Great African Empires, Part 4: Philosopher Kings of the Sahara
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They traded with Egypt, Israel and Babylon. But when they turned to the Christian God, East Africa would never be the same.
In the 200s CE, the Persian prophet Mani referred to the “four great powers” of the world. The first three empires are easy to guess: Rome, Persia, and China. Mani’s fourth choice might come as a surprise.
The prophet named Ethiopia’s Aksumite (or Axumite) Kingdom as equal in importance to the world’s three mightiest empires.
This might seem like a strange claim for Mani to make, since the Aksumites never made any significant attempts to expand outside their own continent (although, then again, neither did the Han Chinese). The Aksumite army wasn’t particularly formidable. The empire’s geographical extent was fairly small. Tts language never became widely known in the outside world.
But despite all these apparent shortcomings, Aksum’s wealth in gold was legendary.
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Like the Kushites before them, the Aksumites sat atop seemingly infinite gold and iron mines — and their powerful navy controlled the main sea routes between India and Rome.
The Aksumites also owned vast numbers of salt mines — which might not seem like a huge deal to us today; but the Aksumites reaped a fortune from table seasoning. (Salt was also a popular meat-preserving packing material in the ancient world, which made it even more in-demand.)
For all their acknowledged wealth and influence, the Aksumites left very few written records of their history — and none at all of their very earliest periods. Archaeologists disagree about where they came from; whether they were invaders or indigenous people, and how their culture related to that of the Kushites.
Some of the earliest Aksumite burial sites look strikingly similar to Kushite burial sites — leading some archaeologists to suggest that both cultures might trace their ancestry back to the Kerma culture of the 2000s BCE/
Then again, perhaps the ancestors of the Kushites and the Aksumites were equally active participants in a “complex process of state formation in Northern Ethiopia,” throughout remote antiquity — an intricate, millennia-spanning civilizational whirlpool about which we know next to nothing.
Are you beginning to see how absurdly under-studied ancient Africa is?
Most historians agree that the Aksumites were likely involved in the downfall of the Kingdom of Kush — or, at the very least, that they profited from the power gap created by the Kushites’ collapse. The Romans were certainly aware of Aksumites; but initially they seem to have referred to both Aksumites and Kushites as “Ethiopians,” without much distinction.
What we do know is that by about 200 CE, the Aksumites had grown powerful enough to intervene in military conflicts throughout what’s now Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan; and even in parts of southern Arabia. From their power base in the Ethiopian highlands, Aksumite armies conquered dozens of surrounding peoples, and consolidated their wealth in cities like Aksum and Adulis.
These cities served as homes to multi-ethnic, multicultural populations, including Semitic-speaking people known as Habeshas, Cushitic-speaking people, and Nilo-Saharan-speaking people known as the Kunama and Nara.
The tongue of Aksumite court was Ge’ez — a language distantly related to Hebrew, Arabic and Babylonian.
The Ge’ez language originated in Eritrea, and it still serves as the official language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — in fact, most modern Ethiopian and Eritrean languages are still written using the Ge’ez script developed for Aksumite royal inscriptions.
Aksum’s culture was always closely connected with those of its close neighbors to the east. In the early centuries CE, much of southwest Arabia was ruled by the Jewish Himyarite Kingdom — and in fact, some Ethiopian sources refer to early Aksum as “a Jewish kingdom” as well.
However, in their earliest days, the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion, which was clearly related to religions practiced in southern Arabia in pre-Islamic times.
In fact, Aksumite religion may have been distantly related to pre-Jewish Canaanite religion — and thus, to the primordial religions of ancient Mesopotamia.
This fact isn’t nearly so strange when we remember that just a few centuries earlier, expert Phoenician seafarers had brought Canaanite gods as far west as Carthage, in modern Tunisia — and that the Assyrians of Mesopotamia had conquered Egypt a few centuries before that.
Trade routes and border wars of the early centuries CE served as great mixing-bowls for deities and practices from all across the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
The head of the Aksumite pantheon was Astar — possibly a male equivalent of the Babylonian Ishtar, derived from the Sumerian Inanna, who was worshipped under the name Astarte throughout the ancient Mediterranean. In Aksumite religion, Astar was god of war, storms and floods. Astar’s son Mahrem — god of the sea, and also of war — was also of high importance.
Some scholars believe that the early Aksumite pantheon was once much larger, and may have included other Arabian, Mesopotamian and/or Canaanite gods, as well as indigenous ones — but by the time the Aksumites began producing inscriptions, their scribes considered only Astar, Mahrem and Bihar to be worth mentioning in writing.
