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READ: Aksum

Human origins have been traced back to sub-Saharan Africa. But the origins of agriculture are clearly found outside of Africa. While the shift to farming took more time in Africa, agrarian societies like Aksum grew to be powerful centers of farming and trade.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How and why did early agrarian societies form in this region?
  2. What does evidence from Aksum tell you about how production and distribution worked in this society?
  3. What does evidence from this reading tell you about how people in this society formed and maintained communities (religious, state, and otherwise)?
  4. What does the evidence in this reading tell you about how the societies in this region participated in networks that moved ideas, people, and things?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. Compare and contrast this society to societies in other readings from the same set. What seem to be some commonalities of early agrarian societies, when viewed through the three frames of production and distribution, communities, and networks?
  2. What is the principal evidence cited in this article? How do you think the availability of different kinds of evidence affects what we know about these societies?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Ancient Agrarian Societies: Aksum

Photograph of several tall, pointed stone slabs. One, in the center, rests on a staircase and is carved with symbols
By David Baker
Human origins have been traced back to sub-Saharan Africa. But the origins of agriculture are clearly found outside of Africa. While the shift to farming took more time in Africa, agrarian societies like Aksum grew to be powerful centers of farming and trade.

Introduction

East Africa was the cradle of our species. For millions of years, our early human ancestors roamed across the land. It is, therefore, the homeland of every human being spread across the planet. In East Africa, one of the mightiest agrarian societies formed: the Aksum Empire. At its height in the third century CE, some ancient writers considered it one of the four great powers of the world, alongside Rome, Persia, and China.
African agriculture, in general, got a late start. It was invented independently in 3000 BCE on the other side of the continent in West Africa. One of the reasons for this "late start" is that human communities in this area had many resources available. They continued foraging and pastoralism, as they began domesticating cattle, sheep, and goats early in these regions. The African environment was well suited to foraging. Some communities were also reluctant to shift to agriculture. This change would mean a less healthy and more work-filled life.

Collective learning from two agrarian networks

Agriculture began in the Fertile Crescent. But the "Northern Horn" region of East Africa continued foraging for many thousands of years later. As agrarian societies in the Fertile Crescent grew larger, they had more communication with the Northern Horn. Knowledge of farming filtered down from Egypt and Southwest Asia. The communities of the Northern Horn began to adopt a mixture of foraging, farming, and animal herding. They domesticated ensete as early as 3000 BCE or more. This flowering plant was classified in the banana family. The people of the Northern Horn foraged for animal hides and bird feathers. They also foraged myrrh for use as perfume, and obsidian rocks to trade with Egypt.
By 2000 BCE, most communities in the Northern Horn were semi-nomadic. They made use of foraging, farming, and pastoralism. They still used stone tools, as copper and bronze were rare in the region. However, eventually they began to use iron. Knowledge of iron smelting may have been discovered independently or this technique could have been adopted from other African societies. Some people in the region still foraged without making the shift to farming.
Map shows the locations of sixth-century empires, including Aksum
Aksum, on the east coast of Africa near the Red Sea, and other empires of the sixth century CE, By Talessman, CC BY 3.0.
But farming knowledge from Southwest Asia and Egypt eventually moved along trade networks. To the south, the rest of Africa would transition to farming much more slowly. But East Africa was influenced by their location between these two major trade networks.

Early East African states

Around the same time, a major agrarian society arose in the Northern Horn, popularly known as D'mt. This kingdom reached its height between the tenth and fifth centuries BCE. Due to their trade connections with Egypt, they began developing more sustained farming. The surpluses were then traded, along with intricate stone jewelry. When the kingdom of D'mt fell, smaller kingdoms populated the area. These societies adopted iron and began exporting their metal work. Collective learning via the trade networks of Arabia and Egypt influenced Aksum's architecture and culture.
For many years, Aksum was just a tiny settlement in the Northern Horn, slowly building more land and wealth from trade. Then in 30 BCE, something changed. The Romans under Augustus conquered Egypt. Aksum was brought into contact with the Roman world in the Mediterranean. Trade networks shifted from the Persian Gulf and overland Asian routes more to the Red Sea. Aksum soon became a hub of overseas trade between the Roman Empire and India.

