The Kingdom of Aksum (Ge'ez: መንግሥተ አክሱም, Mängəśtä ʾäksum), also known as the Kingdom of Axum or the Aksumite Empire, was a kingdom centered in Northeast Africa and South Arabia from Classical antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. Based primarily in what is now northern Ethiopia, and spanning modern-day Eritrea, northern Djibouti, and eastern Sudan, it extended at its height into much of modern-day southern Arabia during the reign of King Kaleb.
Axum served as the kingdom's capital for many centuries but relocated to Jarma in the 9th century due to declining trade connections and recurring external invasions. Emerging from the earlier Dʿmt civilization, the kingdom was likely founded in the early 1st century. Pre-Aksumite culture developed in part due to a South Arabian influence, evident in the use of the Ancient South Arabian script and the practice of Ancient Semitic religion. However, the Geʽez script came into use by the 4th century, and as the kingdom became a major power on the trade route between Rome and India, it entered the Greco-Roman cultural sphere and began to use Greek as a lingua franca. It is through this that the Kingdom of Aksum adopted Christianity as the state religion in the mid-4th century, under Ezana of Axum. Following their Christianization, the Aksumites ceased the construction of stelae.
The Kingdom of Aksum was considered one of the ancient world's four great powers of the 3rd century by the Persian prophet Mani, alongside Persia, Rome, and China. Beginning with the reign of Endubis, Aksum minted its own coins, which have been excavated in locations as far as Caesarea and southern India. The kingdom continued to expand throughout late antiquity, conquering Meroe for a very short period of time, from whom it inherited the Greek exonym "Ethiopia". Aksumite dominance in the Red Sea culminated during the reign of Kaleb of Axum, who, at the behest of the Byzantine emperor Justin I, invaded the Himyarite Kingdom in Yemen in order to end the persecution of Christians perpetrated by the Jewish king Dhu Nuwas. With the annexation of Himyar, the Kingdom of Aksum was at its largest territorial extent. However, the territory was lost in the Aksumite–Persian wars.
The kingdom's slow decline had begun by the 7th century, at which point currency ceased to be minted. The Persian (and later Muslim) presence in the Red Sea caused Aksum to suffer economically, and the population of the city of Axum shrank. Alongside environmental and internal factors, this has been suggested as the reason for its decline. Aksum's final three centuries are considered a dark age, and through uncertain circumstances, the kingdom collapsed around 960. Despite its position as one of the foremost empires of late antiquity, the Kingdom of Aksum fell into obscurity as Ethiopia remained isolated throughout the Middle Ages.
Before the establishment of Axum, the Tigray plateau of northern Ethiopia was home to a kingdom known as Dʿmt. Archaeological evidence shows that the kingdom was influenced by Sabaeans from modern-day Yemen; scholarly consensus had previously been that Sabaeans had been the founders of Semitic civilization in Ethiopia, though this has now been refuted, and their influence is considered to have been minor. The Sabaean presence likely lasted only for a matter of decades, but their influence on later Aksumite civilization included the adoption of Ancient South Arabian script, which developed into Geʽez script, and Ancient Semitic religion.
The first historical mention of Axum comes from the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a trading guide that likely dates to the mid-1st century AD. Axum is mentioned alongside Adulis and Ptolemais of the Hunts as lying within the realm of Zoskales. The area is described as primarily producing ivory, as well as tortoise shells. Zoskales is also said to have been "acquainted with Greek literature", indicating that Greco-Roman influence was already present at this time. It is evident from the Periplus that, even at this early stage of its history, Axum played a role in the transcontinental trade route between Rome and India.
The Kingdom of Axum was a trading empire with its hub in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. It existed approximately 100–940 AD, growing from the Iron Age proto-Axumite period c. fourth century BC to achieve prominence by the first century AD.
According to the Book of Axum, the kingdom's first capital, Mazaber, was built by Itiyopis, son of Cush. The capital was later moved to Axum in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name "Ethiopia" as early as the fourth century.
The Empire of Axum at times extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, Western Yemen — which it invaded utilizing the dhow designs of Egypt — and parts of eastern Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Axum, now in northern Ethiopia. Today a smaller community, the city of Axum was once a bustling metropolis and cultural and economic hub. Two hills and two streams lie on the east and west expanses of the city; perhaps providing the initial impetus for settling this area. Along the hills and plain outside the city, the Aksumites had cemeteries with elaborate grave stones called stelee or obelisks. Other important cities included Yeha, Hawulti-Melazo, Matara, Adulis, and Qohaito, the last three of which are now in Eritrea. By the reign of Endubis in the late third century, it had begun minting its own currency and was named by Mani as one of the four great powers of his time along with the Sasanian Empire, Roman Empire, and "Three Kingdoms" China. The Axumites adopted Christianity as the state religion in 325 or 328 AD under King Ezana, and Axum was the first state ever to use the image of the cross on its coins.
