World History 1 159 - 10.3.1 The Kingdom of Aksum

Aksum flourished in sub-Saharan Africa as a counterpoint to the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. Located in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, Aksum was able to take advantage of its location adjacent to the Red Sea, expanding across it into southern Arabia for a time. Similarities in architecture and polytheistic practices suggest that the Aksumites may have originally descended from the Sabaean people of southern Arabia. In any case, Aksumites were present in East Africa from at least the first century BCE. At its height, from the third to the sixth century CE, Aksum was a powerful economic force, trading luxury goods with Egypt, Arabia, and the eastern Mediterranean (Figure 10.15).

A drawing of a map is shown. Land is shown to the west with a peninsula of land next, and then a small area of land in the northeast. Water is shown at the north and around the peninsula in the south. An area along the coast of the water in the top left of the map is highlighted pink in a “Y” shape and labeled “Eastern Roman Empire.” Extending out from the bottom of the “Y” shaped pink area along a river is an oval area highlighted purple and labeled “Nobatia.” Connecting to the bottom of the purple area is a small “S” shaped area highlighted pink labeled “Makuria.” In the middle of the map at the top there is an oval area under the pink area highlighted yellow and labeled “Ghassanids.” To the right of that in a long, thin oval is an area highlighted blue and labeled “Lakhmids.” East of that is a gray area labeled “Sassanids.” South of the pink area is a brown oval area along the coast and a small rounded area on the western part of the peninsula labeled “Aksum Empire.” To the east of that is an orange area along the southern coast of the peninsula labeled “Himyar Empire.”
Figure 10.15 Aksum occupied the region of modern Ethiopia, while Himyar was located on the other side of the Red Sea in modern-day Yemen. The locations of the two empires allowed them to dominate trade in the region. (credit: modification of work “Map of the Sassanid Empire just before the Arab conquest of Iran” by “DieBuche”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Aksumite society was hierarchical, with the king and nobility at the top. The lower classes at the bottom worked as artisans and farmers, though little evidence of Aksumite family life has survived to confirm class distinctions. There is some evidence that owners of large wealthy estates existed. To work the land, Aksumite society relied on enslaved people, who were likely criminals or foreigners captured in war. The empire was organized around several urbanized centers with monumental architecture including grand royal palaces, as well as lower-class homes made from stone or mud with thatched roofs. A written Semitic language known as Ge’ez survives in inscriptions from this period. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Aksumites held polytheistic beliefs, and numerous religious sanctuaries and temples exist from this early period. A priestly class oversaw the state religion, and the king may have held a prominent role in the religious hierarchy.

King Ezana came to power in the mid-fourth century, and what we know about the Christianization of Aksum comes largely from his reign. Ezana conducted successful military engagements against the Beja and Nubian people, subduing the Kingdom of Kush that had ruled southern Egypt for at least the previous millennium. A great builder, Ezana is also likely responsible for the construction of several obelisks. Inscriptions on stelae (commemorative slabs or pillars) and obelisks erected in Aksumite cities describe his exploits and profess his faith, while coinage shows the Christian cross gradually replacing other symbols (Figure 10.16).

A picture of two sides of a tall, rectangular stone slab is shown against a rocky wall. The stone slab is beige in color and shiny. Words are engraved on both sides of the stone shown. A vent is shown on the ceiling above the stone slab.
Figure 10.16 This monumental stone slab was erected by the Aksumite king Ezana and attributes his fourth-century military victory over the Nubians to the Christian God. The inscription in three languages—Ge’ez, Sabaean, and Greek—suggests the diversity of Aksum’s people and the intended audience for this monument. (credit: “The Ezana Stone” by Alan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Originally holding polytheistic beliefs, Ezana was converted to Christianity through the initiative of Frumentius, a Christian from the Syrian city of Tyre. Entering the region of Aksum as an enslaved man, Frumentius chose to stay after being freed in order to encourage the growing Christian community, and Athanasius, the Christian patriarch of Alexandria, consecrated him as bishop of the Ethiopian Church. This custom of patriarchs ordaining bishops for foreign cities often strained their relations with local rulers. But it showed that the Christian powers outside Aksum were interested in controlling religious policy there, and Ezana’s conversion may have been a means for Aksum to become more closely allied with the Roman Empire.

Interference from the Christian community abroad culminated in the arrival of proselytizing missionaries from the Roman world in the fourth and fifth centuries, who were working to spread the message of their faith with new peoples. While Christianity had largely been adopted in urban centers thanks to the activity of Frumentius, these later missionaries were able to spread the faith into the Aksumite countryside. They established hermitages and monasteries in traditionally pagan sites and occasionally suffered persecution by the local inhabitants. Yet Christianity continued to spread, and inscriptions of the time show biblical passages being translated into Ge’ez. Because of infrequent oversight by the patriarchs in Alexandria, however, Ethiopian Christianity developed unique characteristics, blending local beliefs in its own church ceremonies and holidays.

The Judaic group living in Aksum was known as Beta Israel. Probably founded by artisan traders visiting Aksum in the first century, Beta Israel was isolated from other Jewish communities outside the empire. Therefore, like those of Aksumite Christianity, its religious practices were sometimes distinct from the way the faith was practiced in other contexts. In several traditions, Aksum was the kingdom of the biblical figure the Queen of Sheba and the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, an important artifact supposedly brought from Jerusalem by Ethiopia’s first emperor, Menelik. Still, the Ethiopian Jewish community experienced periods of both tolerance and persecution within Aksum.

Christianity continued to flourish in Aksum into the sixth-century reign of King Kaleb. By this time, churches were a common feature in Aksumite cities, and many of the most prominent examples were built in the sixth century with inscriptions claiming that Kaleb had contributed to their construction. The floor plans of Aksumite churches generally followed that of Byzantine churches or basilica, meaning they were oblong in shape with a rounded apse at one end. Still, some were unique in their design, with a circular plan that might have been based on local house types.

The apex of Aksumite society, in the sixth century, coincided with the extension of its cultural and political influence into southern Arabia. Kaleb had already established more connections overseas, initiating a silk trade with China. In Arabia, he sought to aid the local Christian communities with a military campaign against the Himyarite king Dhu Nuwas. Owing to their claimed lineage from the biblical figures King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Aksumites may have felt some pull to conquer the biblical kingdom of Sheba in southern Arabia. These overtly Christian motivations allowed for an alliance with the Byzantines in the campaign against the non-Christian Himyarites. With the Byzantine emperor Justin (uncle of the future emperor Justinian), Kaleb subdued Dhu Nuwas, and Aksum controlled southern Arabia until the Sasanian conquest in 572.

After the reign of Kaleb, the Aksumite Kingdom fell into decline, having failed to garner enough resources from working the land to sustain its population. Although it is unclear why this decline occurred so quickly, the climate may have been a factor because the region appears to have become especially arid after the middle of the eighth century. Economic difficulties in the kingdom may have also contributed. Kaleb’s campaign in Arabia could have overextended its finances and military strength, and the Sasanian occupation of the regions around the Red Sea might have disrupted Aksum’s trade network. There appears to have been growing dissatisfaction among the ruling class, and evidence from inscriptions suggests that revolts occurred in some Aksumite cities. As a result of these contributing factors, Aksum fell from political and cultural prominence in the mid-600s.

Link to Learning

Explore Ethiopia’s Aksumite rock churches and the continuing practice of Christianity in Ethiopia today.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax