The CarAf Centre
The kingdom of Aksum
Front cover image: Gold coin showing King Ezana and ears of wheat.
Aksum, Ethiopia, about AD 340–400. British Museum
500 – King Ousanas
519 – King Kaleb’s expedition to Yemen
270 – King Endubis begins coinage
340 – King Ezana converts to Chritianity
Conquers new territory
570 – Persians conquer Yemen
630 – End of Aksum as capital
476 – Fall of Rome
There are very few clues as to what Aksum was like. Most of the evidence
is archaeological. From remains we can see that this Ethiopian kingdom
may have been one of the most important states in the region.
The Aksumites developed a civilisation of considerable sophistication.
Aksum’s contribution in such fields as architecture and ceramics is both
original and impressive.
Munro-Hay 1991: 10
Aksum’s political control extended to regions beyond the modern
borders of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Large areas of southern Arabia were
ruled from Aksum at intervals between the 3rd and 6th centuries AD.
Phillipson 1998: 51
The general prosperity and reputation of the country led the Persian
religious leader Mani to label Aksum as the third of the kingdoms of
the world in the later 3rd century.
Munro-Hay 1991: 13
No other sub-Saharan African state issued its own independent coinage
in ancient times. Indeed, only a few other contemporary states anywhere
in the world could issue coinage in gold – Rome, Persia.
Munro-Hay 1999: 9
Aksum developed a civilisation and empire whose influence, at its height
in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, extended throughout the regions lying
south of the Roman Empire, from the fringes of the Sahara in the west,
across the Red Sea to the inner Arabian desert in the east. The Aksumites
developed Africa’s only indigenous written script, Ge’ez... They traded
with Egypt, the eastern Mediterranean and Arabia.
Reader 1997: 202
Gold coins of King Ezana, c. AD 320–360
Copper coin, AD 340–540
Red jar, AD 275–350
1. What can you learn about Aksum from these sources?
2. When was Aksum most important?
3. How important was Aksum according to these sources?
Modern Ethiopian cushion cover
showing King Solomon of Jerusalem and
Queen Sheba of Aksum beneath stelae.
Aksum was a monarchy, and archaeological evidence shows that the kings
were determined to show off their power. Among the objects found have been
large stone slabs (called stelae) with inscriptions carved on them detailing
some of their achievements. Here is some other evidence of their power.
And he improved the roads and subdued the country. And he provided
safe conduct on the road for the bringing of tribute together with
supplies for men and women.
Inscription of Ousanas, from Aksum, Ethiopia
Slaves were also captured; their presence in large numbers at Aksum
would help to explain where the manpower came from that must have
been available for the building of the stelae and other monuments.
Phillipson 1998: 54
When the Beja revolted, we sent our brothers to fight them. When they
came back, having made them submit, they led them to us with their
entire hoard and their animals: 3,112 cattle, 6,224 sheep and 677 oxen...
and 4,400 people.
Inscription of Ezana, from Aksum, Ethiopia
Those who obeyed him he spared; those who resisted him he put to death.
Inscription of Ousanas, from Aksum Museum, Ethiopia
The craze for the gigantic reflected the tastes of the Aksumite monarchy,
and the monuments [stelae] were the concrete realisation of its purpose,
which was to instil awe-inspiring admiration for the greatness and
strength of the ruler to whom the monuments were dedicated.
Phillipson 1998: 105
Seals from of Aksum,
Aksum Museum, Ethiopia
Silver coin of Ousanas
Tomb, probably royal, at Aksum
Possible likeness of Aksum palace
© A. Davey
1. According to the inscriptions (sources 1, 5 & 6), what did the
kings of Aksum achieve?
2. Why did they write these inscriptions?
3. How else did they impress their people?
Aksum’s port at Adulis occupied a vital position between the trade routes
of the Mediterranean, and Arabia and Asia. Read these sources to find out
whether the kingdom took advantage of this.
It is noteworthy that the first Aksumite coins were mainly of gold and
silver, the gold coins following the weight standard then used in the
Roman Empire; furthermore they were inscribed in Greek. They were
primarily intended for circulation in international trade.
Phillipson 1998: 74
The archaeological evidence for possible trade-contact between Aksum
and China consists of a single piece of [Chinese] iron.
Phillipson 1998: 67
The goods brought to Adulis by the Ethiopians are listed as ivory,
rhinoceros horn, hippopotamus hides, tortoise shell, monkeys, and slaves.
Roman writer Pliny (c. AD 70) describing Aksum’s exports, quoted in
Munro-Hay 1991: 144
Cloth made in Egypt, robes, coloured cloaks, linen, fringed mantles,
several sorts of glassware, imitation murrhineware, which they use for
ornaments and for cutting [to serve as money], material called ‘copper
cooked in honey’ for cooking-pots and for cutting into armlets and
anklets for women, iron used for spears both for hunting elephants and
other animals and for war, axes, adzes, swords, big round drinking cups
of bronze, a little money for foreigners who live there, Ladikean and
Italian wine, but not much. For the king are imported: silver and gold
objects made in the design of the country, cloaks of cloth, unlined
garments, not of much value.
