Discover more from African History Extra
The Aksumite empire between Rome and India: an African global power of late antiquity (200-700AD)
"There are four great kingdoms in the world: Persia, Rome, Aksum and China; none surpasses them"
For more than half a millennium of late antiquity, the ancient world's political theatre was dominated by a handful of powerful empires, one of which was an African civilization from the northern horn of Africa. Its conquests extended from southern Egypt to central Arabia, its merchants sailed to Jordan and Sri Lanka, and its emissaries went to Constantinople (Turkey) and Amaravati (India). This was the empire of Aksum, a state which left its imprint on much of the known world, etching its legacy on stone stelæ, on gold coins and in the manuscripts of ancient scholars. As the Persian prophet Mani (d. 277AD) wrote in his Kephalaia: "There are four great kingdoms in the world. The first is the kingdom of the land of babylon and Persia, the second is the kingdom of the Romans. The third is the kingdom of the Aksumites, the fourth is the kingdom of silis (China); there is none that surpasses them".1
Rising from relative obscurity in the 1st century, the early Aksumite state in the northern horn shifted from its old capital at Bete giorgyis to Aksum, giving it its name. Its from this new capital that the fledging empire established its control over the coastal town of Adulis (and its port Gabaza), and over the next five centuries, the bustling city of Adulis became the most important transshipment point and trading hub in the red sea, a conduit for the late antique trade network of Silk, Pepper and Ivory that connected the Roman empire to India and China.2 This lucrative trade financed the military conquests of the Aksumite kings which in Mani's time included the regions of; western Arabia, Yemen, northeastern Sudan, southeastern Egypt, northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, and parts of Djibouti and Somaliland. The wealth derived from the agricultural surpluses and trade imports acquired from these lands sustained the construction of the grand villas, large cities and monumental basilicas. The prestige earned by the Aksumite emperors from their global power status was demonstrated in their monumental funerary architecture of large stone and rock-cut tombs surmounted by massive stela more than 100 ft high, on their gold, silver and copper coins which were used as currency across the red sea littoral and the eastern Mediterranean and have been found as far as Palestine and India, and in their diplomatic and political relationships with the emperors of Rome and the kings of India.
Aksum's prominence marked the second time an African civilization outside north Africa played an important role in global politics (after the kingdom of Kush), Its conquest of the Hamyrite kingdom of southern Arabia twice in the 3rd and 6th century as well as its conquest of the Meroitic kingdom of Kush in the 4th century, cemented its position as a dominant power in the red-sea region. Aksum was situated right at the center of a lucrative trade conduit between Rome and India and maintained a close political relationship with both societies, but especially with Rome to which Aksum sent several embassies.
The Aksumite empire's cautious and deliberate adoption of Hellenism, and later Christianity was underpinned by the internationalist world view and ambitions of its emperors, especially its adoption of Christianity, a religion where Ethiopia (a name for Kush which Aksum later appropriated3) featured prominently in biblical texts as well as Christian eschatological narratives which position it ahead of Egypt as the first among the “gentile nations”.4 This prominence is emphasized in the medieval Ethiopian text; the Kebra negast (a quasi-foundational charter of the “Solomonic” Ethiopian empire) that retained sections from the Askumite era which position the Aksumite emperor Kaleb (r. 510-540) as senior to the Byzantine-roman emperor Justin I (518-527) in an allegorical meeting of the two powers convened at Jerusalem to divide the world.5
Its within this internationalist world view and cosmopolitan trade context that an understanding of the global reach of the Aksumite empire is best situated, an African state which left its legacy in the minds and works of classical writers, playing a seminal role in early global commerce, the spread of the now-dominant religions of Christianity and Islam, and whose monarchs, armies, scribes, merchants and people created one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the ancient world. This article focuses on Aksum on the global political arena, providing an overview of its origins, its conquests in Arabia and northeast Africa, its extensive trade network, its diplomatic ties with Rome and its global legacy.
