Monday, February 15, 2021

S2E8: Ezana's Conquest of Nubia

King Ezana's Funerary Stela

In this week's episode, King Ezana will deal with the fallout of the decisions made in the first half of his reign and somehow emerge from these challenges in an even stronger position than before.
Note: The Blemmyes were another nomadic people who invaded Nubia during the end of Meroe. Where exactly their realm ended and Nobatia's began is not clear.

The first of these challenges was overcoming the religious tensions that emerged with Aksum's conversion to Christianity. While the peasantry and nobility of Aksum were surprisingly receptive to the change, Aksum's Jewish population was resilient to unwilling to convert. In the face of increasingly aggressive missionary efforts, the Jews of Aksum fled to the Semien mountains, where they proclaimed a man named Phineas to be their king. Despite now having a kingdom of their own, however, the Aksumite Jews continued to pay taxes to Ezana. In the end, this exodus to the Semien mountains ended up working out well for everyone. The Jews could avoid persecution and conversion, while the Aksumites could continue to profit from their taxation. 

To the North, Ezana had to decide what position Aksum would support in the theological controversies that were ailing Roman Christianity. Coincidentally for our podcast, this controversy was, itself, incited by the teachings of an African. Arius was a Berber theologian from the region of modern Libya, then a part of the Roman Empire. He believed that, before the creation of the world, there was a time when God the Father existed without God the Son. This notion, while it seems esoteric and unimportant to us today, was an incredibly controversial belief in the 4th century. Arius' school of thought always remained a minority view in the Roman Empire, but caught on strongly among certain portions of the Roman populous, especially among the Germanic tribes and the Roman legions.
Arius "The Heretic"
During the reign of the Roman emperor Constantius, Arian Christianity became the dominant sect within the imperial court. Ezana's tutor and bishop Frumentius, however, was a Nicene Christian. As part of a wider purge of Nicenes from Rome's government and religious institutions, Constantius tried to pressure Ezana to remove Frumentius as the Abuna, or patriarch, of Aksum. This demand was refused, indicating that, even in this early state, East African Christianity enjoyed independence from Roman religious authorities. This is an important distinction, as the fact that Frumentius was appointed from Alexandria and practiced Nicene Christanity might make you think that Aksumite Christianity was just an extension of the Roman faith. However, with Ezana's refusal to dismiss Frumentius, it becomes clear that Roman religious authorities held no true power over the Aksumite church.

Some of Meroe's famous pyramids

At the tail-end of his reign, Ezana encountered a crisis with his Northwestern neighbor, the Nubian kingdom of Meroe. Meroe was a kingdom in decline since even before Ezana took the throne. A series of wars between the kingdom and Rome throughout the first centuries BC and AD severely hurt the kingdoms economic prospects, and forced the Meroites to give away significant portions of valuable farmland to repatious mercenaries. Throughout the early centuries AD, things got worse for Meroe as Aksum began to outcompete the Meroites in the trade of African goods like ebony wood, ivory, exotic animals, and, of course, incense. The treasury of Meroe was, at this point, relying entirely on the import tariffs that they levied on Aksumite and Roman merchants, much to the chagrin of these merchants. However, with the reduction of piracy and the construction of Gadarat's road on the Red Sea coast, these merchants could bypass Nubia altogether, drying up Meroe's last source of revenue. Early in Ezana's rule, he had already taken advantage of Meroe's weakness once when he used their land as a bargaining chip in the resettlement of the coastal Beja population. However, when a Nubian militia made an encroachment on Aksumite elephant hunting grounds, it gave Ezana an excuse to invade Meroe. With Meroe destroyed, a new Askumite client arose in the city of Soba. Soba became the capital of Alodia. This kingdom would itself last for almost a millennium, finally collapsing in the 14th century AD. 
Ruins of an Alodian fort outside Soba, Sudan
Ezana, despite his Christian faith, was buried in a traditional Aksumite pagan ceremony. However, he would ultimately be the last Aksumite king to be buried in this way. Next episode, we will focus on the life of Mehadyis, the Zealot king of Aksum who made it his mission to destroy the remnants of Aksumite paganism. 

