The Kingdom of Aksum: History, Location & Trading Habits

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In the ancient world, trade was very important. Perhaps nobody appreciated this as well as the Kingdom of Aksum. In this lesson we'll cover the history of this important trade center.

The Kingdom of Aksum

Heard of Persia? Of course you have! Rome? Obviously! Aksum? The Kingdom of Aksum, a powerful state that thrived from roughly 100-940 CE in Africa, was one of the most important kingdoms you've never heard of. Located near modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea along the Red Sea, Aksum was a major trading nation. By this, we mean that its economy was almost entirely dependent on export and international trade. Aksum was a major facilitator of trade in the ancient world, responsible for moving goods between the eastern and western worlds that came from civilizations as distant as Rome and India. Just to give you an idea about what an important trading center this was, the capital city of Aksum is considered one of the potential resting places of the Ark of the Covenant. Now that's a big deal.

The Kingdom of Aksum

The Rise of Aksum

Ethiopia is one of the oldest inhabited areas on Earth, so it's no surprise that Aksum arose from a combination of existing ethnic and cultural groups. Major influences may have included the Sabaeans, a trading state from Southern Arabia, the local Da'amot people, and the declining Kingdom of Kush, a major trading center in modern-day Sudan. There's a lot we don't know about the first rulers of the Kingdom of Aksum, but some historians think the first Aksum king may have been a ruler named Zoskales. Again, the records are not completely clear here, but over the first few centuries of its existence, Aksum expanded its influence, formally conquering Kush by 350 CE. From there, it expanded its control to an area of almost a million square miles that included parts of modern Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Most significantly, Aksum controlled territory on both sides of the narrow Mandeb Strait that connected the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, giving the kingdom complete control over maritime trade through the region. With this, they became the political and economic power of East Africa. In fact, the Iranian prophet of the 3rd century, Mani, named Aksum one of the four great powers of the time, along with Persia, Rome, and China.

Height and Trade

When the Kingdom of Aksum was first formed, there were several kingdoms that made their wealth from trade, kingdoms like Kush. However, Aksum is considered to be the first genuine trading nation. Trade not only dominated the lives of the Aksum people, it defined them. One of the secrets to their success was a mixture of timing and location. Around 100 CE a new sailing technique emerged that used seasonal winds to quickly cross the Red and Arabian Seas, increasing the amount of trade that could pass through that region. Aksum, right there on the Red Sea, was able to dominate the market on international trade. So, what did they trade? Well, Aksum was situated in the middle of the expansive trade networks that ran between India and the Mediterranean, so basically it dealt in any product that people at the time could want. Ivory and gold from Africa was exchanged for spices and jewels from India and wine and olive oil from Rome. In fact, products that passed through Aksum could have made it as far west as Britain and as far east as China and Japan. The Aksumites themselves grew wheat and barley, which were major trade items as well.

The success and wealth of this city was also due to one other factor. In the middle of the 4th century CE, Aksum was being led by King Ezana. Ezana was the first Aksum king to embrace the growing religion of Christianity. This gave Aksum a cultural connection to the Christian kingdoms that were growing more powerful across Europe, which soon included the Byzantine Empire. The desire to increase the power of Christianity helped secure Aksum as the go-to trade center for Christian kingdoms, furthering the status of the trade nation.

Christianity flourished in Aksum starting in the 4th century CE

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