Around the 3rd century (possibly c. 240–c. 260), the Aksumites led by Sembrouthes were victorious over the Sesea, with Sesea becoming a tributary of the Kingdom of Aksum. Around 330, Ezana of Aksum led his army into the Kingdom of Meroë, conquering and sacking the town itself. A large stone monument was left there, and the conquest is also related to Ezana Stone.
After a second golden age in the early 6th century the empire began to decline in the mid-6th century, eventually ceasing its production of coins in the early 7th century. Around this same time, the Aksumite population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands for protection, abandoning Aksum as the capital. Arab writers of the time continued to describe Ethiopia (no longer referred to as Aksum) as an extensive and powerful state, though they had lost control of most of the coast and their tributaries. While the land was lost in the north, it was gained in the south; and, though Ethiopia was no longer an economic power, it still attracted Arab merchants. The capital was then moved south to a new location called Ku'bar or Jami. The Arab writer Ya'qubi was the first to describe the new Aksumite capital. The capital was probably located in southern Tigray or Angot, however, the exact location of this city is currently unknown.
Eventually, the Rashidun Caliphate took control of the Red Sea and Egypt by 646, pushing Aksum into economic isolation. Northwest of Aksum, in modern-day Sudan, the Christian states of Nobatia, Makuria, and Alodia lasted until the 13th century before being overrun by Bedouin tribes and the Funj Sultanate. Aksum, isolated, nonetheless still remained Christian.
Famine is noted in Ethiopia in the ninth century. The patriarchates James (819–830) and Joseph (830–849) of Alexandria attribute Ethiopia's condition to war, plague, and inadequate rains. Under the reign of Degna Djan, during the 9th century, the empire kept expanding south and sent troops into the modern-day region of Kaffa,]while at the same time undertaking missionary activity in Angot.
Local history holds that, around 960, a Jewish Queen named Yodit (Judith) or "Gudit" defeated the empire and burned its churches and literature. While there is evidence of churches being burned and an invasion around this time, her existence has been questioned by some western authors. Gudit sacked Aksum by destroying churches and buildings, persecuting Christians, and committing Christian iconoclasm. Her origin has been debated among scholars. Some argued that she had a Jewish ethnicity or was from a southern region. According to one traditional account, she reigned for forty years and her dynasty lasted until 1137 AD, when it was overthrown by Mara Takla Haymanot, resulting in the inception of the Agaw-led Zagwe dynasty.
Gudit's origin has been extensively debated. Scholars debate whether she was a Jew, an Agaw, a Beja, and an enslaved servant of an Aksumite emperor who wanted to lead pagans against Christianity. Others argued that she was a daughter of the king of Lasta, situated in Bugna. The Italian scholar Carlo Conti Rossini described her as a Bani al-Hamwiyah, while another source pointed to the Sidama people in the area called Sasu, probably south of the Blue Nile, where Aksumite rulers also obtained caravans for commodities of gold and coin, which are thought the main motive for Gudit's raid.
According to an oral tradition, Gudit rose to power after she killed the Beta Israel emperor and then reigned for 40 years. She brought her Jewish army from Gondar and Lake Tana to orchestrate the pillage against Aksum and its countryside. She was determined to destroy all members of the Aksumite dynasty, palaces, churches, and monuments in Tigray. Her notorious deeds are still recounted by peasants inhabiting northern Ethiopia. Large ruins, standing stones, and stelae are found in the area.
Around 960, she attacked Aksum, demolishing churches (the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was partially demolished), monasteries, and buildings and committing Christian iconoclasm. Gudit also killed the last emperor of Aksum, possibly Dil Na'od, while other accounts say Dil Na'od went into exile in Shewa, protected by Christians. He begged assistance from a ruler named King George of Makuria, which remained unanswered. She was said to have been succeeded by Dagna-Jan, whose throne name was Anbasa Wudem. Her reign was marked by the displacement of the Aksumite population into the south.
According to one Ethiopian traditional account, she reigned for forty years and her dynasty was eventually overthrown by Mara Tekla Haymanot in 1137 AD, who ushered in the formation of the Zagwe dynasty by bearing children with a descendant of the last Aksumite emperor, Dil Na'od.
Another possibility of decline is that the Aksumite power was ended by a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the tribe al-Damutah or Damoti (Damot). It is clear from contemporary sources that a female usurper did indeed rule the country at this time, and that her reign ended sometime before 1003. After a short Dark Age, the Aksumite Empire was succeeded by the Zagwe dynasty in the 11th or 12th century (most likely around 1137), although limited in size and scope. However, Yekuno Amlak, who killed the last Zagwe king and founded the modern Solomonic dynasty around 1270 traced his ancestry and his right to rule from the last emperor of Aksum, Dil Na'od. It should be mentioned that the end of the Aksumite Empire didn't mean the end of Aksumite culture and traditions; for example, the architecture of the Zagwe dynasty at Lalibela and Yemrehana Krestos Church shows the heavy Aksumite influence.