Map of the Aksumite empire including the cities and states mentioned in this article
if you like this article, or you’d like to contribute to my African history website project; please donate to my paypal
Origins of Aksum: from the Neolithic era to Bieta Giyorgis
The emergence of the Aksumite state at the turn of the common era was a culmination of the increasing social complexity in the northern horn of Africa from the 3rd millennium BC to the mid first millennium BC which enabled the rise of small polities in the region, these early polities gave Aksum many of the kingdom's cultural affinities and distinctive architecture such as the elite tombs surmounted with stone stela and the rectilinear dry-stone houses built around densely packed proto-urban settlements. This begun at the ancient site of Mahal Teglinos in the “gash group” neolithic culture (2700BC-1400BC) as well as at Qohaito in the “Ona neolithic” culture (900-400BC).6 but the biggest contribution came from the Damot (D'MT) kingdom based at Yeha in northern Ethiopia, Damot was an ancient state of autochthonous origin established around the 9th century BC which was involved in the long-distance with the Nile valley kingdoms (Kush and Egypt) and the maritime trade network of the red-sea region (dominated by the kingdom of Saba in southern Arabia), and was significantly urbanized, its rulers adopted a number of south-Arabian elements from the Saba such as the south-Arabian script, and modified their local architecture to Sabean styles with the construction of the large temples at Yeha, Hawlti, Malazo, Meqaber Ga’ewa and a few other sites, the Damot kingdom however, remained fundamentally African evidenced by the names of the rulers that are only attested in the northern horn of Africa7, the king's co-regency with/prominent position of their queen regents, statues of seated women with ornaments in Nubian style, the overwhelmingly local pottery wares and local funerary traditions8 all of which point to a deliberate but largely superficial borrowing of Sabean elements by autochthonous rulers to enhance their power.
Temple at Yeha, Ethiopia built in the 9th century BC
Damot collapsed by the mid second millennium, around the time when a new state was emerging at Bieta Giyorgis hill (1 km north of Aksum( in 400BC, this early Aksumite state developed most of the features later associated with Aksum, with a large proto-urban settlement at the site of Ona nagast that had monumental buildings including a large, storeyed palatial complex with subterranean rooms, as well as elaborate pit graves surmounted with monolithic stone stela upto 5m high. Save for a few imports from the meroitic kingdom of Kush and the red-sea littoral, Ona nagast belongs firmly within the local tradition. Between late 1st millennium BC and the 1st century AD, the south Arabian script was significantly modified to write the local Ge'ez language in the Aksumite heartland creating both the “Monumental” and “cursive” scripts, the latter of which is referred to as the ‘Old ethiopic’ script (or Ge'ez script) and appears more frequently during the Aksumite era9. By the end of the 1st century AD, the capital of the early Aksumite state was then shifted from Bieta Giyorgis to the lower lying region of Aksum where the city was founded.10
excavation photo of an early Aksumite palace at Beita Giyorgis built in the late 1st millennium BC
The early Aksumite state was already significantly urbanized, the most important cities were Aksum, Matara, Qohayto, Adulis, Beta Samati, Yeha, Wakarida as well as dozens of other smaller towns and villages such as Tekondo, Zala-Bet-Makeda, Ham, Etchmara, Gulo-Makeda, Haghero Deragweh, Dergouah, Henzat, Enda Maryam, Tseyon Tehot, Maryam Kedih, Anza, Hawzien, Degum, Cherqos Agula and Nazret. The majority of these cities and towns dominated by large, multi-story housing complexes with dozens of rooms and basements, recessed walls and massive corner projections, accessed through an imposing central pavilion with grand staircases the interior had storage units and underfloor heating, the construction of these building complexes was “emphatically designed to impress".
The complexes were likely provincial administrative centers of the Aksumite state for housing the local governors11; the largest of the best preserved were within the vicinity of Aksum itself was the so-called queen Sheba's palace at Dungur, Taaka Maryam, Enda Semon, and Enda Mikael other elite residences were at Matara, Adulis, Wakarida 12, and a smaller one at Beta Semati13 among others these were surrounded by lower status domestic buildings of square plan with multi-roomed interiors and dry-stone walls, and in the later era would be build around large basilicas.
