Ancient East African history: The Aksumite Empire (100-940 AD)

The Aksumite Empire (100 – 940 AD), also known as the Kingdom of Axum, was described by the Persian prophet Mani as one of the 4 greatest powers in the world at its time, the other 3 being Persia, Rome and China. The Empire was located in what we know today as modern day northern Ethiopia (Tigray province) and Eritrea. It was at the crossroads of the three important regions of Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman World.

It was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. This was because it was an important trading route between the Roman world and India and because the Empire took over territory that had been previously controlled by the Kushite Empire (1070 BC – 350 AD). The Kushite Empire was the Empire’s rival for ivory and trade routes.

CROPS IN THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE

The Empire had a lot of natural resources. This was because the Empire had two very different weather patterns. On its main port in the Red Sea called Adulis, the weather was very hot and there was not much rainfall. But, the location was important because it was at the mouth of the Red Sea and a short distance from the Arabian Peninsula. This allowed for the trade route between the Roman Empire and India to develop. The weather on the main land actually had a lot of rainfall, which made the soil perfect to grow crops.

The growing season could last as long as nine months, thus cereal crops grew easily. And if the crops failed to grow due to a lack of rainfall, as could be the case on the main Port, Andulis, then the people of the Empire would grow ‘Teff’. Teff is a grain that is unique to Ethiopia. It needs very little water to grow and is actually much more nutritious than other cereals. The abundance of grass meant that the cattle, along with the people of the Empire were also well fed. This was not the case in the Roman Empire at the same time, as the rulers were constantly worried about a lack of food available in their own Empire.

TRADE IN THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE

There were trade links between Aksum and Southern Arabia, many years before trade between the Aksumite and the Roman Empires developed. The development of trade with the Roman Empire was the result of the change in the maritime trading route, which linked the Roman Empire and India. This began in the 1st century AD. The Red Sea was now the primary route taken instead of the older route of using the Persian Gulf and overland connections to the Levant (Modern day Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordon, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria).

With the growing demand from the Roman Empire for Indian goods, the people of Aksum used this new trade route to make their Empire wealthy. They did this by controlling the Red Sea trade through the port of Andulis and the inland routes of North Eastern Africa. Aksum (capital of the Empire), was also mentioned in the 1st century AD Greek text ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’ (This described navigation and trading opportunities from Roman Egyptian ports along the coast of the Red Sea, Northeast Africa, the Sindh and South Western India.) Along with being famous for its ivory, which was exported to Persia, China, Arabia, India and the Roman Empire, the Empire also exported goods such as silk, spices, incense, exotic animals, emeralds, tortoise shell, salt and gold.

THE LANGUAGE OF THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE

The language of Ge’ez predates the Aksumite Empire. In fact, it also predates the Kingdom of Da’amat (980 – 400 BC). The Ge’ez language and its script were in use since 900 BC in Ethiopia. The language has an alphabet with consoants and vowels. There are masculine and feminine variations. The ancient site of Akkele Guzat, which is located in modern day Eritrea has examples of where the script was used. Similarly, the site ‘Matara’ which is also in Eritrea has the Hawulti obelisk, which is decorated with the Ge’ez script.

THE COINS OF THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE

Coinage and the development of its own currency shows how developed and forward thinking the Empire really was. The inscriptions on the coins issued during the Empire show us today that the Aksumites were literate people with knowledge of Ethiopic and Greek languages. Their coins were made for international trade and we can see that they were used as propaganda to promote the Empire on the world stage. These coins bore the name of King Endubis (270-290 AD), were struck in gold and silver and followed the weight standard that existed in the Roman Empire.

Importantly, for us today, this coinage is key as it gives us an insight into the chronology of the Aksumite kings. In terms of what was on the coins, we can see that Aksum followed the religion of South Arabia and so their coins had the symbols of the crescent and disc. However, after King Ezanas (330 AD) converted to Christianity, he replaced these symbols with the cross. The Gold coins were inscribed with Greek and were meant to exports, while the silver and copper coins were in Ge’ez. Although coins had been used previously in the Empire for trade, this new currency allowed for a standardization to occur across the region, which further promoted international trade.

