The Kingdom of Axum

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Global I

Mr. Mintzes

The Kingdom of Axum

The kingdom of Axum (sometimes spelled Aksum) was located in the highlands above the Red Sea in and around what is now northern Ethopia. Originally a colony of immigrants from Yemen, Aksum had begun trading with Grece, Rome, Cush, and Egypt. In the 3rd century Aksum conquered Yemen. During the 4th century, Aksum’s king Ezana unified his African holdings and converted himself and his kingdom to Christianity. 

Axum was the most advanced civilization during this time in the northeastern part of Africa. Axum was resplendent in riches, having conquered the Empire of Nubia and consolidated its wealth. Although Axum's public buildings were square or rectangular like those of Nubia and Egypt, they still had their own peculiar Axumite style of architecture. The Axumites, like other ancient Africans, created buildings to express their faith in their religion and their belief in the grandeur of their kingdom.
The kingdom of Axum profited from the strategic location of its two main cities, the port of Adulis on the Red Sea and the upland capital city of Axum. From about 200 BCE to 400 CE, Axumites commanded a triangular trade network linking Africa, India, and the Mediterranean world. Products from African interior such as ivory, hides, rhinoceros horn, and gold passed through the city of Axum. To the port of Adulis came ships carrying goods from farther down the coast of East Africa, or from India across the Indian Ocean. These goods would the flow north up the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, to the Middle East, Greece, Rome, and beyond. Axum became a trading capital of East Africa.
The Aksum empire was the 3rd largest African empire at 1.25 million sq km. In the sixth century, the kingdom of Axum was doing what many elsewhere had been doing: pursuing trade and empire. Despite the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the 400s and the decline in world trade, Aksum's trade increased during that century. Its exports of gold, emeralds, ivory, glass crystal, brass and copper items, and perhaps slaves, among other things, had brought prosperity to the kingdom. Salt was found richly in Aksum and was traded quite frequently. Some people had become wealthy and cosmopolitan. Aksum's port city on the Red Sea, Adulis , bustled with activity. Its agriculture and cattle breeding flourished, and Aksum extended its rule to Nubia , across the Red Sea to Yemen , and it had extended its rule to the northern Ethiopian Highlands and along the coast to Cape Guardafui .
The main exports of Axum were, as would be expected of a state during this time, agricultural products. The land was much more fertile during the time of the Aksumites than now, and their principle crops were grains such as wheat and barley. The people of Aksum also raised cattle, sheep, and camels. Wild animals were also hunted for things such as ivory and rhinoceros horns. They traded with Roman traders as well as with Egyptian and Persian merchants.

Axum remained a strong empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the seventh century. However, because the Axumites had sheltered Muhammad's first followers, the Muslims never attempted to overthrow Axum as they spread across the face of Africa.

From Aksum's beginnings in the third century, Christianity there had spread. But at the peak of Christianity's success, Aksum began its decline. In the late 600s, Aksum's trade was diminished by the clash between Constantinople and the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid Empire clashed with Constantinople over trade on the Red Sea and expanded into Yemen, driving Aksum out of Arabia. Then Islam united Arabia and began expanding. In the 700s, Muslims occupied  the Dahlak Islands just off the coast of Adulis, which had been ruled by Aksum. The Muslims moved into the port city of Adulis, and Aksum's trade by sea ended.

Aksum was now cut off from much of the world. Greek- the language of trade - declined there. Minted coins became rare. And it has been surmised that the productivity of soil in the area was being diminished by over-exploitation and the cutting down of trees. Climate change and trade isolation are probably also large reasons for the decline of the culture. Over farming on the land lead to decreased crop yield, which in turn lead to decreased food supply. This in turn with the changing flood pattern of the Nile and several seasons of drought would alter all of Aksum’s agricultural Aksum’s geographic location would make it less important in the emerging European economy.

The people of Aksum migrated into the Ethiopian Highlands, where they overran small farmers and settled at Amhara , among other nearby places. And with this migration a new Ethiopian civilization began.

1. Why was the location of the Axum Kingdom so important? Why was it a “strategic” location in terms of trade?

2. What products came to Axum from the interior of Africa and what products did it export to other civilizations?

3. Why did the Muslims leave Axum alone even though they were conquering many neighboring areas and regions?

4. What factors (there were more than one) led to the eventual decline and disappearance of the Kingdom of Axum?

5. What was going on in Europe during the period of Axum’s greatest glory? Was Western Europe also enjoying the same kind of wealth, power and commercial activity?

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