped and believed in multiple deities and gods including Astar, Beher, Meder/Medr, and Mahrem.
Thus, historians say it was extremely difficult for Ezana to change the mind of his people but thanks to his “wisdom and skillful guidance”, he was able to do so. And beyond introducing Christianity to Ethiopia, Ezana conquered many lands, making his kingdom politically, economically and militarily strong.
One of the most popular kings of the Aksumite Kingdom, Ezana had inherited the throne following the death of his father, Ella Amida. Since Ezana was too young to hold the throne, his mother, Sofya, acted as his regent until he grew up.
Ezana while growing up was tutored by one of his father’s counselors, Frumentius, who was a Christian from Syria. It was Frumentius who later converted Ezana to Christianity and became the head of the new Ethiopian Church. After being baptized, Ezana adopted the Christian name of Abreha. He declared Christianity the state religion of Aksum, making him one of the first kings in Africa to adopt Christianity.
To spread Christianity in his kingdom and neighboring kingdoms, Ezana issued coins with the sign of the cross. 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, Aksum became one of the first African empires to issue its own coins. These coins, minted in gold, silver, bronze, and copper, were used as representations of what was happening when they were minted.
Indeed, Aksum did not only become one of the ancient Christian kingdoms on earth but it also became a superpower during the reign of Ezana. While controlling the route of the Red Sea, which remains the busiest trading channel to date, Ezana fought many battles and won. He recorded details of his military expeditions on steles mostly in three languages — Geez (Old Ethiopic), Sabean, and Greek. For instance, he sent his brothers, Shaiazana and Hadefan, to conquer the Beja people, who had been raiding trading caravans in the north, according to one account. He also wrote of his conquest of the ancient city of Meroë in northern Sudan, helping him expand his territory and be in control of trade routes and more resources.
But after conquering lands, he did what was perhaps rare at the time. Historians say that instead of oppressing or enslaving the people from these conquered lands, he would help them resettle in a fertile area in Aksum where they could live peaceful and prosperous lives.
“At that time, it was really unthinkable for a king to treat his subjects so civilized, and his leadership skills had led him to conquer more territories and expand trade,” Yonas Kebede, a history lecturer at Addis Ababa University, told the Ethiopian Herald.
Ezana, who ruled between 330 and 356 AD, is also known for his granite obelisks, which are still in the city of Aksum. The tall stone-cut towers were basically tombstones that were built to mark graves and underground burial chambers. Ezana is also famous for his incredible rock churches including the Abrha we Atsbha church. To date, Ezana is remembered for many amazing achievements, although the most notable is his move to adopt Christianity. Thus, he is still regarded by many Ethiopian Orthodox churches as a saint.