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The kingdom of Aksum

By the British Museum
Jar, late 3rd–4th century, ceramic, 11.8 cm high, Kingdom of Aksum (© Trustees of the British Museum)

One of the four greatest powers in the world

Aksum was the name of a city and a kingdom which is essentially modern-day northern Ethiopia (Tigray province) and Eritrea. Research shows that Aksum was a major naval and trading power from the 1st to the 7th centuries C.E. As a civilization it had a profound impact upon the people of Egypt, southern Arabia, Europe, and Asia, all of whom were visitors to its shores, and in some cases were residents.
Approximate extent of the Kingdom of Aksum, 6th century (underlying map © Google)
Aksum developed a civilization and empire whose influence, at its height in the 4th and 5th centuries C.E., 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.
Despite its power and reputation—it was described by a Persian writer as one of the four greatest powers in the world at the time—very little is known about Aksum. Written scripts existed, but no histories or descriptions have been found to make this African civilization come alive.

A counterpoint to the Greek and Roman worlds

Aksum provides a counterpoint to the Greek and Roman worlds, and is an interesting example of a sub-Saharan civilization flourishing towards the end of the period of the great Mediterranean empires. It provides a link between the trading systems of the Mediterranean and the Asiatic world, and shows the extent of international commerce at that time. It holds the fascination of being a "lost" civilization, yet one that was African, Christian, with its own script, coinage, and international reputation. It was arguably as advanced as the Western European societies of the time.
The society was hierarchical with a king at the top, then nobles, and the general population below. This hierarchy can be discerned by the buildings that have been found, and the wealth of the goods found in them. Although Aksum had writing, very little has been found out about society from inscriptions. It can be assumed that priests were important, and probably traders, too, because of the money they would have made. Most of the poor were probably craftsmen or farmers. In some descriptions, the ruler is described as "King of Kings" which might suggest that there were other, junior kings in outlying parts of the empire which the Aksumites gradually took over. There is evidence of at least 10–12 small towns in the kingdom, which suggests it was an urban society, but for descriptions of these there is only archaeological evidence. Little or nothing is known about such things as the role of women and family life.
Coin with bust of King Kaleb, c. 500–525, gold, Kingdom of Aksum (© Trustees of the British Museum)


Aksum embraced the Orthodox tradition of Christianity in the 4th century (c. 340–356 C.E.) under the rule of King Ezana. The king had been converted by Frumentius, a former Syrian captive who was made Bishop of Aksum. On his return, Frumentius had promptly baptized King Ezana, who then declared Aksum a Christian state, followed by the king’s active converting of the Aksumites. By the 6th century, King Kaleb was recognized as a Christian by the
(ruled 518–527) when he sought Kaleb’s support in avenging atrocities suffered by fellow Christians in South Arabia. This invasion saw the inclusion of the region into the Aksumite kingdom for the next seven decades.


Although Christianity had a profound effect upon Aksum, Judaism also had a substantial impact on the kingdom. A group of people from the region called the Beta Israel have been described as "Black Jews." Although their scriptures and prayers are in Ge’ez, rather than in Hebrew, they adhere to religious beliefs and practices set out in the Pentateuch (Torah), the religious texts of the Jewish religion. Although often regarded by scholars/academics as not technically "Jewish" but instead a pre-Christian, Semitic people, their religion shares a common ancestry with modern Judaism. Between 1985 and 1991, almost the whole Beta Israel population of Ethiopia was moved to Israel.

Solomon and Sheba

The Queen of Sheba and King Solomon are important figures in Ethiopian heritage. Traditional accounts describe their meeting when Sheba, Queen of Aksum, went to Jerusalem, and their son Menelik I formed the Solomonic dynasty from which the rulers of Ethiopia (up to the 1970s) are said to be descended. It has also been claimed that Aksum is the home of the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, in which lies the "Tablets of Law" upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. Menelik is believed to have taken it on a visit to Jerusalem to see his father. It is supposed to reside still in the Church of St Mary in Aksum, though no-one is allowed to set eyes on it. Replicas of the Ark, called Tabots, are housed in all of Ethiopia’s churches, and are carried in procession on special days.
© Trustees of the British Museum
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  • ohnoes default style avatar for user Cyan Wind
    I don't know what is Judaism. Can someone explain it to me?
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Big Zeta
    The text states:

    The Aksumites developed Africa’s only indigenous written script, Ge’ez. They traded with Egypt,

    How is it that Egyptian writing is not "indigenous" to Africa? Have I missed some reorganization of the world where Egypt has been relocated to a different continent?
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user norbert  jarvis
      Technically, Geez can be traced backed to the South Arabian script. Ultimately to the Protosiniatic script and thereby Hieroglyphs. So the comment about being the only indigenous script developed in Africa is nonsense from the British Museum and shows the racist scholarly bias within British institutions.
      (4 votes)
  • leafers seed style avatar for user David Kebede
    Did you know I am in Aksum right now, just now it is called Ethiopia. I am Ethiopian.
    (8 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user shareopie
      Hi, you are in Aksum which is in Northern Ethiopia. The other parts of the Axumite Empire of posterity are now part of Eritrea(from the borders of present-day Northern Ethiopia upto the borders both North and West to Sudan), Sudan(including ancient Meroe upto Suakin), Somalia(upto port of Zeila), Yemen(including the Tihama Highlands and down to the port of ancient Mukha). Ancient Axum was itself a "new" Empire that emerged out of Cushitic Damot or D'MT, which was even larger, more ancient and storied. Ancient as Axum and D'MT were they are Empires, Federations and Confederations of smaller Kingdoms/States that surged and waned in their turn ruling their neighbors when they were strong and barely managing to rule themselves when they were weak. Axum was a small dominion within Damot which tithed its ports and soldiers to its D'MT overseers, much as the Romans did to the Greeks before emerging in their own right to rule their former masters. Axum emerged when D'MT crumbled, as the center of the vast Emprire moved Southward and Eastward to Axum and the port of Gabaza. Axum crumbled when it could no longer sustain it's military and civil structure after loss of its overseas dominions (it was a maritime power) and lastly its major port (Gabaza) itself. In its heyday Gabaza held communities of practically every nationality including members of the different faiths (Buddhists, Christians, Jew's).
      Axum got so weak in the 9th Century the city walls (of Axum) itself were breached by an army under the command of Queen Judith (incidentally a Princess of Ancient D'MT) and burnt. Legend tells that Judith was avenging the killing of her father and husband by Axumite Imperial troops. Long story short the history of this region is much more than the city state or even Ethiopia in its present shape and can easily be found in Yemen, Somalia and Sudan.
      (1 vote)
  • leafers seedling style avatar for user Hana the Banana
    Honestly, East Africans are not the original Hebrews. Me being East African (Eritrean) myself, it's kind of obvious. However, we are related to them (our DNA has similar markers).
    (5 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user Nandan Srivatsa
    Was part of Eritrea in the kingdom of Axum(Aksum)?
    (3 votes)
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  • hopper happy style avatar for user nnamdi.azikiwe
    Why is Amharic considered the only indigenous African script?
    A little research reveals:
    and let's not forget the Adinkra symbols which some might not consider a script...but are printed symbols....
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Jehat Besifki
    what was life like for women At Axum empire
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user eljua5991
    how many people like this
    (3 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Jewens648
    What is the meaning of Replicas of the Ark stand for?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      In the Hebrew Bible, there are descriptions of a holy object known as the Ark. In Ethiopian mythology, it is believed that that object was brought to Ethiopia, and that it is hidden someplace. For purposes of religious education, "replicas" (based on the descriptions in the Hebrew Bible) are displayed in some places.
      (2 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user momotaro
    why is no-one allowed to see the 'tablets of law"?
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Let me venture an opinion. The "visit of Menelik" to Jerusalem to visit his father is part of legend, not of history (as, indeed, is the person of Solomon himself). That Menelik "brought back the ark of the covenant from Jerusalem" is also a legend. But that legend is at the core of a national identity. When national identities are based on legendary memes, it's not necessary that any physical evidence be found. However, the belief that the evidence is "there", just restricted from public view or display, is a strong thing. It's like the belief that the US Air Force has flying saucers stored in Nevada.
      (3 votes)