Aksum An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity Stuart Munro-Hay



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The Aksumite state bordered one of the ancient world's great arteries of commerce, the 
Red Sea, and through its port of Adulis Aksum participated actively in contemporary 
events. Its links with other countries, whether through military campaigns, trading 
enterprise, or cultural and ideological exchange, made Aksum part and parcel of the 
international community of the time, peripheral perhaps from the Romano-centric point-
of- view, but directly involved with the nations of the southern and eastern spheres, both 
within the Roman empire and beyond. Aksum's position in the international trade and 
diplomatic activity which connected the Roman provinces around the Mediterranean via 
the Red Sea with South Arabia, Persia, India, Sri Lanka, and even China, tied it too 
firmly into the network of commerce to be simply ignored (
Ch. 3: 6
).  



Map A. Map showing Aksum with Ethiopia, Sudan, the Red Sea, Arabia, Persia, India 
and Ceylon.  
Whether or not Aksum, as is sometimes claimed (
Ch. 4: 5
), gave the final coup-de-grâce 
to the ancient Sudanese kingdom of Meroë in the modern republic of Sudan, it 
nevertheless had an important influence on the peoples of the Nile valley, and also on the 
South Arabian kingdoms across the Red Sea (
Ch. 3: 6
). As far as the history of 
civilisation in Africa is concerned, the position of Aksum in international terms followed 
directly on to that of Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Egypt and Meroë; each was, before its 
eclipse, the only internationally recognised independent African monarchy of important 
power status in its age. Aksumite Ethiopia, however, differs from the previous two in 
many ways. Its economy was not based on the agricultural wealth of the Nile Valley, but 
on the exploitation of the Ethiopian highland environment (
Ch. 8
) and the Red Sea trade; 
unlike Egypt and Meroë, Aksumite Ethiopia depended for its communications not on the 
relatively easy flow along a great river, but on the maintenance of considerably more 
arduous routes across the highlands and steep river valleys. For its international trade, it 
depended on sea lanes which required vigilant policing. Most important, Aksum was 
sufficiently remote never to have come into open conflict with either Rome or Persia, and 
was neither conquered by these contemporary super-powers, nor suffered from punitive 
expeditions like Egypt, South Arabia or Meroë. Even the tremendous changes in the 
balance of power in the Red Sea and neighbouring regions caused by the rise of Islam 
(
Ch. 4: 8
) owed something to Aksum. It was an Ethiopian ruler of late Aksumite times 
who gave protection and shelter to the early followers of the prophet Muhammad, 
allowing the new religious movement the respite it needed (
Ch. 15: 4
). Ethiopia, the 
kingdom of the `najashi of Habashat' as the Arabs called the ruler, survived the eclipse of 
the pre-Islamic political and commercial system, but one of the casualties of the upheaval 
was the ancient capital, Aksum, itself; various factors removed the government of the 
country from Aksum to other centres. The Ethiopian kingdom remained independent 
even though the consolidation of the Muslim empire now made it the direct neighbour of 
this latest militant imperial power. But eventually Ethiopia lost its hold on the coastal 
regions as Islam spread across the Red Sea. Nevertheless, the Aksumite kingdom's direct 
successors in Ethiopia, though at times in desperate straits, retained that independence, 
and with it even managed to preserve some of the characteristics of the ancient way of 
life until the present day.  
The Aksumites developed a civilisation of considerable sophistication, knowledge of 
which has been much increased by recent excavations (
Ch. 16
). Aksum's contribution in 
such fields as architecture (
Ch. 5: 4-6
) and ceramics (
Ch. 12: 1
) is both original and 
impressive. Their development of the vocalisation of the Ge`ez or Ethiopic script allowed 
them to leave, alone of ancient African states except Egypt and Meroë, a legacy of 
written material (
Ch. 13: 1

Ch. 11: 5
) from which we can gain some impression of 
Aksumite ideas and policies from their own records. In addition, uniquely for Africa, they 
produced a coinage, remarkable for several features, especially the inlay of gold on silver 
and bronze coins (
Ch. 9
). This coinage, whose very existence speaks for a progressive 
economic and ambitious political outlook, bore legends in both Greek and Ge`ez, which 


name the successive kings of Aksum for some three hundred years. The coinage can 
accordingly be used as a foundation for a chronology of the kingdom's history (
Ch. 4: 2
).  
It may be as well to outline briefly here Aksumite historical development, and Aksum's 
position in the contemporary world, discussed in detail in later chapters (Chs. 
4
 & 
3: 6
). 
Aksumite origins are still uncertain, but a strong South Arabian (Sabaean) influence in 
architecture, religion, and cultural features can be detected in the pre-Aksumite period 
from about the fifth century BC, and it is clear that contacts across the Red Sea were at 
one time very close (
Ch. 4: 1
). A kingdom called D`MT (perhaps to be read Da`mot or 
Di`amat) is attested in Ethiopian inscriptions at this early date, and, though the period 
between this and the deve lopment of Aksum around the beginning of the Christian era is 
an Ethiopian `Dark Age' for us at present, it may be surmised that the D`MT monarchy 
and its successors, and other Ethiopian chiefdoms, continued something of the same 
`Ethio-Sabaean' civilisation until eventually subordinated by Aksum. A certain linguistic 
and religious continuity may be observed between the two periods, though many features 
of Aksumite civilisation differ considerably from the earlier material.  
The Aksumite period in Northern  Ethiopia covers some six or seven centuries from 
around the beginning of our era, and was ancestral to the rather better known mediaeval 
Ethiopian kingdoms, successively based further south in Lasta and Shewa. The Semitic-
speaking people called Aksumites or Habash (Abyssinians), centred at their capital city 
Aksum (
Ch. 5
) in the western part of the province of Tigray, from there came to control 
both the highland and coastal regions of northern Ethiopia. They were able to exploit a 
series of favourable situations, some of which we can only guess at at this stage, to 
become the dominant power group in the region and to develop their very characteristic 
civilisation in an area now represented by the province of Tigray, with Eritrea to the north 
where they gained access to the Red Sea coast at the port of Adulis (
Ch. 3: 2
).  
Aksumite inscriptions (
Ch. 11: 5
), an important, and for Africa this far south, very 
unusual source of information, mention a number of subordinate kings or chiefs, and it 
seems that the developing state gradually absorbed its weaker neighbours, but frequently 
retained traditional rulers as administrators (
Ch. 6
) under a tribute system. The title 
negusa nagast, or king of kings, used by Aksumite and successive Ethiopian rulers until 
the death of the late emperor Haile Sellassie, is a reflection of the sort of loose federation 
under their own monarchy (
Ch. 7
) which the Aksumites achieved throughout a large part 
of Ethiopia and neighbouring lands.  
In the early centuries AD the Aksumites had already managed, presumably by a 
combination of such factors as military superiority, access to resources, and wealth 
resulting from their convenient situation astride trade routes leading from the Nile Valley 
to the Red Sea, to extend their hegemony over many peoples of northern Ethiopia. The 
process arouses a certain amount of admiration; anyone familiar with the terrain of that 
region can readily envisage the difficulties of mastering the various tribal groups 
scattered from the Red Sea coastal lowlands to the mountains and valleys of the Semien 
range south-west of Aksum. One Aksumite inscription, the so-called Monumentum 
Adulitanum (
Ch. 11: 5
) details campaigns undertaken in environments which, in a range 



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