the Dungur palace at Aksum
Ruins of the cities of Matara and Adulis in eritrea
Other notable elements of the Aksumite state were elaborate built, monumental tombs of stone, one of which was a mausoleum complex covering more than 250 sqm with a central passage that led to ten side chambers with tombs containing the remains of pre-christian Aksumite monarchs, above this complex was a platform on which was surmounted a number of gigantic stone stele that were elaborated carved in representation of multistory Aksumite buildings, the largest of these stele was 33 meters in height and weighed a massive 520 tonnes, all of these were carved from stone quarried with iron tools from the region of Gobedra, more than 4km east of Aksum from which they were transported on rollers, in the Christian era, the stele were replaced by rock-cut churches built on top of well constructed tombs.14
Aksum stele field
Aksum mausoleum for the pre-Christian monarchs
Aksumite coinage was cast beginning in the 3rd century and ending in the 7th century in gold, copper and silver representing the issue of atleast twenty Aksumite monarchs, these coins were largely used in Aksum's international trade hence their initial inscriptions made in Greek but were later inscribed in Ge'ez as well in the 4th century and 5th century, its these Aksumite coins that are found as far as Palestine, south Arabia, Sri lanka, India, as well as in numerous sites in the northern Horn of Africa.15
Greek remained a minority language in Aksum (compared to Ge’ez), it was specifically intended for a foreign audiences and a careful reading of Aksumite inscriptions indicated that they were first written in Ge’ez then translated to Greek which partially explains the contrast between the well-written Greek inscriptions of Aksum’s zenith vs the poorly written ones in the 7th century.16 And the last of Aksum’s most significant elements were the stone Thrones; these massive, neatly dressed stone slabs in form of a royal seats measured about 2 meters square and 0.3m thick, they had footstools and were protected in a shrine-like shelter with a roof supported by corner pillars.
Aksum’s stone thrones were carved as early as the 3rd century and the tradition continued well into the 6th century, some of these thrones were sat on at ceremonial occasions in the later Aksumite eras although most served a symbolic rather than functional value, many of the thrones were widely distributed in the kingdom's domains although all virtually all are currently at Aksum itself.17 A number of them bear inscriptions, the earliest of which was an inscribed throne found at Adulis that narrates the conquests of an Aksumite emperor in the early 3rd century, this Monumentum Adulitanum II inscription was the first extensive royal inscription of Aksumite monarchs and it preserves the earliest historiography of Aksumite's global reach.
The first era of the Aksumite empire's red-sea hegemony (200-270AD)
By the 2nd century AD, the red sea trade route connecting the eastern Mediterranean, (dominated by the roman empire) and the western half of the Indian ocean, (dominated by a number of polities including the Satavahana state), had become an important conduit in the late antique trade, which the states in the coastal region of the northern horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula were well positioned to exploit. The Aksumite state had been greatly expanding since the 1st century when it was first attested in external accounts with the mention of the "city of the people called Auxumites" as well as a “king Zoskales” in a document titled the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, Zoskales was likely a governor/kinglet of Adulis subordinate to Aksum.18
Aksum was consolidating its authority near the red sea coast , subsuming smaller states a few of which were attested locally in unvocalized Ge'ez as ’GB and DWLY 19 and establishing itself in the maritime trade to the Indian ocean; it was during this time that first Aksumite emissaries are attested abroad on a late 2nd century Satavahana stupa depicting Aksumite diplomats bearing presents. Aksum then set its sights across the red sea to the southern Arabian region which at the time was politically fragmented between small states engaged in internecine wars, providing the Aksumites with an opportunity to exploit.
Foreign merchants (including Aksumites in the bottom half) giving presents to the Satavahana king Badhuma, depicted on a sculpture from Amaravati, India20
The region of southern Arabia was dominated by four states in the late 2nd century which were; the ancient kingdom of Saba, the kingdoms of Hadhramawt and Qataban and the kingdom of Himyar, the last of which was a new but growing power that had since cut off Saba from the coast effectively making the latter landlocked, the Sabeans therefore allied with the Aksumites in the early 3rd century to invade Himyar in a successful operation that resulted in Aksum occupying Himyar's capital Zafar as well as gaining new territories north of Saba upto the city of Najaran. The Aksumite king who directed this campaign was Gadara, the first ruler attested on both the Arabian and northern horn, he then left his son Baygat (BYGT) to garrison the city of Zafar21 after which he proceeded to northwestern Arabia.
For the rest of Gadara’s campaigns, we turn to the local documentation provided by the Monumentum Adulitanum II, a Greek inscription made on a throne set at Adulis by an unnamed Aksumite ruler (whom most scholars consider to be Gadara22) narrating his campaigns in northeastern Africa and the Arabian peninsular, the account is fairly detailed mentioning the King's conquests in the eastern desert upto southern Egypt, conquests into Ethiopian interior upto the Simēn mountains as well as into northern Somaliland, and conquests into Arabia from the Sabean kingdom in the south to as far north as the ancient Nabataean port of Leuke Kome in northwestern Arabia.
