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  • Writer's pictureEd & Phil

S2 E3: Aksumite Empire transcript

Listen to the episode here.

Welcome to Countries That Don’t Exist Anymore. The historical entertainment show about countries lost to the mists of history, the myths of mystery and the...hips of mispbury.

This week we take a belated trip to the African continent to visit the country once known as the Aksumite Empire, the Kingdom of Aksum or just Aksum. It's every 90s skater dude’s favourite first-millennium African powerhouse. AKSUM!

FX: Guitar noodling.

Why was it called the Aksumite Empire, the Kingdom of Aksum or Aksum?


Aksum one else about it.





Let's take a look at the actual name. Some people think the etymological root of the word Aksum comes from a mixture of two languages - Semitic and Kushite. The Semitic languages are the ones found in the Middle East, Aribian peninsula and the Horn of Africa.

But what's this Kushite? Is it a quilted toilet paper?

Like most empires, Aksum took over from another regional power. In this case, the Kingdom of Kush, a mighty kingdom in Sudan, which in turn was another civilisation that prospered from the break up of the New Kingdom of Egypt. It's like empire dominoes.

The point is that this part of Africa was well used to organised civilisations long before a bunch of syphilitic 19th century Europeans got their damn dirty paws on it.

But sticking with the name, there's another theory. The name Aksum might also come from the local Kunama language, which long predated Aksum. In that language, Aksum is derived from two words meaning hill and climb. I guess this makes sense as the roads to Aksum are notoriously hilly. Which do you think more likely, Phil?




The Semitic-Kushite amalgamation or the Kunamic topographical description?


Umm. The last thing you said.


Interesting choice. I mean, each theory has its supporters, right?


Yep, certainly does!


I guess it depends if you’re a disciple of the founder of cultural geographer Karl O Sauer or a proponent of Guy Debord’s theories around psychogeography...


Yes, it really does.


Wow, I’m amazed at how knowledgable and involved you’re becoming - very impressive!


Yep, cheers.

While most cities are located near rivers or coasts or on nice flat ground. Aksum is located at an attitude of 2,100 metres. So the idea that the city is possibly named after the journey there makes sense. Aksum. Hill climb. In the same way, Lon-don is an Old English word meaning from the great river. Or M25 tail back. No one can agree.

But back to Aksum. Defences aside, building a city up high makes sense in Ethiopia, since the altitude gives the city a balmy annual temperature of 20 degrees celsius and leaves the surrounding area blissfully mosquito free.


So the founders of Aksum didn't get that gross feeling of accidentally swallowing insects when cycling in summer.


Or dying of malaria.


Also important.

It was also a plum spot for trade as Aksum linked roads to the Nile Valley, Sasu, the sea port of Adulis, Shewa and the Afar Lowlands. None of which I know a ton about.

How large was Aksum?

1.25 million kilometres squared or 480,000 square miles, which is about twice the size of France. Double France.

Jingle: (Double mint style)

Double France. Makes your breath smell garlicky. Double France.

What language was spoken in Aksum?

Ge’ez, a semitic language once spoken commonly but now only surviving as the official language of the Ethiopian church. Like Latin - once commonly spoken in the Roman Empire, now just in the Catholic Church.


Geez? Ah, so they were cockney?




Geez. Geeezer. All right, Menelik my san? Abysinnia later.


How long did Aksum last?

The empire lasted from 100 AD to 940 AD, so about 840 years. That’s pretty impressive when you think that, according to an article by David Stuckey on, the average country’s life expectancy is 158 years. And it would probably be a lot higher if it weren't for that pesky interfering Fourth Roman Republic and it's minute lifespan.


Available in series one of Countries That Don't Exist Anymore now.

So Aksum was a serious player and major urban centre. In fact the term metropolis was coined in the 1st century in a work called Periphus of the Eth Sea to describe the city of Aksum.


That's a spicy factball!

Aksum was world famous too. The Persian Prophet Mani, who lived in the 3rd century AD, reckoned Aksum to be one of the Big Four powers of the time, along with Rome, Persia and China.

And while I’m tooting Aksum’s trumpet, we can find references to the state in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Qu’ran, the Illiad and the Bible.


