In Part I, we talked a little about the far-ancient times of Ethiopia – Kush, Kerma and D’mt. Let’s jump forward now to the beginning of the Common Era.
I Don’t Wanna Aksum! You Go Aksum!
Around 100 C.E., a kingdom arose out of the city of Aksum (or Axum) which is fairly close to the ancient D’mt. The relationship between Aksum and D’mt is unknown. Aksum may also have subsumed or brought down the similarly formidable Meroë (Kush) state in what is currently Sudan. Whatever its origins, Aksum grew to be a nation that played in the same league as Rome, Persia, India and China.
Aksum gained power not by having a large spread of land like its peers, but by controlling the all-important waterways at the south end of the Red Sea. It engaged in some military land conquest to the west, but focused more of those efforts into the southern part of Arabia (Yemen). It usually left local leaders in power and simply demanded tribute instead. Aksum sold exotic goods such as ivory, spices, and gems as well as utility materials like salt and animals hide which, combined with the tributes, made it a commercial empire first and foremost.
Aksum’s urban structure and cosmopolitan ambiance would be at least somewhat familiar to us now were we to go back in time and visit. In the center of the city was a collection of elite housing constructed according to a standard plan; staircases from smaller wings of each large abode led up to a central elevated pavilion. Immediately surrounding the elite housing were common houses of mud and stone. In each direction there was a graveyard, with the southern location being the resting place of royalty. The nothern location also contained the various temples and churches. The elite houses surrounded a central plaza which could have served as a marketplace. No civil administration buildings have been discovered yet or are mentioned by ancient writers whose texts we have, but a number of thrones and intricately carved pillars dot the city. The streets in the center are laid out in a grid and are decorated with small statues. The further you stray from the center, the more haphazard the layout becomes.
During its 600 years of power Aksum would adopt some Greek gods, convert to Christianity and offer shelter to Mohammed. It welcomed Roman, Indian and Arab traders. The Chinese might have known it as Huang-Chi; again, insufficient evidence is available to say with certainty. In the 700s, Persia forcibly took over its holdings in southern Arabia and thus devoid of its major commercial advantage, Aksum simply shrunk back into obscurity. An electronic copy of a book specifically about the history and culture of Aksum can be found by clicking here.
A city this big and wealthy is just begging for some heist action. A ship loaded for India with salt and spices has its cargo seized. The thieves are suspected to come from one of the smaller states chafing under Aksum’s rule, maybe Qataban or Meroë. The king offers freedom to a group of imprisoned political rebels if they can locate the whereabouts of the goods and all of a sudden you’re playing Leverage. From the merchant’s perspective, GUMSHOE might work as well. For a different feel completely, the first Christian king Ezana is about to be coronated in about 320 C.E. when a wild party lets loose led by some local version of the Egyptian Hathor or the Yoruba Shango. Get out your copy of the old Bacchanal (not the one with the cards – it’s a bit too art Greco), reskin a few things and shake what your Maker gave you!