The ruins of the ancient city of Aksum are located close to Ethiopia's northern border. They mark the location of the heart of ancient Ethiopia, when the Kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. The massive ruins, dating from between the 1st and 13th centuries, include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and the ruins of ancient castles. Long after its political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned in Aksum.
Beginning around the 2nd millennium BCE and continuing until the 4th century CE there was immigration into the Ethiopian region. The immigrants came mostly from a region of western Yemen associated with the Sabean culture. Conditions in their homelands were most probably so harsh that the only means of escape was by a direct route across the Red Sea into Eritrea. By the 4th century, Aksum was already at its peak in land sovereignty, which included most of southern Yemen.
The city of Aksum emerged several centuries before the birth of Christ, as the capital of a state that traded with ancient Greece, Egypt and Asia. With its fleets sailing as far afield as Ceylon, Aksum later became the most important power between the Roman Empire and Persia, and for a while controlled parts of South Arabia. Aksum, whose name first appears in the 1st century AD in the Periplus of the Eritrean Sea, is considered to be the heart of ancient Ethiopia. Indeed, the kingdom which held sway over this area at this time took its name from the city. The ruins of the site spread over a large area and are composed of tall, obelisk-like stelae of imposing height, an enormous table of stone, vestiges of columns and royal tombs inscribed with Aksumite legends and traditions. In the western sector of the city there are also the ruins of three castles from the 1st century AD.
The earliest records and legends suggest that it was from Aksum that Makeda, the fabled Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. A son was born to the queen from her union with Solomon. This son, Menelik I, grew up in Ethiopia but travelled to Jerusalem as a young man, where he spent several years before returning to his own country with the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, according to Ethiopian belief, has remained in Aksum ever since (in an annex to the Church of St Mary of Zion).
In addition to the old St Mary of Zion church, there are many other remains in Aksum dating back to pre- and early Christian times. Among these, a series of inscriptions on stone tablets have proved to be of immense importance to historians of the ancient world. They include a trilingual text in Greek, Sabaean (the language of South Arabia) and Ge'ez (classical Ethiopian), ordered by King Ezana in the 4th century AD, along with the 3,000-year-old stelae and obelisks. The standing obelisk rises to a height of over 23 m and is exquisitely carved to represent a nine-storey building in the fashion of the 'tower-houses' of southern Arabia.
Aksum inherited a culture highly influenced by southern Arabia. The Aksumites' language, Ge'ez, was a modified version of the southern Arabian rudiments, with admixtures of Greek and perhaps Cushitic tongues already present in the region. Their architectural art was inherited from southern Arabian art; some Aksumite artwork contained combinations of Middle Eastern deities.
From its capital on the Tigray Plateau, Aksum was in command of the ivory trade 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, the production of coins, steady migrations of Graeco-Roman merchants and ships landing at the port of Adulis. In exchange for Aksum's goods, traders offered many kinds of cloth, jewellery and metals, especially steel for weapons.
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 Meroë. The South Arabian kingdom of the Himyarites was also under the control of Aksum. Unlike the nobility, the people used salt and iron bars as money and barter remained their main source of commerce.