Monday, February 1, 2021

S2E7: The Great King Ezana


A coin minted by Ezana early in his reign

In this week's episode, we explore the reign of Ezana, the greatest king in Aksumite history. We begin the episode at the start of Ezana's life. He was tutored by Frumentius, a Syrian Christian who was sold as a slave to the Aksumite court, and was later elevated to the position of advisor after he demonstrated great confidence and charisma. 

Frumentius, Ezana's childhood tutor and close friend (depicted here as an old man)
Frumentius's tutoring had a strong impact on the young boy. In addition to strengthening Ezana's linguistic and literacy skills, he also instilled in the boy a philosophy that was derived from the Nicaean church. By the time Ezana came of age, Frumentius would leave the country and return to Rome to continue his ecclesiastic education.
As was the norm in the Aksumite government, many of the top positions within the military were reserved for members of the royal family. In the case of Ezana, military command was reserved for his brother, Saizana. In the early years of his reign, Ezana and his brother underwent a series of military incursions against the nomadic Beja people to their North. The Beja were a Cushitic people who lived in small, nomadic clans. Like nomadic people throughout the world, the Beja proved to be both a welcome partner and a troublesome adversary for the settled people around them. They often raided Aksumite and Roman caravans that crossed through their land, resulting in lost profits for the merchants of both states. In order to stop this banditry, Ezana sent his brother in command of an army to relocate a portion of the Beja people into Eastern Nubia to make the remaining tribes easier to control.
A modern Beja bedouin.

This plan was a success, and several Beja tribes were successfully relocated into Nubian lands. This decision took advantage of the weakness of the Nubian kingdom of Meroe, an ancient empire approaching the end of its life. The details of this collapse will be elaborated on next episode when Ezana continues to take advantage of Meroe's decline.

This week's Patreon exclusive episode focuses on the modern history of Ethiopia's Jewish population. We will certainly be hearing more about this fascinating people in future episodes, and if you'd like to learn about the modern history of the Ethiopian Jewish population and their mass-exodus out of the country, you can listen by becoming a patron of the show at our patreon. Thank you for listening, and I hope you continue to enjoy the show. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

S2 E6: The Aksumite Empire's Greatest Defeat

Last episode, King Gadarat of Aksum greatly expanded the Aksumite kingdom, engaging in wars of expansion that pushed Aksumite influence further into the Ethiopian highlands, as well as conquering the city of Najran from the Himyarite kingdom in Yemen. However, while Gadarat's wars had managed to push Aksumite's influence to an even further horizon, his wars were incredibly expensive in both money and lives. Additionally, the fallout from the destructive campaign in Yemen left Aksum incredibly diplomatically isolated, as Gadarat had ruined the kingdom's relationship with every state in the southern Arabian region. The burden to maintain the fragile gains fell into the lap of king Adhebah of Aksum. As the written form of Ge'ez didn't possess vowels at this point, his name was, in reality, spelled as DBH, and Adhebah is simply historians' best guess.

I admittedly simplified the political circumstances that led to the formation of an alliance between Aksum and Himyar in this episode. Himyar, in addition to facing the threat of war from the Sabaeans, was also engulfed in a civil war between two claimants to the throne. In fact, one of the events that spurred the end of the previous friendship between Himyar and Saba was the latter's support of a pretender on the Himyarite throne.

In response to the outbreak of war between Himyar and Saba, the Aksumite King Adhebah ordered his son, Germa to aid the Himyarite king Shamir Yuhahmid. Germa's name is similar to the Ge'ez words for majesty, terror, or frightful, showing how his reputation as a martial leader proceeded him. Despite the intimidating name, however, Germa would produce mixed-results on the battlefield throughout his career. In this early war, he won initial engagements but would later be forced to retreat and sign a hasty peace with Saba.