"I sent both a fleet and an army of infantry against the Arabitai and the Kinaidocolpitai who dwell across the Red Sea, and I brought their kings under my rule. I commanded them to pay tax on their land and to travel in peace by land and sea. I made war from Leukê Kômê to the lands of the Sabaeans."23
This was the zenith of Aksumite imperial power, with overseas wars, occupation of territories in Arabia, military alliances, a fleet and infantry, and the extension of Aksumite political and military influence over the entire red-sea region, it was in the 3rd century that Mani was counting Aksum among the global powers, which was befitting of an empire controlling vast territory from northwestern Arabia to the Ethio-Sudanese interior to Somalialand and southern Arabia.
Throne bases at Aksum and a reconstruction of the Adulis throne
Aksum's position in both northwestern and southern Arabia remained relatively firm through the century as more Aksumite kings are attested in the region; from Adhebah (ADBH) and his son Garmat (GRMT) in the mid 3rd century to Datawnas (DTWNS) and Zaqarnas (ZQRNS) in the late 3rd century, this was despite losing Zafar to the resurgent Himyarites who then turned around and allied with Aksum to settle a dynastic struggle, but maintained a kind of suzerainty under Aksum that lasted into the late 3rd century as further Aksumite campaigns are mentioned into the region during 267-268AD.
By the end of the 3rd century, Aksum had relinquished control of southern Arabia peacefully as Himyar annexed both Hadhramawt and Saba but maintained diplomatic relations with Aksum in the succeeding decades. Aksum maintained control of western Arabia well into the 6th century (even before its second invasion of Himyar in the 6th century) and controlled parts of Himyar as well, this presence is attested to by inscriptions in Zafar from 509 as well as at Najran in the 6th century; both of which had large Aksumite community that recognized the authority of Aksum’s monarchs24 and Aksum’s port city Adulis now rivaled all Arabian port cities as the busiest port in the region.25
Interlude from the 4th to early 6th century: Aksum’s maritime commerce, the conquest of Kush and Ezana’s conversion to Christianity.
Aksumite trade flourished beginning in the 3rd and 4th centuries, Aksum became the major supplier of ivory to Rome and western Asia and would continue so well into the seventh century, gold, civet-perfume and incense were also exported from the Aksumite mainland but in small quantities26. Doubtlessly the most important Aksumite trade was its re-export of Indian silk textiles and pepper to Rome; as the roman vessels gradually pulled out of the red-sea trade in the mid first millennium, the vacuum was filled by intermediaries like Aksum whose vessels sailed to Sri Lanka to purchase the Indian textiles as well as pepper for Mediterranean markets which was exchanged for gold coinage, Aksumite and roman goods.
The most explicit reference to this middle-man role of Aksum comes from Proconious in the 6th century where Justinian I (r. 527-565) encourages the Aksumite emperor Kaleb to direct his merchants to buy more cargoes of Silk from India27, another roman chronicle writes that the Aksumite king resented the Himyarite usurper Dhu Nuwas for blocking Aksum’s Roman trade, saying "You have harmed my empire and inland India (arabia) by preventing Roman traders from reaching us" as well as Cosmas in the early 6th century who records Aksumite trading fleets in Sri Lanka28 These writers were only recording the culmination of a protracted process in which Aksum became the most important commercial partner of Rome in the red sea network, the kind of trade which necessitated the issuance of gold coinage which, after a period of using roman and Kushan coins (from northern India that were found at Debre Damo in ethiopia) in the late 2nd century and early 3rd century, was undertaken at Aksum with coins struck bearing Aksumite rulers’ names starting with Endybis (r. 270-290) and continuing into the 7th century.
