Aksumite Empire

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Aksum Stele Park

The Aksumite Empire (also known as the Axumite Empire ) was a late antique state in northeast Africa. It included what is now Eritrea , parts of Ethiopia - where its capital Aksum was - Sudan and Yemen . It probably existed as early as the 1st century AD and went under in the 10th century. The empire owed a considerable part of its prosperity to the Indian trade .



In the absence of written records, the history before the emergence of the Aksumite empire is only known through archaeological finds. A highly developed culture already existed on the Ethiopian-Sudanese and Eritrean border in the 3rd millennium BC. It is known from some settlements, but as a rule they have not yet been excavated. There are stone axes, club heads, ceramics and jewelry. This culture shows some kinship with the Nubian C group . Contacts with southern Arabia existed in the Iron Age , the so-called Pre-Aksumite period . The South Arabian influence on Ethiopia became particularly strong around the middle of the 1st millennium BC. With the emergence of the state of Da'amot (also Di'amat and the like), which was probably originally dependent on the South Arabian empire Saba, on the Tigray plateau. The inscriptions from Da'amot are partly written in Sabaean , but the royal inscriptions show features of Old Ethiopian , the language of the later Akumite Empire. Nothing is known about the end of Da'amot, the last inscriptions could be in the 4th century BC. Belong to.

In popular historiography, this accent on Arab influence has long been predominant since Carlo Conti Rossini repeatedly emphasized it. This is due to the fact that the level of knowledge about the history of Southwest Arabia was (and is) much better, and that all cultural elements and influences seem to have emanated from there. African developments that go back much further could not be noticed at this time. In order to avoid the illogical term pre-Aksumitic, the English specialist literature often used the term “ethio-sabean”, often again as an early phase, and “transitional” or “inter-mediate” (for the last four centuries BC) spoken to name the alleged statehood before Aksum. With this, however, the focus was placed on the cultural exchange of elites, which in turn covered up or faded out long continuities. The term "proto-aksumite", which refers to Aksum itself, is accepted. The "Short Chronology" promoted by Jacqueline Pirenne in the 1950s and 1960s led to almost all archaeological material dating back to the 2nd half of the 1st millennium BC. Advanced in time.

Masonry and flooring in the temple of Yeha

While a strong continuity is assumed for the population, this cannot be assumed for the leadership groups, to which the predominantly religious monuments go back. These religious monuments also cluster in the most fertile areas. For example, Yeha in the northern Central Highlands is clearly Sabaean. The Great Temple has a footprint of 18.6 by 15 m and still rises up to 13 m. Dedications on bricks show the orientation towards the South Arabian moon god. According to the brief chronology mentioned , this building, which was probably preceded by another temple, would have been around 500 BC. BC, but today it is believed to have been around 800 BC. Chr. Another building called Grat Be'al Gebri, which is also assigned to the so-called elite and which is likely to be similarly old, shows analogies to the Sabaean architectural style. This covers an area of ​​44 m². On its southeast side there was a portico made up of six massive, 10 m high monolithic columns. Arabic letters could be proven, so that it was concluded that South Arabian craftsmen and builders were at work here. Only a few metal finds, almost exclusively copper alloys, were found, mainly in graves. These also belonged to the leadership group. The copper objects could have been a kind of seal or stamp that should mark property. The trade was of a smaller size than long assumed. This mainly related to ceramics and obsidian. In the few inscriptions, two groups can be distinguished, namely those created by an elite with strong cultural contacts with southern Arabia, while a second group was created by local groups.

The presumption of a pre-Aksumite state called Da'amot is based on seven inscriptions on pillars, none of which were in the place where they were originally placed. Three of them were found on stones near Aksum, the other four on a kind of herbal fragrance lamp from eastern Tigray. In Yeha, however, often thought of as the capital of presumed political unity, there was not a single inscription. This reinforces the assumption that these small empires were characterized by poor continuity. The names of four rulers have been passed down, but it is largely unclear what the multiple appearing title (or the address as venerable) means, whether the rulers could possibly be addressed in the South Arabian way, for reasons of prestige, for example.

