The origins of the ancient city of Aksum (also known as Axum) are subject to great doubt, as there is very little recorded history from the mid-1st millennium BC to the time of Aksum’s cultural ascent in the 1st century BC. Speculation places the foundation of the city somewhere in the vicinity of the 3rd century BC, during the reign of Queen Saba (also known as Sheba and Makada). Distinct differences between the practices of Aksumite and pre-Aksumite cultures have been attributed to a significant but inexplicable Arab migration from southern Yemen and, by the time the city was founded, Ethiopian merchants were prolifically trading with Red Sea cities (where previously trade had been conducted by foot to Nubia and Egypt). Indeed, it may be the influx of relatively advanced Arabs which initiated this prosperous era and made Aksum worthy of note, although the city’s archaeological claim to fame is its myriad obelisks (a vestige of Egyptian influence).
The Aksumite Kingdom was located in the province of Tigray in northern Ethiopia, remaining the capital until the 7th century AD and holding sway of political power despite technical relocation until the 10th. The city’s opportune position, in close proximity to the Blue Nile basin (rich in gold) and the Afar depression (rich in salt), meant that merchants could access the multi-cultural port of Adulis on the Gulf of Zola and maintain steady trade with other nations (including Egypt, India and the Arab kingdoms). Incoming (generally Greco-Roman) merchants, the lifeblood of the state, traded cloth, jewellery and steel for Aksum’s goods. Its rulers were able to exact a heavy tax for goods imported from the Far East. In addition, the Aksumites were blessed with fertile soils and their advantageous position (2,200 metres in elevation) meant that they could control the ivory trade with Sudan (holding both the port city and the trade route to the south). The city minted its own coins, but trade slackened once the Persian Empire excluded Aksum from its trade networks. This - and the loss of contact with Byzantium - was the reason for the city’s decline.
At its height of power, Aksum could hold claim to territories as far-flung as the southern border of Egypt in the north, the Omo River in the south, the frontier of Meroe (a Kushite kingdom) in the west and east to the Gulf of Aden. Aksum was also able to extend strong influence over the kingdoms of southern Arabia (occasionally by blood ties, generally via trade and occasionally via force), particularly the kingdom of the Himyarites; the ruler Ezana is also known for extending Christian influence throughout his domains. Emperors were crowned in Aksum even after the city’s fall from prominence in the 10th century.
Further evidence of the aforementioned cultural fusion comes from the Aksumites’ language (Ge’ez). This dialect was a modified version of the rudiments of southern Arabian speech, with an understandable scattering of Greek and Nubian terms. Among the most distinguishing features of Aksumite culture (as opposed to its predecessors) is the strong emphasis its rulers placed on written documentation. Architectural stylisation also bears strong similarities to that of south Arabia, including portrayals of its deities. The remnants of the city, which have been investigated since 1906, are close to Ethiopia’s northern border and stand as a testament to Ethiopia’s Golden Age. Aksum and its various artefacts compose a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dating primarily from between the 1st and 13th centuries AD, the ruins of Aksum include colossal obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and decrepit castles. The most notable, of course, are the giant stelae which were (in the same manner as the constructions of Egyptian rulers) intended to be representational of the monarchy itself, in terms of sheer size and technical accomplishment. These stelae are also grave-markers and their sheer scope is merely an extension of a burial custom of north-western Africa which had been held for approximately 5,000 years; Christianity halted this practice in favour of conventional interment. The stelae vary in shape and size, up to the colossal ‘Stela I’ pillar (30 metres tall and 520 tons in weight); elephants may have been used in their transportation and erection. These and other monuments were constructed of a granite-like stone quarried from many sites (but most frequently from Gobedra Hill, 4 Km from Aksum). Tradition suggests that the destabilisation of these stela (as many now lie horizontally, in pieces) was an intentional attack perpetrated by invaders in the 10th century AD.
Sources:Archaeology: the Definitive Guide, various authors.
The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: the Ancient Monuments and How They Were Built, Thames and Hudson.