Axum Empire: Religion, Culture & Government

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  • 0:04 Background on the Axum Empire
  • 1:51 Religion of the Axum Empire
  • 2:40 Culture of the Axum Empire
  • 3:55 Government of the Axum Empire
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason McCollom
Ancient Ethiopia in east Africa, with its capital at Axum, represented an early Christian empire situated at lucrative trade routes across Eurasia. In this lesson, learn about the religion, culture, and government of Axum.

Background on the Axum Empire

Imagine yourself in a foreign land, and you don't speak the language. You want to buy some food so you have to do so without verbal communication. It might take some time, but you would probably be able to make the transaction and fill you belly without language.

As center of the growing trade route between the Roman Empire and India through the Red Sea and between those societies and East Africa, emerged Axum at the crossroads. Here, traders of all backgrounds--and languages--bought and sold goods. Often the buyers would place gold coins next to product. If the seller accepted the deal, he took the coins. If the coins lay there a bit longer, the buyer knew he had to offer more money and lay down more coins until the seller picked them up and handed over his merchandise. Thus the language barrier was overcome by the desire for mutually beneficial trade.

Such transactions occurred thousands of times over hundreds of years at Axum, the capital of the Ethiopian Empire between about 50 C.E. and the 12th century. Situated on the Ethiopian highlands, Axum controlled the massive trade of the region. At Axum, merchants and sellers from around the region bartered, bought, and sold a variety of goods: ivory, frankincense, myrrh, textiles, wine, olive oil, hippopotamus hides, rhinoceros horns, tortoise shell, monkeys, and even human slaves. Situated at this perfect area for trade, Axum developed characteristic types of religion, culture, and government. Let's take a look at each one.

Religion of the Axum Empire

Axum was one of the earliest states to adopt Christianity as an official religion. Before this transition in the 4th century C.E., Axum's rulers believed they were descended from King Solomon, when the Queen of Sheba visited Israel in ancient times. Because of this, Axum followed the religion of Saba - also known as Sheba, a kingdom across the Red Sea on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

In the 4th century, however, Christianity spread to Axum from Egypt. This type of Christianity is referred to as Coptic, from the regional language of the time. Even after Axum collapsed after the 12th century and the subsequent spread of Islam through the region, Coptic Christianity remained and does so to this day.

Culture of the Axum Empire

We can get a glimpse of an ancient society's culture from its material remains. These remains show a beautifully crafted mausoleum with ten galleries, suggesting a strong worship of kings and leaders. The central plaza of the city had four magnificent towers and thrones made of marble alongside gold and silver statues. This was an empire that embraced wealth and power.

Material remains also indicate a strong agrarian culture in the surrounding areas outside Axum city proper. Axumite coins have ears of wheat stamped on them. Surviving inscriptions indicate agricultural production and processing encompassing wheat, butter, meats, honey, wine, and vegetable oils. Axum also kept the world's first records of coffee.

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