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The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse

The Kingdom of Axum: Facts and Legends of a First Millennium Powerhouse


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Located on the Horn of Africa, the ancient Ethiopian kingdom of Axum (also spelled Aksum) played a significant role in international relations around the time of the first millennium. At its height, Axum controlled modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia, and parts of Somalia. Although largely forgotten today, references to Ethiopians can be seen in such seminal works as the Bible, the Qur’an, Homer’s Iliad, and Dante’s Divine Comedy . Such wide acclaim reflects the power and influence once held by the powerful Axumite Empire.

There are some interesting legends connected to the fallen kingdom as well. The capital of the kingdom, also called Axum, is allegedly the home to the famed Queen of Sheba and stories say the Ark of the Covenant was taken to the kingdom too.

Location of the kingdom of Aksum or Axum. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom of Axum

The local Agaw people of northern Ethiopia first began to populate and expand the city of Axum around 400 BC. By the mid-second century BC, Axum had developed into a regionally dominant kingdom. This was in large part thanks to maritime transformations enacted by the ever-expanding Roman Empire . Ideally situated on the Red Sea, “the kingdom was at the crossroads of the three continents: Africa, Arabia, and the Greco-Roman World, and was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia” (UNESCO).

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The Horn of Africa was an incredibly fertile land and Axum exported a wide range of agricultural products, such as wheat and barley, and animals, such as sheep, cattle, and camels. The kingdom was also rich in gold, iron, and salt (a precious commodity in those days). Axum was also in command of the ivory trade coming out of Sudan. In exchange for these goods, it ferried tortoise shells, spices, silks, emeralds, and crafted goods between Rome and India. The importance of Ethiopia as a trade hub is attested to in a trader’s handbook from Alexandria dating from the first century AD entitled The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea .

Names, routes and locations of the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.

Legends of the Queen of Sheba and the Solomonic Dynasty

Ethiopian legends state that Axum, the capital city of the empire, was the home of the Queen of Sheba . Although the Queen of Sheba lived centuries before the kingdom of Aksum, its kings of the Solomonic Dynasty traced their routes to the famous queen and King Solomon of Israel . Stories say that the queen went to see Solomon in Jerusalem after hearing of his wisdom and when she was there he was enthralled by her beauty and after they slept together the Queen of Sheba became pregnant with his child. The baby boy was named Ibn al-Malik, also known as Menelik , and he was the founder of the Solomonic Dynasty. Ethiopian kings, including those from the Kingdom of Aksum, claimed descent from Menelik.

The Golden Age of Axum

The Kingdom of Axum reached its zenith in the third to fifth centuries AD. This golden age began with the famed King Ezana who converted his country to Christianity in 324 AD. Indeed, coins minted under King Ezana were the first in the world to feature the image of a cross. Ezana also placed much importance on written documents.

The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana's conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroë. ( CC BY 2.0 )

These manuscripts provide much of what is known about Axum today. They are written in the indigenous language Ge’ez, examples of which date back to at least the 8th century BC. Some scholars believe that a scriptorium ( scribal school ) may have existed in northern Ethiopia, providing scribes for the region as well as for the Nile Valley .

Coin of the Axumite king Ezana. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Kingdom of Axum had a complex social hierarchy and its cities had elaborate settlement patterns. The stratified society had an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lesser nobles as well as wealthy merchants and farmers, and finally a tier of ordinary people such as small farmers, craftsmen, and traders. Archaeologists have uncovered administrative documents and tombs which suggest that the elite enjoyed extravagant burial practices, including funerary monuments known as stelae. The towers or obelisks were elaborately carved with inscriptions from top to bottom. They also had stone doors and fake windows. The tallest of these stelae was 100 feet high (30.48m).

The largest Aksumite stele, broken where it fell. ( CC BY 2.0 )

Religion in the Kingdom of Axum

Initially, Christianity was only practiced by Axum’s elite. It did not spread to everyone until the late fifth century when missionaries fleeing from the Eastern Roman Empire ( Byzantium) sought shelter in the Kingdom of Axum and were given permission to proselytize. The missionaries came to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church because they maintained a Monophysite doctrine.

This Ethiopian icon shows St. George, the Crucifixion, and the Virgin Mary.

