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May 24, 2019

Commerce and Trade in Ancient Africa: Aksum

The power and importance of Aksum were paralleled by no other African civilization during the period of its existence besides Egypt writes Ibrahim Anoba in his latest installment of Ancient African economies. 

Aksum, which existed between the 1st century CE and the 8th century CE, was one of the most important kingdoms of the ancient world because of its role in early Christianity and its commercial achievements. Aksum’s capital city, also called Aksum, was among the most prosperous in early African history. The power and importance of Aksum were paralleled by no other African civilization during the period of its existence besides Egypt. At its height, though, the Aksumite Empire pioneered remarkable innovations in commerce and its influence was so far-reaching that historians believe its territory extended beyond the boundaries of contemporary Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea. Later around the 6th century CE, the Aksumite territory spread into Southern Arabia and Yemen, although Aksum’s presence in Arabia would be cut short by a Persian invasion of southern Arabia. Its’ strong navy protected the coastal trade routes and the trade networks along the Nile River and the Southern Red Sea, which were the source of its tremendous wealth. The strength of Aksum was well captured in the account of the influential Persian prophet of the 3rd century CE, Mani, where he wrote:

“There are four great kingdoms on earth: the first is the Kingdom of Babylon and Persia; the second is the Kingdom of Rome; the third is the Kingdom of the Aksumites: the fourth is the kingdom of the Chinese.”[1]

Aksum was also well known to the Greeks and the Romans, and later to the Byzantines, the Arabs, and the Persians.[2] For most of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, it was Rome’s biggest trading partner to the West. As it is the case with many ancient, pre-Latin civilizations, most of what we know about Aksum comes from archaeological excavations, especially those conducted in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia. Other sources are from written accounts from neighboring civilizations like the Romans, Byzantine Egypt, and from the Nubian tribes.

But before the Aksumite Empire became the most powerful economic force in the Horn of Africa, the city of Meroë in Kush was the economic center of the region, at least until the Aksumite invaded Kush in 330 CE (this is sometimes put around 350 CE).[3] The invasion was one of many factors that led to the decline of the Kingdom of Kush, of which Meroë was its’ last metropolis after the decline of Kerma and Napata as explained in Part 2. Although Aksum was already flourishing before the conquest of Kush, it did not reach its peak until the decline of Meroë.

Commerce in Aksum

In the words of German historian Eduard Meyer, trade and money were as fundamentally important to the economic life of the ancients[4] as war was.[5] Although we do not know too much about the Aksumite military—apart from their expansionist conquests of neighboring territories—it was their facility at trade and commerce that set them apart in ancient history. Those that were not farmers, laborers, or soldiers were merchants. Evidence from Tigray strongly supports the theory that the Aksumite civilization was defined by its complex market economy; commodities like labor, slaves, ivory, and incense, among many other goods, were either bartered or exchanged using legal tender. Commercial activities in Aksum have been linked to kingdoms and empires as far away as China, Persia, and Rome (and, later, Byzantium). British archaeologist Sheila Boardman noted, in the introduction of her chapter in The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa, that the commercial activities in Aksum might have been responsible for the increase in crop variety and the growth of the market economy across the entire East Africa region. She argued that before the mid- to late Aksumite period, the range of crops planted was limited to flax, barley, and tef. But under the Aksumite rule, the production extended to some twelve other species, most of which were cash crops like oil and fiber plants, all of which points to both a robust interest in both agriculture and market exchange.[6] But domestic agriculture was only one of the economic strengths of Aksum.

Like in both ancient Egypt and in the Kushite metropolises, the close proximity of these kingdoms to the Nile River was an enormous commercial advantage. The river gave them an avenue to engage in trade with people from farflung territories. African merchants were key to this trading system. They used the Nile to easily transport commodities into Arabia, Himyar (modern-day Yemen), and through the Gulf of Aden, especially from the 6th to 9th century CE. Aksumite merchants also traveled across India and Arabia trading in luxury commodities that were the most sought after in the ancient world including emeralds, ivory, incense, exotic animals, gold, silk, salt, obsidian, and spices. They then sold these commodities to kingdoms in inner Africa and to their immediate neighbors in Nubia and Egypt.

The elaborate nature of trading activities in Aksum is perhaps best expressed in Periplus Maris Erythraei (“Navigation of the Erythraean Sea”). Although we do not know the author of this work, which chronicled navigation between major trade ports in the ancient world, most historians do agree that the author was most likely a Greek merchant living in Egypt sometime around the mid or late 1st century CE. What makes this manuscript significant is the author’s description of a remarkable port city in Aksum called Adulis. According to the author, Adulis was an open harbor that accommodated communities of African and Greco-Roman traders. Some even believe that Adulis used to serve as a commercial location for the Egyptians of the Middle Kingdom[7] and the Phoenicians. In the manuscript, the author recounted:

