History of Eritrea: Political system, economy, culture and society in Eritrea and Tigray in the Axumite period

By Tewelde Beyene

Apr 14, 2005

Having discussed, in the previous unit, the political aspects of the Axumite period, it remains to see now the other aspects which constitute the basis of the power and the characteristics of its civilization.

1. Political System: The structure was basically, in a sense, feudal. The sovereigns ruled Axum proper and its vassal kingdoms, which were subject to a periodical payment of tribute.  The sources have no information about the administrative system, which probably was poorly developed. While major military expeditions were led by the sovereign himself, the direction of important state affairs was assigned also to near relatives of the king.  In a similar political structure a tension between local centrifugal trends and imperial centralization efforts was paradigmatic.

2. Commerce: The Axumite state, in its heyday, was a first-rate trading power, as evidenced also by the minting of coins. The times of export and import were obtained through hinting, trapping, and collecting. Imports included food stuffs, clothing materials, metal artifacts etc. leading contractors with foreign merchants, for acquisition in bulk, were the monarchs and their vassals, while selling in retail was left to merchants,. Trade with Saus’s gold fields was a jealousy protected imperial monopoly.

3. Agriculture and other Occupations: Agriculture was the occupation of most of the people in the Axumite state, along with animal stock breeding. Craftsmen, blacksmiths, metal workers, potters, stone masons, and carvers reached a high level of skill.

4. Towns and Markets: Axum and Adulis were at the two ends of the main trade route. Centers such as Kohaito ( Koloe) , Aratou, Tokonda, Etchmar’e , Degnom, Hagerederagueh, Henzat were very crowded towns with active markers probably in the outskirts.

5. Arts: The architecture of the Axumite period has been studied especially by the Deutsche Axum Expeditions and, in subsequent decades, by other archeological missions. The main architectural works of this period can be generally classified into the following groups:

a. Stelae;

b. Palaces and various buildings;

c. Stone thrones;

d. Metal statues;

e. Up-built churches.

The traditional view that attributed Axumite architecture to foreign workmanship is being now questioned. But it seems to me that if a “dues ex machine” explanation is not scientifically serious, to admit a reciprocal internal and external influence amounts to making a balances assessment.

“The mania for the gigantic ( which so much characterizes Axumite architecture) reflected the taste of the Axumite monarchy , and the monuments were the concrete realization of its ideological purpose , which was to instill awe-inspiring admiration for the greatness and strength of the potentate to whom monuments were dedicated” (Kobishanov).

6. Numismatics: Axumite coins had not only an economic value but a political one as well. They carry effigies, symbols, and legends (in Greek and Geez, not in south Arabian). No dates are indicated. Their minting seems to have stretched from the 3rd to the 8th C. the names of 18 Axumite Kings are known only through them.

7. Religion: Little is known about the religion of the people in the Axumite states before Ezana. Most of the divinities which were worshipped in the 5ht and 4ht C. BC seem to have had no place in the Axumite pantheon, except Asthar , a cosmic divinity to which were probably referred the symbols of the crescent moon and the disc sun, in the inscriptions of Ezana three other divinities appear: Mahrem, Biherm and Meder. To them were offered sacrifices (bulls and captives) in great temples by colonies of priests. Thrones and statues were offered to the various gods. No explanation has been given yet about the significance of the great Axumite stelae; they were probably funerary monuments.

With the introduction of Christianity, all these practices were gradually abandoned. The new religion began to mould a new culture that left its imprint on monuments, basilicas, baptisteries, coins, pottery. The translation of the Bible, the spread of evangelization, and the beginning of the monastic movement were, by the end of the 6th C. in their fullest swing.

8. Language and script: The earliest alphabet used in the country was of a South Arabian type (5th C. BC ). Geez script dates from the 2nd C. of our era (the Matara tablets of schist); the replacement of boustrophedon by left-t0 right writing, the introduction of syllabism and the translation of the Bible are the main literary language. Greek and South Arabian scripts were still uses in the Axumite period, albeit to and increasingly limited extent.

9. Society: For all the greatness and the wealth it attained, the Axumite civilization was a minority civilization, in that its resources and wealth were a monopoly of the ruling class, the nobility and landed patricians. A remarkably class-stratifies society!