Although many of the Western empires accepted Christianity by the fifth century BC, debates raged over the nature of Christ’s status. Monophysitism argued that Jesus Christ had a single nature that was a synthesis of divine and human. This point of view was branded heretical by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

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Powerful Rome and Constantinople believed in dyophysitism, that is, that Jesus Christ maintained two natures: one divine and one human. This debate, heavily influenced by political and cultural rivalries, led to the final schism of the Oriental Orthodox Churches from the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The Axumite Empire ultimately declined; however, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is still a thriving sect of Christianity, administering to roughly 45 to 50 million people worldwide.

Ethiopian Orthodox choir. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia?

Legends say that there is another link between Axum and Israel – an important religious connection. When Menelik grew up he asked who his father was and upon discovering it was King Solomon the young man went to see him. Menelik stayed with Solomon for three years but was asked to leave when the Israelites complained about his likeness to the king, which apparently confused them.

When Menelik was sent away, he was accompanied by the eldest son of the high priest, Azariah, and 1000 people from each of the 12 tribes of Israel . But before they left, Azariah had a dream telling him to take the Ark of the Covenant with him. Azariah took the Ark from the temple and replaced it with a copy and then brought the religious relic with him to his new home. Even today, there is still a strong belief that the Ark of the Covenant is located somewhere in Ethiopia.

Why Did the Kingdom of Axum Fall?

Historians are not certain what exactly led to the decline of the Kingdom of Axum but several factors are thought to have been at play. One of the first acts in the empire’s fall came in 520 when King Kaleb led a campaign against the Jewish Himyaritic King Dhu Nuwas who was persecuting Christians in Yemen. Although the Axumite forces won the conflict and secured Christianity in Yemen (at least until the advent of Islam), the years of battle over-extended Axum’s wealth and manpower. Moreover, the foray may have invited in the Plague of Justinian, which struck Ethiopia around the same time. The Plague , which ravaged much of the Byzantium Empire in the sixth century, is thought to be the first recorded instance of the bubonic plague .

Egyptian-woven woolen curtain or trousers, which was a copy of a Sassanid silk import, which was in turn based on a fresco of King Khosrau I fighting Aksumite Ethiopian forces in Yemen, 5th–6th century.

To add to the woes of warfare and pandemic, in the seventh century AD the Islamic Empire was beginning its rapid spread across Arabia and Northern Africa. Between the seventh and eighth centuries, Axum lost control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile. Not only did this leave Axum in economic isolation but it also forced most of the city’s Christian inhabitants to move further inland for protection.

Finally, a series of climate changes devastated the Ethiopian people. The large population of the Axumite Empire placed much pressure on the Tigrinya plateau, where the Kingdom was based, ultimately leading to catastrophic levels of soil erosion. Historians believe that this process was accelerated by an apparent decline in the reliability of rainfall around 730-760 AD. This reduced the growing season significantly and was not corrected until well into the ninth century.

Despite its collapse, the city of Axum is still inhabited to this day by approximately 50,000 people, making it the oldest continuously inhabited city on the continent.

The Obelisk at Axum.: No. XX. / Drawn by Henry Salt.; Engraved by D. Havell. (King George III’s Personal Coloured Views Collection/ British Library )


Introduction

The Kingdom of Aksum (or Axum also known as the Aksumite Empire) was a trading nation in the area of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea that existed from approximately 100 to 940 CE.
It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period around the 4th century BCE to achieve prominence by the 1st century CE, and was a major agent in the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India. The Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own Aksumite currency. The state established its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush and regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, eventually extending its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom. The Persian Prophet Mani regarded Axum as the third of the four greatest powers of his time after Rome and Persia, with China being the fourth.


Kingdom of Axum

The African kingdom of Axum (also Aksum) was located on the northern edge of the highland zone of the Red Sea coast, just above the horn of Africa. It was founded in the 1st century CE, flourished from the 3rd to 6th century CE, and then survived as a much smaller political entity into the 8th century CE.

The territory Axum once controlled is today occupied by the states of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, and Somaliland. Prospering thanks to agriculture, cattle herding, and control over trade routes which saw gold and ivory exchanged for foreign luxury goods, the kingdom and its capital of Axum built lasting stone monuments and achieved a number of firsts. It was the first sub-Saharan African state to mint its own coinage and, around 350 CE, the first to officially adopt Christianity. Axum even created its own script, Ge'ez, which is still in use in Ethiopia today. The kingdom went into decline from the 7th century CE due to increased competition from Muslim Arab traders and the rise of rival local peoples such as the Bedja. Surviving as a much smaller territory to the south, the remnants of the once great kingdom of Axum would eventually rise again and form the great kingdom of Abyssinia in the 13th century CE.