In a later period, the Aksumite king Datwinas would make a more concerted effort to bring Himyar under his heel. Using the Aksumite fleet, he transported thousands of Aksumite soldiers across the Red Sea to combined forces with Germa's garrison and wage a new war against the kingdom that had so briefly been their ally. Unfortunately, what Aksumite ships looked like is a mystery to us. We are certain that the nation had an impressive navy, as accounts from the time indicate that Aksum possessed the most powerful naval fleet in the Red Sea region. Additionally, we know a few scant details about the ships used. Instead of using iron nails, the Aksumites fastened their ships' planks together using a series of complex rigging and knots. This construction method allowed Aksum to produce more ships at a cheaper cost but unfortunately means that shipwrecked Aksumite vessels saw their ropes disintegrate underwater, making the shipwreck's remains fall apart. The locations of Aksumite shipwrecks can be identified, as their cargo remained intact, but the remains of the ship are so scattered that identification of the shape or form of the craft is impossible. However, they do provide an estimate of the ships size, with 19 meters (62 feet) being the most likely length, about the size of a small Roman bireme ship. It's worth noting, however, that this was a civilian merchant vessel, and that ships used for war were most likely significantly larger. Unfortunately, no illustrations of Aksumite vessels from this time exist either, so what these African warships looked like remains a mystery.
An example of a modern woven boat
The closest guess we can make to what an Aksumite ship looked like is to look to the Eastern neighbors, the Somali. The kingdoms and city states of Somalia continued using woven ships called bedens, or uwasiyye in their larger form designed for hauling cargo and warfare. It's possible that their Aksumite neighbors used a similar model of ship, but this is only a guess.
An illustration of a Somali naval vessel, 15th century AD. Aksumite vessels may have had a similar design, albeit in likely a more primitive form as this image predates Aksum's second and third Arabian wars by around 1,200 years.
Regardless of what their ships looked like, Aksumite merchants were happy to use them in mercantile missions across the Indian Ocean. To facilitate this trade, after the rule of Endubis, Aksumite merchants began using gold coins. While gold coins are today unfortunately associated primarily with sketchy infomercials targeting seniors, they were once considered an incredibly prestigious item. In antiquity, gold coins were an item of wealth reserved for the wealthiest countries. In this era, only four kingdoms minted gold coins. These were Rome, Aksum, Persia (on rare occasions only), and the Kushan Empire of Northern India. However, Aksum was alone in the quality of its coins. Gold coins are usually minted with gold composing only a small portion, with a gold plating covering an inside composed of less valuable metal. Aksumite gold coins, however, were unique in their high gold content. 

Gold coins of Endubis

The coins of Endubis provide us a surprising amount of insight into how Aksumite kings portrayed themselves. The Greek and Latin lettering read "King Endubis", indicating that the value of the coins was backed up not by their own intrinsic value, but by the strength of the Aksumite kings. The king's bust is flanked on each side by stalks of wheat. This association of the king with wheat indicates that the teff plant held some kind of symbolic significance to the Aksumites, the significance of which remains a mystery to this day. Finally, above the king, between the Greek text, lies a curious horizontal crescent with a star above it. This symbol is believed among archaeologists to represent the polytheistic faith of the Aksumites. As Aksum (spoiler alert) converts to Christianity, this Pagan symbol will eventually get replaced with the iconic Christian cross.

Finally, as always, I must remind you about the sheer amount of work that my editor and I put into this show. Researching, recording, editing, and publishing usually takes about 20 hours of work per week. We love to keep our show free, as African history should be freely available for all, and not locked behind a paywall. That said, we do occasionally publish premium episodes available only for our patrons. Doing 20 hours per week of unpaid labor is hard to justify, so if you'd like to ensure that we keep the show going, as well as receive access to our premium episodes, please help us by supporting the show on our Patreon

Monday, January 4, 2021

S2 E5: The Aksumite Invasion of Arabia

 Hello everyone, I hope you enjoyed this week's episode on the rule of king Gadarat, the first great expansionist king of the Aksumites. 

Most records of Gadarat's achievements in Africa come from an inscription called the Monumentum Adilutanum, a document composed in Greek and Ge'ez. The bilingual composition of this document can give us some hints about its intention. The inscription was meant to tell visitors to Aksum about the great achievements of its kings, adding an aura of prestige to the royal palace and projecting the power of the king. 

A recreation of the original Monumentum Adulutanum
Like most sources from Africa during this time, the Monumentum does not provide many details on specific battles, sieges, or skirmishes. Instead, it focuses more on the general character of the engagement. Even the Aksumite king who took part in the invasions of the Monumentum is technically unnamed, and we can only assume it to be Gadarat based on a few pieces of evidence. The first piece of evidence is that the time of the inscription's writing lines up with the rule of Gadarat, and a few other documents from Gadarat's rule indicate that he engaged in some type of war prior to his invasion of Arabia.