Which part of the Bible?


If you open your Bible to 1 Kings, verse…


Nah you're all right.

What kind of government did Aksum have?

Most definitely a monarchy. What seems to have happened in the formation of Aksum was that many chiefs warred and competed with each other until someone came out on top and became king - and that system kept on going as Aksum expanded outwards.

To support this idea, Archaeologists have revealed the existence of many smaller polities called petty kingdoms.

King 1:

How is your Kingdom, your majesty?

King 2:

Considerably larger than yours, majesty.

King 1:

No it isn't.

King 2:

Yes it is.

*Crap fighting.*

Where was the Aksumite Empire located?

Spread across parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and, at its height, in Western Yemen on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. The Empire had its capital in Aksum, in Northern Ethiopia. The city of Aksum was founded in the 4th century BC but rose to prominence in the first century AD, which gives it a similar trajectory and lifespan to the Roman Empire! Aksum!

British historian:

In Africa? Founded by Africans? Piffle and codswallop! Must have been founded by Ancient Greeks, Babylonians or other...not black people.


Nope. It was founded by Africans. So eat that accurate reflection of 1960s imperialist British historians.

Aksum gained its vast wealth by being a major player in the trade routes between the Romans, Ancient India and China. The growing trade of the Roman empire led directly to a steadily more powerful Aksum - who got rich off that trade.


We have priceless spices, rich silks, precious pigments and glowing gold. What have you to trade in return?


We have shiny helmets with loads of feathers in them.


Cool! Merch!

To facilitate the lucrative trade, Aksum produced gold, silver and copper coins and was one of the earliest states in Africa to do so. From 270 AD, golden Aksumite coins were minted by King Endebus. The coins were vital for the booming trade but also promoted the wealth and power of Aksum and of its state religion.

What was the state religion?

At the beginning of its existence, Aksum had a polytheistic religion but later converted to Christianity under King Ezana apparently under the influence of Byzantine missionary Frumentius of Tyre. This happened shortly after Constantine's conversion in the Roman Empire, but Ezana was one of the first to mint gold coins with a cross on them.

But the Kingdom of Aksum also has a long Jewish tradition.

British historian:

Ah, you see! It was founded by Israelites. Good old pale-faced Israelites.


Ah, no! This area of Africa has a separate Jewish tradition.

British historian: (mutters)


The stories go that this was supposedly brought from the court of King Solomon by the Queen of Sheba. She apparently travelled from Aksum to Judah to visit King Solomon, liked what she saw and brought back the Jewish tradition lock stock and barrel.

But is there evidence for this? Well, there’s the ruins of a grand castle at Dunghur in Ethopia that locals will tell you was the palace of the Queen of Sheba. It's said you can still feel her presence there...


Wow! So it was actually owned by the Queen of Sheba?


Well, it's dated to 300 years after she was supposed to be around, so unless she lived until to 300…


It does sound unlikely, but remember this was Bible Times. People all lived longer. I believe Moses had a goldfish that lived until 57.


Fair point.

Whatever the truth of the story, Ethiopia for a long time had a thriving Jewish community known as Beta Israel. Presumably it used to hang out with Alpha Israel, but never got the girls.


So assuming the Queen of Sheba story is so much nonsense, we're not sure exactly how the community ended up there, but given the long term trade links between Ethiopia and the Levantine, it's not so surprising. On the other hand, the Queen of Sheba story has a clearer narrative, so choose your own adventure.

The castle at Dunghur is still worth talking about, as it's about the earliest example of Aksumite architecture around. The palace complex contains a kitchen with large brick ovens, rooms with bathing facilities and a Home Cinema with Dolby Surround Sound...ok. Not that last one.

But this lavish palace demonstrates that Aksum was a thriving civilisation. And there are others. The typical palatial design was a square, flat roofed building generally made of clay with squared towers. They look a bit like sand castles. But much more impressive and unlikely to be kicked over by an irritable child denied icecream.

The top tier of Aksumite society was truly wealthy. Archeological records show they could afford to import pottery from as far afield as Persia and Central Asia.