Nevertheless, such a clear cultural change can be proven in the second half of the millennium that, as the name Pre-Aksumite Empire suggests, the connection to Aksum was greater than that to the previous cultures. The excavations of Beta Gyorgis revealed a largely homogeneous pottery, as well as monumental buildings and a cemetery of around 10 hectares. There are over 100 steles there, although it is not clear how many of them date back to the 1st millennium BC. Are attributable to Chr. Iron was only found in two arrowheads and two ritual axes. Overall, the economy continued to be based on livestock husbandry, i.e. on cattle, sheep and goats, dogs were also detected, as well as on barley , emmer and wheat , possibly dwarf millet .

First mentions, orientation to Greece, expansion to southern Arabia and expulsion

Approximate extent of the Aksumite Empire under Ezana (4th century)

The emergence of the Aksumite empire can be scheduled for the birth of Christ at the latest. The first mentions of the city of Aksum, which was founded on previously sparsely populated area, can be found in the anonymous Periplus Maris Erythraei , which originated around the middle of the 1st century AD (mentioning a ruler named Zoskales , who is often the earliest Ruler Aksums is considered), as well as in the Geographike Hyphegesis of Ptolemy , which originated around 170 AD. The earliest finds and remains of larger structures from Aksum also date from these decades; Nevertheless, the information about the time of origin of the empire fluctuates between about 50 BC. In Aksum itself, the modern settlement, but also the overbuilding of buildings worth preserving themselves, hinders the excavation activity, so that only a few findings are available from here. It is clear that the new capital was created when the elites from Beta Giyorgis moved to Aksum.

Upper part of the trilingual stele of King Ezana

Zoskales is said to have spoken Greek quite well. The early coins also have Greek inscriptions, but these were used for international trade. The people who were not involved in this trade will hardly have mastered this language. A colony of foreign traders existed in Aksum early on. The two trilingual steles that were erected on the two main roads to Aksum may represent a reflection of the defense against Greek dominance or at least influence, because a column on the edge of Adulis, which is probably older, only has Greek letters. In addition, the letter shapes there differ significantly from those on the coins. After the middle of the 4th century, there were increasing signs that Greek was barely mastered. In the 6th century only gold coins that were used in long-distance trade had Greek letters, the Greek was probably out of use even in the capital.

Already at this time, Aksum controlled access to the Red Sea with the important port of Adulis , eight days' journey from Aksum , which enabled the Aksumite Empire to expand into southern Arabia. At the beginning of the 3rd century, Aksum extended his sphere of influence for the first time, demonstrably on South Arabian soil, and concluded an alliance with the Sabaean king 'Alhan Nahfan . However, his son Sha'ir Autar broke the alliance and supported the Himyar king in the expulsion of Aksumite troops from the Himyar capital of Zafar . Aksumite troops continued to operate in southern Arabia in the following decades.

The expansion west of the Red Sea was more permanent. Campaigns against the “Noba” and “Kasu” took place as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, as commemorative steles show. Although these steles offer historical sequences, there are great difficulties in identifying the geographical names and the named peoples or tribes, especially since the names often lack vocalization. In any case, the revolt of the "Bega" was put down, the defeated settled in an area under Aksumite control called "Matlia". These were perhaps northern neighbors east of the Nile Valley. The Kasu were in all likelihood Kush in the northern Sudanese Nile Valley; accordingly the Noba, who are also named, were probably Nubians.

Roman-Indian trade, Christianization (mid 4th century)

Endubis gold coin (late 3rd century); Diameter 15.6 mm, weight 2.72 g; Bust looking right, the ruler is wearing a cap or helmet, depiction framed by two stalks with ears of wheat. The legend of the obverse reads: "ENDUBIS - BASILEUS". On the reverse there is also a bust of a ruler, only with a different legend: "AXwMITw BISIDACY" (by the Axumites of Dakhu, vowels added).
Coin of Ezana with pagan symbols, minted before his conversion to Christianity

Adulis was an important station for the Roman Indian trade (see also Roman-Indian relations ), which is why contacts with the Roman Empire came early . The Roman emperor Aurelian (270 to 275) is said to have received an Aksumite embassy. From King Endubis , who reigned around 300, the Aksumite rulers had coins minted based on the Roman model and with Greek lettering; Endubis called himself basileus . When Constantine the Great , the Roman coinage reformed, the Aksumiten fit in. Their coins allow a fairly well-secured chronology.

