The Kingdom of Aksum, flourishing between the 1st and 10th centuries AD in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, was a major trade empire. Known for its advanced architecture, the stele and the adoption of Christianity in 330 AD, it was a nexus of early civilisation.

An artists depiction of the Kingdom of Aksum.

Origins of the Kingdom of Aksum

It was believed that the empire was birthed by the Sabaeans, who spoke an ancient South Arabian language and lived in modern-day Yemen. However, recent discoveries have led scholars to agree that the Agaw people, African settlers, were already in the territory and the influence of the Sabaeans was small and limited to a few areas. The empire gained dominance over the declining Kingdom of Kush. It became involved in the politics of other kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula before extending its own kingdom through the successful conquest of the Himyarite kingdom.

The empire referred to itself as “Ethiopia” around the 4th century, and the Kingdom of Aksum covered modern-day Sudan, South Saudi Arabia, Western Yemen, northern Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Although now a small community, Aksum was once a bustling metropolis and an economic and cultural centre. The capital city of the Aksumite Empire was based in what is now known as northern Ethiopia. During Endubis’s reign in the 3rd century, the kingdom started minting its own currency. Under King Ezana, the empire converted to Christianity, becoming the first state to use a cross on its coins.

A coin with a cross representing the minted coins from the Kingdom of Aksum in digital art style

In 350 BC, the Kingdom of Kush was conquered by Aksum. King Kaleb sent an expedition against the Jewish Himyarite King Dhu Was in 520 BC after Dhu Was was seen as persecuting the Christian and Aksumite communities in his kingdom. Yemen underwent two changes in leadership, first was conquered by Abreha, a general for the Aksumite kingdom, who continued to promote Christianity until his death. Then, it was occupied by the Persians.

Trading and Culture of the Kingdom of Aksum

The Aksumite Kingdom had access to the Red Sea and the upper River Nile, which enabled them to generate significant profits by trading with African, Arabian, and Indian states, as well as the Romans, Egyptians, and Persians. The trade network covered northern Ethiopia and Eritrea, meaning that the Kingdom was deeply involved in the trade network connecting India and the Mediterranean. They exported ivory, gold, tortoise shell, and emerald while importing spices and silk. For around a thousand years, the naval routes around the south of Arabia and the subcontinent of India were the Kingdom’s speciality.

Image of the River Nile in digital art style

Aksum mainly exported agricultural products due to its fertile land, with the main crops being wheat and barley. The Kingdom hunted wild animals for ivory and rhinos for their horns, while also raising camels, cattle, and sheep. It had a plentiful supply of salt, which was a highly traded mineral, as well as ample gold and iron.

Around 100 BCE, the naval trade system transformed, linking the Roman Empire and India. The Red Sea was used to establish a direct route from Egypt to India by taking advantage of the monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea and reach southern India. This benefited the Aksum Empire, with Adulis becoming the main port for exporting African goods such as exotic animals, ivory, incense, and gold. The Kingdom expanded its control of the southern Red Sea basin in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and bypassed the Nile corridor by establishing a caravan route to Egypt. As a result, the Aksum Kingdom became the main supplier of African goods to the Roman Empire.

Naval Trade ships of the kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom had several achievements, including being one of the first African states to have its own coins, as well as its own Ge’ez alphabet, which eventually included vowels. It also built large obelisks for the tombs of emperors and nobles.

In the 4th century AD, the Kingdom of Aksum adopted Christianity as its state religion, making it one of the first Christian kingdoms in the world. This was a significant event in the Kingdom’s history, as it brought Aksum closer to the Christian world and enabled it to secure diplomatic and trade relations with the Byzantine Empire and other Christian kingdoms. Christianity helped the Kingdom of Aksum strengthen its ties with the Byzantine and Roman empires, allowing it to participate in the cultural, religious, and economic exchange between the two.

The decline of the Kingdom of Aksum

The Kingdom of Aksum began to decline in the 7th century AD, despite its many achievements. Internal conflicts, invasions by Arab and Persian armies, and the rise of the Islamic Caliphate all contributed to its weakening. The loss of control over trade routes as a result of the Arab and Persian invasions caused an economic decline. The rise of the Islamic Caliphate also posed a threat to the kingdom’s control of its territories. The struggle for power among different ethnic groups within the kingdom further exacerbated the situation.

Portrait of an artist depiction of the persian army invading the kingdom of Aksum

By the 9th century AD, the Kingdom had been reduced to a small state and was eventually conquered by the Islamic Empire in 940 AD. The weakened state of the Kingdom of Aksum made it vulnerable to conquest by the Islamic Empire. The latter took control of the kingdom’s territories and trade routes, contributing to its continued decline.

The Legacy of the Kingdom of Aksum

The legacy of the Kingdom of Aksum is still evident in the region today. The architectural achievements, such as the obelisks and stelae, still stand and are recognised as cultural heritage sites. The kingdom’s role in spreading Christianity in the region was significant, and the religion remains one of the most dominant in Ethiopia and Eritrea today. The contributions to trade and commerce made by the Kingdom of Aksum have had a lasting impact, as the region remains an important centre for trade and commerce in Africa.

In conclusion, the Kingdom of Aksum was a highly advanced and powerful civilisation that played a key role in the history of the Horn of Africa and the ancient world. Its achievements in architecture, government, trade, and religion, and its impact on the region’s culture and history, continue to be felt today.

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“Kingdom of Aksum.” National Geographic Education. Accessed January 24, 2023.

“Kingdom of Aksum (Axum).” Ducksters. Accessed January 26, 2023.

“The Kingdom of Aksum.” Khan Academy. Accessed January 30, 2023.