Aksum also claimed to be a religious centre, partly because it claims ownership of the Ark of the Covenant - the fancy box supposedly containing the ten commandments.


Actually, I think you'll find that the CIA have the Ark of the Covenant in underground storage. I saw it in this documentary.


Did this documentary involve lots of Nazis having their faces melted?




That was a great documentary.

So, back to the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon story. Their son was said to be King Menelik (who was a real king) who was said to be the first ruler of the Kingdom of Aksum and he's the ones who's supposed to have brought back the Ark of the Covenant, which remains in Ethiopia to this day and is guarded in a small church.

And in case you're wondering, no one is allowed to look at it. But some bishops say it's definitely real and why would a bishop lie of all people?

Partly because of the supposed presence of the Ark, Aksum saw itself as a centre for Christianity - as Ethiopia does to this day. Incidentally, if you ever visit, you can still see the exterior of the church where the ten commandments are supposed to be kept. You’ll still find it guarded by a lone monk who isn’t allowed out of the church.


Excuse me. Umm. I’m quite bored. Does anybody fancy a game of Scrabble? Hello?

And because some of Aksum’s exports included the famous biblical gifts gold, frankincense and myrrh, it’s safe to say that Aksum’s twin pillars were trade and religion. Things that shouldn’t really go together but are often synonymous. Merchants spread religion. Religion then sends their own salesmen to close the deal.


I say unto you. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

Rich man:

But isn’t the eye of the needle a desert valley that camels regularly pass through?


Exactly. I’m saying that it’s easy. Now, leave all your possessions and follow me.

Rich man:

Actually, I think I’ll keep all my possessions.


Ok, either is fine.

Aksumite churches, of which there are many, are built on hilltops. This may be because hilltops are safer because you can see for miles around. Or because they're quiet and good for prayer or because being on top of a hill means that you're closer to God.


Our father which art in heaven, pretty close to us up here, hallowed be thy name…


Hey, you mortals. Keep it down! Don't you know this is my day of rest?

What happened to dead Aksumites?

As you might have guessed by now, we don't have a huge amount of written records about Aksum. One good way of discovering more about people is what happened to them when they died. With the Anglo-saxons it could be ship burials, with the Egyptians - pyramids but with the Aksumites it was both large underground tombs and tall obelisks called stelae.

Venture into the tomb of King Caleb, for example, and you'll find a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels and chambers held up with massive megalithic stones seamlessly joined together - Inca style. Within separate, smaller rooms King Caleb and high officials were laid to rest in solid stone sarcophaguses.


Sounds fancy. But what happened to ordinary Aksumites when they died?


I don't know. Flushed them down the toilet, probably.

The other monument to death above the tombs were stalae (steely). These are like tall obelisks, like Cleopatra's needle or the Washington Monument. The Aksumite versions were carved to look like houses - LITERALLY houses of the dead.

Some of these stalae are HUGE like mini-skyscrapers. LITERALLY mini-skyscrapers of the dead. Or Die scrapers, if you will. The largest we know of is the Obelisk of Aksum, which is 24.6 metres tall, which was stolen by the Italians in 1936.



But returned since.



Stalae were carved in situ in quarries and then transported by elephants. We know this because there are still some which have only been partially carved out of the rock. Stalae actually date back to about 5000 BC, but survived through the Christian era. Because they're obviously much better than piddly little headstones.

Who were the Aksumites?

While the origins of people are usually a combination of history plus myth and we're only just uncovering a lot of this history, one theory was that the people of Saba crossed the 25km straight between the Arabian peninsula and the African continent, bringing irrigation techniques which boosted crop yields and would give Aksum the edge. This probably happened over a long period of time, rather than, say, one afternoon in July.

Bloke 1:

Who are they getting off boats?

Bloke 2:

They're the people of Saba. Their irrigation technology will boost crop yields and give us the edge.

Bloke 1:

Oh right. Nice exposition!

BUT more recent work has suggested that while the Sabaians did extend control to parts of Aksum, the occupation was short lived and their influence has been exaggerated in the retelling. Certainly we know that the local Agaw people started expanding the city of Aksum from 400 BC.

So we don't really know yet?

