AKSUMITE CIVILIZATION AND ITS LEGACY
Aksum was an Ancient
African civilization that existed between 100-940 A.D.(9)
Kingdom of Aksum
was originally confined to the territory of present day Eritrea and Northern
Ethiopia. Its first capital city was Mazaber and was built by Ityopis, Son of
The capital of the
empire latter moved to town of Aksum and remained there throughout.
was at the western part of the future (expanded) Aksumite kingdom which
included the Red Sea Coast and even extended in its prime times to the present
day Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
The choice of
Aksum as empire’s capital in the beginning was due to its economically
Aksum lies at the
center of important interior trade routes. Some of these trade routes include:
connecting Nile and Adulis, the route connecting to Cataracts eventually
leading to Egypt, the Southern route to Somali Coast and the route that runs
towards Agaw lands and Sasu which was known for its gold trade.
Besides the trade,
Aksum and its surrounding environment had favorable climate for agriculture. It
had fertile soils and access to water resources throughout the year due to the
Another town of
the empire worth of mentioning is Adulis. Adulis , the chief of Aksumite ports
on Red Sea played an important role in the kingdom’s international trade.
Language and Religion
inhabitants of Aksum were speakers of a language that resembled a Semitic
dialect of South Arabian language.
The alphabets used
in writing were modified versions of South Arabian script and contained only
consonants. The direction of writing was from left to right unlike the South Arabian
The new and
different script containing vowels was first depicted in the Great inscriptions
of King Ezana.The syllabisim used in these scripts became the basis for subsequent
King Ezana’s great
inscription was written by a language of Semitic origin called Geez. It was the
official language Aksumite civilization and it is still used as liturgical
language of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church.
Aksumites were Polytheists. They practiced religions related to religions in
South Arabia. The use of crescent disc shaped symbol in coinage verified these.
The resources from
fourth century indicates that the Aksumite kingdom adopted a new religion, Christianity.
This recorded in inscriptions of King Ezana and his coins.
King Ezana’s inscription
indicates reference to phrases such as Holy Father, Son, Holy Ghost (Holy
trinity in Christian belief) not previous gods.(2)
In the coinage of
Ezana’s reign the previous crescent shaped disc symbol was replaced by Cross,
the symbol of Christian faith.
King Ezana was
converted to Christianity by the teachings of Frumentius. It is believed that
Frumentius taught the king while he was young and later the emperor made Christianity
the official religion of the kingdom. After the adoption of Christianity as
official religion of Aksum, Frumentius was anointed as the first archbishop of
the church. He is accepted as the Father of Ethiopian Orthodox Church and reverenced
with the name Kasate Birhan Aba Selama( The Light Bearer).(6)
In (4) it is
proposed that King Ezana adopted Christianity with the ambition of unifying his
kingdom under one religion and with the ambition of trading with Christian
These are, however,
unlikely reasons for the adoption of Christianity by King Ezana.
It is obvious that religion is a tool
frequently used by rulers to consolidate power and eliminate disobedience. But
in the case of Aksumites, they were not diversified in religion before the
adoption of Christianity. They were all polytheists worshipping common gods.
There is no plausible reason to assume that a new religion (Christianity) can
unify Aksumites If they were already homogenous society in terms of religion.
Ezana’s conversion to Christianity might have gained him a new trading ally,
Roman Empire. But if this (getting new trade ally) in fact was Ezana’s main
motive of converting to Christianity, by this logic, on the other hand, he
could have lost South Arabia, the main trading partner of his kingdom.
King Ezana adopted
Christianity most probably because he believed that what Frumentius taught was
correct. He converted neither for the sake of strengthening his political power
nor for the sake of friendship with Roman Empire.
In fact when the Christian
church divided on the issue of doctrine at Fourth Ecumenical Council of
Chalcedon, The Aksumite church sided with Oriental Orthodoxy rejecting the
teaching of Roman counterpart.
As mentioned in
Monumentum Adulitanum inscription, the land route to Egypt and the defense of
the Red Sea Coasts on both the African and the Arabian sides were objects of
vigilance to the Aksumite kingdom.(2)
occupied a strategic location in Red Sea Coastal line thus obtaining major
proportion of its wealth from international trade.
