January 12, 2007
Ethiopia's Downfall: The End of the Aksumite Empire
Ethiopians love to brag about their history and the once upon a time great empire that now exists only in our memories. The Aksumite Empire was one of the grandest, richest, and most respected nations in the first 6 centuries A.D. The market flourished of gold and other riches. The merchants traded with the Roman Empire, the Egyptian Empire, the Greek Empire, the Persian Empire.
So, what happened to that great nation? No one ever discusses the fall of the Aksumite empire or even the events that led to the fall of the great kingdom.
Aksum, the capitol of the Aksumite empire, was located in the North of Ethiopia. The Empire included Djibouti, Eritrea, Yemen, parts of SW Arabia, the Red Sea, and great parts of the nile. It's most important area of control, in terms of economy, was the Red Sea allowing easy trade and international relations. Aksumites exported gold, rhinoceros horn, ivory, incense, and obsidian; in return, they imported cloth, glass, iron, olive oil, and wine.
The 4th century AD: Aksumite converted to Christianity.
The 6th and 7th century AD: Aksumite lost the SW Arabia, including Yemen, and Red Sea ports(it was taken over by Sassanian Persians). Still, parts of the Red Sea coast were controlled by Byzantine Egypt, which had good relations with Ethiopia being a Christian state. However, Sassanian Persians expanded and took control of Byzantine Egypt ports. So, Ethiopia's network on the sea declined.
The 7th and 8th century AD: the spread of Islam. Islam conquered the Arabian Peninsula and Byzantine Egypt's territory. Egypt was Aksumite's greatest trade partner. When Islam was established in Egypt, the good relations between the Aksumite (Christian) state and Byzantine (Christian) state vanished. Muslim Arabs took control of the Red Sea; and Islam spread fast to Djibouti and Somalia and other areas along the Red Sea.
The 12th century AD: Islam spreads into the mainlands of the Aksumite Kingdom, east and south of the central highlands. The native cushitic people (Oromo is one main group) who practiced indigenous religions converted to Islam. This group struggled with the Amhara-Tigray Semitic Christian people for the throne of Ethiopia.
The 11th and 12th century AD: The grand Aksumite Empire had been forced inwards cutting off much access to wealth and leaving it landlocked. Moreover, the Christian state was threatened by its new Muslim neighbors; so the Christian state focused on preserving and strengthening its religious laws. It also began to expand southward. Using its military, it spread the Aksumite culture, Semitic languages, and Christianity southward all the way to Shewa and took possession of a lot of land (it gained more land than it had before).
Around 1137, the Zagwe Dynasty gave rise. This dynasty was devoted to the Christian religion. Lalibela, along with many other churches, was constructed during this reign. The religion was very strict, devotional, and centered. There was no focus on spreading Christianity (missionary work). There was little contact with outside nations leaving the nation reliable on its own land and resources.
Source: Ethiopian Country Studies, Library of Congress