Exactly. Serious archaeological work on Aksum is still in the works. Keep digging.

As mentioned, Aksum was all about trade. It was mentioned as a trading hub in a first century BC in a trader’s handbook called The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. It was also mentioned in some Bronze Age TripAdvisor reviews.

Posted by Viking137:

“They call it Aksum but I’ve hardly seen any axes at all. One star.”

The kingdom was very fertile and seemingly completely self-sufficient for foodstuffs as it exported large quantities of agricultural produce. This would help it survive later in its history when it was cut off from its trading partners.

Although it was a trading power, Aksum was established far inland. It was rich with resources, both in terms of Flora, fauna and minerals, but also it boasted rich fertile farmlands of the western and eastern lowlands and the northern and Central Highlands.

Evidence suggests that in the first century AD there was extremely heavy rainfall in the area, setting up the Aksumite breadbasket for it's rise to self sufficient glory.

FX: Raining outside. Two northerners. One comes in through the door. Alan Bennett style.


It's raining again.


I noticed.


It's been going on for 100 years. I wish it'd stop.


It'll set us up nicely for agricultural fecundity and great power status in the ancient world.


True. Mustn't grumble.

Aksum also had the necessary resources to build the kind of grand structures associated with ancient powerhouses. It had limestone for statues, sandstone for stelae, gemstones for ornaments and black marble for kitchen worktops.

What kind of things did Aksum trade?

Mainly gold, iron and salt. It commanded the ivory trade coming out of Sudan and also ferried slaves, tortoise shells, silks, spices, silks, emeralds and crafted goods between Rome and India. Many of the exotic beasts slaughtered in the Roman Colosseum would have come from Aksum. A lot of the rhino horn the Chinese stirred into their rice krispies also came from Aksum.


Salt? Ivory? Exotic beasts? Slaves? Rhino horn? These people sound like bastards.


Rest assured that these were ethically-produced, free range, sustainable slaves.


Ah, well that’s all right then.

One of the major power centres before the rise of Aksum was Adulis, a once major port city which is now 7km in land - which can be quite the setback for the economy of a major port city.

Archaeological work around Adulis has revealed a grand city which includes a 9th century BC Sphinx and an opulent palace. Along with another trading city called Queheto, the Aksumites are thought to be a blend of Sabaians and the people of Adulis.

The link with Saba would also make sense because between 183-213 AD the Aksumites crossed the Red Sea and conquered Saba, which you could either see as a homecoming or perhaps they only decided they were from there anyway to justify the action. Who knows?


Historians? I'm sure the answers are online with a little research.

Me: (quickly)

No they're not.

A lot of our scant knowledge comes from a 4th century king called Ezana (he who was minted on the coins and introduced Christianity) who took the title Nagoosa Nagast or king of kings.


I am king of kings.


Oh yeah? Well, I am king of kings of kings.


In that case, I am king of king of king of kings.


Is that so? Then I am king of kings of king of king of king of kings.


Right that’s it. We’re having a republic.


That was your fault.

Under Ezana, Aksum pushed into the crumbling Kingdom of Kush and took Merrow. Ezana's throne name was Ela Ebraha, a Christian name. One of his titles was: "Son of invincible Mahrem." Mahrem was one of the names of the pagan gods of the semitic people. The equivalent to the Roman God of War, Mars.


But they converted to Christianity. So Mahrem was pretty vincible after all. For a skinny bearded guy, Christ certainly defeated a lot of other gods.


Yes, he'd pretend to cry and then, when their backs were turned away in disgust, he’d strike.

Ezana was influenced by the Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire. His tutor was a Christian slave from the Mediterranean who worked his way up to be influential, 4th century Bishop and later saint, Archbishop Frumentius of Abysinnia.


What an inspirational tale! So if you get sold into slavery, work hard and never give up, you too could move to Ethiopia, wear golden dresses and cover up widespread insititutional abuse?


It’s a story that touches all our hearts.

The Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire and Aksum were allies and trading partners. In the mid 6th century, Aksumite King Kalab caught the attention of famed Byzantium emperor Justinian I, who sent an ambassador named Julian to sort out a pact between the two empires. Their common enemy was the Sassanid Empire to the East who had adopted Zoroastrianism.