“Below Ptolemais of the Hunt, at a distance of about three thousand stadia, there is Adulis, a port established by law, lying at the inner end of a bay that runs in toward the south… Ships bound for this port now anchor here (the Mountain Island) because of attacks from the land. They used to anchor at the very head of the bay, by an island called Diodorus, close to the shore, which could be reached on foot from the land; by which means the barbarous natives attacked the island. Opposite Mountain Island, on the mainland twenty stadia from shore, lies Adulis, a fair-sized village, from which there is a three-days’ journey to Coloe,[8] an inland town and the first market for ivory. From that place to the city of the people called Auxumites there is a five days’ journey more; to that place all the ivory is brought from the country beyond the Nile through the district called Cyeneum, and thence to Adulis.”[9]

The author’s recognition of “a port established by law” is one of the many interesting features of Adulis. This phrase points to two possibilities: that trade in Adulis was either protected by some sort of governmental decree or that the author was merely iterating the presence of legal orderliness in Adulis. (It could possibly be both.) But what is obvious is that this phrase negates many narratives of a lack of orderliness or respect for contracts in early African markets. Also, the author’s claim that “ships bound for this port,” along with what we know of the presence of Greco-Roman and Arabs traders, suggests that trade between Aksum and these other civilizations was direct and robust. Consider also that the fact that ships built strong enough to frequently crisscross the Mediterranean Sea and the Southern Red Sea must have been owned by wealthy monarchs, nobles, or merchants. This is because any ship of this size would have cost a fortune to build and only individuals with deep trust in the trading system and with enough capital could have been involved. These ships traveled ot the far reaches of the known world. According to Ethnohistorian Wolbert G.C Smidt, a Greek merchant of the 6th century and traveler, Cosmas Indicopleustes, in his work Universal Christian Topography, describes the trade network that connected Adulis through the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, to China.[10] In Smidt’s description:

“Ceylon being as it is in a central position is much frequented by ships from all parts of India and from Persia and Ethiopia (…) And from the remotest countries, I mean Tzinista [China] and other trading places, it receives silk, aloe, cloves, sandalwood and other products, and these in turn are passed on to markets this side, such as Malê, Kalliana (…) Persia and the Homerite [Himyarite] country (…) and Adulis. ‘The sinologist Philip Snow notes that Ceylon was a place, where Chinese and Adulite merchants should have met occasionally. There are Chinese travel accounts on Ceylon especially of the 5th century, mentioning the presence of a number of foreign merchants there. Cosmas himself notes that traders from Adulis were in fact in Ceylon.”[11]

But a civilization with such a complex commercial system with far-reaching influence must have found it difficult to determine the appropriate exchange value of traded commodities. Perhaps the need to solve this problem was what prompted the Aksumites to create a coinage system during the reign of King Endubis (circa 270 CE) that would become even more elaborate under King Ezana (315-356 CE). The invention of the coin also points to the level of scientific sophistication of the Aksumites and, more significantly, to their interactions with the Greeks and the people of Asia Minor, who were already using coins in this period and who are credited for minting the first coins.[12] Aksum did, however, stop minting coins in the early 7th century. But this progress in ancient Africa from the barter and deben system of the Egyptians (explained in part 1) to the coins of Aksum, reveals the relevance of commodity exchange in ancient Africa.

We can also see reference to trade through the spread of Christianity in Africa during Aksumite history. According to legend, Christianity first came to Africa through Egypt by Mark the Evangelist in 60 CE. But Christianity did not become particularly influential in Africa until two boys (Frumentius and Aedesius) traveling with their merchant father, a Syrian Christian, were captured by Aksumites along the Red Sea.[13] The family has been traveling from India—most likely on a trade mission—when their ship was attacked by pirates. The father was killed and the boys were taken to the King. Later, Frumentius became a Saint and mentored the Prince, Ezana, who would later declare Christianity to be the official religion of his kingdom in the 4th Century CE when he became King. Some historians, however, believe that Ezana might have actually converted his kingdom to Christianity to please the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great and not because of the influence of Frumentius. Creating a stronger military relationship with such a formidable empire was a wise way for Ezana to resist encroachment by Muslim tribes. Whatever the reasoning behind his foreign policy, King Ezana brought Aksum to the summit of its’ economic prosperity. Even today, remnants of his achievements are preserved in the modern-day city of Aksum and his praises are sung by millions of Ethiopians.

Economic Decline

There is a possibility that commercial activities in Aksum started to decline around the late 6th century CE due to a combination of factors, including a series of invasions by neighboring nomadic tribes like the Bedjas from eastern Sudan and the gradual degradation of farmlands which gravely affected yields.[14] But later in the 7th century, Aksum did face a potent threat from increasingly powerful Arab expansionists from the North. The Arabs wanted to gain control of the trade networks across the Nile and the Red Sea, the central nervous system of Aksum’s economy. And having established firm control of the Nile and the Red Sea, Arab expansionists soon destroyed Aksum’s dominance of trade in the region as many of its territories were already lost to the Arabs or to nomadic herders from the south. Within a few decades, Aksum was economically isolated and the rump kingdom was later captured by the Rashidun Caliphate in the 8th century, although the city of Aksum itself survived until the 13th century.