However, the historical processes are still hardly known. The Aksum stele park dates from pre-Christian times. There, steles mark the graves of people in high positions, possibly kings. They date from the 3rd and 4th centuries. The largest of these steles measured 33 m and weighed 520 t. The later graves from Christian times date from the 6th century and were built over with chapels. Even if most of the graves were much simpler, in some cases even without any additions, they always had steles. These graves were mostly located outside of “urban” areas (“conurbations”, perhaps to be translated as “conurbations”).

Around 325 the crew of a Roman ship that had called at an Aksumite port was gutted for unclear reasons; Frumentius is said to have been among the two survivors , with whom the Christian mission in Aksum later began. In the middle of the 4th century , the Aksumite king Ezana converted to Christianity according to evidence of coins and inscriptions. At the same time he had military successes in the Nile Valley and in southern Arabia. However, it is questionable whether two inscriptions from Meroe and the more recent section of the Monumentum Adulitanum go back to him. The Roman emperor Constantius II was probably in contact with the empire of Aksum, Theophilos the Indian returned from his official "mission to the Orient" to the empire via Aksum. In Aksum, which was about 30 days' journey from the Roman border with land, Greek inscriptions were placed at that time.

Trade intensified and it also included goods such as wine in amphorae from the eastern Mediterranean or glassware from Egypt and Libya.

Gaps in tradition (mid 4th – early 6th century), conquest of southern Arabia (around 530-535)

No historical events have survived until the 6th century. Emperor Justinian sent the diplomat Julianus, then Nonnosus, to Aksum, whose report has been preserved as a summary. With Eastern Roman support, King Ella Asbeha attacked the Jewish King Yusuf Asʾar Yathʾar (Dhu Nuwas) of Himyar (in present-day Yemen, see also the corresponding statements in the article Late Antiquity ) around 530 , who had previously persecuted the Himyar Christians. He conquered Himyar, which remained under Aksumite control for several years before becoming independent under Abraha around 535 .

The Roman support for Aksum, despite the predominant Miaphysite form of Christianity there, can be traced back to strategic reasons: Rome and the New Persian Sassanid Empire were in conflict with each other (see Roman-Persian Wars ). Constantinople hoped to gain new safe trade routes in the South Arabian region with the help of the Christian empire of Aksum. This did not work. A little later, around 550, the Greek merchant Kosmas Indicopleustes wrote a report on the route of the Eastern Roman trade in India, in which he also described Aksum. At the request of the locals, he copied and translated the now-lost Greek Monumentum Adulitanum , which was made from a victory inscription by Ptolemy King Ptolemy III. as well as an inscription of an unnamed Aksumite king (Ezana? Zoskales? Sembruthes?), which was probably created much later.

Decline (up to around 960)

In the first half of the 7th century coinage stopped. The beginning of the spread of Islam led to the decline of the kingdom at this time, when areas on the coast were separated from the Christian kingdom and the old trade routes were blocked. Now even more isolated from the outside world, parts of the Aksumite culture have been preserved, especially in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The fact that Christianity in the area of ​​Ethiopia and Eritrea was not fought harder and so survived is explained by the fact that the Aksumite king had protected followers of Muhammad in 615, about seven years from the hijra .

The decline of the empire dragged on for a long time. Aksum was given up as the capital in the 9th century at the latest. Around 960 Queen Gudit of Shewa killed the last king of Aksum and took over the rule. This ended the Aksumite Empire. The Zagwe dynasty came to power in the 11th or 12th century .


Pre-Christian time

The temple of Yeha

Because of the scarce written sources, little is known about the pre-Christian Aksumite religion. While typical Sabaean deities were worshiped in Da'amot, the triad of gods Astar , Mahrem and Beher not known from southern Arabia can be found on Aksumite inscriptions . Astar has been identified with Zeus and is a widespread Semitic god. Mahrem was equated with the god of war Ares and was considered the king's father and protector. Beher could have been a water god. Pre-Christian shrines are hardly known. Among the well-known, the Presumite Temple of Yeha occupies a prominent position.

