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The wealth of Africa

The kingdom of Aksum

Students’ worksheets



 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



AKSUM

Front cover image: Gold coin showing King Ezana and ears of wheat.  

Aksum, Ethiopia, about AD 340–400. British Museum

Century AD

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



6th

5th

4th

3rd

7th

476 – Fall of Rome




 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



AKSUM

Front cover image: Gold coin showing King Ezana and ears of wheat.  

Aksum, Ethiopia, about AD 340–400. British Museum

Century AD

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



6th

5th

4th

3rd

7th

476 – Fall of Rome




 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 1: HOW IMPORTANT WAS AKSUM  

AT ITS PEAK?

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.



Source 1

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

Source 3

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

Source 4

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

Source 7

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

Source 8

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



Source 5: 

Gold coins of King Ezana, c. AD 320–360

British Museum

Source 6: 

Copper coin, AD 340–540

British Museum

Source 2: 

Red jar, AD 275–350

 British Museum

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?



Questions

Source 9: 

Modern Ethiopian cushion cover 

showing King Solomon of Jerusalem and  

Queen Sheba of Aksum beneath stelae.

British Museum



 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 2: HOW IMPORTANT WERE THE KINGS  

OF AKSUM?

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.

Source 1

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

Source 3

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

Source 5

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



Source 6

Those who obeyed him he spared; those who resisted him he put to death.

Inscription of Ousanas, from Aksum Museum, Ethiopia

Source 8

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 



Source 7: 

Seals from of Aksum, 

Aksum Museum, Ethiopia

Source 2: 

Silver coin of Ousanas

British Museum

Source 4: 

Tomb, probably royal, at Aksum



Source 9: 

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?

Questions



 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 3: HOW IMPORTANT WAS TRADE  

TO AKSUM?

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.



Source 1

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



Source 3

The archaeological evidence for possible trade-contact between Aksum 

and China consists of a single piece of [Chinese] iron.

Phillipson 1998: 67



Source 4

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

Source 5

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

Source 7

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



Source 2:

 Ivory and wood 

pyxis, made in Alexandria 

(Egypt), 5th century AD

British Museum

Source 6:

 Ivory panel

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  

the other.

Task

What can you learn from source 5 about  

the following?

•  Fashion 

•  Tools 

•  Food and drink 

•  Anything else about life in Aksum

Questions



 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 4: HOW MUCH HAS ETHIOPIAN RELIGION 

CHANGED OVER TIME?

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.



Source 1

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

Source 3

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

Source 5

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

Source 4:

 Coins of Ezana, before and 

after conversion to Christianity

British Museum



Source 2:

 Aksumite stelae field with low-status stelae



Source 6:

 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?

Questions

Source 7:

 St George and the Dragon 

17th-century Ethiopian painting

British Museum




 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 5: WHAT WOULD THE CITY OF AKSUM 

HAVE BEEN LIKE?

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.



Source 1

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

Source 3

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

Source 5

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



Source 6

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



Source 4:

 Reservoir at Aksum



Source 2:

 Noble’s house at Aksum



Source 8:

 Stelae at Aksum



Source 7:

 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.



Task


 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 6: USING THE EVIDENCE

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?

Questions

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



Task

Source 3:

 Gold coin

British Museum

Source 1:

 Copper coin

British Museum

Source 5:

 Stelae at Aksum



Source 4:

 Stela (detail) 



Source 2:

 Silver coin

British Museum



 The wealth of Africa  

The kingdom of Aksum



SHEET 7: THE FALL OF THE GREAT STELA AT AKSUM

Source 1

: 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  

this disaster?



Questions


© The Trustees of the British Museum 08/2010

Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG

    Holborn, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road 

Telephone +44 (0)20 7323 8000

information@britishmuseum.org

www.britishmuseum.org



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