From the 4th through 6th Centuries, Aksum was located in what are today Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Sudan. At its high point, Aksum extended its influence beyond Africa into parts of the southern Arabian Peninsula as shown on the map below. Aksum was a great trading empire, with its own coinage, its own language, and its own distinctive Christian church. If you are familiar with accounts of the Queen of Sheba, you know pieces of the story that Ethiopians use to explain the origins of the Ethiopian Solomonic Dynasty and their possession of the Ark of the Covenant. The capital of the kingdom was the city of Aksum and its most important port was Adulis.
Unlike some other regions in Africa, Ethiopia had very fertile, volcanic soils that supported large populations. Climatic variation found at the different elevations encouraged agricultural diversification and trade. Around 7000 BCE, there was population growth in the region that corresponded with the Agricultural Revolution. While some domesticated animals and crops were introduced from Northeast Africa and the Fertile Crescent, Ethiopians domesticated other crops themselves, such as teff, a grass, and nsete, known as the “false banana,” which could be grounded to make bread and porridge. We also have Ethiopians to thank for coffee!
The Kebra Nagast (“The Glory of Kings”), a 700-year-old text that is sacred for Ethiopian Christians and Rastafarians, traces the origins of the Ethiopian royal family back to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem. Queen of Sheba is identified as an Ethiopian ruler known locally as Queen Mekeda. According to the text, in approximately 950 BCE, the newly enthroned Queen Mekeda traveled to study with Jerusalem’s well-known king, King Solomon. She was seeking leadership advice and spiritual guidance. Flattered by his attentions, she eventually converts to Judaism. King Solomon and Queen Mekeda produce a child, Menelik I, who is born on her way home to Ethiopia.
As time passed, King Solomon remained haunted by a dream that Menelik was his rightful successor. As an adult, Menelik returns to Jerusalem, but refuses to become Solomon's successor. When leaving Jerusalem, part of Menelik’s entourage stole the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments. When King Solomon discovered the theft, he sent soldiers to recapture it. However, according to the Kebra Nagast, God helped Menelik and his men evade capture by lifting them up over the Red Sea. In the end, Menelik and the Ark of the Covenant made it safely to Ethiopia.
For Ethiopian Christians, the Kebra Nagast partially explains the formation of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (the Tawahedo Church). Through today, the Church claims possession of the Ark of the Covenant, which it says is housed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum, Ethiopia.
According to the Kebra Nagast, early Ethiopian rulers were descendants of King Solomon through Menelik I. A thirteenth-century Ethiopian king, Yekuno Amlak (r. 1270 – 1285 CE), reclaimed this legacy and founded what became known as the Solomonic Dynasty (circa 1270 to 1769 CE). Members of Ethiopia’s royal family continued to claim descent from King Solomon up through the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, who was overthrown in 1974. Therefore, the link back to King Solomon and Queen Mekeda is part of Ethiopian religious beliefs and has also legitimized claims to political power.
From the era of the rule of Queen Mekeda in about the 10th Century BCE and Yekuno Amlak’s revival of the Solomonic Dynasty in the 13th Century CE, the largest kingdoms in Ethiopia were Da’amat and Aksum.
The Kingdom of Da’amat was the first to emerge in northern Ethiopia in about the tenth century BCE. Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that, by the seventh century BCE, ivory, tortoiseshell, rhino horn, gold, silver, and slaves were brought from interior regions of Africa and traded through Da’amat for imported cloth, tools, metals, and jewelry. Inscriptions, imagery, architectural styles, and even overlaps in historical traditions (such as those associated with the Queen of Sheba) also suggest close connections between the Kingdom of Da’amat and Saba (Yemen) in Southern Arabia. For example, the Kingdom of Da’amat used religious symbols in its monumental architecture, including the disc and crescent, also found in Southern Arabia. The oldest standing building in Ethiopia, the Temple at Yeha (c. 700 BCE), had an altar with these symbols.
In the 4th Century BCE, as the Red Sea trade became more important, the Kingdom of Da’amat weakened. It gave way to the state of Aksum, with its cities of Adulis and Aksum. The state also began minting its own gold and silver coins.
- Adulis, positioned on the coast, rose in prominence and grew wealthy. It served as a safe harbor for ships traveling from Southeast Asia.
- Aksum, the capital located in the interior, was a stopover point for land-based trade routes into the Sudan and especially Sub-Saharan Africa. Ivory, slaves, tools, spices, gold, silver jewelry, copper, and iron were are examples.