Aksum’s trimellaic issues were inscribed in Greek and later in Ge'ez and were carried by Aksumite merchants in Aksumite ships plying their trade from the northern red-sea to Egypt, Arabia and southern India. The importance of Aksum’s gold coinage and its predominance in the archeological discoveries of Aksumite material culture outside Africa was a function of its preference in international trade, for example, the writer Cosmas noted that the Sri Lankan king preferred the gold coinage of the Romans and Aksumites to the silver coinage of the Persians.29 its for this reason that these Aksumite gold coins have been discovered in various ports across the red sea and Indian ocean littoral such as at the Jordanian port city of Aila (Aqaba) where 6th century writer Antoninus of Piacenza wrote that all the "shipping from Aksum and Yemen comes into the port at Aila, bringing a variety of spices"
This two way traffic involved Aksumite and roman merchants, whose transshipped merchandise (silk, pepper and Aksumite ivory) was taxed at Alia.30 Another important port where Aksumite merchants were active was Berenike on the Egyptian red sea coast, Aksum’s connection with this city was more permanent and involved the establishment of an Aksumite quarter where an a number of Ge'ez inscriptions were found as well as coins from Aphilas' reign from the 4th century31. Aksumite coin hoards have also been found at Zafar and Aden in Yemen and in India at Mangalore and Madurai dated to the 4th and 5th century, as well as at Karur in Tamil Nadu.32 The Aksumite coastal city of Adulis remained the main transshipment point connecting the red sea region to the indian ocean, its from this city that merchants would sail directly to and from Sri Lanka and such was the journey taken by the writers Scholasticus of Thebes (d. 360), Palladius (d. 420) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (d. 550).33
Aksum’s gold coins from the 3rd-6th century (British museum, Aksum museum)
Its within this context of international trade and cosmopolitanism that the Aksumite ruler Ezana (r. 330-360) converted to Christianity, after a shipwreck near Adulis brought two Syrian boys named Frumenius and Aedesius into the court of Ezana’s predecessor Ousanas where-after Frumenius gained the favor of the Aksumite king and later his successor Ezana who formally converted in 340AD.34Christianity was initially mostly an elite affair restricted to the royal court and prominent members of Aksumite society, but the construction of churches across the empire and the proselytizing work done by Aksumite missionaries spread the religion across the empire’s provinces firmly establishing the religion by the mid 1st millennium35.
In the 4th century, the emperors Ousanas and Kaleb sent expeditions into the "middle Nile" region of sudan which was under the control of the declining Kingdom of Kush that was facing incursions from the nomadic groups such as the Blemmyes, Nubians and the Beja all of whom were also threatening Aksum's western provinces. Ousanas’ campaign terminated in the domains of Kush itself where he erected victory inscriptions, a throne and a bronze statue at its capital Meroe, two of these inscriptions are of an unamed king bearing the titles "King of the Aksumites and Himyarites …" and they narrate his capture of Kush's royal families, erection of a throne, the bronze statue and the subjection of tribute on Kush36.
While its difficult to gauge how firm Aksum's control of kush was, the primary intention of Aksum’s western campaigns into Sudan since the reign of Gadara was to secure the eastern desert region against the threats posed by the nomadic groups who were threatening the red sea ports like Berenike especially after the decline of roman control there, the road to southern Egypt built by Gadara was primarily for pacification of the region more than it was for over-land trade37. The resumption of nomad incursions in the the eastern desert prompted another invasion this time led by Ezana in 360AD primarily directed against the Nubians the latter of whom had overrun Aksum’s northwestern provinces as well as the territory of Kush -then a tributary state of Aksum and thus under its protection, as Ezana's inscription narrates: "I went forth to war on the Noba, because the Mangurto and Khasa and Atiadites and Barya cried out against them saying: “The Noba have subdued us, come and help us, because they have oppressed and killed us.” Ezana then sacked many cities of the Nubians north of the 3rd cataract region upto the 1st cataract region.38
But since the region of Nubia was peripheral to Aksumite concerns, these campaigns weren’t followed up by his successors and the Nubian state of Noubadia had firmly established itself in the region by the mid 5th century, by which time Aksum's power had seemingly declined briefly when it was visited by Palladius (d. 431)39 although this “decline” may have only been apparent as the coinage issued during this period was monotonously stable in all three metals without debasement40.
Throughout this period since the 3th century, the Aksumite monarchs maintained the titles "king of Aksum, Himyar, Saba, dhā-Raydān, Tihāma, Ḥaḍramawt …" despite losing their Arabian territories (except Tihama/Hejaz), this lay of claim of territories that they didn't actually rule reflected the ambitions of the the Aksumite emperors to reposes them and were contrasted by the Himyratie king's similar titulary of "King of Saba, dhū-Raydān, Ḥaḍramawt, Yemen" thus pitting these two states in direct opposition to each other, so when the political and religious upheavals in Himyar in the early 6th century presented an opportunity for invasion, the Aksumite emperor Kaleb (r. 510-540) took this chance to restore Aksumite power in southern Arabia.