THE RELIGION OF THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE

Ethiopian sources such as the ‘Kebra Nagast’ and the ‘Fetha Nagast’ have described Aksum as a Jewish Kingdom. However, we also know that the empire practised a polytheistic religion, which came from South Arabia, and later moved on to Christianity and Islam. There were thus, many religions in the Empire.

When Christianity came to the region, it was only the upper classes who adopted it. However the masses soon adopted it as well. This was in part due to the rise in the construction of Christian churches and monuments. One of the most famous monuments was the Obelisk of Axum, which still stands today. While Christianity was spreading in the empire and being promoted, we can see that in Rome, Christians were being persecuted.

Similarly, Muslims were being persecuted in Arabia and by 615 AD Prophet Muhammad ordered some of the Muslims to travel from Arabia to the Aksumite Empire because of the safety that it offered. The Empire was known to be a place of justice and security. In fact, although there were Muslim migrations to the Empire, which helped spread Islam, one of the first converts to Islam was actually an Ethiopian by the name of Bilal ibn Rabah, who was extremely close to Prophet Muhammad. Bilal was the first ‘Muezzin; (the person appointed to lead and recite the call of prayer).

KINGS IN THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE

There were many kings who ruled the Empire and they had many achievements. Some of these kings are as follows.

  • The first King of the Empire was King Zoskales (100 AD) who is credited with having begun the expansion of Aksumite influence into South Arabia and Yemen.
  • King Sembrouches (250 AD) was the first King to adopt the title ‘King of Aksumite Kings’.
  • King Datwanas (260 AD) and his son Zaqarnas are mentioned in stone insctiptions in Yemen as ruling over Arabia.
  • King Ousanas (320 AD) ruled the Empire when Frumentius, an Arab Christian boy born in Lebanon and taken to Aksum as a slave was freed and became known as Saint Frumentius.
  • King Ezanas (330 AD) is known to have converted the Empire to Christianity.

WHY IS THE AKSUMITE EMPIRE IMPORTANT?

The Aksumite Empire is important because it was around at the same time as the great Empires in Persia, China, India and the Mediterranean Empires, in Greece and Rome. It flourished and was a key trading route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India, it developed coinage that was advanced and demonstrated the Aksumites knowledge of Greek languages and Ge’ez, was abundant in crops and was tolerant of many different religions, which is in direct contrast to the other Empires, in Rome and Arabia at the same time.

Marwin Ramos

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9 Comments

  1. Raymond Solomon 4 years ago June 28, 2017

    Iam from Tanzania,this history is not written in our history books

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    • Raymond Solomon 4 years ago June 28, 2017

      Actually I like it and am happy to know that one of 4 ancient great empire was in Africa

      REPLY
  2. Kay 4 years ago June 29, 2017

    Very informative!
    Let’s all learn more about Mother Africa. Proudly black!

    REPLY
  3. Simeon Christian Ngonyani 4 years ago July 1, 2017

    very impressive.

    REPLY
  4. Curtis B DOUNNAH 4 years ago July 1, 2017

    Wow, this is really important to me as an African who wants to know more about us.

    REPLY
  5. Divya Shrivastava 4 years ago July 1, 2017

    Very interesting information. I am interested in the music of ethiopia before SaintvYared. Can you plz provide some information with references.

    REPLY
  6. Peter Mensah 4 years ago July 2, 2017

    Great!! We need more of our own history to learn from. I personally love it.
    Make it very available. Thanks

    REPLY
  7. Lucio Montenegro 4 years ago September 18, 2017

    Rsally nice Platform to expand our generation’s minds thus creating a better future through awareness of our highly esteemed History! Well done. Looking forward to writing for you guys, Cheers!

    REPLY
  8. Maybelle 3 years ago June 13, 2018

    This is truly useful, thanks.

    REPLY

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