The Kingdom of Axum: History, Culture, Religion

The Kingdom of Axum

The Kingdom of Axum

From Classical antiquity until the Middle Ages, the Aksumite Empire, also known as the Kingdom of Aksum, the City-State of Aksum, or the Kingdom of Axum, had its heart in East Africa and South Arabia.

As a direct result of what happened in the Arabian peninsula, Axum was founded. People from the region that is now Yemen traveled into Africa for many years and settled in Ethiopia.

Most of these people were skilled farmers who quickly mingled with the local people. By 300 BC one of these groups had gained control of the area and established the Kingdom of Axum. Axum grew by means of trade and war. Greek, Iranian and Indian merchants came to the ports of Axum to trade for ivory, tortoise shell, ebony and gold which were drawn from the Ethiopian countryside. By 400 AD Axum was the main trading center between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

Many wars were fought – against Kush in the north, against Ethiopian people’s in the south and even against the old Yemenite homeland across the straits. Power, trade and trade routes were the main causes of these wars. The new state was greatly influenced by Arabia. People from the Yemen continued to settle in Axum.

They were the most powerful group in the kingdom and so the local people gradually accepted (but also changed) their customs, languages and ideas. But as time went on, Jewish and Greek influence also became important in Axum. It was through Greek traders and travellers that the Christian religion was brought to the Ethiopian state.

By the end of the 4th century AD there were already many Christians in Axum and soon Christianity was to become deeply rooted in the country. This had a very important effect on the culture of the people. Ethiopian Christianity was shaped by Syrian and Greek Christian beliefs and practices, as well as orthodox Jewish practices. The Axumites left magnificent stone monuments to the world, as well as many writings.

They used the kind of writing their Arabian ancestors had used. But they made many changes to suit the new language that was being created by the mingling of the peoples.

This is what Basil Davidson says about the writing: “This national form of writing was done by learned monks, and the Ethiopian Church developed a rich literature which told of its long history as well as its religious beliefs. . .”

The Kingdom of Axum lasted for almost 1 000 years. For a long time the kings of Axum also ruled over the lands of South Arabia, but eventually they were driven out by an Iranian force.
This, together with the conquest of Egypt by the Muslim Arabs in 840 AD, led to the rapid decline and the eventual fall of Axum.

The Red Sea trade was destroyed. Axum itself was attacked by the Bejas, a people who lived in the country surrounding Axum. They waged a number of wars against Axum and shattered the foundation of the kingdom’s wealth and prosperity. Axum’s trade links with India and the Mediterranean were broken.

What remained of the ancient kingdom of Axum became the basis for present day Ethiopa.


One of the accomplishments of the Empire of Aksum is its own alphabet, the Ge’ez script, which later underwent vowel addition and became an abugida. Additionally, enormous obelisks were built in the early years of the empire, circa 1700 years ago, to mark the emperors’ (and nobles’) tombs (subterranean grave chambers), the most well-known of which being the Obelisk of Aksum.

Under Emperor Ezana, Aksum adopted Coptic Christianity in place of its former polytheistic and Judaic religions around 325. The Axumite Coptic Church gave rise to the present day Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (only granted autonomy from the Coptic Church in 1959) and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church (granted autonomy from the Ethiopian Orthodox church in 1993). Since the schism with Orthodoxy following the Council of Chalcedon (451), it has been an important Miaphysite church, and its scriptures and liturgy continue to be in Ge’ez.


Before its conversion to Christianity, the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion related to the religion practiced in southern Arabia. This included the use of the crescent-and-disc symbol used in southern Arabia and the northern horn. In the UNESCO sponsored General History of Africa French archaeologist Francis Anfray, suggests that the pagan Aksumites worshipped Astar, his son, Mahrem, and Beher.

Steve Kaplan argues that with Aksumite culture came a major change in religion, with only Astar remaining of the old gods, the others being replaced by what he calls a “triad of indigenous divinities, Mahrem, Beher and Medr.” He also suggests that Aksum culture was significantly influenced by Judaism, saying that “The first carriers of Judaism reached Ethiopia between the reign of Queen of Sheba BC and conversion to Christianity of King Ezana in the fourth century AC.”

He believes that although Ethiopian tradition suggests that these were present in large numbers, that “A relatively small number of texts and individuals dwelling in the cultural, economic, and political center could have had a considerable impact.” and that “their influence was diffused throughout Ethiopian culture in its formative period. By the time Christianity took hold in the fourth century, many of the originally Hebraic-Jewish elements had been adopted by much of the indigenous population and were no longer viewed as foreign characteristics. Nor were they perceived as in conflict with the acceptance of Christianity.”

Before converting to Christianity, King Ezana II’s coins and inscriptions show that he might have worshiped the gods Astar, Beher, Meder/Medr, and Mahrem. Another of Ezana’s inscriptions is clearly Christian and refers to “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.

Around 324 AD the King Ezana II was converted to Christianity by his teacher Frumentius, who established the Axumite Coptic Church, which later became the modern Ethiopian Orthodox Church.Frumentius taught the emperor while he was young, and it is believed that at some point staged the conversion of the empire. We know that the Aksumites converted to Christianity because in their coins they replaced the disc and crescent with the cross.


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