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World History Volume 1, to 1500

10.3 The Kingdoms of Aksum and Himyar

World History Volume 1, to 150010.3 The Kingdoms of Aksum and Himyar

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Discuss how Aksum and Himyar participated in cultural and economic exchange with other societies
  • Explain how issues of religion influenced Aksumite and Himyarite culture
  • Describe the religious changes that occurred around the Afro-Eurasian world during Late Antiquity

Beyond the borders of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, several smaller states flourished. They established cultural contacts with the large empires, but they were also able to participate in long-distance trade with Asia. Two kingdoms, Aksum in northeastern Africa and Himyar in southern Arabia, had distinct religious identities that informed their governments and cultures. During much of Late Antiquity, faith played a crucial role in shaping people’s identities, and the religions of these two kingdoms—Christianity in Aksum and Judaism in Himyar—were no exception.

The Kingdom of Aksum

Aksum flourished in sub-Saharan Africa as a counterpoint to the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. Located in modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, Aksum was able to take advantage of its location adjacent to the Red Sea, expanding across it into southern Arabia for a time. Similarities in architecture and polytheistic practices suggest that the Aksumites may have originally descended from the Sabaean people of southern Arabia. In any case, Aksumites were present in East Africa from at least the first century BCE. At its height, from the third to the sixth century CE, Aksum was a powerful economic force, trading luxury goods with Egypt, Arabia, and the eastern Mediterranean (Figure 10.15).

A drawing of a map is shown. Land is shown to the west with a peninsula of land next, and then a small area of land in the northeast. Water is shown at the north and around the peninsula in the south. An area along the coast of the water in the top left of the map is highlighted pink in a “Y” shape and labeled “Eastern Roman Empire.” Extending out from the bottom of the “Y” shaped pink area along a river is an oval area highlighted purple and labeled “Nobatia.” Connecting to the bottom of the purple area is a small “S” shaped area highlighted pink labeled “Makuria.” In the middle of the map at the top there is an oval area under the pink area highlighted yellow and labeled “Ghassanids.” To the right of that in a long, thin oval is an area highlighted blue and labeled “Lakhmids.” East of that is a gray area labeled “Sassanids.” South of the pink area is a brown oval area along the coast and a small rounded area on the western part of the peninsula labeled “Aksum Empire.” To the east of that is an orange area along the southern coast of the peninsula labeled “Himyar Empire.”
Figure 10.15 The Aksum and Himyar Empires. Aksum occupied the region of modern Ethiopia, while Himyar was located on the other side of the Red Sea in modern-day Yemen. The locations of the two empires allowed them to dominate trade in the region. (credit: modification of work “Map of the Sassanid Empire just before the Arab conquest of Iran” by “DieBuche”/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Aksumite society was hierarchical, with the king and nobility at the top. The lower classes at the bottom worked as artisans and farmers, though little evidence of Aksumite family life has survived to confirm class distinctions. There is some evidence that owners of large wealthy estates existed. To work the land, Aksumite society relied on enslaved people, who were likely criminals or foreigners captured in war. The empire was organized around several urbanized centers with monumental architecture including grand royal palaces, as well as lower-class homes made from stone or mud with thatched roofs. A written Semitic language known as Ge’ez survives in inscriptions from this period. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, the Aksumites held polytheistic beliefs, and numerous religious sanctuaries and temples exist from this early period. A priestly class oversaw the state religion, and the king may have held a prominent role in the religious hierarchy.

King Ezana came to power in the mid-fourth century, and what we know about the Christianization of Aksum comes largely from his reign. Ezana conducted successful military engagements against the Beja and Nubian people, subduing the Kingdom of Kush that had ruled southern Egypt for at least the previous millennium. A great builder, Ezana is also likely responsible for the construction of several obelisks. Inscriptions on stelae (commemorative slabs or pillars) and obelisks erected in Aksumite cities describe his exploits and profess his faith, while coinage shows the Christian cross gradually replacing other symbols (Figure 10.16).

A picture of two sides of a tall, rectangular stone slab is shown against a rocky wall. The stone slab is beige in color and shiny. Words are engraved on both sides of the stone shown. A vent is shown on the ceiling above the stone slab.
Figure 10.16 An Aksumite Stela. This monumental stone slab was erected by the Aksumite king Ezana and attributes his fourth-century military victory over the Nubians to the Christian God. The inscription in three languages—Ge’ez, Sabaean, and Greek—suggests the diversity of Aksum’s people and the intended audience for this monument. (credit: “The Ezana Stone” by Alan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Originally holding polytheistic beliefs, Ezana was converted to Christianity through the initiative of Frumentius, a Christian from the Syrian city of Tyre. Entering the region of Aksum as an enslaved man, Frumentius chose to stay after being freed in order to encourage the growing Christian community, and Athanasius, the Christian patriarch of Alexandria, consecrated him as bishop of the Ethiopian Church. This custom of patriarchs ordaining bishops for foreign cities often strained their relations with local rulers. But it showed that the Christian powers outside Aksum were interested in controlling religious policy there, and Ezana’s conversion may have been a means for Aksum to become more closely allied with the Roman Empire.

