Aksum was a less well known but powerful kingdom in northern Africa (spanning modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti and Yemen) from around 80 BCE to 825 CE. It played a critical role at a time when Judaism, Christianity, and then Islam began to penetrate Africa. Aksum hosted the first Muslim Hijra (migration) during the Quraishi persecution in Makkah. So, who were these people and what were their religious beliefs?
Fazal Ahmad – UK
Origins of Aksum
Aksum, situated in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, is thought to have been occupied by previous civilisations from around 1,000 BCE, but grew in stature with the arrival of the Saba people who lived in Southern Arabia and Yemen.
According to tradition, Menelik, the son of the Jewish leader Solomon (as) and the Queen of Saba (known as Bilqis and also as Makeda in Christian literature), moved to Abyssinia and became the first king of what would become Ethiopia around 950 BCE. Judaism has a long association with this region from that time, and future rulers would claim their lineage from Solomon (as). The Ethiopian Jews have a distinct identity and are known as Falasha. They proudly hold on to their lineage from Solomon(as) as well as their association with the Ark of the Covenant.
Aksum is considered the oldest town south of the Sahara Desert to have been continuously inhabited for around 3000 years and has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site since 1980.
Interactions with the Saba People
The Saba people lived in Southern Arabia and Yemen. In the 6th century BCE, the Saba people had colonised Abyssinia across the sea in what was then the Da’amat Kingdom, established around 980 BCE, with its capital in Yeha.
There is an entire chapter in the Qur’an, chapter 34, dedicated to the Saba (Sheba in the Bible) people which first describes the achievements of Solomon(as) who had married Bilqis, the Queen of the Saba, and then describes the incident of the gardens which were flooded as a punishment for their misbehaviour around 580 CE when the Ma’arib Dam collapsed. Whilst the Da’amat Kingdom had declined by 400 BCE, over the next five hundred years Aksum emerged, moving the capital from Yeha to Aksum and creating a port at Adulis from which they would conduct trade as far as India and China.
By the first century CE, a Roman sea captain mentioned that much of the trade between the Red Sea and northeast Africa flowed through Aksum.  Aksum gained not just economic power due to its trade links with Egypt and other regional powers, but also become a centre for Christianity. Links across the sea with the Saba grew and in 183 CE, the Aksumites expanded their territory to include Yemen and southern Arabia, including the lands of the Saba people.
Christianity at Aksum
Aksum was already regarded as a tolerant kingdom, and so just as Jews had lived here for a long time, a few Christians fleeing Roman persecution were also lived under the security of the kingdom of Aksum. Frumentius was a Roman Christian boy who was shipwrecked nearby and taken to Aksum to serve. He began to secretly promote his faith, and eventually was officially appointed the bishop of Ethiopia. Soon Biblical texts were translated into the local language and grew in popularity.
Aksum was one of the first centres in north Africa, and possibly the world, to officially adopt Christianity as its religion. Soon after the Roman emperor Constantine adopted the faith in 325 CE, king Ezana in Aksum (who had been influenced by Frumentius) also adopted Christianity around 340 CE. During his reign in approximately 360 CE, the coins of the kingdom changed their motif from a pagan sign to the cross of Christianity.
Over time, the Church in Ethiopia became aligned with the Coptic Church in Egypt rather than the other emerging centres in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome.
Muslims Seek Shelter from Makkans
As persecution of Muslims in Makkah (Arabia) grew to intolerable levels, a group of 80 Muslims, including Hazrat Uthman(ra), were sent to Aksum in Abyssinia to seek a safe haven in 615 CE. There, the Negus  listened to their case, and after hearing some verses of Chapter Maryam from the Qur’an, he was convinced of their truth and allowed them to worship in peace in his land. The Quraysh of Makkah had even sent an advance delegation (including Amr ibn al ‘As who would later convert and become a great Muslim leader himself) to seek the extradition of the Muslims back to Makkah, but after the Negus heard the beliefs and account of the Muslims, he gave them security and refused the extradition attempt of the Makkans.  Uthman (ra) was impressed by the tolerance of the Negus towards other faiths, and this would be a hallmark of the Muslims for the next few centuries when Christians and Jews sought sanctuary with the Muslims from persecution elsewhere. Amongst the early Muslims was a young man of part-Ethiopian descent known as Bilal who was freed from slavery and grew in prominence amongst the Muslims as the first mu`adhin (caller to prayer), and was a close companion of the Holy Prophet (sa). As Islam grew in influence in Egypt and other states, the Aksumites built trade ties with them.
Aksum as a Hub of Civilisation
As we have seen, Aksum had links to many faith groups and played a prominent role in the early advancement of the Abrahamic faiths into Africa, long before organised missionary activity. Aksum was already a cultural hub before the adoption of Christianity. The people had erected impressive stelae 90 feet tall in honour of their kings and these are still visible today.
As well as the Stelae, the town also has the country’s first church dating to the 4th century CE, palaces, underground catacombs, old monasteries, and is the birthplace of Ethiopian Christianity. There is an ancient swimming pool often associated with the Queen of Sheba.
The people are very proud of their history of never having been colonised, and they also fervently believe that the fabled Ark of the Covenant of the Jews is preserved in a church in the town, although this has never been independently verified.
As its influence grew, Axum controlled most of the region of the horn of Africa including Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, southern Sudan, and parts of Yemen.
Decline of Aksum
Aksum began to decline initially when it lost control of its territories in southern Arabia. As the Muslims grew in influence, Aksum became increasingly isolated from its trading partners in Europe and North Africa. It was around 940 CE that Aksum was attacked by a local Jewish Queen, Yodit, who destroyed many churches and monuments.  Soon after a new Christian Zagwe Dynasty emerged with its new capital at Lalibela where the emperor tried to create a new Jerusalem. However, despite the decline, Aksum has always maintained a significant place as a holy town for Ethiopian Christians.
Aksum and the Ethiopian tribes have largely been overlooked by historians, but they have a rich and colourful religious history and tradition on the continent of Africa dating back to 1000 BCE. Aksum and the related dynasties had regular and deep contacts with Judaism, Christianity and Islam during their formative stages, and managed to maintain a unique identity from the rest of East Africa. Although some of the claims made for the town are disputed, there is no doubt that it was once a thriving hub of both trade and religion in the region and is worthy of much more research.
- Arnold, T. W., (1998), The Preaching of Islam, Aryan Books International, New Delhi, India.
- Briggs, P. (2019), Ethiopia, Bradt Travel Guides Ltd, UK.
- Burstein, S. (2009), Ancient African Civilizations – Kush and Axum, Markus Weiner Publishers, Princeton, USA.
- Martin, J. P., (2016), African Empires – Volume 1, Trafford Publishing, USA.
- Rahman, H. U., (1995), A Chronology of Islamic History 570 – 1000 CE, Ta-Ha Publishers, London.
- Samuels, A., (2017), Nubia – The rise and fall of African empires, Amazon Books, UK.