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Name & Foundation

The name Axum, or Akshum as it is sometimes referred to, may derive from a combination of two words from local languages - the Agew word for water and the Ge'ez word for official, shum. The water reference is probably due to the presence of large ancient rock cisterns in the area of the capital at Axum.

The region had certainly been occupied by agrarian communities similar in culture to those in southern Arabia since the Stone Age, but the ancient kingdom of Axum began to prosper from the 1st century CE thanks to its rich agricultural lands, dependable summer monsoon rains, and control of regional trade. This trade network included links with Egypt to the north and, to the east, along the East African coast and southern Arabia. Wheat, barley, millet, and teff (a high-yield grain) had been grown with success in the region at least as early as the 1st millennium BCE while cattle herding dates back to the 2nd millennium BCE, an endeavour aided by the vast grassland savannah of the Ethiopian plateau. Goats and sheep were also herded and an added advantage for everyone was the absence of the tropical parasitic diseases that have blighted other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Wealth acquired through trade and military might was added to this prosperous agricultural base and so, in the late 1st century CE, a single king replaced a confederation of chiefdoms and forged a united kingdom that would dominate the Ethiopian highlands for the next six centuries. The kingdom of Axum, one of the greatest in the world at that time, was born.

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Expansion

The kingdom of Axum really started to take off around 350 CE. Axum had already established some form of dominance over Yemen (then called Himyar) in southern Arabia as well as Somalia in the southeast and several smaller tribes to the southwest. Subjugated tribes, although left semi-autonomous, had to pay tribute, typically in the form of hundreds of heads of cattle (as indicated by Axumite inscriptions). This perhaps gave some slight justification to the Axum rulers now calling themselves by the rather grand title Negusa Negast or 'king of kings.' Details of the Axum government and how this absolute monarch controlled conquered tribes over the centuries are lacking but the title 'king of kings' would suggest conquered rulers were permitted to continue to reign over their own peoples.

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In the mid-4th century CE, Nubia (formerly known as Kush and located in modern Sudan), with its capital at Meroe, attacked Axum from the north (or vice-versa), perhaps because of a dispute over control of the region's ivory trade. The Axum king Ezana I (r. c. 303-350 CE) responded with a large force, sacking Meroe. Once mighty Nubia, already in serious decline and weakened by overpopulation, overgrazing and deforestation, was soon toppled and broke up into three separate states: Faras, Dongola, and Soba. This collapse left the way clear for Axum to dominate the region.

Another period of great Axum expansion came during the reign of Kaleb I in the first quarter of the 6th century CE. The kingdom came to occupy a territory about 300 kilometres in length and 160 kilometres across not so large perhaps, but its control of trade goods was the key, not geography. Rulers were keen, too, to indulge in a spot of imperialism across the Red Sea in Yemen in an effort to completely control the many trading vessels that sailed down the Straits of Bab-al-Mandeb, one of the busiest sea stretches in the ancient world. Raids had been made in Yemen in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, but it was the 6th century CE which saw a major escalation in Axum ambitions. The king of Yemen, Yusuf As'ar Yathar, had been persecuting Christians since 523 CE, and Kaleb, who himself then ruled over a Christian state, responded by sending a force to Yemen in c. 525 CE. This invasion was supported by the Byzantine Empire with whom Axum had long-established diplomatic ties (whether the support was merely diplomatic or material is not agreed upon by scholars). Victorious, the Axum king was able to leave a substantial garrison and install a viceroy which ruled the region until the Sassanids arrived in 570 CE.

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Axum the Capital

The ancient city of Axum (sometimes called Axumis) is located at an altitude of over 2,000 metres (6800 ft) in the north of the Ethiopian highlands (in the modern province of Tigray), close to the River Tekeze, a tributary of the Nile. The city, occupied from the 1st century CE, was both the capital of a trading empire and a ceremonial centre which included many stone monuments. Some such monuments are very similar to Egyptian obelisks, although curiously, the granite stone is sometimes worked to resemble architectural features of dry-stone and timber Axumite buildings. Many of these stelae are around 24 metres (78 ft) in height, although one fallen and now broken example is 33 metres (108 ft) in total length and 520 tonnes in weight, making it the largest monolith ever to have been transported anywhere in antiquity. The stelae were likely transported on log rollers from a quarry 4.8 km (3 miles) away. Almost all were used as tomb markers and many have a carved stone throne next to them, often covered in inscriptions.

