Aksum, which was at its most powerful in the fourth through sixth centuries CE, was located in what are today Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Sudan. At its high point, Aksum extended its influence beyond Africa into parts of the southern Arabian Peninsula as shown on the map below. Aksum was a great trading empire, with its own coinage, its own language, and its own distinctive Christian church. If you are familiar with accounts of the Queen of Sheba, you know pieces of the story that Ethiopians use to explain the origins of the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty and their possession of the Ark of the Covenant. The capital of the kingdom was the city of Aksum and its most important port was Adulis. You can see that the kingdom stretched into the Sudan and Yemen at its height in the sixth century.)
Unlike some other regions in Africa, Ethiopia had very fertile, volcanic soils that supported large populations. Climatic variation found at the different elevations throughout Ethiopia also encouraged agricultural diversification and trade. Around 7000 BCE, there was population growth in the region that corresponded with the Agricultural Revolution. While some domesticated animals and crops were introduced from Northeast Africa and the Fertile Crescent, Ethiopians domesticated other crops themselves. Most notably, Ethiopians domesticated teff, a grass, and nsete, known as the “false banana,” that they ground to make bread and porridge. We also have Ethiopians to thank for coffee! Since the Neolithic Revolution, Ethiopia stands out for its agricultural productivity and innovation, both of which sustained large populations in the region.
The Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”), a 700 year old text that is sacred for Ethiopian Christians and Rastafarians, traces the origins of the Ethopian royal family back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem. The Kebra Nagast identifies the Queen of Sheba as an Ethiopian ruler known locally as Queen Mekeda. According to the text, in approximately 950 BCE, the newly enthroned Queen Mekeda traveled to study with Jerusalem’s well-known king, King Solomon. Queen Mekeda wanted a capable mentor for leadership advice and spiritual guidance. Charmed by her, King Solomon played these roles and Queen Mekeda, flattered by his attentions, was a hardworking tutee who eventually converted to Judaism. As their lessons continued, King Solomon planned the seduction of Queen Mekeda, which, as described in the text, occurred when Solomon tricked and cornered her. Their sexual union produced a child, Menelik I, to whom Queen Mekeda gave birth on her journey home to Ethopia.
As time passed, King Solomon remained haunted by a dream that Menelik was his rightful sucessor and was delighted when his son, as an adult, returned to Jersusalem. According to the Kebra Nagast, King Solomon intended for Menelik to follow him as the next king of Jerusalem, but Menelik refused and instead returned to Ethopia. In an unexpected twist, when leaving Jerusalem, part of Menelik’s entourage stole the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments. When King Solomon discovered the theft, he sent soldiers to recapture the Ark of the Covenant. However according to the Kebra Nagast, God helped Menelik and his men evade capture by lifting them up over the Red Sea. In the end, Menelik and the Ark of the Covenant made it safely to Ethopia. For Ethiopian Christians, the Kebra Nagast partially explains the formation of the Ethopian Orthodox Church (the Tawahedo Church). Through today, the Ethopian Orthodox Church claims possession of the Ark of the Covenant, which it says is housed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia.
According to the Kebra Nagast, early Ethiopian rulers were descendants of King Solomon through Menelik I. More than two thousand years after King Solomon’s rule, a thirteenth century Ethiopian king, Yekuno Amlak (r. 1270 – 1285 CE), reclaimed this legacy by tracing his origins back to King Solomon and Queen Mekeda. He founded what became known as the Solomonic Dynasty, which ruled Ethiopia for about 500 years from 1270 to 1769 CE. Members of Ethiopia’s royal family continued to claim descent from King Solomon up through the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, who was overthrown in 1974. Therefore, the link back to King Solomon and Queen Mekeda is part of Ethiopian religious beliefs and has also legitimized claims to political power.
From the era of the rule of Queen Mekeda in about the tenth century BCE and Yekuno Amlak’s revival of the Solomonic Dynasty in the thirteenth century CE, the largest kingdoms in Ethiopia were Da’amat and Aksum. The Kingdom of Da’amat was the first to emerge in northern Ethiopia in about the tenth century BCE. In the 1960s and 1970s, archaeologists excavating the Kingdom of Da’amat unearthed evidence of the region’s role in trade and its connections to Southern Arabia. Archeological finds show that, by the seventh century BCE, ivory, tortoiseshell, rhino horn, gold, silver, and slaves were brought from interior regions of Africa and traded through Da’amat for imported cloth, tools, metals, and jewelry. Inscriptions, imagery, architectural styles, and even overlaps in historical traditions (such as those associated with the Queen of Sheba) also suggest close connections between the Kingdom of Da’amat and Saba (Yemen) in Southern Arabia. For example, the Kingdom of Da’amat used religious symbols in its monumental architecture, including the disc and crescent, also found in Southern Arabia. The oldest standing building in Ethiopia, the Temple at Yeha (c. 700 BCE), had an altar with these symbols. Up until several decades ago, some scholars used evidence of these connections to argue that people from Saba founded the civilization at Da’amat. Now, in line with the trend to reclaim African civilizations, very vocal scholars push us to acknowledge the African origins of the Kingdom of Da’amat and view it as a precursor to the trading empire of Aksum.
The Kingdom of Da’amat weakened in the fourth century BCE as Red Sea trade became more important than some of the previous northern overland routes. It gave way to the state of Aksum, with its important cities of Adulis and Aksum. Adulis, positioned on the coast, rose in prominence and grew wealthy. It served as a safe harbor for ships traveling from Southeast Asia. The growing capital city in the interior, Aksum, was a stopover point for land-based trade routes into the Sudan and especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Ivory, slaves, tools, spices, gold, silver jewelry, copper, and iron were eventually traded through the capital city of Aksum to the coast. The state of Aksum began minting its own gold and silver coins in the third century CE, demonstrating how important long-distance trade was to its economy.
