A major empire of the ancient world, the kingdom of Aksum arose in Ethiopia during the first century C.E. This wealthy African civilization thrived for centuries, controlling a large territorial state and access to vast trade routes linking the Roman Empire to the Middle East and India. Aksum, the capital city, was a metropolis with a peak population as high as 20,000. Aksum was also noteworthy for its elaborate monuments and written script, as well as for introducing the Christian religion to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
Aksum was situated in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, in a region called Tigray, near present-day Eritrea. Humans had inhabited the region and the valleys below since the Stone Age, and agrarian communities had been there for at least a millennium. But the origins of the kingdom of Aksum are mysterious. People from the kingdom of Saba, across the Red Sea on the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, may have migrated into the area in the first millennium B.C.E. and influenced its culture. In this region, archaeologists have found evidence of a complex society called Di’amat, or D’MT, that preceded the rise of Aksum by several centuries. This culture was apparently based in the village of Yeha, in the Tigray highlands about 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Aksum. Another city-state seems to have existed right next to Aksum on the Bieta Giyorgis Hill. Scientists and historians are still trying to understand the process of cultural and economic development that led to the growth of a wide polity in this region. Nevertheless, it is clear that by the first century C.E. or thereabouts, Aksum had emerged as a state to unify the area.
The local geography contributed to the rise of Aksum. The city is located some 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) above sea level, on a plateau. Its climate, rainfall patterns, and fertile soil made the area suitable for herding livestock and agriculture. Most importantly, the city was strategically positioned at the crossroads of trade routes running in every direction, from the East African coast to the continent's interior.
The Aksumites took full advantage of these commercial opportunities. Gold and ivory were perhaps their most valuable export commodities, but they also trafficked in tortoise shells, rhinoceros horns, frankincense, myrrh, emeralds, salt, live animals, and enslaved people. In exchange, they imported textiles, iron, steel, weapons, glassware, jewelry, spices, olive oil, and wine. Their trading partners included most of the major states in the known world: Egypt, South Arabia, the Middle East, India, and China. Perhaps their most important commercial partners were the Byzantine Romans. Aksum was the first African country to mint its own coins—in gold, silver, and bronze—all in the standard weight categories issued by the Roman Empire. These coins have been recovered in multiple foreign locations, including as far away as India.
The kingdom of Aksum reached its peak power between the third and sixth centuries C.E. In those years, it was a prosperous, stratified society, with divisions ranging from high nobles, lower status members of the elite classes, and common folk. The city of Aksum grew in population, size, and the complexity of its development, while smaller towns and rural villages sprang up in surrounding areas. The kingdom exercised administrative and economic control over a swath of territory encompassing Tigray and northern Eritrea, the desert, coastal plains to the south and east, and much of the Red Sea coast (in present-day Djibouti and Somalia).
Aksum also enlarged its territory through warfare. Led by King Ezana I, Aksumites conquered the city-state of Meroe (part of present-day Sudan) in the early fourth century C.E. In the sixth century, the Aksumite King Kaleb sent a force across the Red Sea to subdue the Yemenites, subjugating them as vassals for several decades. The Roman emperor at Byzantium supported Aksum in this venture, largely in retaliation for Yemen’s persecution of Christians.
Aksum had become Christianized in the fourth century C.E. and became the first sub-Saharan African state to embrace the new Semitic religion. A figure named Frumentius is given credit for spreading the gospel to Ethiopia. Frumentius came from the Phoenician city of Tyre (present-day Lebanon). He became an advisor to the court at Aksum and a tutor to the crown prince, Ezana. After assuming the throne, Ezana proclaimed Christianity the state religion. It is unclear whether this policy decision was spurred by the kingdom’s diplomatic and trade relations with Rome, since over a hundred years before, Roman traders had already brought knowledge of the Christian religion to the Aksumite mercantile network.
The Ethiopian written language, known as Ge’ez, was derived from the Sabaean script that originated in the Arabian kingdom of Saba. Some inscribed stone slabs from the time of Aksum’s King Ezana are engraved in three languages: Ge’ez, Sabaean, and Greek. Ge’ez, though no longer the vernacular in the region, remains in use in Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church.
The kingdom’s power had eroded entirely by the end of the eighth century. One reason for its decline was the migration of the nomadic Beja peoples into the area; their independent herding activities threatened Aksum’s territorial dominance. The Aksumites lost their hold on southern Arabia, and the Persians subsequently conquered Yemen around 578 C.E. The decisive blow was the ascendance of the Arab Muslims, who became the region’s dominant power in the seventh century and assumed naval control of the Red Sea. The loss of mercantile revenue undermined the capacity of Aksum’s nobility to hold an expanded state together. Environmental factors, most notably the degradation of soils from overuse and a decline in the abundance of rainfall, created additional pressures.
Political power shifted to a new group of elites, the Agau people, who instituted the Zagwe Dynasty based in the city of Lalibela. The city of Aksum remains inhabited in the 21st century. The remnants of the old city were designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1980.