The African kingdom of Axum (also known as Aksum) was established in the 1st century CE, situated on the northern edge of the highlands of the Red Sea coast just above the Horn of Africa, flourished between the 3rd and 6th centuries CE, and then existed as a much smaller political entity into the 8th century CE.
Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Somaliland are now occupying the territories Axum once ruled. The kingdom and its capital of Axum designed significant stone monuments and accomplished a number of firsts, thanks to agriculture, cattle herding, and influence over trade routes that saw gold and ivory traded for overseas luxury goods. It was the first sub-Saharan African states to mint its own coinage and the first to formally accept Christianity in about 350 CE. Axum also developed a script of its own, Ge’ez, which is still in use today in Ethiopia.
From the 7th century CE, the kingdom went into decline due to increased competition from Muslim Arab merchants and the emergence of local rival communities such as the Bedja. The remnants of the once great kingdom of Axum, continuing as a much smaller territory to the south, would gradually rise again and form the great kingdom of Abyssinia in the 13th century CE.
Foundation & Name
A combination of two words from local languages – the Agew word for water and the Ge’ez word for official, shum – may derive from the name Axum, or Akshum, as it is often related to. The reference to water is possibly attributable to the presence in the region of the capital of Axum of large ancient rock cisterns.
Even so, since the Stone Age, the area had been inhabited by agricultural communities similar in culture to those in southern Arabia, but from the 1st century CE, the kingdom of Axum began to prosper thanks to its rich agricultural lands, reliable summer monsoon rains, and regional trade influence.
This trade network included ties to the north, and to the east, through the coast of East Africa and southern Arabia with Egypt. At least as early as the 1st millennium BCE, wheat, barley, millet, and teff (a high-yield grain) were grown with success in the area, while cattle herding dates back to the 2nd millennium BCE, an undertaking supported by the vast grassland savannah of the Ethiopian plateau. Goats and sheep were also herded and the lack of tropical parasitic diseases that have blighted other areas of sub-Saharan Africa was an added advantage for all.
Wealth gained by trade and military was perhaps added to this prosperous agricultural base, and so a single king replaced a confederation of chiefdoms in the late 1st century CE and forged a united kingdom that for the next six centuries would rule the Ethiopian highlands. The kingdom of Axum, at that time one of the greatest in the world, was born.
About 350 CE, the kingdom of Axum really began to take off. In southern Arabia, as well as in Somalia to the southeast and several smaller tribes to the southwest, Axum had already developed some sort of supremacy over Yemen (then called Himyar). While semi-autonomous, the subjugated tribes had to pay tribute, usually in the form of hundreds of heads of cattle (as indicated by Axumite inscriptions).
These might grant the Axum rulers now calling themselves by the rather grand title Negusa Negast or ‘king of kings’ some slight justification. Information of the Axum government and how this absolute monarch governed invaded tribes over the centuries are lacking, but the title’ king of kings ‘would suggest that conquered rulers were allowed to continue to rule over their own peoples.
Nubia (formerly known as Kush and situated in modern Sudan), with its capital in Meroe, attacked Axum from the north in the mid-4th century CE (or vice versa), possibly because of a conflict over domination of the ivory trade in the region. With a large force, the Axum king Ezana I (r. c. 303-350 CE) responded back, sacking Meroe. The once dominant Nubia, already in severe decline and weakened by overpopulation, overgrazing and deforestation, was soon overthrown and divided into three separate states: Faras, Dongola, and Soba. For Axum to overtake the area, this collapse left the way open.
During the reign of Kaleb I in the first quarter of the 6th century CE, another era of great Axum expansion came. The kingdom came to occupy a region about 300 kilometers long and 160 kilometers wide; perhaps not so large, but the key, not geography, was its control of commercial goods. Also, the rulers were keen to engage in an imperial spot across the Red Sea in Yemen in an attempt to fully control the many trade ships sailing down the Bab-al-Mandeb Straits, one of the most busy stretches of sea in the ancient world.
In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, attacks were carried out in Yemen, but it was the 6th century CE that saw a significant escalation in the ambitions of Axum. Since 523 CE, Yusuf As’ar Yathar, the King of Yemen, had been persecuting Christians, and Kaleb, who then ruled over a Christian state himself, reacted by sending a force to Yemen in c. CE 525.
The Byzantine Empire, with whom Axum had long formed diplomatic relations, supported this invasion (whether the support was merely diplomatic or material is not agreed upon by scholars). Victorious, before the Sassanids arrived in 570 CE, the Axum king was able to leave a substantial garrison and install a viceroy who controlled the region.