The Parallel

In this series, we see two fundamental parallels. First, the early African kingdoms and empires relied heavily on trade with other people. Besides the trade in ivory, gold, and other commodities identified earlier, produce from agriculture was also exchanged in the form of cash crops. These trade relations put them at the center of the economy of the ancient world. Second, we know that although Pharaohs and kings were instrumental to the initiation of many of their kingdom’s trade expeditions to places like Arabia and outer Asian territories, it was actually merchants who controlled most imports and exports. In the Egyptian and Nubian territories, market activities were conducted freely without the Pharaoh or any royal authority dictating what to sell or setting the price of commodities. There are, however, instances where government officials provided oversight, keeping order in markets and in port cities like Adulis, Berenike, and Myos Hormos. Still, most of these ports—according to referenced accounts—were open mini-cities that accommodated traders and merchants from various tribes and the larger cities of the ancient world. These two qualities—the absence of price or choice controls as well as open marketplaces—are building blocks for any concrete definition of a free market economy, both of which are consistent with the stories of the three early African civilizations highlighted in this series.


[1] Cited in Yuri M. Kobishchanov, Axum (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979) p.59.

[2] See the chapter 2 (The Aksumite Empire: Ethiopia as a World Power) of Paul B. Henze’s Layers of Time (Palgrave Macmillan, New York: 2000)

[3] The invasion of Meroë was most likely due to Aksum’s interest to control the trade along the Nile especially as ivory—the most important commodity in international trade during this period—was a major commodity traded along the Nile.

[4] Eduard Meyer cited in Polanyi. In opposition to the position of Kail Butcher on what made the ancient societies, Meyer argued that “The ancient world possessed an articulated economic life with a highly developed system of transportation and an intensive exchange of commodities.”

[5] Most of what people know about the ancient world—-besides literature—-is war. But trade and commerce were of equal significance—-modern filmmakers and fiction writers have done a great job to rob humanity of this part of ancient history.

[6] Marijke van der Veen, The Exploitation of Plant Resources in Ancient Africa (Springer: Boston, 1999)

[7]  There are claims that Adulis was well known to the Middle Kingdom of Egypt as it was part of the Land of Punt. It did serve Greek and Phoenician ships as early as the 7th century B.C. See Nubians and the others on the Red Sea: An update on the exotic ceramic materials from the Middle Kingdom harbor of Mersa/Wadi Gawasis, Red Sea, Egypt in “Navigated spaces, connected places: Proceedings of the Red Sea Project V,” held at the University of Exeter, September 2010. Also, see Richard A. Lobban Jr.’s Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia (Scarecrow Press: Maryland, 2004), and Kathryn A. Bard and Rodolfo Fattovich’s Seafaring Expeditions and the Land of Punt: Long-distance Trade in the Middle Kingdom (Brill: Boston, 2018) p.185. Also see D. A. Agius, J. P. Cooper, C. Zazzaro and A. Trakadas (eds). Society for Arabian Studies Monographs 12, BAR International Series 2346. Oxford—-This reference was quoted in Chiara Zazzaro and Andrea Manzo (2012) “Pottery From Adulis,” The British Museum Journal.

[8] Coloe was an inland town and the first African marketplace for ivory sitting along the Red Sea where Ptolemies hunted for war elephants.

[9] Wilfred Schoff, The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea: Travel and Trade in the Indian Ocean, 1912 (New York: Longmans, Green, 1912) p. 23-24

[10] We were first introduced to the possibility of trade relations between Ethiopia and China in 1913 with the work of geographer Albert Hermann “An old maritime traffic between Abyssinia and South China until the beginning of our era,” Journal of the Geography Society, Berlin. Pg. 553-561. Sergew H. Sellassie’s Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270 (United Printers: Addis Ababa,1972) is another good reference for a more detailed account of early Sino-Ethiopia relations.

[11] Wolbert G.C. Smidt, “A Chinese in the Nubian and Abyssinian Kingdoms (8th Century),” in Yemeni Chronicles [Online], posted on September 27, 2002, accessed May 16, 2019.

[12] According to Aristotle, Demodike of Kyrme, the wife of King Midas of Phrygia was the first person to mint a coin, although Herodotus believe coins were first minted by the Lydians. The only other equally strong claim was by Numismatists who wrote that the people of Agro on the Greek island of Aegina were the pioneers of this means of exchange.

[13] Another version of the legend claims the two boys are Syro-Phoenician Greek and they had been traveling from Tyre with their uncle Meropius—not their father—with Akum as their destination. The Biblical version of this legend puts Frumentius as Philip the Evangelist (see Acts 8:26-40).

[14] Federica Sulas, Marco Madella & Charles French. (2008) “Agriculture and water resources at Ancient Aksum,” presented at the Society of African Archaeologists Meeting, 7–11 September 2008, Frankfurt, Germany.

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