Other remains of stone structures include three palace-like buildings which once had towers - each with stone pillared basements, royal tombs with massive walls creating separate chambers, water cisterns, irrigation channels, and two- or three-story buildings used as residences by the Axum elite. Most large structures were built on a stepped granite base composed of dressed blocks, with access provided by monumental staircases, usually consisting of seven steps. Stone lion-head gargoyles often provided roof drainage.

Stone structures used clay instead of mortar, with a decorative effect achieved by alternating projecting and recessed blocks. Wood was used between stone layers for horizontal support in walls, for doorways, window frames, floors, roofs, and in ceiling corners to give extra structural support. The decoration on many of buildings at Axum and the motifs used in Axumite art in general such as the astral symbols of disc and crescent are evidence of influence from South Arabian cultures across the Red Sea (although the influence may have been in the opposite direction). The capital also had dedicated areas for craft workshops and, from the late 4th century CE, many churches.

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Trade

Gold (acquired from the southern territories under the kingdom's control or from war booty) and ivory (from Africa's interior) were Axum's main exports - the Byzantines, in particular, could not get enough of both - but other goods included salt, slaves, tortoiseshell, incense (frankincense and myrrh), rhino horns, obsidian and emeralds (from Nubia). These goods went to the kingdom's seaport of Adulis (modern Zula and actually 4 km from the sea), carried to the coast by camel caravans. There they were exchanged for goods brought by Arab merchants such as Egyptian and Indian textiles, swords and other weapons, iron, glass beads, bronze lamps, and glassware. The presence of Mediterranean amphorae at Axum sites indicates that such goods as wine and olive oil were also imported. That Axum trade was booming is evidenced by the finding of the kingdom's coinage at such far-flung places as the eastern Mediterranean, India, and Sri Lanka.

Adoption of Christianity

In the mid-4th century CE, the king of Axum, Ezana I, officially adopted Christianity. Prior to that, the people of Axum had practised an indigenous polytheistic religion which was prevalent on both sides of the Red Sea with some local additions such as Mahram, 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 honour, especially cattle - either living animals or votive representations of them.

Traders and Egyptian missionaries had brought Christianity to the region during the early centuries of the 1st millennium CE, and the official acceptance by Aksum may have occurred because the kingdom had important trade connections to the North African provinces of the Roman Empire, which itself had adopted Christianity a couple of decades earlier. Indeed, there were many trade and diplomatic connections directly between Constantinople and Axum, and it is probable that this passage of individuals to and fro 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.

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According to traditional accounts, it was Frumentius, a 4th-century CE shipwrecked traveller 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 travelled 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 Axum kingdom 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 endeavours meant that Christianity would continue to be practised in Ethiopia right into the 21st century CE.

A Cultural Mix: Writing & Coinage

The area which Axum would later occupy used an Arabian type script from the 5th century BCE called Sabaean (a Semitic language then used in Southern Arabia). Greek was also used in some inscriptions. The kingdom of Axum had its own writing system, the earliest examples of which are found on sheets of schist rock slabs which date to the 2nd century CE. This script, called Ge'ez or Ethiopic, resembles Sabaean but had gradually evolved into a quite distinct script which included characters for vowels and consonants and which was read from left to right. The Ge'ez script is still used today in modern Ethiopia.

Another example of Axum's tendency to profitably mix ideas from different cultures can be seen in the kingdom's coinage, the first sub-Saharan kingdom to have its own mint. The gold and silver coins of Axum, which appeared from the 3rd century CE onwards, have Greek inscriptions, Sabaean religious symbols, and they were minted adhering to Roman standard weights. The most common material of the thousands of Axum coins discovered is bronze. Coins and their legends are often our only information on Axum's various kings, 20 in total. A portrait of the king is usually accompanied by two ears of corn and, from the reign of Ezana I, a Christian cross. Legends include the name of the king, his title and an uplifting phrase, for example, 'Peace to the People' and 'Health and Happiness to the People.'

In the arts, 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. Decoration of geometric designs was achieved using incisions, painting, stamps, and added three-dimensional pieces. By far the most common decorative motif is the Christian cross. There seems not to have been either the inclination or know-how to produce the finer wares which Axum imported from Mediterranean cultures.

No 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.

Decline & Later History

The kingdom of Axum went in decline from the late 6th century CE, perhaps due to overuse of agricultural land or the incursion of western Bedja herders who, forming themselves into small kingdoms, grabbed parts of Aksum territory for grazing their cattle and who persistently attacked Axum's camel caravans. In addition, the policy of Axum's kings to allow conquered tribal chiefs a good deal of autonomy often backfired and permitted some of them to have the means to launch rebellions. Ultimately, Axum would pay dearly for its lack of any real state administrative apparatus. Finally, there was from the early 7th century CE stiff competition for the Red Sea trade networks from Arab Muslims. The heartland of the Axum state shifted 300 km (186 miles) southwards to the cities of Lalibela and Gondar. As a consequence of the decline, by the late 8th century CE the old Axum Empire had ceased to exist.