The town of Axum (sometimes referred to as Axumis) is situated at an altitude of over 2,000 meters (6800 ft) in the north of the Ethiopian highlands (modern Tigray province), near the Tekeze River, a tributary of the Nile. The town, which has been occupied since the 1st century CE, was both the capital and a ceremonial center with many stone monuments. While interestingly, the granite stone is often worked to match architectural features of dry-stone and timber Axumite structures, some such monuments are quite similar to Egyptian obelisks. While one falling and now broken example is 33 meters (108 ft) in total length and 520 tonnes in weight, all of these stelae are about 24 meters (78 ft) in height, making it the largest monolith ever transported anywhere in antiquity. The stelae were possibly transported from a quarry 4.8 km (3 miles) away on log rollers. Nearly all of them were used as tomb markers and many have next to them a carved stone throne, mostly covered in inscriptions.
Three palace-like buildings that once had towers contain other remains of stone structures – each with stone pillared basements, royal tombs with large walls creating separate chambers, water cisterns, irrigation channels, and two- or three-story buildings used by the elite of the Axum as residences. On a stepped granite base consisting of dressed blocks, with access provided by monumental stairs, typically consisting of seven steps, most large structures were constructed. Roof drainage was often provided by stone lion-head gargoyles.
Instead of mortar, stone structures use clay, with a decorative effect created by alternating projecting and recessed blocks. For horizontal support in walls, for doorways, window frames, floors, roofs, and in ceiling corners, wood was used between stone layers to provide additional structural support. The decoration of many Axum buildings and the motifs used in Axumite art in general, such as the astral disc and crescent symbols, are proof of the presence of South Arabian cultures across the Red Sea (although the influence may have been in the opposite direction). There were also dedicated areas for art workshops in the capital and, from the late 4th century CE, several churches.
Axum’s main commodities were gold (acquired from the southern territories under the rule of the kingdom or from war booty) and ivory (from the interior of Africa) – the Byzantines, in particular, could not get enough of both – but other items included salt, slaves, tortoiseshell, incense (frankincense and myrrh), rhino horns, obsidian and emeralds (from Nubia). These products went to the seaport of the kingdom of Adulis (modern Zula and actually 4 km from the sea) and were brought by camel caravans to the coast.
The goods brought by Arab merchants, such as Egyptian and Indian textiles, swords and other weapons, iron, glass beads, bronze lamps and glassware, were traded there. The discovery of Mediterranean amphorae at the sites of Axum means that products such as wine and olive oil have also been imported. The discovery of the kingdom’s coinage in such far-flung locations as the eastern Mediterranean, India, and Sri Lanka indicates that Axum’s trade was booming.
Adoption of Christianity by Axum
The king of Axum, Ezana I, formally adopted Christianity in the mid-4th century CE. Prior to that, with some local additions such as Mahram, god of war, upheaval, and monarchy, who was the most powerful Axumite god, the people of Axum had practiced an indigenous polytheistic religion which was prevalent on both sides of the Red Sea. The moon gods Hawbas, Astar, the image of the planet Venus, and the Chthonic gods Beher and Meder were other prominent gods. There were sacrifices made in their honor by certain gods, as well as ancestors, especially cattle – either living animals or votive representations of them.
Hardly no any large-scale statues from the kingdom have been found, but stone foundations are visible. With each foot space reaching 90 cm (35 inches), one example has indentations for feet carved into it that would make the standing figure three times the life-size. An outline on the base shows that a large metal figure, possibly of a divinity, once stood on it.
The same inscription lists other gold and bronze sculptures. Also, the stone thrones found near stelae may have had metal statues sitting on them. Small scale figurines abound, showing naked women and animals. Unfortunately, in antiquity, the kingdom’s impressive stone chamber tombs were all looted and only broken pieces of precious materials and parts of storage chests and boxes demonstrate what was lost to posterity.
Decline & Era Later
From the late 6th century CE, the kingdom of Axum went into decline, probably due to overuse of agricultural land or the invasion of western Bedja herders who, turning themselves into small kingdoms, seized parts of Aksum territory for grazing their cattle and persistently attacked the camel caravans of Axum.
Furthermore, Axum’s kings’ strategy of giving conquered tribal chiefs a good deal of autonomy sometimes backfired and encouraged some of them to have the means to start rebellions. Axum would eventually pay dearly for its absence of any true state administrative apparatus. Finally, there was heavy competition from Arab Muslims for the Red Sea trading networks from the beginning of the 7th century CE. 300 km (186 miles) southward, the heartland of the Axum state moved to the cities of Lalibela and Gondar. As a result of the decrease, the old Axum Empire had ceased to exist by the late 8th century CE.