Interference from the Christian community abroad culminated in the arrival of proselytizing missionaries from the Roman world in the fourth and fifth centuries, who were working to spread the message of their faith with new peoples. While Christianity had largely been adopted in urban centers thanks to the activity of Frumentius, these later missionaries were able to spread the faith into the Aksumite countryside. They established hermitages and monasteries in traditionally pagan sites and occasionally suffered persecution by the local inhabitants. Yet Christianity continued to spread, and inscriptions of the time show biblical passages being translated into Ge’ez. Because of infrequent oversight by the patriarchs in Alexandria, however, Ethiopian Christianity developed unique characteristics, blending local beliefs in its own church ceremonies and holidays.

The Judaic group living in Aksum was known as Beta Israel. Probably founded by artisan traders visiting Aksum in the first century, Beta Israel was isolated from other Jewish communities outside the empire. Therefore, like those of Aksumite Christianity, its religious practices were sometimes distinct from the way the faith was practiced in other contexts. In several traditions, Aksum was the kingdom of the biblical figure the Queen of Sheba and the location of the lost Ark of the Covenant, an important artifact supposedly brought from Jerusalem by Ethiopia’s first emperor, Menelik. Still, the Ethiopian Jewish community experienced periods of both tolerance and persecution within Aksum.

Christianity continued to flourish in Aksum into the sixth-century reign of King Kaleb. By this time, churches were a common feature in Aksumite cities, and many of the most prominent examples were built in the sixth century with inscriptions claiming that Kaleb had contributed to their construction. The floor plans of Aksumite churches generally followed that of Byzantine churches or basilica, meaning they were oblong in shape with a rounded apse at one end. Still, some were unique in their design, with a circular plan that might have been based on local house types.

The apex of Aksumite society, in the sixth century, coincided with the extension of its cultural and political influence into southern Arabia. Kaleb had already established more connections overseas, initiating a silk trade with China. In Arabia, he sought to aid the local Christian communities with a military campaign against the Himyarite king Dhu Nuwas. Owing to their claimed lineage from the biblical figures King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Aksumites may have felt some pull to conquer the biblical kingdom of Sheba in southern Arabia. These overtly Christian motivations allowed for an alliance with the Byzantines in the campaign against the non-Christian Himyarites. With the Byzantine emperor Justin (uncle of the future emperor Justinian), Kaleb subdued Dhu Nuwas, and Aksum controlled southern Arabia until the Sasanian conquest in 572.

After the reign of Kaleb, the Aksumite Kingdom fell into decline, having failed to garner enough resources from working the land to sustain its population. Although it is unclear why this decline occurred so quickly, the climate may have been a factor because the region appears to have become especially arid after the middle of the eighth century. Economic difficulties in the kingdom may have also contributed. Kaleb’s campaign in Arabia could have overextended its finances and military strength, and the Sasanian occupation of the regions around the Red Sea might have disrupted Aksum’s trade network. There appears to have been growing dissatisfaction among the ruling class, and evidence from inscriptions suggests that revolts occurred in some Aksumite cities. As a result of these contributing factors, Aksum fell from political and cultural prominence in the mid-600s.

The Kingdom of Himyar

The Kingdom of Himyar flourished in southern Arabia from the first century BCE to the sixth century CE, on the coast of modern-day Yemen (Figure 10.15). The Himyarites originated from the kingdom of the Sabaeans, a Semitic people who had occupied southern Arabia from at least 1000 BCE. The Himyarites, however, were able to form their own kingdom because of the discovery of a prosperous trade route on the Red Sea coast. From the first century BCE to the second century CE, the Himyarites absorbed the Sabean and Qataban kingdoms, as well as several local tribes, and created their own capital in Zafar. This centralization of power unified the entire region of southern Arabia under a single government for the first time.

Once Himyar had become unified, it sought to maintain good relations with its neighbors by focusing on the exchange of goods from abroad. Unlike the Sabaeans, who had earlier dominated trade in the region through overland routes, the Himyarites shifted their focus to maritime trade. They had access to a port on their southern coast that lay along an important sea route from Egypt to Asia, and they traded luxury goods such as ivory and spices, acting as a waypoint between the Roman Empire, East Africa, and India.

