The kingdom Aksum (or Axum) has been the subject of countless legends. Whether as the home of the mythical Prester John, the lost kingdom of the Queen of Sheba, or the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, Aksum has long been at the forefront of Western imaginations.
The Ethiopian kingdom of reality, not myth, was an international trading power. Thanks to access to both the Nile and Red Sea trading routes, Aksumite commerce thrived, and by the beginning of the common era, most Ethiopian peoples were under Aksumite rule. Aksum’s power and prosperity allowed it to expand into Arabia. In the third century A.D., a Persian philosopher wrote that Aksum was one of the world’s four greatest kingdoms, alongside Rome, China, and Persia.
Aksum adopted Christianity not long after the Roman Empire did and continued to thrive through the early Middle Ages. If not for the rise and expansion of Islam, Aksum might have continued to dominate East Africa. After the Arab conquest of the Red Sea coastline, Aksum lost its primary trade advantage over its neighbors. Of course, Aksum had only itself to blame. Just a few decades earlier, an Aksumite king had given asylum to early followers of Muhammad, thus ensuring the expansion of the religion which was to unmake the Aksumite empire.