The Kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum

This sub-Saharan empire had vast reach and power during the centuries of late antiquity.


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Anthropology, Archaeology, Sociology, Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations, World History


King Ezana's Stela

The ancient kingdom of Aksum was located in present-day Ethiopia. This wealthy African civilization celebrated its achievements with monuments like King Ezana's stela in Stelae Park, Ethiopia.

Photograph by John Elk
The ancient kingdom of Aksum was located in present-day Ethiopia. This wealthy African civilization celebrated its achievements with monuments like King Ezana's stela in Stelae Park, Ethiopia.
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Aksum was a kingdom in Africa. It ruled much of what is now the country Ethiopia. Its rule began in the first century C.E.

Its capital city was also called Aksum. It had a population as high as 20,000.

Aksum was in northern Ethiopia. Humans had lived in the area since the Stone Age. Farming communities had been there for at least 1,000 years. Still, it is uncertain how the kingdom came about.

Perhaps it was begun by people from the nearby kingdom of Saba. They lived across the Red Sea on the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula. Different villages and city-states seem to have been near Aksum. No one knows for sure how Aksum grew. Historians do know that by A.D. 100, Aksum united all regions in the area.

Good Climate and Location

Aksum's rise was helped by its geography, or place. There was a good climate, rainfall, and fertile soil for this activity. Many people farmed and herded animals here. Most importantly, the city had trade routes running in every direction. They linked the Roman Empire to the Middle East and India.

The Aksumites got wealthy from this. They had valuable gold and ivory to trade. They also traded tortoise shells, rhinoceros horns, live animals, and enslaved people. In return, they got textiles, iron, steel, weapons, spices, and wine. Their trading partners included Egypt, South Arabia, the Middle East, India, and China. The Romans were perhaps their most important trade partners.

Aksum made its own coins. It was the first African country to do so. They came in gold, silver, and bronze. These coins have been found as far away as India.

The Kingdom of Aksum soon reached its peak power. This happened between 201 and 600 C.E. It became a large, wealthy society. At the top were high nobles. Then there were lesser members of the high classes. The lowest group was common folk.

Smaller towns popped up in nearby areas. The kingdom had control over much of Tigray (in what is now northern Ethiopia) and northern Eritrea. It also had power over the desert and coastal plains to the south and east. Much of the Red Sea coast was also under its control. This is the land we know today as the countries Djibouti and Somalia.

Aksum Grew through War

Aksum also grew through war. Aksumites conquered the city-state of Meroe in the early 300s C.E. Meroe is part of present-day Sudan. Around 500 C.E., the Aksumite King Kaleb conquered the Yemenites. They were across the Red Sea. Aksum ruled over them for years.

In the 300s, Aksum became Christian. It was the first African state south of the Sahara to do so. A figure named Frumentius got credit for bringing it to Ethiopia. Frumentius tutored the prince, Ezana. After taking the throne, Ezana proclaimed Christianity the state religion. Rome was Christian too. Perhaps the new Aksum religion was sparked by the kingdom's relations with Rome. However, the reasons for the religion change are unclear.

The Ethiopian written language was known as Ge'ez. It grew originally from the writing used by the Arabian kingdom of Saba. Ge'ez is mostly not spoken in the region.

Eventually, Aksum's power disappeared. This happened by 800 C.E. One reason was the migration of the Beja peoples. They roamed and herded animals as they wished. Their activities hurt Aksum's power over land. The Aksumites lost their hold on southern Arabia. Persians then conquered Yemen around 578 C.E. The final blow was the rise of the Arab Muslims. They became the region's true power in the 600s C.E. Soon, Arab Muslims took control of the Red Sea. Aksum's great wealth was lost. Additionally, its soils were overused. This meant it was harder to grow food.

New Ruling Group

Political power shifted to a new ruling group. They were known as the Agau people. They created the Zagwe Dynasty. It was based in the city of Lalibela.

The city of Aksum still has people living there today. It is an important historical site.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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