After Aksum lost its grip on the Red Sea trade due to the rise of Islamic Arabs’ fortunes, the society quickly imploded and sent Ethiopia into the dark ages for five centuries. Why this happened when it was still rich in natural resources is the subject of many theories.
The environmental argument suggests that Aksum’s ever-increasing population led to overcropping of the land, deforestation and eventually soil erosion. The climatic explanation claims that a slight ‘global warming’ took place, which finished Aksum’s agriculture and eventually led to drought and famine. The military argument claims that Aksum was undermined by continual incursions from neighbouring tribes.
According to tradition, Aksumite power was usurped around the 9th century by the dreaded warrior Queen Gudit (or Judit), a pagan or Jew, who killed the ruling king and burnt down the city. This legend seems to be borne out by at least two documents written at about this time, and may represent a rare case of Ethiopian tradition meshing, at least partly, with reality.
Aksumite coins are valuable not just for their beauty: they also provide a vital source of information on the ancient kingdom. The coins bear the names, effigies and sometimes lineage of 23 different kings, providing a rare factual record of who ruled and when. The historians who studied them found something that rocked the foundations of traditional Ethiopian history. Many of the kings of the traditional history failed to appear on the coins, while those on the coins failed to appear in the historical lists.
Beautifully struck, the coins depict the royal crowns, clothing and jewellery of the kings (even the large earrings worn by some monarchs) and probably served propagandist purposes. A curiosity still unexplained by historians is the fact that almost all the coins are double-headed: on one side the king is depicted with his crown; on the other he dons a modest head cloth.
Farmers frequently find coins in their fields and because the Ethiopian government lacks the budget to buy them, most are sold illegally to collectors and tourists. Both the sale and purchase is illegal and airport staff are trained to look for them during security searches. Don't even think of buying them.
Swapping Gold for God
King Kaleb was the richest and most powerful ruler the Aksumite empire ever saw. By AD 540 he controlled a vast swathe of land from the mountains of Ethiopia to the deserts of Arabia, and his power was rivalled only by Persia and Byzantium. But despite having everything money could buy and much that it couldn’t, one day, after a vicious campaign in Arabia, he let it all go and, abdicating his throne and sending his crown to hang in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he retired to Aksum's Abba Pentalewon monastery, where he lived out his life in prayer.