The Himyarites had traditionally practiced a polytheistic religion, but in Late Antiquity the kingdom experienced a religious transformation when King Abu Karib As’ad chose to convert to Judaism in the early years of his reign, around 390 CE. The conversion of the people followed, and Judaism spread among the elite Himyarites first, perhaps as a means of appeasing the king and gaining political goodwill. However, some scholars have speculated that Himyar’s focus on Judaism was politically motivated, because it appears that a substantial Jewish population already existed in Arabia. The king may have felt compelled to create a Jewish state when one was no longer possible in Palestine because the Christian Byzantines controlled it. Much like the Byzantine emperors, who were religious reformers, the kings of Himyar publicly displayed their religious devotion. Several inscriptions from this period are dedicated to “the one God of Heaven and Earth.” Kings also constructed synagogues for the burgeoning Jewish community.

Himyar came into increasing contact with Christian missionaries inside its borders, and several churches were built in Himyarite cities in the fourth and fifth centuries. The earliest known Christian missionary was the diplomat Theophilus, sent as an ambassador by the Roman emperor Constantius II around 354. Because of Himyar’s access to lucrative trade routes, the Byzantines sought to influence the local population by converting them to Christianity, much as they had done in Aksum. The Himyarites responded to this outside interference in their kingdom by dealing with the Christians violently. Christian missionaries, Byzantine merchants, and other perceived outsiders were seized and put on trial. Overseen by the king and other religious officials, the trials resulted in the execution of numerous Christians in the late fifth century. Political rather than religious motivations spurred much of this violence, but in the following period that rationale changed, and the violence against Christians escalated.

In 522, King Dhu Nuwas began to conduct a military campaign against any Ethiopians or Christian sympathizers in the kingdom. Priests were killed and churches burned or dismantled and converted into synagogues. At Najran, home to a large Christian population, Dhu Nuwas set up a blockade in an effort to turn the population against the city’s Christians. He ultimately executed hundreds of Christians there and in Zafar. Hoping to form a larger Jewish state, Dhu Nuwas also sought alliances with the Sasanians and Jewish residents in Palestine. As previously discussed, this violence and political maneuvering in Himyar piqued the interest of Aksum, which was the kingdom’s chief rival because of its nearby location across the Red Sea.

The conquest by the Aksumites in the 520s was followed by the rule of Abraha, the Ethiopian who had commanded the Aksumite forces. A staunch Christian, Abraha sought to eradicate Judaism and other faiths in Himyar, attempting to wipe out idolatry and any lingering elements of paganism in the region. His major building projects included a grand church and the reconstruction of the Marib Dam. Abraha’s rule was brief, however, and Sasanian loyalists controlled Himyar until the arrival of Islam in the seventh century.

The Past Meets the Present

South Arabian Geography and Agriculture

The Arabian Peninsula is largely a desert landscape, experiencing hot temperatures and little rain year-round. In the southwest, however, in what is today Yemen, the highlands allow for somewhat cooler temperatures and consistent rainfall. This makes for a fertile and hospitable region. There is much evidence that crops were grown in ancient Arabia, mainly date-palms, olives, grapes, and other fruits. But farmers also cultivated wheat, cotton, and henna. What made this farming possible were feats of engineering that allowed the local population to harness water.

For example, in the city of Marib in central Yemen, a great dam was constructed to provide water for local agriculture. Marib was the capital of the Sabaean kingdom, which used the dam to great purpose for farming in the city by means of an intricate irrigation system. However, the construction of the dam may predate the Sabaeans, perhaps having begun in the eighteenth-century BCE. In the 520s CE, the conquering Himyarites took control of the structure and raised the height of its walls, though it later collapsed in 570.

The ability to harness water was important to sustaining prolonged settlements in Arabia in Late Antiquity. In addition to constructing dams and irrigation systems, the people of this region collected water from flash floods and used terracing in hilly regions.

Of all Yemen’s most famous agricultural products, however, few have had as large an impact on world history as coffee. From the medieval period onward, central Yemen in particular became known for the growing and trade of Coffea Arabica, or Arabica coffee beans. While it is believed that these beans originated in the Horn of Africa before crossing the Red Sea, it was in Ottoman-controlled Yemen during the fifteenth century that the hot beverage known as coffee was first consumed. Even today, more than half of all coffee beans grown and consumed throughout the world are these Arabica beans.

  • What agricultural products come to mind when you think of the Arabian Peninsula?
  • What does the spread of Arabica coffee and its popularity around the world say about the interconnectedness of people throughout history?

Religious Influence at the End of Antiquity

The arrival of new traditions of faith was a defining feature of Late Antiquity, and state-sponsored religion was a critical element in the conduct of empires’ relations with one another and with their own subjects. An increasing number of individuals in Late Antiquity came to identify themselves not as citizens of a particular location or even an empire, but as members of the community associated with their religion.