The city of Axum fared better than its namesake kingdom and never lost its religious significance. The territory of the kingdom of Axum would eventually develop into the medieval kingdom of Abyssinia with the founding of the Solomonid dynasty c. 1270 CE, whose kings claimed direct descent from the Biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba.


Aksum: A Great African Empire

6 comments:

I found this article very interesting and refreshing, just for the simple fact many don't talk about africa and if they did its always the bad and evil.

This article is truly educational. I never knew that Christianity was practiced in Africa in those times. Also when you hear about Africa, people usually don't teach about their accomplishments.

this article is definitely interesting because before reading this passage i had no idea about this aksum people and i have never before come across them in any other ways, and they was good traders to many well know country and regions in the world today and the fact that Christianity was introduced to them, i myself thought that Christianity was discovered in Africa before today

I enjoyed reading about Egypt and how rich the cultural is, but I would love to actually go there and see stuff for myself like Africa’s accomplishments instead of hearing about the bad about it

It’s always interesting to read about my grandmother's home. It seems no matter how much I thought I knew I always learn something more, and it always makes our families “talks” that we have so much more engaging when I actually understand a lot of things that they’re saying. It is funny though how I didn’t know Christianity (something my family Practices) was a part of the culture longer than I thought.

It is always interesting to learn new things about other people and their cultures. I hate to hear that this empire only made it to the 7th century. I bet if it were still alive today, they would have made an even bigger impact on the world.

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Aksum

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Aksum, also spelled Axum, powerful kingdom in northern Ethiopia during the early Christian era.

Despite common belief to the contrary, Aksum did not originate from one of the Semitic Sabaean kingdoms of southern Arabia but instead developed as a local power. At its apogee (3rd–6th century ce ), Aksum became the greatest market of northeastern Africa its merchants traded as far as Alexandria and beyond the Nile River. Aksum continued to dominate the Red Sea coast until the end of the 9th century, exercising its influence from the shores of the Gulf of Aden to Zeila on the northern coast of Somaliland (modern Somalia and Djibouti).

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries ce its growth as a trading empire increasingly impinged on the power of the kingdom of Meroe, the fall of which was brought about in the 4th century by an Aksumite invasion. During the 4th century the kings of Aksum were Christianized—thus becoming both politically and religiously linked to Byzantine Egypt. At the same time, they extended their authority into southern Arabia. In the 6th century an Aksumite king reduced the Yemen to a state of vassalage. In the latter part of the 6th century, however, the Persians invaded South Arabia and brought Aksumite influence there to a close. Later the Mediterranean trade of Aksum was ended by the encroachment of the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries.

Gradually, Aksumite power shifted internally to the Agau (Agaw, or Agew) people, whose princes shaped a new Christian line in the Zagwe dynasty of the 12th–13th century.


Contents

Axum was the hub of the marine trading power known as the Aksumite Empire, which predated the earliest mentions in Roman-era writings. Around 356 CE, its ruler was converted to an Abyssinian variety of Christianity by Frumentius. Later, under the reign of the Emperor Kaleb, Aksum was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Sasanian Empire which had adopted Zoroastrianism. The historical record is unclear with ancient church records being the primary contemporary sources.

It is believed the empire began a long and slow decline after the 7th century due partly to the Persians and then the Arabs contesting old Red Sea trade routes. Eventually the empire was cut off from its principal markets in Alexandria, Byzantium and Southern Europe and its share of trade captured by Arab traders of the era.

The Aksumite Empire was finally destroyed in the 10th century by Empress Gudit, [5] and eventually some of the people of Axum were forced south and their old way of life declined. As the empire's power declined so did the influence of the city, which is believed to have lost population in the decline, similar to Rome and other cities thrust away from the flow of world events. The last known (nominal) emperor to reign was crowned in about the 10th century, but the empire's influence and power had ended long before that.

