If there is one ancient African Empire that stands out in history, it would be the Kingdom of Aksum, otherwise known as the Ethiopian Empire. I think the name is more than enough for you to find the modern-day location of the kingdom which is Northern Ethiopia.
Brief History of the Kingdom of Aksum
The Kingdom of Aksum was founded approximately around 100 CE and existed until 940 CE. It flourished at a time when Rome and Byzantium were, perhaps, the two most important locations in the world. It quickly grew in strength and wealth as it became a key center of trade between the two Christian empires and other empires in India and the Far East.
The center of the kingdom was the city of Aksum, which was located at the highlands of Northern Ethiopia. The region had already been famous for its markets even before the Kingdom was officially established only to become one of the most important trading ports during the 1st century CE. This happened thanks to a sudden shift in the trading routes from the Middle East and India, which allowed Aksum to gain influence over neighboring regions like Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen, and control the entire trade in the region.
The establishment of their own currency additionally secured this success and growth. This made the Kingdom economically stable and independent. In fact, there was a time when the Kingdom of Aksum or the Aksumite Empire was considered to be one of the four great nations in the ancient world next to Rome, Persia, and China.
The Peak of the Kingdom of Aksum
The Kingdom flourished and grew in power continuously until it peaked during the rule of King Ezana between the 320s and 356 CE. Before anything else, King Ezana is known to be the first Aksumite king to embrace and accept Christianity. During his rule, it became the major religion in the nation.
Somewhere around the 350s, the Kingdom of Aksum conquered the powerful Kingdom of Kush and destroyed its capital at the time, Meroe. With this, it became the absolute power in the region as the Kingdom of Kush was their main trading rival.
The Decline of the Empire
Aksum remained the strongest trading empire in the region until the seventh century and the rise of Islam. There are numerous versions about the end of the empire in the 10th century that include the invasion of the Jewish Queen Judith whose existence is yet to be confirmed by archeologists and historians.
The most logical and fact-supported version is trade isolation. The rising Islamic Empire took control over the trading routes in the Red Sea and across the Nile sometime around the beginning of the 8th century. This, of course, leads to the economic decline and absolute trade isolation of Aksum.
From then on, the region was continuously conquered by the Muslims, although Aksum was left almost untouched because it once provided the followers of Muhammad with shelter. This, unfortunately, did not apply for the neighboring lands and soon, the entire region was under Muslim rule which left Aksum powerless.
Famous Artifacts: Ruins & Steles
Ruins of the ancient kingdom can be found in numerous locations in the Tigray Plateau in Ethiopia. The most significant ones, however, stand in the city of Aksum which still exists at the same location today. Unfortunately, it is no longer large and prosperous as it was in ancient days but it remains an important tourist location and is protected by UNESCO.
If you ever land in Aksum, you will see several remaining steles standing tall as if they were built yesterday and not over 1700 years ago. The largest of them all, 33 meters in length, has fallen ages ago but still remains with all its entirety on the ground. You can, however, see the most famous of them all, the Obelisk of Aksum. It has a curious story. Although the steles were once carved as one solid piece, the Obelisk of Aksum was taken by Italian soldiers when Italy conquered Ethiopia in 1937. Fortunately, it was returned in the early 2000s. and rebuilt in its original location.
While the steles were built to endure and their construction includes underground counter-weights, they are in danger and require conservation. The same goes for the remaining ruins and tombs that survived modern-days. It is also known that many houses were built over ancient ruins during the 20th century which further destroyed a lot of the integrity of this historical region.
We can only hope that more work will be done in the future to preserve ancient locations like the city of Aksum. After all, written history cannot compare with the experience of seeing the actual subjects of history with our own eyes, especially when the subject is one of the most important Kingdoms in African and human history.