King Ezana's Stele is the tallest standing stele -- 70 feet
The sub-Saharan societies of Africa flourished in the centuries before and after the time of Christ, and one of those powerful urban kingdoms was Aksum or Axum. The document, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, said it is the "city of the people called Auxumites". (ch. 4)
The civilization of Aksum developed in the first centuries of the Christian era, but it roots lie deep in prehistory. In Aeschylus Prometheus Bound said theirs was "a land at the world's end where tribes of black people live". Modern day Ethiopian tribes such as the Tigrayans, and Gurage are descendants of these tribes and the language of these tribes are closely related to Ge’ez, the language of Aksum.
The Rise of Aksum
The kingdom of Aksum was at the height of its power between 100-700 AD. The Aksumite king Ezana I (320-350 AD) assumed power when Askum, without doubt, was a strong and large empire. The king's main wealth and power came from his control of foreign trade.
Aksum's Partial Kings List:
Zoskales 100 AD
Endubis 270 AD (Coinage begins)
Ezana 320 AD
Eon 400 AD
Kaleb 500 AD
Gersem 600 AD
Armah 614 AD
al-Walid 705-715 AD
What was going on in the rest of the world during this time frame:
460 AD Fall of the Roman Empire (Edward Gibbon placed the blame on a loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens.)
619 AD Egypt falls to Persia
640 AD Egypt falls to Arabs
Aksum was previously thought to have been founded by Semitic-speaking Sabaeans who crossed the Red Sea from South Arabia (modern Yemen) on the basis of Conti Rossini's theories and prolific work on Ethiopian history, but most scholars now agree that it was an indigenous development. Scholars like Stuart Munro-Hay point to the existence of an older D’mt or Da'amot kingdom, prior to any Sabaean migration ca. 4th or 5th c. BC, as well as to evidence of Sabaean immigrants having resided in Ethiopia for little more than a few decades. Furthermore, Ge'ez, the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia, is now known to not have derived from Sabaean, and there is evidence of a Semitic speaking presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea at least as early as 2000 BC. Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony in some sort of symbiosis or military alliance with the Ethiopian civilization of D`mt or some proto-Aksumite state. Adding more to the confusion, there existed an Ethiopian city called Saba in the ancient period that does not seem to have been a Sabaean settlement. [Source]
The titles of the kings indicate claims to rule over Saba and Himyar, two important Arabian kingdoms, as well as over the Beja, Kasu, and Noba in Africa. The last two names refer to Kush and Nubia.
Archaeological research has revealed that by the third and fourth centuries AD there was considerable prosperity at Aksum. The rulers were importing silver, gold, olive oil and wine, and exporting luxury goods of glass crystal, brass and copper to Egypt and to the eastern Roman empire. Other important exports to the Greek and Roman world were frankincense, used in burials, and myrrh which had important medicinal properties. Both these highly-valued products were obtained from the resin of particular trees which grew mainly in the mountainous regions of Aksum and southwest Arabia.
By 270 AD, Aksumite kings issued a splendid gold coinage at a time when few other economies needed such a sophisticated currency or could have afforded it. The kings also marked their tombs with magnificent stone pillars, or stelae. The tallest of these stelae were the largest stone monuments erected in the ancient world, surpassing in height even the obelisks of the Egyptian pharaohs. In addition to the stelae and the coinage, accomplished styles of pottery making, ivory carving, and glassware production, and metalwork in gold, silver, bronze, and iron all attest to the skill of Aksumite craftsmen and the luxury and sophistication of their capital. The remains of palaces and royal tombs confirm the complete mastery of granite by Aksumite masons, whose decorative motifs were copied on the famous churches at Lalibela. The original Aksumite religion was a polytheistic religion which believed in many gods that controlled the natural world. To the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Aksum is the place where the Ark of the Covenant was brought by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, as detailed in the thirteenth-century Kebra Negast, "The Book of the Glory of Kings." (Kebra Nagast, search for key words inside the book here. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader, if you don't have it, you will need to download it from here.)
Tomb finds at Aksum have revealed iron weapons, including tanged spear-heads. Iron knives or poniards, probably originally with bone or wood handles, were also found, and, from Matara (Anfray and Annequin 1965: pl. LXIV, 1), came a handle of bronze decorated on each side with bosses formed by the heads of large nails.
Although there is as yet no direct evidence, one would suppose that horses were known and used in warfare; some of the regiments could perhaps have been cavalry forces. That horses were valued possessions in at least one of the lands under Aksumite hegemony is shown by the burial of horses, in elaborate silver and jewelled harness, at the tombs of the `X-Group' monarchs at Ballana (Kirwan 1973).
There are numerous occasions when ships and shipping are mentioned in Aksumite contexts. The various expeditions and trading ventures overseas would suggest that Aksum was mistress of a fleet of some kind. Though there is no really clear statement to that effect in the local sources, a fleet is mentioned in the Monumentum Adulitanum inscription, and other inscriptions also refer to expeditions by land and sea.
For a while in the sixth century Aksum was powerful enough to expand across the Red Sea to enclose the region of Saba (modern Yemen) within its borders. But by the end of the century they had been expelled from the Arabian peninsula by their great rivals in trade, the Persians. The rise of Islam and its rapid spread across western Asia and northern Africa. Much of the trade between the Indian Ocean and the eastern Mediterranean now passed through the Persian Gulf rather than the Red Sea.
The decline of Aksum in the eight century may have been largely to do with their loss of trade to the Persians and Arabs. But, as with Meroe, it is also likely to have been related to a deterioration in the environment. This was the result of the long-term cutting down of trees and over-exploitation of the soil, leading to the kind of erosion so typical of the region today. By 800 AD the capital of the much-reduced kingdom had been moved to the south, further into the central highland region of the Ethiopian interior. The importance of external trade declined and the state developed in greater isolation as an agricultural community ruled over by a landed aristocracy. Greek and Arab influence was weakened and the more distinctly African Christian culture of Ethiopia came to the fore. Like Christian Nubia, it survived the Islamic onslaught which swept across northern Africa and western Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries.
The Aksumites built temples, palaces and tombs for the wealthy ruling classes. Among their most impressive stone buildings were huge monuments, some of which still stand to this day. Known to us as stele, these tall, thin monuments of solid stone were placed to make the tombs of their rulers and are thought to date from about 300 AD. Some of these stelae are among the largest known from the ancient world.
Ancient Map of Aksum (100-700 AD) -- History of Africa, Kevin Shillington,p. 69 (2005)
Ancient Ethiopian City of Aksum or Axum
Rise & Decline
The Aksumites first began producing coins around 270 CE, under the rule of king Endubis. Aksum was the first African civilization, not including African cities under the Roman Empire, to produce coins.
Aksumite coins were issued in gold, silver, and bronze. King Endubis used Roman weighting standards to issue his coins. The first Aksumite coins used had writing in Greek. This explains why the Aksumites began to use coins; to participate in the highly influenced Greco-Roman trade of the Red Sea.
Aksumite currency is of immense historical interest. It bore the names, effigies, and, in some cases, the descent of over twenty different kings, whose clothing, crowns and other decorations are often carefully depicted. Pankhurst, 2001
Also of immense historical importance at Aksum is a trilingual inscription erected by the early fourth-century King Ezana to record his victories. It is written in three scripts, Sabaean, Ge’ez, and Greek. Of archaeological importance interest near the park is a tomb believed to be of that of Emperor Zäbe'esi Bazén (left), who is said to have reigned at Aksum at the time of the birth of Christ. Near the cathedral is a stone on which is written in Ge`ez `This is the sepulchral stone of Bazén'.