Capital of a Kingdom

Aksum is located in the subhumid periphery of the Ethiopian highlands (formerly known as the Abyssinian Plateau) in northern Ethiopia, at the foot of the Beta Giyorgis hill in the north and northwest, and the May Qoho hill in the east. It emerged from a local polity in the fourth century BC to prominence in the first century AD (Proto-Aksumite period). Aksum’s rise to power is related to its agricultural productivity, and its excellent location in means of trade near the Red Sea coast.

Map showing Aksum's position within a trading network (yellow) that reached from Europe to India.

Fertile lands provided the city, and its growing territory with its agricultural needs. Agriculture was based on dry-field farming. The Aksumites used cattle, sheep and goats, camels, and possibly mules and donkeys for meat, milk, hides, and transport. Furthermore, iron, bronze, and copper were locally extracted and imported.

Aksum’s possession of an agricultural surplus and its proximity to the harbour-city of Adulis (modern Zula) resulted in a successful position within a maritime exchange network at the crossroads of Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman world. Diverse agricultural resources from Aksum, the Ethiopian highlands' hinterland, and the Sudanese plains were distributed as far as Spain, the Black Sea, China and India.

The city of Aksum evolved from a ceremonial centre in the first century AD, with over 10,000 inhabitants, into the commercial and administrative centre of the Aksumite Kingdom. The kingdom was at its peak between the fourth and sixth century, reaching from the Nile in Sudan to Southern Arabia.

Some of the ancient Aksumite agricultural features resemble those of modern day rural farmers in northern Ethiopia/Eritrea, such as the use of cattle, sheep, goat, wheat, barley and tef. Modern landscapes however are believed to be covered with less vegetation and largely denuded, compared to Aksumite times (see pictures below).

Map showing the Aksumite Kingdom at its peak (fourth to sixth century).