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Africa's Merchant Kings

The early Christian kingdom of Aksum was at the heart of a great maritime trading network

July/August 2023

Aksum Ethiopia Great StelaHundreds of ancient obelisks and stelas are strewn across fields on the outskirts of Aksum, a city in the highlands of northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The largest of these monuments, which lies toppled and broken into sections, was carved with doors and windows to mimic a 13-story building, and once stood around 100 feet high. Weighing more than 570 tons, the Great Stela, as it is known, was hewn from a single block of granite-like rock cut from a quarry two and half miles away. At more than three times the height of the biggest of Easter Island’s moai statues and nearly 20 times heavier than the mightiest of Stonehenge’s sarsens, it is among the largest monolithic sculptures ever created and transported.


Aksum MapThese monuments, which date to the third and fourth century A.D., once marked the tombs of kings and high-ranking officials. The names of those who erected them, and the individuals buried beneath, have been lost or forgotten over the centuries. They were the rulers of the Kingdom of Aksum, which dominated the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea region for most of the first millennium A.D. Much like the Romans, their contemporaries and occasional allies, Aksum grew from a single city into an expansive empire whose kings controlled a territory comprising parts of modern-day Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, and the southern Arabian Peninsula. The Aksumites’ transcontinental trade routes stretched from Iberia to India, and perhaps even as far as China. They were a highly literate society, fierce warriors, and accomplished engineers and artists, and they issued their own gold coinage. The third-century A.D. Persian prophet Mani referred to Aksum as one of the world’s four great empires, along with the Romans, Persians, and Chinese. “At that time, Aksum is mentioned as one of the most powerful civilizations in the world, although people in the modern era may not know that or think of them in that way,” says Johns Hopkins University archaeologist Michael Harrower. “There has not been much archaeological attention given to Africa outside of Egypt.”


The stelas, obelisks, tombs, and ruins of major buildings, including administrative complexes and palaces, provide evidence of ancient Aksum’s thriving capital city during its heyday. Much of the modern town is built atop the ancient settlement, which has made investigation of its early history difficult. Over the past two decades, however, Harrower and other archaeologists have searched outside Aksum proper, working in both Ethiopia and Eritrea, to garner a greater understanding of the Aksumite civilization. Two recent projects, at the sites of Beta Samati in Ethiopia and the ancient port of Adulis in Eritrea, have revealed what life was like in the empire more than 1,700 years ago. These excavations have highlighted the Aksumites’ sophisticated building techniques, drawn attention to the important role that Christianity played in their culture, and, above all, underscored the existence of the trade networks that were the kingdom’s lifeblood and key to its rarely paralleled success.