In addition to its role in inter-regional trade, Aksum was also known for its early conversion to Christianity. Ethiopian tradition traces the establishment of Christianity in the region back to two shipwrecked Syrians. Frumentius became the first bishop of Ethiopia in 303 CE and guided the king of Aksum, King Ezana (r. 325 – 350 CE), in his conversion to Christianity. Some of the coins minted actually attest to King Ezana’s conversion; disc and crescent symbols gave way to the Christian cross. The bishop also encouraged Christian merchants to settle in Aksum.
About a century later, the state offered refuge to Christians fleeing persecution due to doctrinal disputes within the Church. Nine priests broke with the Church in Jerusalem, settled in Ethiopia, and founded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They maintained ties with the Coptic Church in Egypt and developed a distinct liturgy using Ge’ez, the local language. Members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also incorporated local beliefs, such as the legendary connection to King Solomon, into their religious traditions.
Like the Aksumite kings before him, Ezana collected tribute from surrounding states and taxing trade. Aksum and its surrounding states were agriculturally productive with fertile soils and effective irrigation systems. This agricultural productivity meant that the work of peasants and the wealth generated through foreign trade supported the ruling classes and elites. Building a powerful military, King Ezana expanded the empire and claimed control over most of Ethiopia, Nubia, and Saba (Yemen). He also used his assets to showcase his power with “conquest stones” that commemorated his victories. In addition, the “conquest stones” proclaimed that God had ordained his reign. The stones impart Ezana’s edicts and Christian beliefs. One section reads:
[…] The Lord of Heaven strengthens my dominion! And as he now has conquered my enemy, (so) May he conquer for me, where I (but) go! As he now has given me victory and has overthrown my enemies. (So will I rule) in right and justice, doing no wrong to the peoples. And I placed The throne, which I have set up, and the Earth which bears it, in the protection of the Lord of Heaven, who has made me king…9
Aksumite kings famously commissioned the construction of stelae (singular: stele). Stelae were tall rectangular pillars with rounded tops set up to mark the underground gravesites of Aksum’s royalty and elite. The most ornate stelae were elaborately carved into a marble-like material with faux doors at the bottom and multiple stories, as indicated by windows etched into each level. They have been described as “ancient skyscrapers,” with the largest being one hundred and eight feet tall. Most stelae have fallen in the over since their construction, but several do remain standing. One stele even caused an international uproar as the Italians took it during their occupation of Ethiopia at the onset of the Second World War and just recently returned it at great expense.
Unfortunately, the graves marked by the stelae have been cleared out by tomb robbers in the intervening years. However, small remnants of glass, pottery, furniture, beads, bangles, earrings, ivory carvings, and objects gilded in gold attest to the wealth buried with affluent Aksumites. These artifacts also show the availability of trade goods brought from long distances. Furthermore, the architecture of the stelae is suggestive of connections back to earlier kingdoms. For example, the rounded top of the stelae is reminiscent of the disc symbol found in the region as far back as the Kingdom of Da’amat. Ezana was the first Christian king in the region; however, the architecture that he commissioned maintained ties to Aksum’s pre-Christian past.
Aksum’s power began to wane at the end of the 6th Century CE. First, the Persian Empire interrupted Aksum’s trade with parts of southern Arabia in the late sixth century. Then, Muslims increasingly dominated trade along the Red Sea coast and the most profitable trade routes shifted from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf. In response, Aksum shrank as Ethiopia’s Christian rulers turned away from coastal trade and became more dependent on the tribute they collected from agriculturally productive regions to their south.
As Muslims in coastal areas became more powerful and Christian rulers shifted their attention away from the coast, the relationship between Ethiopian Muslims and Christians remained complex. In the 7th Century CE, King al-Najashi Ashama Ibn Abjar gave sanctuary to some of the first followers of Islam before he himself converted. In subsequent years, Muslim traders and Christian elites oftentimes cooperated. However, there were also periods of conflict, especially after Muslims unified to form the Adal Sultanate in the 14th Century. The Adal Sultanate militarily extended its influence over much of the region and for several centuries supported a thriving, multi-ethnic state. In the sixteenth century, Ethiopian Christians allied with the Portuguese to fight against the Adal Sultanate. After the fall of the Adal Sultanate, Ethiopian Christians rejected Portuguese attempts to convert them to Catholicism and forced Portuguese missionaries out of the region in 1633 CE.
9 As quoted in Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia and Trevor Getz, African Histories: New Sources and New Techniques for Studying African Pasts (Boston: Prentice Hall, 2012): 33-36.