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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The wealthy African Kingdom of Aksum thrived for centuries. It controlled a large territorial state and access to vast trade routes. These linked the Roman Empire to the Middle East and India. Aksum, the capital city, had a peak population as high as 20,000. Aksum was also notable for its elaborate monuments and written script. Additionally, it introduced the Christian religion to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Mysterious Origins

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. Farming communities had been there for at least 1,000 years. 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. Perhaps they influenced its culture. In this region, archaeologists have found evidence of a complex society called Da'amat. It preceded the rise of Aksum by several centuries. This culture was apparently based in the village of Yeha, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) northeast of Aksum. Another city-state seems to have existed right next to Aksum on the Bieta Giyorgis Hill. However these cultures grew, it is clear that by around the first century C.E., 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 good for livestock herding and agriculture. Most importantly, the city was well-positioned at the crossroads of trade routes. These passages ran in every direction, from the East African coast to farther inland.

Commercial Opportunities

The Aksumites took full advantage of these commercial opportunities. Gold and ivory were perhaps their most valuable items to trade. 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. These coins have been found 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 society. It displayed class divisions among high nobles, lesser members of the elite classes, and common folk. The city of Aksum grew in population, size, and complexity. Meanwhile smaller towns and rural villages sprang up in the surrounding areas. The kingdom exercised control over much territory covering Tigray and northern Eritrea. It also had power over the desert and coastal plains to the south and east. Much of the Red Sea coast, in present-day Djibouti and Somalia, was under its control too.

Warfare Enlarged Territory

Aksum also expanded 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, ruling over them for several decades. The Roman emperor at Byzantium supported Aksum in this venture. This was largely for revenge, because of Yemen's poor treatment of Christians.

Aksum became Christianized in the fourth century. It became the first sub-Saharan African state to embrace the new religion. A figure named Frumentius is given credit for spreading Christianity to Ethiopia. Frumentius came from the city of Tyre, in present-day Lebanon. He became an adviser to the court at Aksum and tutored the crown prince, Ezana. After assuming the throne, Ezana proclaimed Christianity the state religion. It is unclear whether this decision was sparked by the kingdom's political and trade relations with Rome; over a hundred years before, Roman traders had already brought knowledge of the Christian religion to the Aksumite trade network.

The Ethiopian written language, known as Ge'ez, came from the Sabaean script, originally from nearby 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 is mostly not spoken in the region.

Rise of Arab Muslims

The kingdom's power had disappeared entirely by the end of the eighth century. One reason for its decline was the migration of the roaming Beja peoples into the area. Their independent herding activities threatened Aksum's total power over land. The Aksumites lost their hold on southern Arabia, and the Persians then conquered Yemen around 578 C.E. The final blow was the rise of the Arab Muslims. They became the region's major power in the seventh century and assumed control of the Red Sea. The loss of wealth undermined the capacity of Aksum's ruling class to hold a large state together. Environmental factors created additional pressures. Most notably, the soils had lost quality from overuse and rainfall declined.

Political power shifted to a new group of elites, the Agau people. They created the Zagwe Dynasty, based in the city of Lalibela. The city of Aksum remains inhabited in the 21st century. The remains of the old city were declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1980.

Media Credits

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
National Geographic Society
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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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