Unlike paganism, Christianity was a proselytizing religion; that is, Christian leaders hoped to convert others to their faith. Elite Christian thinkers disseminated religious knowledge to a wide audience and strove to construct a single agreed-upon narrative of what Christian identity meant. Theological writings, ecumenical councils, and the interpretation of Christian rituals were all part of this meticulous effort, and ongoing participation in the defining of belief and practice were instrumental in Christianity’s spread during this period.

The running of the state also became intimately tied to religion and religious policy, as the policies of Justinian and other Christian emperors and the institution of Zoroastrianism in the Sasanian Empire show. The Aksumites and Himyarites too, although they embraced different faiths, used religious imagery in their inscriptions and monumental buildings. Each empire’s elite endorsed this kind of religious messaging, converting to the new faith in great numbers, while the general populace in Late Antique communities often remained religiously diverse.

Judaism became a religion without a firm geographic center after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the first century CE. The Jewish diaspora refers to the subsequent dispersion of believers out of the traditional Jewish homeland of Israel/Palestine, which led Jewish groups around the Mediterranean to feel a sense of displacement and the need to form a community. Though some of their individual practices may have differed, those in locations as varied as Spain and southern Arabia could largely agree on the tenets of their faith. In Late Antiquity, Christian theologians’ attitudes toward Jewish people hardened, and restrictive laws were instituted by the Byzantine emperors. Yet despite these hostilities, Jewish culture flourished, especially in Palestine, resulting in the construction of many new synagogues and art (Figure 10.17).

A painting is shown of women standing along a river with dark, curly plants growing along both sides of the river. Two women in the left part of the painting are dressed in long brown and white robed clothing and cloth dressings on their heads, both tugging at a naked infant with black hair. The next three women are seen in sleeveless long dresses and short head covering holding various shaped and colored jugs and jars. The last woman is wearing long robed white clothing over a long-sleeved brown shirt, wearing a long white head covering, and holding her right hand out to another woman who is shown only halfway in the painting, wearing a long pink dress and long pink head covering. In the white-gray water there is a naked lady with long black hair and a necklace holding a naked infant with black hair. In the water a brown rectangular object with a triangle top on the right side floats next to the woman. Above the women’s heads there are beige and blue drapes and the background is a hazy purple color.
Figure 10.17 The Finding of Moses. This wall painting from a third-century synagogue in the city of Dura-Europos, in modern-day Syria, is one of many with biblical themes. It depicts the discovery by the pharaoh’s daughter of the infant Moses in the Nile River. (credit: “Dura Europos fresco Moses from river” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Christians marked their devotion in numerous ways during this period. One was asceticism, a form of self-denial that includes foregoing bodily pleasures and adopting a life of chastity, virginity, and renunciation of normal society. Monasteries that housed groups devoted to the ascetic life spread across the empire, usually in remote locations and often in the desert. Despite their isolation, however, many accepted visitors, so that the reputation of various holy people might spread to Christians everywhere. Many ascetics played a leading role in their communities, sometimes extending beyond the realm of civil behavior. For example, Late Antiquity witnessed a surge in violence carried out by ascetic monks against nonbelievers in cities of the empire, in an effort to preserve a sort of “pure” Christianity.

Despite continuing efforts to define proper Christian orthodoxy, regional differences among religious sects persisted during this time. For example, a crucial divide developed between urban and rural devotion. Saint Anthony was perhaps the most famous of the so-called Desert Fathers who in the third century chose to give up his possessions and practice asceticism in the Egyptian desert. These ascetics attracted followers, and as a result monasteries and hermitages flourished in less hospitable areas. Monasteries such as Kellia in the Egyptian desert housed a community of monks who lived together but had some contact with the surrounding region, while hermitages were places of more extreme seclusion for the religiously devout. By contrast, churches and synagogues were located in often crowded cities, where attendance at services was a daily life for laypeople. But these religious centers had to compete with other concerns for people’s attention. Evidence suggests that elements of religious devotion that originated from the polytheistic environment of earlier centuries also persisted, such as home shrines, magical spells, and other private practices.

On a larger scale, geographic divisions produced different types of devotion. Aksum in Ethiopia embraced a unique version of Christianity because of its relative isolation from the rest of the Christian world. In the Mediterranean as well, people of the same faith could differ in their experience of the same religion. For example, Nestorian Christianity emerged in the fifth century in the debates about Christ’s divinity, claiming that Jesus existed as two individuals—human and divine. Though officially rejected by the church in the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, Nestorius’s teachings flourished in Persia and spread eastward due to the efforts of missionaries.

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