Its decline in population and trade then contributed to the shift of the power hub of the Ethiopian Empire south to the Agaw region as it moved further inland. In this period the city of Axum became the administrative seat of an empire spanning one million square miles. Eventually, the alternative name of Ethiopia was adopted by the central region and then by the modern state that presently exists. [6]

"Axum" (or its Greek and Latin equivalents) appears as an important centre on indigenous maps of the northern Horn of Africa in the 15th century. [7] [8]

The Aksumite Empire and the Ethiopian Church Edit

The Aksumite Empire had its own written language, Geʽez, and developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by giant obelisks. The oldest of these, though relatively small, dates from 5000–2000 BCE. [9] The empire was at its height under Emperor Ezana, baptized as Abreha in the 4th century (which was also when the empire officially embraced Christianity). [10]

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum houses the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, in which lie the Tablets of Stone upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. [11] Ethiopian traditions suggest that it was from Axum that Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem and that the two had a son, Menelik, who grew up in Ethiopia but travelled to Jerusalem as a young man to visit his father's homeland. He lived several years in Jerusalem before returning to his country with the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Ethiopian Church and Ethiopian tradition, the Ark still exists in Axum. This same church was the site where Ethiopian emperors were crowned for centuries until the reign of Fasilides, then again beginning with Yohannes IV until the end of the empire. Axum is considered to be the holiest city in Ethiopia and is an important destination of pilgrimages. [11] [12] Significant religious festivals are the Timkat festival (known as Epiphany in western Christianity) on 19 January (20 January in leap years) and the Festival of Maryam Zion on 30 November [13] (21 Hidar on the Ethiopian calendar).

In 1937, a 24 m (79 ft) tall, 1,700-year-old Obelisk of Axum, was broken into five parts by the Italians and shipped to Rome to be erected. The obelisk is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of engineering from the height of the Axumite empire. Despite a 1947 United Nations agreement that the obelisk would be shipped back, Italy balked, resulting in a long-standing diplomatic dispute with the Ethiopian government, which views the obelisk as a symbol of national identity. In April 2005, Italy finally returned the obelisk pieces to Axum amidst much official and public rejoicing Italy also covered the US$4 million costs of the transfer. UNESCO assumed responsibility for the re-installation of this stele in Axum, and by the end of July 2008 the obelisk had been reinstalled. It was unveiled on 4 September 2008. [14] [15]

Axum and Islam Edit

The Aksumite Empire had a long-standing relationship with Islam. According to ibn Hisham, [16] when Muhammad faced oppression from the Quraysh clan in Mecca, he sent a small group of his original followers, that included his daughter Ruqayya and her husband Uthman, to Axum. The Negus, the Aksumite monarch [17] (known as An-Najashi (النجاشي) in the Islamic tradition), gave them refuge and protection and refused the requests of the Quraish clan to send the refugees back to Arabia. These refugees did not return until the sixth Hijri year (628 C.E.) and even then many remained in Ethiopia, eventually settling at Negash in what is now the Misraqawi Zone. [ citation needed ]

There are different traditions concerning the effect these early Muslims had on the ruler of Axum. The Muslim tradition is that the ruler of Axum was so impressed by these refugees that he became a secret convert. [18] On the other hand, Arabic historians and Ethiopian tradition state that some of the Muslim refugees who lived in Ethiopia during this time converted to Orthodox Christianity. [ citation needed ] There is also a second Ethiopian tradition that, on the death of Ashama ibn Abjar, Muhammed is reported to have prayed for the king's soul, and told his followers, "Leave the Abyssinians in peace, as long as they do not take the offensive." [19]

Earlier researches Edit

In February 1893 the British explorers, James Theodore Bent and his wife Mabel Bent, travelled by boat to Massawa on the west coast of the Red Sea. They then made their way overland to excavate at Axum and Yeha, in the hope of researching possible links between early trading networks and cultures on both sides of the Red Sea. [20] They reached Axum by 24 February 1893, [21] but their work was curtailed [22] by the tensions between the Italian occupiers and local warlords, together with the continuing ramifications of the First Italo-Ethiopian War and they had to make a hasty retreat by the end of March to Zula for passage back to England. [23]

3D documentation with laser-scanning Edit

The Zamani Project documents cultural heritage sites in 3D to create a record for future generations. [24] [25] [26] [27] The documentation is based on terrestrial laser-scanning. [28] [29] The 3D documentation of parts of the Axum Stelae Field was carried out in 2006 [30] and 3D models, plans and images can be viewed here.