Within their first few centuries of active trading, however, the early Aksumites began to model many of their religious laws and observances on those of the Hebrew Torah.
Before long, Jewish practices had become such a part of Aksumite life that they “were not perceived as foreign,” but were seen as part of the core Aksumite culture.
When the Aksumite king Ezana II converted to Christianity around 324 CE, Aksum “rebranded” itself as a Christian kingdom, issuing coins stamped with the Cross, and establishing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its own bishop.
Although Ethiopian Orthodoxy would always maintain an identity distinct from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches — and even from the Alexandrian Orthodox Church in Egypt — Aksumite kings would often ally with Christian Byzantine emperors to attack non-Christian enemies and provide homes for Christian refugees.
At the head of Aksumite society sat the king, known as the nigūśa nagaśt — “King of Kings.” Though the Aksumites left few written records, archaeological evidence makes it clear that the cities were also inhabited by nobles, who lived in palaces of their own, and enjoyed food, drink, clothing and other luxuries from around the Mediterranean world.
The largeness and richness of Aksumite temples — and later, churches — suggest that priests, too, enjoyed lives of extravagant luxury.
The vast majority of the Aksumite people, however, were farmers, herders, and craftspeople. The lowest rung of the Aksumite ladder was occupied by slaves — about whose lives we know extremely little.
The Kingdom or Aksum experienced its first great golden age from the 200s CE—when the Persian prophet Mani referred to it as one of the world’s “four great powers” — to the 500s. Around 520, word reached the Aksumite king Kaleb that a Jewish Himyarite king in Yemen was persecuting Christians in the region. This would prove to be a pivotal point for Aksum.
King Kaleb’s army invaded Yemen and won the day — but just five years later, in 525, an Aksumite general named Abreha took over the Himyarite kingdom, deposed King Kaleb’s appointed viceroy, and refused to pay taxes. Kaleb sent a new army to take out the rebels, but this time he lost. From that year on, Aksum started showing up a lot less in historical records.
No one expected the Aksumites to recover from the blow dealt by the Himyarite armies.
But Aksum surprised the entire civilized world by gathering its strength and blossoming into a second golden age in the early 600s — just in time for the armies of Islam to ride out of Arabia.
While much of North Africa converted to Islam within a single century, Aksum’s kings held out and remained Christian — and, unlike many of their Christian contemporaries, they went out of their way to be nice to their Islamic neighbors; even offering shelter to some of Muhammad’s early followers in 615.
But the Islamic general Umar ibn al-Khattāb (the general who we last saw steamrolling through Sasanian Persia) had no interest in Aksum’s overtures of peace. In 640, his army attacked several Aksumite cities.
Aksum’s battle-hardened army and navy beat the Islamic forces back, again and again — even pushing eastward and occupying parts of the western Arabian coastline, including the important city of Jeddah.
By the early 700s, though, this ceaseless war had left Aksum too financially drained to mint its famous gold coins, let alone field a conquering army. Islamic forces took control of the Red Sea and the Nile Delta, cutting the Aksumite cities off from the trade routes that were their empire’s life-blood.
Tradition holds that the killing blow was struck, not by an Islamic army, by a Himyarite queen named Judith (“Yodit” or “Gudit”) who swept in from the east. Many modern scholars point instead to a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama) tribe.
Either way, Aksumite sources make it clear that a foreign female usurper ruled the Kingdom of Aksum throughout the late 900s — and that by the early 1000s, the Kingdom of Aksum, as a cohesive political entity, had ceased to exist.
Nature herself struck an even deeper blow. The early centuries of Aksumite rule had been favored with an unusually warm, wet climate — a climate that was turning dramatically drier and colder from the 600s onward. Meanwhile, the huge crop yields required to feed Aksum’s urban populations drained the soil of its mineral resources — as has happened in many other areas of the world, at many points in history.
Aksm’s catastrophic crop failures launched a chain reaction of civilizational collapse.
Cities could no longer sustain their populations; crafts and mining labor disintegrated; and the Aksumites lost control not only of their trade routes, but also of the goods they traded and the people who transported them.
Yet although the Aksumite state collapsed, Aksumite culture lives on. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is still alive and well; it even has a branch in Jerusalem. The Ge’ez script serves as the standard writing system of modern Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Axum is still a city in Ethiopia — a UNESCO World Heritage site, where travelers walk among the churches and monuments built by Aksum’s kings 2,000 years ago.
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