The Axum Empire was one of the most remarkable powers of the ancient world. Located in the northern part of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea, it once dominated East Africa and parts of Arabia. When we think of any powerful ancient civilizations in Africa, only the civilization of Egypt comes to mind. Meanwhile, the Axum civilization was one of the earliest established societies in Africa, that had contact with both ancient Europe and Asia, but little is actually known about it.
The ancient Axum Empire existed in what is now Ethiopia (the name "Ethiopia" was used as early as the 4th century), Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen from 880 BC to 825.
It was an advanced civilization that surpassed the development of ancient Europe. It can even be assumed that its knowledge was more extensive than that of the Europeans in the 15th century.
Axum was a well-organized center where education flourished.
The Aksumites had extensive knowledge of mathematics and astronomy.
They were able to construct merchant ships (large for the time) that sailed on many waters in different parts of the globe.
Their knowledge of geography and navigation allowed them to reach Tanzania and Seychelles, where around the 2nd century AD, the natives built a blast furnace to smelt carbon steel, which was in great demand in many parts of the world.
According to scholars, the ships of Aksum may have reached to present-day South Africa, but there is no scientific evidence for this.
However, translated Aksumite texts about the lands they reached may support such speculation.
The Aksum fleet appeared off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
There is no conclusive evidence for this, but it is speculated that the Aksumites may have reached Australia as well.
The civilization of Aksum was placed on a par with Roman Empire, Persia or China.
The location of Aksum in East Africa was crucial to the development of this civilization. Aksum's citizens were excellent navigators. They created the most extensive trade network of the ancient world and were able to transport valuable goods to areas of Europe, Asia and Africa.
The Aksumites traded ivory, rubber, silk, spices, turtle shells, salt, gold, emeralds, precious metals, and steel.
Their land was fertile, so they produced much food, with the surplus being exported deep into Africa.
The golden era of Axum falls between the 2nd and 6th centuries AD.
The kingdom's rulers bore the title King of Kings - Negus Nagast.
The empire created its own language, alphabet, minted its coins (copper, silver and gold).
Some have been found in India and China, confirming the presence of the Aksumites in these areas. The coins were initially decorated with a new moon and two stars. After the adoption of Christianity, the image of a cross appeared on Aksumite coins.
In the middle of the 4th century (probably about 325 AD), during the reign of Ezana, Christianity was adopted in Aksum. It was caused by the influence of the Syrian merchants.
Axum became the second country in the world to adopt Christianity. The first was Armenia in 301 and the third was Roman Empire in 392.
Aksum was a remarkably tolerant place for its time, as followers of earlier African religions were not persecuted.
During archeological excavations near the village of Edaga Rabu, researchers found the ruins of the Beta Samati (meeting house) building - an early Christian church - where both Christian and pagan artifacts were found. In the 6th century, the first Muslims from the area of Mecca also found refuge in Aksum.
Steles (vertically aligned slabs with inscriptions or bas-relief decorations, vertical tombstones), unique in the world, have survived to the present day in the former kingdom of Aksum.
Stelae marked graves or commemorated important events. They were constructed from a single fragment of nepheline syenite (an alkaline magma rock from the deep sea) quarried about 4 km from Axum. Some of the stelae bear trilingual inscriptions of King Ezana, written in Greek, Sabaean and Ge'ez (a language of the Ethiopian group spoken and written in the kingdom of Aksum. It is used today as the liturgical language of Ethiopian Orthodox Church ).
The most famous stele is the so-called Obelisk of Aksum.
It is a syenite stele, 23 meters high and weighing over 100 tons. It was erected around the 4th century in the city of Aksum, the capital of the empire. Probably at the end of the 10th century, the stele was overturned and broke into five pieces. In 1937 it was looted by the fascist occupiers and taken to Italy. In 2005 it returned to Ethiopia, was restored to its original location and unveiled in 2008.
The largest stele, about 30 meters high and weighing over 500 tons, lies in ruins. It was probably damaged during construction.
It is considered the tallest monolithic stele built by the ancients, surpassing the Egyptian obelisks. Because of the rich decoration of the stele, it is possible that the rulers of Aksum rested in the tombs.
According to Ethiopian church tradition, the Ark of the Covenant is kept in the Chapel of the Tablets in Axum, the capital of the former empire.
In line with the 14th-century accounts, Menelik I-Ebna la-Hakim (10th century BC), the first king of Ethiopia (legend has it that he was the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon), brought the Ark of the Covenant from Israel.
One of the churches in ancient Aksum, Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, is said to have the Ark of the Covenant in its possession. However, the shrine is guarded by a single guardian (a monk) and no one is allowed inside, not even the rulers of Ethiopia or the heads of the Ethiopian church.
Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built in the 17th century on a previously destroyed one that probably dates back to the 4th century. Next to the church is the so-called Chapel of the Tablets. It was built in 1964 during the reign of Emperor Haile Syllasje I. Previously, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in the old church, now housed in the Chapel of the Tablets.
From the sixth century, the gradual decline of the Axum began.
The empire got into numerous wars with the Persians and various kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula. With the spread of Islam, Axum was cut off from the trade routes that connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Indian Ocean. The Arabs overran the Red Sea coast. Scholars believe that the climate also changed at this time. Agricultural production collapsed due to rising temperatures and excessive humidity caused by constant rainfall.
According to local accounts, around 960, a Jewish queen named Gudit (Judith) came to plunder and burn the remains of the splendor of Aksum.
Researchers discovered the remains of burnt boards and sediment on buildings during archaeological work.
Between the 9th and 10th centuries, the remains of Axum collapsed.
The empire, already in ruins, was constantly invaded by many tribes from African lands.
The city of Aksum, which still exists today (its ancient remains), was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980 for its historical value.
The city was founded around the fifth century BC, was the capital of the first Ethiopian state, the Kingdom of Axum, the coronation site of the emperors of Ethiopia. It is a holy city of the Ethiopian Church.