Emperor Ousanas’ victory inscriptions at Meroe (now kept in the Sudan national museum)
Kaleb's invasion of Himyar and the restoration of Aksumite hegemony in Arabia
The Aksumite conquest of Himyar is attested in a number of primary sources and was ostensibly a religious conflict but was infact a restoration of Aksum's political and economic hegemony in the red sea region. As mentioned earlier, Kaleb had accused Dhu nuwas, the ruler of Himyar of disrupting Aksum's trade with Rome which was substantial as the byzantine-roman emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) had asked the Aksumite emperor to increase his purchases of Indian silk at the time when the overland silk route across Asia had been constrained by Rome's uneasy relationship with the Sasanian-Persian empire.
Parallel to Aksum's conversion to Christianity was Himyar's conversion to Judaism but since Aksum maintained a continuous presence in Arabia's Tihama coast, it was the them that introduced Christianity in the Himyarite domain through the bishop Philophilus of Adulis (also called Theophilos the Ethiopian) who built a church in Zafar (the Himyarite capital) in the mid 4th century, this church was supported by the Aksumites who were involved in a military campaign into Himyar with the support of the Himyarite Christians afterwhich they installed a puppet king in 518 named Ma‘dīkarib Ya‘fur, (the direct predecessor of Dhu Huwas) who was violently overthrown by the latter who then proceeded to massacre the Christian community at Najaran including priests, monks and its inhabitants in 523, he would also kill any merchants trading with Aksum and seize their merchandise according to a report made by the roman historian and ambassador to Aksum, Nonnosus : “When some traders crossed into Homerite borders, as usual, Damianos [Dhū Nuwās], the emperor of the Homerites, killed them and took away all their goods, saying, ‘The Romans wrong the Jews in their own country and kill them.’ As a result the trade of the inland Indians (i.e. Arabian Peninsula) and of the Axoumite region ceased".41
Kaleb invaded Himyar in 525 with a fleet of 60 ships, some of which came from Aila (Aqaba) as well as Berenike, Farasan, Barbaria (somaliland) and atleast 9 ships from Aksum itself (built at Adulis), most of these were largely of roman design and were likely originally merchant vessels except the Aksumite and Barbaria ships which were sewn ships bounded with ropes rather than nails, and were much like the square-sail medieval Swahili and Somali ships42, they carried the Aksumite army of 120,000 men which defeated Dhu Nuwas's army and replaced him with an aksumite vicerory named Sumyafa Ashwa‘. Kaleb restored and built several churches in Zafar and Najaran, left an inscription at Zafar commemorating his victory and left a sizeable Aksumite contingent to pacify the province43.
This contingent was headed by the Aksumite general Abraha, who with its support deposed Ashwa and installed himself as ruler of Aksum's south Arabian province in 530, Abraha defeated several of Kaleb's attempts to remove him and the two later resolved that Abraha retain his autonomy in exchange for tribute to Kaleb, Abraha then begun ambitious construction projects in southern Arabia at Marib as well as military campaigns into central Arabia in 552 as far as the Hijaz coast (ie Tihama) including Mecca although without establishing a strong foothold thus marking the gradual end of Aksumite control of the western Arabia coast. Abraha had earlier on organized an international conference in 547 with diplomats from Byzantine, Persia, Aksum, the Lakhmids (eastern Arabian kingdom), and Ghassānids (northern Arabian kingdom) at his new capital Sana44 which was a continuation of the power politics in late antiquity between the Romans and the Persians with their allied states of Aksum and Ghassanids vs the Lakhmids and the now deposed Himyarites and similar embassies had been sent by the Romans to the Aksumite emperor Kaleb in 530 headed by Nonnosus, and the Akumites had also sent two embassies to Constantinople in 362, 532 and 55045.