Unfortunately, Gadarat's invasions of Arabia are much less unified in their records. In fact, Aksumite records about the invasion are pretty scant. This indicates either that the invasion was never that big of a deal for the Aksumites, and that they didn't consider it worth recording, or that the less-than-successful nature of the conflict made Aksumite recordkeepers reluctant to record such an embarrassment. Instead, our understanding of the conflict has to be pieced together from a variety of sources, including limited Aksumite records and various Arabian inscriptions, and filling in the rest with our best guesses. For example, no sources technically detail the reason that Aksum's relationship with Saba fell apart halfway through the war, but given that there are records that indicate a joint Aksumite-Sabaean invasion of Hadramawt, and records that indicate previously strong relations between the Sabean and Hadrami kings, we can infer that this might have been one of the chief causes of the deteriorating relationship. 

Finally, here's a map that showcases the Aksumite empire after Gadarat's conquests. As you can see, Gadarat almost doubled the size of the Aksumite realm, but this expansion came at great expense to the kingdom's resources. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this episode, and come back to listen to the next episode. That episode will focus on how the kings after Gadarat tried to salvage the tough situation they were put into.

This episode required about 20 hours of work to research, write, record, edit, and publish. If you'd like to help support the show and compensate our crew for the hard work we put into free education, you can click the "support the show" link at the top of our page. Cheers!

Monday, December 21, 2020

S2 E4: Aksum's Humble Origins

Hello everyone, I hope you enjoy this week's episode on the rise of the kingdom of Aksum. Starting as a minor agrarian township in the Ethiopian highlands, Aksum soon became a powerful empire rivaled only by Rome, Persia, and China.

Tomb of the legendary Aksumite king Bazen, who is often equated with the biblical magi, Balthazar. Built ~20 AD
As described in this week's episode, Aksum's rise came about as a consequence of three outside factors and two internal factors. The first of these was the rise of the Ptolemaic kingdom in Egypt. The Ptolemaic kingdom put a larger emphasis on expanding its influence in the Red Sea trade system. It began patrolling the Red Sea with a massive fleet of ships, the most intimidating of which was the Octere. These enormous oar-propelled ships were the dreadnoughts of their day, especially dominant in the shallow inland seas like the Mediterannean and Red seas. With the backing of this powerful navy, the Ptolemaic kingdom projected its economic influence throughout the Red Sea region. In order to secure safe passage through the waters of the Red Sea, the incense merchants of the region were forced to offer their products at lower prices to the Ptolemaic merchants. With the price of their most important export declining, so too fell the economies of Aksum's competitors.
A Ptolemaic Octere Ship: from the Naval Encyclopedia
Aksum, on the other hand, was barely affected by this change. The city's economy was based primarily on the exportation of Ethiopian pepper and teff, which were much less affected by the Ptolemy's naval influence in the region. The kings of Aksum used the weakening of their neighbors to expand their own influence into their floundering East African rivals, soon growing to become the undisputed hegemon of the Ethiopian highlands.
One king of Aksum that went unmentioned in the podcast due to the lack of records surrounding his life was the legendary king Bazen, who ruled Aksum from around 20 BC to 20 AD. Bazen's life is largely enigmatic, though it's worth noting that in the tradition of Ethiopian Christianity he is equated with the king Balthazar, known for his gift of myrrh to the baby Jesus.

However, the first major move made by Aksumite kings to propel the city from a local power into a regional kingdom was the conquest of Adulis by the king Za Haqala in the late First Century AD. Adulis was an incredibly important port on the Red Sea coast, and its conquest allowed Aksum to become the preeminent trade power in the region.
Remains of a Roman-Egyptian style church in Adulis ~5th Century AD.

In 30 BC, the fall of the Ptolemaic Kingdom and its conquest by the Roman empire led to a resurgence of the incense trade. Not only was the primary cause of the price's decline gone, but a new, wealthier customer had taken its place. With the failure of a Roman invasion of Saba a few years later, it became clear that Roman influence in the Red Sea would be more limited. However, the damage done by the Ptolemaic kingdom had already been done in Arabia. The kingdom of Saba had collapsed into civil war, with multiple kingdoms declaring their independence from the capital of Marib. In order to secure a monopoly on the recovering incense market, future Aksumite kings would see increasing their influence in southern Arabia as their foremost policy goal.