In addition to its role in inter-regional trade, Aksum was also known for its early conversion to Christianity. Ethiopian tradition traces the establishment of Christianity in the region back to two shipwrecked Syrians. One of the Syrians, Frumentius, was particularly influential because he became the first bishop of Ethiopia in 303 CE and guided the king of Aksum, King Ezana (r. 325 – 350 CE), in his conversion to Christianity. Some of the coins minted in Aksum actually attest to King Ezana’s conversion as the coins from the first half of Ezana’s reign have the disc and crescent symbols of earlier Ethiopian rulers, while coins from the later decades of Ezana’s reign have a Christian cross. As bishop, Frumentius also encouraged Christian merchants to settle in Aksum. About a century later, Christianity in Ethiopia grew further as the state offered refuge to Christians fleeing persecution due to doctrinal disputes within the Church. Nine priests, breaking with the Church in Jerusalem, settled in Ethiopia and founded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They maintained ties with the Coptic Church in Egypt and developed a distinct liturgy using Ge’ez, the local language. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also incorporated local beliefs, such as the legendary connection to King Solomon, into their religious traditions.
The ruling family, coastal elites, and military leaders amassed significant wealth during the height of Aksumite power. Like the Aksumite kings before him, Ezana amassed wealth by collecting tribute from surrounding states and taxing trade. Aksum and its surrounding states were agriculturally productive with fertile soils and effective irrigration systems. Their agricultural productivity meant that the work of peasants and the wealth generated through foreign trade supported the ruling classes and elites. Building a powerful miitary, King Ezana expanded the empire and claimed control over most of Ethiopia, Nubia, and Saba (Yemen). He also used his assets to showcase his power with, for example, “conquest stones” that commemorated his victories. In addition to celebrating Ezana’s military strength and commitment to ruling fairly, the “conquest stones” also proclaimed that God had ordained his reign. The stones impart Ezana’s edicts and Christian beliefs. One section reads:
[…] The Lord of Heaven strengthens my dominion! And as he now has conquered my enemy, (so) May he conquer for me, where I (but) go! As he now has given me victory and has overthrown my enemies. (So will I rule) in right and justice, doing no wrong to the peoples. And I placed The throne, which I have set up, and the Earth which bears it, in the protection of the Lord of Heaven, who has made me king…9
Ezana is known to us because of archaeological findings, including the aforementioned conquest stones. He and other Aksumite kings also famously commissioned the construction of stelae (singular: stele). Stelae were tall rectangular pillars with rounded tops set up to mark the underground grave sites of Aksum’s royalty and elite. The most ornate stelae were elaboratedly carved into a marble-like material with faux doors at the bottom and multiple stories, as indicated by windows etched into each level. They have been described as “ancient skyscrapers,” with the largest being one hundred and eight feet tall. Most stelae have fallen in the over 1700 years since their construction, but several do remain standing. One stele even caused international uproar as the Italians took it during their occupation of Ethiopia at the onset of the Second World War and just recently returned it at great expense.
The stelae demonstrate the wealth of Aksum’s ruling classes and links between the ruling generations. Unfortunately, the graves marked by the stelae have been cleared out by tomb robbers in the intervening years. However, small remnants of glass, pottery, furniture, beads, bangles, earrings, ivory carvings, and objects gilded in gold attest to the wealth buried with affluent Aksumites. These artifacts also show the availability of trade goods brought from long distances. Furthermore, the architecture of the stelae is suggestive of connections back to earlier kingdoms. For example, the rounded top of the stelae is reminiscent of the disc symbol found in the region as far back as the Kingdom of Da’amat. Ezana was the first Christian king in the region; however, the architecture that he commissioned maintained ties to Aksum’s pre-Christian past.
Aksum’s power began to wane at the end of the sixth century CE. First, the Persian Empire interrupted Aksum’s trade with parts of southern Arabia in the late sixth century. Then, Muslims increasingly dominated trade along the Red Sea coast and the most profitable trade routes shifted from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. In response, Aksum shrank as Ethiopia’s Christian rulers turned away from coastal trade and became more dependent on the tribute they collected from agriculturally productive regions to their south.
As Muslims in coastal areas became more powerful and Christian rulers shifted their attentions away from the coast, the relationship between Ethiopian Muslims and Christians remained complex. In the seventh century CE, one king of Aksum, al-Najashi Ashama Ibn Abjar, gave sanctuary to some of the first followers of Islam before he himself converted. In subsequent years, Muslims traders and Christian elites oftentimes cooperated. For example from the tenth through fourteenth centuries, Muslims set up trading settlements in the interior that facilitated the conspicuous consumption of Christian elites who desired imported goods. However, there were also periods of conflict, especially after Muslims unified to form the Adal Sultanate in the fourteenth century. The Adal Sultanate militarily extended its influence over much of the region and for several centuries supported a thriving, multi-ethnic state. In the sixteenth century, Ethiopian Christians allied with the Portuguese to fight against the Adal Sultanate. After the fall of the Adal Sultanate, Ethiopian Christians rejected Portuguese attempts to convert them to Catholicism and forced Portuguese missionaries out of the region in 1633 CE.
9 As quoted in Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia and Trevor Getz, African Histories: New Sources and New Techniques for Studying African Pasts (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012): 33-36.