Exactly. Julian described how Caleb approached on a golden chariot drawn by 4 elephants. Caleb wore a cloak and garments of golden cloth with a shirt made of embroidered pearls. Dry clean only.

The links between Aksum and the Eastern Romans were strong. Especially through religion. The Aksumite church was influenced by Byzantine monophysites…


Byzantinemonophysite? Sounds like an ingredient in In Bru.


Monophysite priests were booted out of Byzantium when their faction fell out of favour. But who were they? Well, they taught that Christ had only one divine nature, which contradicted the teachings of the church agreed at the Fourth ecumenical council of 451 AD. I'm not going to go into why this was such a huge deal, but this was at a time when minor theological differences, like what kind of parting Jesus had, were a matter of life of death.


It was left!


It was right!


Friends. Please. Let’s just compromise and say it was in the centre.


That’s a blasphemous fringe belief.



FX: Fighting sounds

Anyway, the point is that this gave Aksum its very own distinctive Chrisitianity that survives to this day. And since Aksum had the world’s first Christian monarch, even before Rome had Constantine, we can see the Ethiopian tradition as having equal footing to Greek Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism.

Aksum art of Christ and the saints that adorns its churches and shrines is distinctive. Complete with gold leaf and bright, boisterous colours, it’s like Byzantine meets the Teletubbies. And I do mean that as a clumsy compliment. Look up some of them online to see what I mean.

It's African Christianity in its most ancient form. The images are dinstinctly African. Christ, Mary and the saints are black.


But that’s ridiculous. They lived in Palestine. They’d obviously have pallid white skin with fair hair and blue eyes.


I know right?

Oh, and while you’re at it. Check out the churches of Lalibela carved into the rock. They actually came after Aksum had fallen, but as an expression of Ethiopian Christianity, they’re pretty incredible.

When was Aksum at its most powerful?

Aksum probably reached its height under King Kaleb, who invaded Yemen (on the Arabian peninsula) in 520 AD.

Now Aksum already had huge influence over the Arabian area of Najran, building churches and converting the populace. But this didn’t please the Himyarites, a Jewish Kingdom in Arabia - yes such a thing existed.

Himyarite King Dhu Nuwas didn’t take too kindly to all this god having a son stuff and invaded Najran, determined to cleanse the area of heretical Christianity. His armies attacked and massacred Christians of the area, burned churches and did the kind of things that armies go about doing.

The Byzantines weren’t having this so asked the Aksumites to intervene. Fortunately King Kaleb (the great, great, great grandson of Ezana) was an especially pious Christian who was definitely not having this. He sent an army who crossed into Arabia. Dhu Nuwas apparently responded by getting into the sea. Literally. Some sources say he rode into the sea on a horse. Others say he straight jumped in there. One thing was for sure. When it came to defensive strategies, Dhu Nuwas was out of his depth.

Najran was officially made a viceroy of Aksum and everything was chill, until a few years later the garrison mutinied and declared that their general Abreha was King of Yemen. Kaleb was still of the not having that outlook and sent armies to sort it out. But Abreha proved a more capable foe than his predecessor by not jumping in any sea at all and defeating the armies of Aksum.

Meanwhile, Kaleb abdicated and retired to a monastery. So jumping into an altogether different kind of sea.

Abreha’s successor, his son Masruq Abreha, went back to paying tribute to Aksum - but Masuq’s half-brother Ma’d-Karib revolted. He was always going to. He was Ma’d-Karib. Not Ca’lm-Karib. He managed to enlist the help of the Sassanid Persians who went stomping around the Aksumite territories. Now the A xumite-Persian Wars rumbled on for a bit but the upshot was that by 570, Aksum had lost control of the peninsula. At about the same time, Aksum stopped producing gold coins. It would never be so large and powerful again.

Why did Aksum go into decline?

