Aksum’s foundation is suggested to be as early as 300 BCE. Very little is known of the time period between the mid-first millennium BCE to the beginning of Aksum’s flourish, thought to be around the first century CE. There is little in common between the Aksumites and the earlier pre-Aksumite civilizations (Munro-Hay 1991, 4).
The Aksumite kingdom was located in the northern province of Tigray and there it remained the capital of Ethiopia until the seventh century CE. Aksum owes its prosperity to its location. The Blue Nile basin and the Afar depression are both within a close proximity of Aksum. The former is rich of gold and the latter of salt: both materials having a highly important use to the Aksumites. Aksum was also within an accessible distance to the port of Adulis, on the coast of the Red Sea, hence maintaining trade relations with other nations, such as Egypt, India, and Arabia. Aksum’s ‘fertile’ and ‘well-watered’ location produced enough food for its population as well as its exotic animals, such as elephants and rhinoceros (Pankhurst 1998, 22-3).
Aksum inherited a culture highly influenced by South Arabia. The Aksumites' language, Ge'ez, was a modified version of the South Arabian rudiments, with admixtures of Greek and Cushitic tongues already present in the region. Their architectural art was inherited from their South Arabian counters. Some Aksumite artwork contained combinations of Middle Eastern deities.
Aksum today is famous for its tall stone cut towers known as obelisks. The largest one measures 33 meters (108 feet). These obelisks were monolithic, meaning they were carved out of a single stone. It is assumed that they were built before Aksum adopted Christianity because there is no Christian inscription to be found on them. These obelisks were essentially tomb stones, built to mark graves and underground burial chambers. (Henze 2000, 34-5)
The Aksumite court officially converted to Christianity in early 4th century AD by a Greek named Frumentius. After converting the court to Christianity, he traveled to Alexandria and returned consecrated a bishop. The Coptic Church of Egypt continued to supply Ethiopia with bishops until the 1950s. In all, Egypt sent 111 bishops during the nearly two millennium relationship (Erlich, H 2000, 24).
From its capital on the Tigray Plateau, Aksum was in command of the trade of ivory with Sudan. It also dominated the trade route leading south and the port of Adulis on the Gulf of Zola. Its success depended on resourceful techniques, production of coins, steady migrations of Greco-Roman merchants and ships landing on the port of Adulis. In exchange for Aksum’s goods, traders bid many kinds of cloth, jewelry, metals and steel for weapons. Aksum reached its highest power in the 3rd century AD when the Roman empire began to decline. Up to that time, the Roman empire was a major player in the trade economy of the Red Sea. Starting in the 3rd century AD, Aksum became the dominate force on both coasts of the Red Sea (Phillips, J. 1997, 451).
At its peak, Aksum controlled territories as far as southern Egypt, east to the Gulf of Aden, south to the Omo River, and west to the Cushite Kingdom of Meroe. The South Arabian kingdom of the Himyarites was also under the power of Aksum.