1989 air raid Edit

During the Ethiopian Civil War, on 30 March 1989, Axum was bombed from the air by the Ethiopian National Defence Forces and three people were killed. [31]

Maryam Ts'iyon massacre Edit

Thousands of civilians died during the Axum massacre that took place in and around the Maryam Ts'iyon Church in Axum during the Tigray War in December 2020. [32] [33] There was indiscriminate shooting by the Eritrean Defence Forces (EDF) throughout Axum [34] [35] and focussed killings at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (Maryam Ts'iyon) by the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Amhara militia. [32] [33] [36]

The church was also a place where the corpses of civilians killed elsewhere were collected for burial. [34] A tight government communications blackout ensured that news of the massacre (or two separate massacres reports are still emerging) was only revealed internationally in early January 2021 after survivors escaped to safer locations. [37]

The major Aksumite monuments in the town are steles. These obelisks are around 1,700 years old and have become a symbol of the Ethiopian people's identity. [38] The largest number are in the Northern Stelae Park, ranging up to the 33 m (108 ft) long [a 1] Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction. [39] The Obelisk of Axum [a 2] was removed by the Italian army in 1937, and returned to Ethiopia in 2005 and reinstalled 31 July 2008. [38] The next tallest is the 24 m (79 ft) [a 3] King Ezana's Stele. Three more stelae measure 18.2 m (60 ft) high, [a 4] 15.8 m (52 ft) high, [a 5] 15.3 m (50 ft) high. [a 6] [40] The stelae are believed to mark graves and would have had cast metal discs affixed to their sides, which are also carved with architectural designs. The Gudit Stelae to the west of town, unlike the northern area, are interspersed with mostly 4th century tombs.

The other major features of the town are the old and new churches of Our Lady Mary of Zion. The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built in 1665 by Emperor Fasilides and said to have previously housed the Ark of the Covenant. The original cathedral, said to have been built by Ezana and augmented several times afterwards, was believed to have been massive with an estimated 12 naves. [ citation needed ] It was burned to the ground by Gudit, rebuilt, and then destroyed again during the Abyssinian–Adal war of the 1500s. It was again rebuilt by Emperor Gelawdewos (completed by his brother and successor Emperor Minas) and Emperor Fasilides replaced that structure with the present one. Only men are permitted entry into the Old St. Mary's Cathedral (some say as a result of the destruction of the original church by Gudit). The New Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion stands next to the old one, and was built to fulfil a pledge by Emperor Haile Selassie to Our Lady Zion for the liberation of Ethiopia from the Fascist occupation. Built in a neo-Byzantine style, work on the new cathedral began in 1955, and allows admittance to women. Emperor Haile Selassie interrupted the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II to travel to Axum to attend the dedication of the new cathedral and pay personal homage, showing the importance of this church in the Ethiopian Empire. The Queen visited the Cathedral a few days later. Between the two cathedrals is a small chapel known as The Chapel of the Tablet built at the same time as the new cathedral, and which is believed to house the Ark of the Covenant. Emperor Haile Selassie's consort, Empress Menen Asfaw, paid for its construction from her private funds. Admittance to the chapel is closed to all but the guardian monk who resides there. Entrance is even forbidden to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and to the Emperor of Ethiopia during the monarchy. The two cathedrals and the chapel of the Ark are the focus of pilgrimage and considered the holiest sites in Ethiopia to members of its Orthodox Church.

Other attractions in Axum include archaeological and ethnographic museums, the Ezana Stone written in Sabaean, Geʽez and Ancient Greek in a similar manner to the Rosetta Stone, King Bazen's Tomb (a megalith considered to be one of the earliest structures), the so-called Queen of Sheba's Bath (actually a reservoir), the 4th-century Ta'akha Maryam and 6th-century Dungur palaces, Pentalewon Monastery and Abba Liqanos and about 2 km (1.2 mi) west is the rock art called the Lioness of Gobedra.

Local legend claims the Queen of Sheba lived in the town.

Climate data for Axum
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Average high °C (°F) 25.9
(78.6)
27.2
(81.0)
28.6
(83.5)
29.4
(84.9)
28.8
(83.8)
27.0
(80.6)
22.5
(72.5)
22.3
(72.1)
24.8
(76.6)
26.3
(79.3)
26.8
(80.2)
25.7
(78.3)
26.3
(79.3)
Daily mean °C (°F) 16.7
(62.1)
17.8
(64.0)
17.7
(63.9)
21.0
(69.8)
20.8
(69.4)
19.7
(67.5)
17.2
(63.0)
17.4
(63.3)
17.9
(64.2)
17.9
(64.2)
17.4
(63.3)
16.2
(61.2)
18.1
(64.7)
Average low °C (°F) 7.5
(45.5)
8.4
(47.1)
10.8
(51.4)
12.7
(54.9)
12.9
(55.2)
12.4
(54.3)
12.0
(53.6)
12.6
(54.7)
11.1
(52.0)
9.6
(49.3)
8.0
(46.4)
6.7
(44.1)
10.4
(50.7)
Average precipitation mm (inches) 3
(0.1)
2
(0.1)
9
(0.4)
27
(1.1)
31
(1.2)
67
(2.6)
221
(8.7)
199
(7.8)
67
(2.6)
12
(0.5)
13
(0.5)
1
(0.0)
652
(25.6)
Source: Climate-Data.org (altitude: 2133m) [41]