Abraha ruled until 552 afterwhich he was succeeded by his sons Axum and Masruq until 570-575 when the Aksumite control of Arabia was ended by a Persian invasion, the resurgent Persians proceeded to annex Egypt from the Byzantines in 619, all of which was a prelude to the Arab invasion of the eastern Mediterranean region and the fall of both Persia and Byzantine, the great Aksumite coastal city of Adulis was sacked by an invading Arab fleet in 641AD but the Arab army was defeated onland by the Aksumites46, Adulis survived the attack but its importance as a transshipment port rapidly fell by the late 7th century coinciding with the rapid decline of the capital of Aksum47 forcing the retreat of Aksumite court into the Ethiopian interior and the gradual fall of the empire in the late first millennium.
bas-relief of Sumuyafa Ashwa from 530AD, Kaleb’s viceroy in southern Arabia
Abraha’s inscription of 547AD, from Mārib, Yemen
Conclusion: the legacy of Aksum
The extent of Aksum's global influence was preserved in accounts written by both its supporters and detractors, its commercial reach and dominance of the red sea region informed Mani's description of it as one of the global powers, its diplomatic, religious and commercial ties with Rome cemented its legacy as Rome's biggest ally. While its legacy in Muslim Arabia was split between the disdain for Abraha's invasion of the then pagan city of Mecca in 552 (which in Islamic tradition was postdated to around the time of Muhammad’s birth in 570), but this negative memory was paired with the positive image of the Aksumite ruler’s protection of the nascent Muslim community which fled to Aksum in 613AD.
Owing to its domination of the red sea littoral, Aksum was the second African power to play a significant role in global politics (after the 25th dynasty/empire of Kush), its wealth, monumental architecture, the Ge'ez script (used by over 100 million Ethiopians and Eritreans) and the establishment of one of the oldest Christian churches, are some of the most important Aksumite contributions to history: the legacy of one of the world’s greatest powers in late antiquity.
Ruins and architectural elements at Aksum (photos from the Deutsche Aksum Expedition 1902)
if you liked this article, or you’d like to contribute to my African history website project; please donate to my paypal
for more on African history including downloads of books on Aksum’s history, please subscribe to my Patreon account
"The chapter of the four kingdoms" in "The Kephalaia of the teacher" by Iain Gardner pg 197
The indo roman pepper trade and the muzirirs papyrus by Fredericho de romanis pg 333
Aksum and nubia by G. Hatke pgs 52-53
How the Ethiopian Changed His Skin by D Selden pg 339-340
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 66-68)
The Development of Ancient States in the Northern Horn of Africa by Rodolfo Fattovich pg 154-157)
Relations between southern Arabia and the northern Horn of Africa during the last millennium BC by David W. Phillipson pg 260
Remarks on the preaksumite period of nothern ethiopia by R. fattovich pg 20-24
Relations between southern Arabia and the northern Horn of Africa during the last millennium BC by David W. Phillipson pg 260)
The development of anfcient states in the Northern Horn of Africa by Rodolfo Fattovich pg 158)
Aksum, an african civilization of late antiquity by by S. C Munro-Hay pg 48, 49
Ethiopia: History, Culture and Challenges by Siegbert Uhlig et al Pg. 106
Beta Samati: discovery and excavation of an Aksumite town by Michael J. Harrower et al
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 139-156)
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 181-193)
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 54-56) l
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg pg 132-136),
Aksum, an african civilization of late antiquity by by S. C Munro-Hay pg 69)
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 73-74)
Trade And Trade Routes In Ancient India By Moti Chandra pg 235
Aksum, an african civilization of late antiquity by by S. C Munro-Hay pg 72-73)
(see George Hatke and G.W. Bowerstock’s books in this reference list)
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam By G.W. Bowersock pg 46
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy Power pg 112)
Aksum, an african civilization of late antiquity by by S. C Munro-Hay pg 75-77)
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 196-201)
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy Power pg 115-116, 127
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 200)
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy Power pg 127),
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy Power pg 45-47)
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy Power pg 61)
Cultural Interaction between Ancient Abyssinia and India by Dibishada B. Garnayak et al. pg 139-140
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy Power pg 84-85)
Aksum and nubia by G. Hatke pg 94
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam by G.W. Bowersock pg 63-71)
Aksum and nubia by G. Hatke pg 67-80
Aksum and nubia by G. Hatke pg 64, 62)
Aksum and nubia by G. Hatke pg 95-121, 135)
Aksum, an african civilization of late antiquity by by S. C Munro-Hay pg 82)
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 187-188)
The Red Sea region during the 'long' Late Antiquity by Timothy pg 115-116)
Aksum, an african civilization of late antiquity by by S. C Munro-Hay pg 221
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam by G.W. Bowersock pg 97-103)
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam by G.W. Bowersock pg 104-107)
Foundations of an African Civilisation by D. W Phillipson pg 201-202)
Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times By George F. Houran pg 54
The Ancient Red Sea Port of Adulis by Evan Peacock pg 133