Aksum at the center of Afro-Eurasia

Becoming a member of this trade network transformed Aksum from a small state into a powerful kingdom very quickly. Aksum managed trade between India and the Mediterranean in ivory, gold, emeralds, silk, spices, crops, salt, exotic animals, manufactured goods, and much more. In the first century CE, Aksum became very wealthy and powerful. They could afford to build a strong navy to patrol the Red Sea and protect their trade routes. It was at this time that Aksum was first mentioned by Greco-Roman scholars. As the society continued to grow, Aksum's capital showed signs of rapid expansion. The town grew so quickly that there seems to have been no master plan for the city's layout, or to detail where the city walls would be placed. Aksum built many grand monuments, and the elite were buried in elaborate tombs marked by huge stone pillars (stelae). These stelae had intricate carvings on them and were also used to commemorate victories, regions of the kingdom, and great events. They also provide some evidence that Aksum had a social hierarchy: bureaucrats, priests, soldiers, merchants, and artisans. Aksum had its own coinage, each dynasty etched onto the gold coins. Archaeologists have found these gold pieces from Rome to Persia to India, proof of the immense size of the trade network in which Aksum participated.
Aksum was able to transport troops and expand its frontiers with naval power. The third century CE marks a period of intense military expansion. At its height, Aksum controlled North Ethiopia and parts of Sudan. They also controlled the southern Arabian Peninsula, most notably Yemen. Aksum was one of the true powers of the ancient world. They had wealth to hire swords and ships, and no comparable power in East Africa existed to oppose them. They were also one of the first agrarian societies in Africa. In the fourth century CE, Aksum formally adopted Christianity as its state religion. This linked Aksum to the Roman Empire, which had also officially made Christianity its state religion. Aksum sat at the center of an ancient trade network that crossed Afro-Eurasia. So they would easily learn of technological developments.
A tall, pointed stone slab is carved with symbols and rests on a staircase.
Aksum stela of King Ezanas. By Pzbinden7, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Social and political history of Aksum

Aksum was unified under the rule of kings and grew through military conquests. Eventually it became an empire that controlled an important region of trade. The Aksum king was considered the "king of kings", and smaller kingdoms paid tribute to him. In order to keep these regional kings from uprising, the Aksum king stationed warriors in each feudal area. The king and his administrators would then collect the tribute from these areas and meet with the regional kings, who pledged their support.
The main sources of income for the kingdom were agriculture and herding. This was mainly from growing cereal grains and raising cattle, sheep, and goats. As the population grew, certain cities became more urbanized. Job specialization also became more varied. Examples of monumental architecture increased with palaces as the largest structures. The city of Aksum became the main center for kings and the royal court. The city of Adulis grew into a large market town where goods from the interior of Africa were traded. This included ivory, gold, perfume and exotic animals. These were all exchanged for foreign products such as wine, olive oil, Roman and Indian coins, and bronze lamps.
As these goods were exchanged over trade networks, new ideas were also traded. The Aksum elite adopted aspects of Greek culture. This included the language and religious beliefs. The local reigion of Aksum began as animistic (a belief in many spirits that exist in the natural world). Later it became more formalized into a belief in gods that were tied to astronomy. Deities such as Mahrem (the king of gods and god of war), Astar (Venus), and Behēr (god of the sea) were honored with animal sacrifices and rituals. As trade networks grew and Aksum gained power, connections between the empire and the Roman Empire (Byzantium) became stronger. Christianity had recently become the state religion of the Roman Empire. It probably made its way to Aksum along these networks. According to some historical sources, the Aksum royal children had a Greco-Phoenician tutor named Frumentius. These sources indicate Frumentius may have influenced the royal family to adopt Christianity. As tutor to the royal family, he introduced the heirs to the throne to this faith. He eventually became the Bishop of Aksum. Full conversion of the empire probably happened gradually over many decades. Local customs were often incorporated into the Christian faith.

Decline

Aksum continued to prosper long after the Western Roman Empire declined in the fifth century CE. However, its desire to expand was part of its own downfall. Aksum launched a series of military campaigns to control Yemen in the sixth century CE. But they began to run out of funds. At the same time, the Aksum elite were fighting among each other. Around 541 CE, Aksum was hit with the destructive Justinianic Plague. Scholars are fairly certain this plague was the same disease that caused the Black Death in the fourteenth century CE. Aksum held on mainly due to its profits from trade, but its territory and community shrank.
Two gold coins featuring symbols and a depiction of a person’s profile. One is bright and shiny and the other is tarnished, and they feature slightly different markings.
Gold coins, Aksum, King Endybis (227-235 CE). By PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Note: This original version of this article is from the Big History Project (lesson 7.1). It has been modified for WHP.
Author bio
David Baker studied his PhD in Big History under Professor David Christian at Macquarie University. He now teaches Big History alongside Fred Spier and Esther Quaedackers at the University of Amsterdam. He is writer of the YouTube series Crash Course Big History, hosted by John and Hank Green in partnership with the Big History Project.

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