Axum, also known as the Aksumite Empire, was a trading nation in the area of Eritrea and northern Ethiopia , which existed from approximately 100–940 AD.
It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period in 4th century BC to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.
The Empire of Aksum at its height at times extended across most of present-day Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia.
Today a smaller community, the city of Aksum was once a bustling metropolis, cultural and economic center. Two hills and two streams lie on the east and west expanses of the city; perhaps providing the initial impetus for settling this area.
Along the hills and plain outside the city, the Aksumites had cemeteries with elaborate grave stones called stelae, or obelisks. Other important cities included Yeha, Hawulti-Melazo, Matara, Adulis, and Qohaito, the last three of which are now in Eritrea.
Aksum remained a strong, though weakened, empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. However, unlike the relations between the Islamic powers and Christian Europe, Aksum (see Sahama), which provided shelter to Muhammad’s early followers around 615, was on good terms with its Islamic neighbors.
During the 4th century, the kings of Aksum were Christianized thus becoming both politically and religiously linked to Byzantine Egypt. At the same time, they extended their authority into southern Arabia.
In the 6th century, an Aksumite king reduced the Yemen to a state of vassalage. In the latter part of the 6th century, however, the Persians invaded South Arabia and brought Aksumite influence there to a close. Later, the Mediterranean trade of Aksum was ended by the encroachment of the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries.
The earliest records and legends suggest that it was from Aksum that Makeda, the fabled Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. A son was born to the queen from her union with Solomon.
This son, Menelik I, grew up in Ethiopia but travelled to Jerusalem as a young man, where he spent several years before returning to his own country with the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, according to Ethiopian belief, has remained in Aksum ever since (in an annex to the Church of St Mary of Zion).
In addition to the old St Mary of Zion church, there are many other remains in Aksum dating back to pre- and early Christian times. Among these, a series of inscriptions on stone tablets have proved to be of immense importance to historians of the ancient world.
From its capital on the Tigray Plateau, Aksum was in command of the ivory trade with Sudan. It also dominated the trade route leading south and the port of Adulis on the Gulf of Zola.
Its success depended on resourceful techniques, the production of coins, steady migrations of Graeco-Roman merchants and ships landing at the port of Adulis. In exchange for Aksum’s goods, traders offered many kinds of cloth, jewellery and metals, especially steel for weapons.