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Aksum of Ethiopia

Ancient African Kingdom of the Axumites

By

Obelisk at Axum, Ethiopia

Obelisk at Axum, Ethiopia

Niall Crotty

Aksum (also spelled Axum) is the name of a powerful, urban Iron Age Kingdom in Ethiopia, that flourished in the centuries before and after the time of Christ.

The modern city of Aksum is located in the northeastern portion of what is now Ethiopia, on the horn of Africa. It lies high on a plateau 7200 ft above sea level, and in its heyday, its region of influence included both sides of the Red Sea. An early text shows that trade on the Red Sea coast was active as early as 1st century BC. During the first century AD, Aksum began a rapid rise to prominence, trading its agricultural resources and its gold and ivory through the port of Adulis into the Red Sea trade network and thence to the Roman Empire. Trade through Adulis connected eastward to India as well, providing Aksum and its rulers a profitable connection between Rome and the east.

Aksum Chronology

  • Pre-Aksumite ~700-400 BC - 16 known sites, including: Kidane Mehret, Hwalti, Melka, LP56 (but see discussion at Yeha)
  • Proto-Aksumite ~400-50 BC - 34 Sites: Bieta Giyorgis, Ona Nagast
  • Early Aksumite ~50 BC-AD 150 - 130 Sites: Mai Agam, TgLM 143, Matara
  • Classic Aksumite ~AD 150-400/450 - 110 Sites: LP 37, TgLM 98, Kidane Mehret
  • Middle Aksumite ~AD 400/450-550 - 40 Sites: Kidane Mehret
  • Late Aksumite ~AD 550-700 - 30 Sites: Kidane Mehret
  • Post-Aksumite after ~AD 700 - 76 Sites: Maryam Sion

The Rise of Aksum

The earliest monumental architecture indicating the beginnings of the polity of Aksum has been identified at Bieta Giyorgis hill, near Aksum, beginning about 400 BC (the Proto-Aksumite period). There archaeologists have also found elite tombs and some administrative artifacts. The settlement pattern also speaks to the societal complexity, with a large elite cemetery located on the hilltop, and small scattered settlements below. The first monumental building with semi-subterranean rectangular rooms is Ona Nagast, a building that continued in importance through the Early Aksumite period.

Proto-Aksumite burials were simple pit graves covered with platforms and marked with pointed stones, pillars or flat slabs between 2-3 meters high. By the late prot-Aksumite period, the tombs were elaborated pit-graves, with more grave goods and stelae suggesting that a dominant lineage had taken control. These monoliths were 4-5 meters high, with a notch in the top.

Evidence of the growing power of social elites is seen at Aksum and Matara by the first century BC, such as monumental elite architecture, elite tombs with monumental stele and royal thrones. Settlements during this period began to include towns, villages and isolated hamlets. After Christianity was introduced ~350 AD, monasteries and churches were added to the settlement pattern, and full-fledged urbanism was in place by 1000 AD.

Aksum at its Height

By the 6th century AD, a stratified society was in place in Aksum, with an upper elite of kings and nobles, a lower elite of lower status nobles and wealthy farmers, and ordinary people including farmers and craftsman. Palaces at Aksum were at their peak in size, and funerary monuments for the royal elite were quite elaborate. A royal cemetery was in use at Aksum, with rock-cut multi-chambered shaft tombs and pointed stelae. Some underground rock-cut tombs (hypogeum) were constructed with large multi-storied superstructures. Coins, stone and clay seals and pottery tokens were used.

Aksum and the Written Histories

One reason we know what we do about Aksum is the importance placed on written documents by its rulers, particularly Ezana or Aezianas. In the early 4th century AD, Ezana spread his realm north and east, conquering the Nile Valley realm of Meroe and becoming ruler over part of both Asia and Africa. He constructed much of the monumental architecture of Aksum, including a reported 100 stone obelisks, the tallest of which loomed 98 ft over the cemetery in which it stood and weighed 517 tons. Ezana is also known for converting much of Ethiopia to Christianity, around 330 AD. One legend has it that the Ark of the Covenant containing the remnants of the 10 commandments of Moses was brought to Aksum, and Coptic monks have protected it ever since.

Aksum flourished until the 6th century AD, maintaining its trade connections and a high literacy rate, minting its own coins, and building monumental architecture. With the rise of the Persian empire in the 6th century AD, the Arabic world redrew the map of Asia and excluded the Axumite civilization from its trade network, and Aksum fell in importance. For the most part, the obelisks built by Ezana were destroyed; with one exception, which was looted in the 1930s by Benito Mussolini, and erected in Rome. In late April 2005, Aksum's obelisk was returned to Ethiopia.

Archaeological Studies at Aksum

Archaeological excavations at Aksum were first undertaken by Enno Littman in 1906, and concentrated on the monuments and the elite cemeteries. The British Institute in Eastern Africa excavated at Aksum beginning in the 1970s, under the direction of Neville Chittick and his student, Stuart Munro-Hay. More recent excavations within the Aksumite kingdom have been led by Rodolfo Fattovich.

Sources

See the photo essay called The Royal Tombs of Aksum, written by the late excavator at Aksum, archaeologist Stuart Munro-Hay.

Fattovich R. 2010. The Development of Ancient States in the Northern Horn of Africa, c. 3000 BC–AD 1000: An Archaeological Outline. Journal of World Prehistory 23(3):145-175.

Fattovich R. 2009. Reconsidering Yeha, c. 800-400 BC. African Archaeological Review 26(4):275-290.

Phillipson, W. 2005. African Archaeology, 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Phillipson, L. 2009 ]Lithic Artefacts as a Source of Cultural, Social and Economic Information: the evidence from Aksum, Ethiopia. African Archaeological Review 26:45-58.

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Guide to the African Iron Age, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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