Christian time

The monastery of Debre Damo , one of the oldest Ethiopian sacred buildings, in typical Aksumite architecture

According to later Roman traditions, the Tyrian Frumentius and his brother came to Aksum in the 4th century and converted King Ezana to Christianity there. This made Aksum the very first Christian black African state. Bishops' seats were at least in Aksum and Adulis, but details of the structure of the Aksumite church are unknown. The Ethiopian Church was part of the Coptic Church until the 20th century , with which it separated from the Imperial Church (later Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church) after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 .

Through the isolation of Ethiopia from the rest of the Christian world since the Islamic expansion - relations only existed with the Coptic Church in Egypt - the Ethiopian Church has retained characteristics of the early Church. Nevertheless, due to the medieval church and liturgical reform, it cannot be assumed that the liturgy and customs of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which still exist today, essentially reflect the situation during the Aksumite Empire. The traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean liturgy are characterized by strong Old Testament and Coptic influences.

Material culture


By far the largest proportion of the found works of Aksumite art and handicrafts are ceramics, which are mostly made without a potter's wheel . Aksumite pottery was mostly red, more rarely black or gray. In addition to rough, undecorated utility ceramics, there are also variously decorated goods. Frequent decorations are incised, impressed or painted crosses, plants, panels and other patterns. Occasionally, roughly crafted clay figurines and pottery of unknown use can be found.

Metal was also used relatively frequently, mostly iron, copper and bronze; more rarely gold and silver, including a treasure find from Matara. The spectrum of metal finds includes, on the one hand, various types of everyday objects and weapons, and, on the other hand, pieces of jewelry, figurines and other decorative objects. These are usually relatively small. Larger statues are mentioned in writing, but have not survived. Particularly noteworthy among the Aksumite metalwork are the coins made of gold, silver or bronze based on the Roman model.

Other materials that were processed in the Aksumite empire are ivory, stone and probably only occasionally glass.


Stele from Aksum

From the Aksumite architecture, mainly large buildings - probably the residences of noble people - from Aksum, Dungur and Matara are known. They follow a relatively uniform construction plan. In the middle there was a roughly square building with a side length of 15–30 m and corner risers . It was surrounded by one or more courtyards and adjoining rooms, which together formed a rectangular complex. Its size fluctuated between 50 m × 50 m and 120 m × 80 m. The residential buildings of the poorer population have only been researched to a limited extent, the excavations in Matara are particularly informative: the population lived there in small (approx. 25 m²) stone houses with a few rooms, which were built close together and formed blocks of houses, which in turn were separated from each other by narrow streets were.

The most famous buildings from the Aksumite Empire are certainly the large steles in the Aksum necropolis. They have a height of up to 30 m. Its sides are treated with reliefs that apparently imitate Aksumite house walls.

The churches are a special element of Aksumite architecture. They were similar to the buildings in Christian Syria apsidal basilicas . Such structures were u. a. excavated in Aksum, in Matara and in Adulis.


The Aksumite economy was based on agriculture and animal husbandry, which were particularly favored in southern Ethiopia by the climate and soil conditions. It cannot be answered with certainty whether irrigation systems were used for agriculture as in southern Arabia. The remains of water storage facilities such as the Mai Shum in Aksum cannot be dated.

The rise of Aksum was probably only made possible by trade. Roman sources exist for this. For the early period these are in particular the Periplus Maris Erythraei, for the 6th century the report of the Cosmas Indicopleustes . According to their statements, the Aksumite empire exported in particular products made from animals native to Ethiopia, such as ivory , tortoise shell , hippo skin and monkeys. The export of frankincense and spices, gold and slaves also played a role. In return, Aksum imported mainly fabrics, ceramics, glassware and metals from India and the Roman Empire.

Language and writing

Old Ethiopian manuscript (15th century)

The language of the Aksumite Empire was Old Ethiopian , which is one of the Ethiosemitic languages ​​from the southern branch of the Semitic languages . However, even before Christianization, Greek was often used in royal inscriptions . The Ethiopian script comes from southern Arabia. Like the old South Arabic script , it was initially a pure consonant script ; under the reign of Ezana, however, it was expanded into a syllabary by adding small lines and circles .