The Periplus of Eritrean
Sea, the first century travel note written by Egypt Merchant, accounts for
Aksum’s practice of exporting Ivory and importing cloth and glassware from
Egypt. Another early document by Pliny points out that Aksum exported mainly
animal or human resources. These include rhinoceros’s horn, hippopotamus hides,
tortoise shells, monkeys and slaves.(2)
Salt was also a
prominent good in internal trade of the kingdom. Salt was brought from Eastern
Danakil region in the forms of blocks locally called Amole.
citizens and foreign traders who uses the route (port) was another source of
income for the kingdom. Tax is generally paid in kind or Money.
the source of income and food for the majority peasant population of Aksum. The
fertile land abundant rainfall helped in twice a year cultivation of some
crops. Some of the coins of Aksum depict a drawing of crop (most likely wheat
stalk) emphasizing the importance of agriculture to the kingdom.
was also part of the economy. Cattles sheep, camels, elephants, etc. were used
for various purposes such as ploughing, food, transportation, ivory, etc.
Aksum some animals were sacrificed for deities.
Aksum was the
first Sub-Saharan civilization to mint its own coinage. The coins were struck
in gold, silver and bronze.(1) As indicated in (2) the necessity for such currency stands in a direct ratio to
the complexity of the society which has developed. That is the ability to issue
its own currency is an indicator of Aksum kingdom’s wealth/ status.
significance of Aksum coinage is that, as an archaeological objects they are
sources of some important of information about the kingdom. For instance, the
complete list of kings of Aksum kingdom is made from the texts and drawings on
the coinage of the kingdom.(5)
Coins before the
reign of King Ezana have a drawing of crescent shaped disc. Whereas the coins
during king Ezana’s reign depict a drawing of cross. By examining these two
coinage alone, one can arguably speculate that it was during King Ezana’s reign
that the Aksumites converted to Christianity from polytheism.
At the late stage
the Aksum coinage was used as a propaganda tool by rulers.(2) Coinage
of each King appeared with a motto on a reverse side. For instance a bronze
coin by King Ezana or his successor had a Greek motto TOYTOAPECH meaning ‘May
this please the people.’
Other mottoes used
by Fifth Century Kings include religious themes such as ‘By the grace of God’,
‘Christ is with us’,etc. King Kaleb’s motto reads ‘Son of Tazena’. The wording
this motto sounds that King Kaleb wanted to affirm his legitimate succession to
One piece of
monumental architecture that features Aksum civilization is the stelae. Stelae are
tall stone towers used to mark the location of graves of the nobles. The
notable stelae of Aksum includes the Great stelae (108 feet), The king Ezana
stele and the Obelisk of Aksum.
The Obelisk was
discovered by Italian soldiers in 1935’s conquest of Ethiopia. The soldiers
brought the 160 ton stele as a loot to Rome in three pieces and reassembled it.
The UN condemned Italy’s action and ordered the return of Obelisk to Ethiopia.
However it was finally in 2007 the obelisk returned to Aksum.(8) The
designs of the obelisk represent a multi-storey palace with fake windows and
Decline of the Civilization
are attributed to the downfall of Aksumite civilization. These include external
and internal conflicts, exploitation of resources and natural climate factors.
In 6th century the
trade route of Red Sea and Nile was controlled by the new Islamic empire. This
isolated Aksum from its international trade, a major blow to the kingdom’s
prestigious economy.(2) After weakening its economy the kingdom gradually stopped
producing coins. It also further moved its territory inland for a protection
from external aggressors.
Domestic rivals probably
took advantage and waged attack on already declining kingdom. It is believed
that a Jewish Queen Yodit Gudit defeated the empire and burned its churches and
Another tale is
that a Queen from South ended the empire in 10th century.
Aksum in legends and old literature
As depicted in
Ethiopian book of Kibre Negest( Glory of the Kings) and Bible, Queen of Sheba
travelled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. According to Kibre Negest She
slept with King Solomon and conceived a son who upon the birth named as
Menelik. When Menelik grew up he went to Jerusalem to see his father, King
Solomon, and returned home with the Arc of the Covenant, the sacred biblical tablet
containing the Ten Commandments. (7)Since then The Arc of Covenant is believed to be
kept inside the church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum.
Najashi is an Abyssinian
(Aksumite) king who is mentioned in Islam scriptures (Quran). He welcomed and
protected the Muslim emigrants who fled the persecution of pagan Mecca.