Population Edit

According to the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia (CSA), as of July 2012 the town of Axum's estimated population was 56,576. The census indicated that 30,293 of the population were females and 26,283 were males. [42]

Religion Edit

The 2007 national census showed that the town population was 44,647, of whom 20,741 were males and 23,906 females). The majority of the inhabitants said they practised Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, with 88.03% reporting that as their religion, while 10.89% of the population were Ethiopian Muslim. [43]

The 1994 national census reported the population for the city as 27,148, of whom 12,536 were men and 14,612 were women. The largest ethnic group reported was Tigrayans with 98.54% and Tigrinya was spoken as a first language by 98.68%. The majority of the population practised Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity with 85.08% reported as embracing that religion, while 14.81% were Muslim. [44]

Axum Airport, also known as Emperor Yohannes IV Airport, [45] is located just 5.5 km (3.4 miles) to the east of the city.

Aksum University was established in May 2006 on a greenfield site, 4 km (2.5 mi) from Axum's central area. The inauguration ceremony was held on 16 February 2007 and the current area of the campus is 107 ha (260 acres), with ample room for expansion. [ citation needed ] The establishment of a university in Axum is expected to contribute much to the ongoing development of the country in general and of the region in particular.


The Kingdom of Aksum – Africa’s lost Empire

The Aksumite Empire was an ancient kingdom that existed in Ethiopia from AD 100 to 940.

Centred on the ancient city of Axum/Aksum, the nation grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period around 400 BC to its height around the 1 st century AD.

At this time, the empire extended across most of present-day Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemem and even Saudi Arabia.

Aksum became a major commercial player in the trade routes between the Roman Empire (Later the Byzantine Empire), India and the Mediterranean – exporting ivory, tortoiseshell, gold, emeralds and minerals.

The Manichaein Prophet Mani (AD 216 – 274) even regarded Axum as one of the four great powers of his time, alongside Persia, Rome, and China.

Aksumite Culture

The Empire’s population was a mix of Semitic speaking people or Habeshas, Cushitic speaking people and the Nilo-Saharan speaking people.

Despite the linguistic complexities, Aksum developed its own alphabetic system called the Ge’ez script (also known as Ethiopic) that was later modified to include vowels, becoming an abugida segmental writing system.

The Empire practised a polytheistic and Judaic religion, possibly worshipping gods such as Astar, Beher, Meder/Medr, and Mahrem, but later adopted Christianity around AD 325 under the Emperor Ezana.

The wealth of Aksum was certainly represented in the architectural legacy of the Empire, from the giant Stelae obelisks to the ornate palaces left behind.

The stelae served to mark graves, often decorated with false doors and windows to represent a magnificent multi-storied palace. The largest of these towers discovered would have measured 33 metres high and was held up by massive underground counterweights.

After a second golden age in the early 6th century, the empire began to decline, eventually ceasing 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, abandoning Axum/Aksum as the capital.

Eventually, the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile, pushing Aksum into economic isolation. As international profits from the exchange network it had developed over centuries declined, Aksum lost its ability to control its own raw material sources and that network collapsed.

The pressure maintaining a large population meant a high level of regional food production had to be intensified. The result was a wave of soil erosion that began on a local scale c. 650 and attained catastrophic proportions after AD 700.

The Aksumite Empire ended with the last King, Dil Na’od who was defeated by his former General Mara Takla Haymanot who founded the Agaw Zagwe dynasty.

According to legend, a son of Dil Na’od fled in exile, until his descendants overthrew the Zagwe dynastic rulers and re-established the Solomonic dynasty around AD 1270.

The end of the Aksumite Empire didn’t mean the end of Aksumite culture and traditions the architecture of the Zagwe dynasty at Lalibela and Yemrehana Krestos Church shows heavy Aksumite influence.


Watch the video: The Empire of Aksum Axum (May 2022).