Aksum lies on the western side of the northern Ethiopian highlands, some 200 km inland from the strategic ancient port of Adulis on the Red Sea coast of modern Eritrea. During the first seven centuries AD it was the capital of a major empire. It rose from the gradual merging of an indigenous farming population with immigrants from southern Arabia. These had settled in the region several hundreds of years previously, bringing with them important cultural traditions, including literacy in a Semitic language. Aksum rapidly became powerful and prosperous. It occupied fertile land, and with access to ivory and gold the Aksumites established political leadership over surrounding populations in what is now Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, and attracted trade from far beyond its own borders, mainly through the port of Adulis. Despite this, and its literary and technological achievements, Aksum’s internal economy relied on the indigenous animals and crops of its farmers, and the stone tools of its craftsmen and technology of its potters were all of indigenous origin.
Aksum’s prosperity seems to have peaked in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. Monumental royal tombs were constructed, each marked by a huge monolithic stela carved to represent a multi-storied building. Around the same time, Aksum began to produce its own coinage, with gold used for international trade, and copper and silver for local circulation. In about AD 340, the Aksumite kingdom formally adopted Christianity, becoming only the second nation in the world (after Armenia) to do this. Initially the new religion was practised mainly by the élite, but during the next 150 years it became more widely accepted.
Early in the 6th century AD, Aksum engaged in warfare in South Arabia, which soon drained the state’s resources, and Christian Aksum declined in prosperity and international importance. More rapid decline around the mid 7th century AD was due to over-exploitation of its natural resources and disruption of the overseas trade by Arabian control of the Red Sea. Nevertheless, Aksum remained important for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Maryam Tsion cathedral is still venerated as the mother-church of Ethiopia, and much of tradition of modern Ethiopia may be traced back to Aksumite origins.
These are elaborately carved megalithic royal grave markers, up to 25 metres high, erected over tomb complexes.
Connah, G. 2001. African civilizations, 1st edn 1987. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 3. The Ethiopian Highlands: 66-107.)
Fattovich, R. 1997. The Near East and eastern Africa: their interaction. In Vogel, J. O. ed. Encyclopedia of precolonial Africa: 479-484. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
Fattovich, R. 1997. Northeastern African states. In Vogel, J. O. ed. Encyclopedia of precolonial Africa: 484-489. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
These texts are based primarily on informations on the Aluka website (aluka.org)