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220-950 - The Axumite State

Axumite [Aksum] emerged at about the beginning of the Christian era, flourished during the succeeding six or seven centuries, and underwent prolonged decline from the eighth to the twelfth century AD. Axum's period of greatest power lasted from the fourth through the sixth century. Its core area lay in the highlands of what is today southern Eritrea, Tigray, Lasta (in present-day Welo), and Angot (also in Welo); its major centers were at Axum and Adulis. Earlier centers, such as Yeha, also continued to flourish. At the kingdom's height, its rulers held sway over the Red Sea coast from Sawakin in present-day Sudan in the north to Berbera in present-day Somalia in the south, and inland as far as the Nile Valley in modern Sudan. On the Arabian side of the Red Sea, the Axumite rulers at times controlled the coast and much of the interior of modern Yemen. During the sixth and seventh centuries, the Axumite state lost its possessions in southwest Arabia and much of its Red Sea coastline and gradually shrank to its core area, with the political center of the state shifting farther and farther southward.

The Abyssinians, like other barbarous tribes, know little of their own origin ; and beyond a certain period in their annals, all is fable and ignorance. The Kebir Neguste, or book of Axum, is a spiritual romance, composed to gratify the national pride by some ill-informed and credulous monk. The tradition, that the queen of Saba, who visited Solomon, lived at Axum, is an opinion which, though destitute of foundation, is universally received. A serpent-king, Arwe or Waynaba, said to be the first to have ruled over the land, reigned 400 years before the conversion to Christianity in A.D. 330. The Ethiopian historians say that their nation worshipped Arwe, the serpent, and part were Jews, people of the law. Inscriptions from Axum and elsewhere date from as early as the end of the second century A.D. and reveal an Axumite state that already had expanded at the expense of neighboring peoples.

The Greek inscriptions of King Zoskales (who ruled at the end of the second century A.D.) claim that he conquered the lands to the south and southwest of what is now Tigray and controlled the Red Sea coast from Sawakin south to the present-day Djibouti and Berbera areas. The Axumite state controlled parts of Southwest Arabia as well during this time, and subsequent Axumite rulers continually involved themselves in the political and military affairs of Southwest Arabia, especially in what is now Yemen. Much of the impetus for foreign conquest lay in the desire to control the maritime trade between the Roman Empire and India and adjoining lands. Indeed, King Zoskales is mentioned by name in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea (the Latin term for the Red Sea is Mare Erythreum), a Greek shipping guide of the first to third centuries A.D., as promoting commerce with Rome, Arabia, and India. Among the African commodities that the Axumites exported were gold, rhinoceros horn, ivory, incense, and obsidian; in return, they imported cloth, glass, iron, olive oil, and wine.

During the third and fourth centuries, the traditions related to Axumite rule became fixed. Gedara, who lived in the late second and early third centuries, is referred to as the king of Axum in inscriptions written in Gi'iz (also seen as Ge'ez), the Semitic language of the Axumite kingdom. The growth of imperial traditions was concurrent with the expansion of foreign holdings, especially in Southwest Arabia in the late second century A.D. and later in areas west of the Ethiopian highlands, including the kingdom of Mero.

Mero was centered on the Nile north of the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile. Established by the sixth century B.C. or earlier, the kingdom's inhabitants were black Africans who were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture. It was probably the people of Mero who were the first to be called Aithiopiai ("burnt faces") by the ancient Greeks, thus giving rise to the term Ethiopia that considerably later was used to designate the northern highlands of the Horn of Africa and its inhabitants. No evidence suggests that Mero had any political influence over the areas included in modern Ethiopia; economic influence is harder to gauge because ancient commercial networks in the area were probably extensive and involved much long-distance trade.

The Axumites created a civilization of considerable distinction. They devised an original architectural style and employed it in stone palaces and other public buildings. They also erected a series of carved stone stelae at Axum as monuments to their deceased rulers. Some of these stelae are among the largest known from the ancient world. The Axumites left behind a body of written records, that, although not voluminous, are nonetheless a legacy otherwise bequeathed only by Egypt and Mero among ancient African kingdoms. These records were written in two languages -- Gi'iz and Greek. Gi'iz is assumed to be ancestral to modern Amharic and Tigrinya, although possibly only indirectly. Greek was also widely used, especially for commercial transactions with the Hellenized world of the eastern Mediterranean. Even more remarkable and wholly unique for ancient Africa was the minting of coins over an approximately 300-year period. These coins, many with inlay of gold on bronze or silver, provide a chronology of the rulers of Axum.

One of the most important contributions the Axumite state made to Ethiopian tradition was the establishment of the Christian Church. The Axumite state and its forebears had certainly been in contact with Judaism since the first millennium B.C. and with Christianity beginning in the first century A.D. These interactions probably were rather limited. However, during the second and third centuries, Christianity spread throughout the region. Around A.D. 330-40, Ezana was converted to Christianity and made it the official state religion. The variant of Christianity adopted by the Axumite state, however, eventually followed the Monophysite belief, which embraced the notion of one rather than two separate natures in the person of Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Sometime around A.D. 300, Axumite armies conquered Mero or forced its abandonment. By the early fourth century A.D., King Ezana (reigned 325-60) controlled a domain extending from Southwest Arabia across the Red Sea west to Mero and south from Sawakin to the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden. Ezana I (reigned 325-60) was the paramout king of a large empire that included Axum, Arabia, Saba, Abyssinia, Beja, and Moroe. As an indication of the type of political control he exercised, Ezana, like other Axumite rulers, carried the title negusa nagast (king of kings), symbolic of his rule over numerous tribute-paying principalities and a title used by successive Ethiopian rulers into the mid-twentieth century.

Little is known about fifth-century Axum, but early in the next century Axumite rulers reasserted their control over Southwest Arabia, though only for a short time. Later in the sixth century, however, Sassanian Persians established themselves in Yemen, effectively ending any pretense of Axumite control. Thereafter, the Sassanians attacked Byzantine Egypt, further disrupting Axumite trade networks in the Red Sea area. Over the next century and a half, Axum was increasingly cut off from its overseas entrepts and as a result entered a period of prolonged decline, gradually relinquishing its maritime trading network and withdrawing into the interior of northern Ethiopia.

After Axum began to decline in the 7th century AD, the population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands, eventually being defeated around the year 950 AD. Ethiopian tradition holds that a Jewish Queen named Yodit (Judith) or "Gudit" (a play on "Yodit" meaning "evil") defeated the kingdom and burned its churches and literature. The line of Christian sovereigns claiming descent from Menelek, the son of Solomon, King of Israel, and the Queen of Sheba, was violently set aside by the female Falasha (Israelitish) usurper, who massacred all the members, save one, of the Imperial family, and whose descendants occupied the throne for nearly 200 years.

Although there is evidence of churches being burned around this time, there is doubt as to whether Queen Yodit actually existed. Axumite power may have been ended by a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly from of the tribe al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama). About the time of the Norman conquest of England, this intrusive dynasty was superseded by a Christian Sovereign of the House of Zagye, whose origin was in the Kingdom of Lasta, and which continued to reign till the year 1268; when one of the most remarkable events in the history of any nation is said to have occurred.

The Axumite kingdom was succeeded by the Zagwe dynasty in the eleventh century or twelfth century, which was limited in size and scope. Yekuno Amlak, who killed the last Zagwe king and founded the modern Solomonid dynasty, traced his ancestry and his right to rule from the last king of Axum, Dil Na'od.

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