A further problem for Aksum seemed to be internal divisions between Christians and Jews. At some point, the Aksumite Jews decided to move north and establish their own kingdom of Beta Israel. In a period of war and unrest, the anarchy allowed pirates to start spreading off the coast of Eritrea and then, in 714, these pirates attacked Jeddah, an important city of the Ummyad Caliphate. Also subscribing to the not having this tradition, the Ummyad Caliphate sent a force down to clear out the pirates and took the opportunity to annex parts of Eritrea - denying Aksum its important access to the coast and its vital trade.

Now, I’ve had to mash up hundreds of years of confused and contradictory events into a historical Eton Mess. But Aksum’s actual end is blamed on Jewish people.




You can’t say that, Phil.


No, I mean that it’s typical that Jewish people should be blamed.

FX: Golden tick noise

Around 960, or so the story goes, Queen Gudit of Beta Israel defeated the empire, burning its churches and literature and toppling its stelae. Now, whether this actually happened or not is debatable - since Gudit’s name in Amharic translates as destruction.

So while accounts differ, destruction definitely happened and we can almost certainly say that a bloody woman did it.





FX: High five

GRAMS: Killer Queen excerpt.

Killer Queen or not, Aksum civilsation was in serious trouble anyway thanks to good ole climate change. Where, in the 1st century, Aksum was set up for greatness thanks to a rainfall bonanza, by the 7th century Aksum was rapidly drying out. Not ideal when you have a massive imperial population to support. The result was soil erosion and land degradation. Land that had supported populations for centuries had to be abandoned - with the still-fertile Highlands providing sanctuary. Cut off and shut off from the world, the power of Aksum dried up too.

What's remarkable about Aksum is how long it lasted and how adaptable it proved. For an empire built on trade, Aksum should have started declining with the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire, but then it switched to trading with the Eastern Roman Empire. Then it might have come a cropper with competition from the Persians, except it turned itself around and started trading with peoples to its south.

It certainly started to decline with the rise of Islam in the 7th century, but not because the armies of the prophet posed a threat. In fact certain Aksumite kings actually provided sanctuary to early Muslim communities, supposedly including Mohammed's daughter, so there was no serious attempt from Islamic forces to add Aksum to the caliphate. Muhammad was even said to pray for the King of Axum's soul and ordered his followers to leave it in peace. Sorry Sam Harris. Not everything is Islam's fault.

But it was more than neutrality. There was a long standing Muslim community in Ethiopia called Nagash. One seventh century king of Aksum, Ella Saham, welcomed Muslim refugees. And there are stories that Ella Saham secretly converted to Islam. Difficult thing to keep secret.


Ok courtiers. I'm off to a secret, East-facing room for 10 minutes.


That's the fifth time today. He must have had that dodgy zebra stew.

So, it's not like a squadron of sword wielding porkophobes dealt Aksum it's final blow. But what Islam did was cut Aksum off from its traditional markets in Alexandria, Byzantium and Southern Europe. Being dependent on trade, Aksum felt the effect of losing access to these vital markets.

Cities were abandoned and left undefended and the Aksumites started to migrate to the Highlands for better protection. Even the capital of Aksum was abandoned and a new capital founded, whose location even the mighty Wikipedia isn’t sure about.

BUT, like all great empires, Aksum didn’t just pop out of existence, and it's legacy remains to this day. In one form or another. The Solomaic dynasty (claiming a direct line back to King Menelik I) ruled in Ethiopia right up until its dissolution under Emperor Haillie Selassie in 1974!

The Aksumite language of Ge’ez is still spoken by priests during holy services and, like Latin in the Catholic church, it’s a dialect that no one really understands but allows the congregation to nod off in the back of church.

Go to Ethiopia and you'll still see the hilltop city of Aksum, some examples of the towering stellae and a rich cultural life that is the distinct inheritance of Aksum. Ethiopia was never colonised. It was never successfully carved up and so it lives on as an ancient time capsule of a truly great and truly African Empire.

And that really is Aksum!

Let me tell you how it will be

We'll live on a hill and build stelae,


'Cause this is Aksum, yeah, Empire of Aksum

Should Ethiopia seem too small


We'll invade Yemen and take it all


'Cause this is Aksum, yeah, Empire of Aksum

Our kingdom is heaven sent

Our chariots are pulled by elephants

Our first King was Menelik

Semitic-Kushite dialect…..


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