Aksum’s imports, described in the Periplus (1st century AD), quoted in
Munro-Hay 1991: 145
It has long been recognised that ivory may have been a major export.
Recent archaeological research has for the first time revealed that it was
also carved locally, at least in Aksum itself, to a very high level of artistry
and technological sophistication.
Phillipson 1998: 56
Ivory and wood
pyxis, made in Alexandria
(Egypt), 5th century AD
Aksum Museum, Ethiopia
Make a list for the King of Aksum with all
the imports into the kingdom on one side,
and all the exports to other countries on
What can you learn from source 5 about
• Food and drink
• Anything else about life in Aksum
As you will see from these sources, some aspects of religion
in Ethiopia have changed since the time of Aksum, while others have
remained more or less the same. Ethiopia is one of the oldest Christian
states in the world, and 60% still follow the Orthodox Church. See if you
can spot examples of change and continuity.
There is good evidence that building stelae as grave-markers was
a widespread practice over much of north-eastern Africa during the
last 5,000–2,000 years.
Phillipson 1998: 95
Those tombs of the wealthy which are roughly dated to the period after
the adoption of Christianity appear to be less flamboyantly showing off
power, but they do retain many features from earlier times.
Phillipson 1998: 111
The present Old Cathedral at Aksum stands on a massive podium...
of typical Aksumite style. The date of the original Cathedral is firmly
placed by Ethiopian tradition in the reign of Ezana.
Phillipson 1998: 116
Coins of Ezana, before and
after conversion to Christianity
Aksumite stelae field with low-status stelae
Church of St George, Lalibela,
Ethiopia, built in the 12th or 13th century
1. Which coin shows that Ezana has become a Christian (source 4)?
2. Why would Ezana want to show this on a coin?
3. What evidence of religion is there from before the time of Ezana?
4. What examples of continuity are there in Ethiopian religion?
St George and the Dragon
17th-century Ethiopian painting
Most of what is known about the city comes from archaeological
evidence. This tells us about the buildings of the rich and important
people, but not as much about people’s daily lives.
The town-plan of Aksum is thus fairly simple; it starts with a ceremonial
approach from the east, lined with granite victory-thrones and statues of
bronze and precious metals dedicated to the gods, leading to the religious
centre with the royal cemetery lying to the north and east. The focus for
this region seems to have been the temple/cathedral area, with another
row of thrones. The main residential suburb with its huge palaces was
situated to the west; and the whole was flanked with lesser cemeteries and
more humble residential suburbs. It is probable that there was at least one
open square, a market-place perhaps, somewhere in the town centre.
Munro-Hay 1991: 101
These large residences were basically of one plan; a central lodge
or pavilion, raised on a high podium approached by broad staircases,
surrounded and enclosed by ranges of buildings on all four sides.
The central pavilion was thus flanked by open courtyards. The plan
shows a taste for the symmetrical.
Munro-Hay 1991: 98
In addition to its advantageous position for trade, the site enjoyed
abundant rainfall, with a long rainy season from late June to early
September. There were probably a number of streams and springs, and
fertile soil very likely capable of producing more than one crop a year.
Munro-Hay 1991: 34
There is no river within two miles of Aksum, but the inhabitants have
good well water; there are many wells hidden, and even in the plain
have been found. It appears probable that, in ancient times, almost every
house had its well.
Nathaniel Pearce (early 19th century), quoted in Munro-Hay 1991: 97
Reservoir at Aksum
Noble’s house at Aksum
Stelae at Aksum
Fallen giant stela at Aksum
1. From the information in sources 2 and 3, draw a plan of one
of these large houses.
2. Make a tourist brochure for the city of Aksum in AD 500,
highlighting the major sights.
No other African society south of the Sahara issued its own coinage at
this time. Only Rome, Byzantium, and Persian and Indian states minted
gold coins at all. Most people used these or relied on other means of
exchange. The kings of Aksum, however, thought it necessary to issue
coins, and not just in gold and silver, but in copper as well.
1. Put the coins (sources 1–3) in order of value.
2. Put these coins in order of quality.
3. Why are they of different quality?
4. What information can you get from these coins?
5. Why did the kings of Aksum issue coins?
Look at the stela in sources 4 and 5. This was placed over a
tomb, possibly of a king. The carvings on it are supposed to show
storeys of a house. Little is known about Aksumite religion before
Christianity, so we have to make guesses.
Have a go at guessing:
why these stelae were made
what beliefs these carvings show
why each later one was bigger than the previous ones
: Illustration by Tayo Fatunla
1. What has just happened?
2. Why might the king be blaming the priests?
3. Why might the king have become a Christian shortly after
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