See also


  • Franz Altheim , Ruth Stiehl : History of the Aksūmischen Empire. In: Franz Altheim, Ruth Stiehl: Christianity on the Red Sea. Volume 1. de Gruyter, Berlin et al. 1971, pp. 393-483. ISBN 3-11-003790-4
  • Glen Bowersock : The Throne of Adulis. Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam. Oxford University Press, Oxford et al. 2013, ISBN 978-0-19-973932-5 .
  • Heinzgerd Brakmann : Το παρα τοις βαρβαροις εργον θειον. The roots of the church in the late ancient empire of Aksum. Borengässer, Bonn 1994 (at the same time: Bonn, University, dissertation, 1993: The roots of the church in the late antique empire of Aksum ). ISBN 3-923946-24-4
  • Francis Breyer : The Kingdom of Aksum. History and Archeology of Abyssinia in Late Antiquity. von Zabern, Mainz et al. 2012, ISBN 978-3-8053-4460-9 .
  • Marilyn Heldman: African Zion. The Sacred Art of Ethiopia . Yale University Press, New Haven CT et al. 1993, ISBN 0-300-05819-5 .
  • Yuri M. Kobishchanov: Axum. Edited by Joseph W. Michels, translated by Lorraine T. Kapitanoff. Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park PA et al. 1979, ISBN 0-271-00531-9 .
  • Stuart C. Munro-Hay: Aksum. An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 1991, ISBN 0-7486-0106-6
  • Stuart C. Munro-Hay: Excavations at Aksum. An account of research at the ancient Ethiopian capital directed in 1972–4 by the late Dr Neville Chittik (= Memoirs of the British Institute in Eastern Africa. Vol. 10). British Institute in Eastern Africa, London 1989, ISBN 0-500-97008-4 .
  • David W. Phillipson: Ancient Ethiopia. Aksum: Its Antecedents and its Successors. British Museum Press, London 1998, ISBN 0-7141-2539-3 .
  • David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012.
  • Timothy Power: The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate. AD 500-1000. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo 2012, ISBN 978-977-416-544-3 .
  • Sergew Hable Sellassie: Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. United Printers, Addis Ababa 1972.
  • Andreas Urs Sommer : Outline of the Axumitic Numismatics. In: Money Trend. Vol. 22, No. 9, September 1990, pp. 20-23. ISSN  1420-4576

Web links

Commons : Kingdom of Aksum  - collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. David W. Phillipson: The antiquity of cultivation and herding in Ethiopia. In: Thurstan Shaw , Paul Sinclair, Bassey Andah, Alex Okpoko (Eds.): The Archeology of Africa. Routledge, London / New York 1993, pp. 334-357, here p. 347, ISBN 0-415-11585-X .
  2. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, p. 19 f.
  3. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, p. 24.
  4. ^ Mike Schnelle: Grat Beal Gebri - building history Analysis of a Monumental Building of the early 1st Millennium BC. Chr. In the Ethiopian Highlands , in: Architectura - Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Baukunst 43 (2013) 89–112.
  5. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, p. 38.
  6. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, p. 42.
  7. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, p. 55.
  8. Der Kleine Pauly, Vol. 1, Col. 79.
  9. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, pp. 75 f.
  10. On the ancient trade in India see Raoul McLaughlin: Rome and the Distant East. Trade Routes to the Ancient Lands of Arabia, India and China. London / New York 2010, p. 23 ff .; Gary K. Young: Rome's Eastern Trade. London / New York 2001, p. 24 ff.
  11. ^ David W. Phillipson: Foundations of an African Civilization. Aksum & the Northern Horn, 1000 BC - AD 1300 , Addis Ababa University Press, 2012, p. 48.
  12. Saheed A. Adekumobi: The History of Ethiopia . Greenwood Press, Westport CT et al. 2007, ISBN 978-0-313-32273-0 , pp. 10 .

Coordinates: 17 ° 41 ′  N , 36 ° 23 ′  E