Map of East Africa and Arabia ~100 AD

This week will be accompanied by a premium episode about the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, one of the primary sources about the economic and political situation of the Indian Ocean during this period. If you'd like to learn more about this interesting source from an ancient globalized world, access any of our previous premium episodes, or help pay for the hours of unpaid work that we put into researching, recording, and editing the show, support us on Patreon for just $1.99 per month.

Monday, December 14, 2020

S2 E3: In with D'mt, Out with Saba

This week's episode will focus on the collapse of the confederation of Saba, the rise of the Kingdom of Saba in its place. For the purposes of African history, this history is incredibly important because it would give rise to Ethiopia's first independent and powerful state, the confederacy of D'mt.
The Name D'mt comes from the Sabaic word for Pillars, in reference to the tower pillars that once adorned this temple to Almaqah in Yeha.

Yes, that's right, Dm't was most likely a confederation, not a kingdom like most sources seem to claim. After the rule of Rdm around 685BC, the title of King of D'mt was replaced with the title Mukarrib (federator) of Dm't, implying that the state of D'mt functioned in a way similar to the Sabaean confederacy. Rather than one centralized government, D'mt functioned more like a united alliance of autonomous city-states. Each city paid taxes and submitted to the authority of D'mt's capital city, Yeha, but were allowed to make their own laws and manage their own affairs.

As always, here are some maps to help you follow along with the geography of this week's episode.

East Africa and Yemen during the Sabaean Civil War (~690 BC)
East Africa and Yemen after the declaration of the Kingdom of Saba (~680 BC)

Anyways, the main figure of this week's podcast, Karib il-Watar, is one of the best-documented southern Arabian kings from the ancient era. Albeit, that's not saying much, as he's essentially the only ruler from the period that is documented in any respectable capacity. Pretty much his entire biography comes from a handful of inscriptions, the most important being the Naqsh An-Nasr, the Inscription to Victory. This inscription documents Watar's triumphant campaigns through the kingdom of Awsan, describing his destructive campaign in glorious language. More than 16,000 people are estimated to have been killed according to this document, and countless villages laid to waste. 
A section of the Inscription to Victory

Sadly, like much of the preislamic history of Yemen, this inscription is in immediate danger. The destructive modern war in Yemen threatens to destroy priceless artifacts as well as the knowledge of the past that they could provide us. Ironic that a document that so vividly described the destruction of war could itself be demolished by an even more destructive conflict. Learn more

Monday, December 7, 2020

S02E02: The Rise of Saba

Hello everyone, this week we're going to look at the rise of the Yemeni kingdom of Saba. Yes, I know this is the History of Africa podcast, but the story of Saba is so crucial to Ethiopian civilization that any series on Ethiopian history that excludes their story would be incomplete.
Anyways, here's a map of Saba in case you get lost during this episode. 

This is a picture of the Marib dam. This dam controlled the floods of the Wadi Dhana, allowing the Sabaeans to efficiently use Yemen's sparse water for irrigation. Various forms of the dam remained in use until the 6th century AD, and remained an important facet of southern Arabian life. The dam was permanently breached in 570 AD when the siltation of the reservoir made the dam unusable. The destruction of the dam destroyed the Yemeni society of the time, an event alluded to in the Quran. According to the Quranic depictions of events, the failure of the dam caused a destructive flood, sent by God to punish the southern Arabians for their continued practice of the old pagan faiths. 
But they turned away. So We sent against them a devastating flood, and replaced their orchards with two others producing bitter fruit, fruitless bushes, and a few sparse, thorny trees. -Surah 34:17

The Marib dam remains a symbol of national pride to the modern people of Yemen, depicted on the shield of the eagle's chest in the country's national coat of arms. 

Regardless, I hope you enjoyed this week's episode. This show isn't free to produce, as I have to pay for hosting, and spend usually about 20+ hours each week writing scripts, recording, editing and, uploading to various platforms, in addition to writing articles. So please, if you'd like to support the hard work we put into the show, please click the support show link at the top of the page.