20 Mind-Blowing Facts from African History that Made Us Rethink Our World History Lessons

King Ezana’s Stela, a 4th-century obelisk, Aksum, Ethiopia. Wikimedia Commons

19. The Aksumite Empire was one of the most powerful in the world

Whilst the Roman Empire was just getting started, another powerful civilisation was beginning to flex its muscles in what is now Ethiopia: the Aksumite Empire. And whilst the name may not be familiar to you, it certainly was to the European civilisations. In 1 AD, the Periplus of the Red Sea, a Greco-Roman text describing navigation and trading opportunities, praised the city of Aksum as one of the most important places for ivory. Between this date and its approximate end in 940 AD, the Aksumite Empire grew to encompass, at its height, much of North Africa and even Saudi Arabia.

Aksum’s wealth was based on trade. Much of its produce was agricultural, but also included gold and iron, and was traded as far away as India and the Mediterranean. Its great wealth was spent on wonderful buildings, such as King Ezana’s Stela (above), an elaborate obelisk, and many palaces. The largest of these palaces that we know about is Ta’akha Maryam, which is 120 by 80 metres in area, but experts believe that others (which are now lost) were even bigger. Like all empires, the Aksumite declined, as other world powers encroached on its trading routes and provided insurmountable competition.