Kingdoms and Trading States of East Africa

Chapter 11 Section 3


Axum: Center of Goods and Ideas

Located to the southeast of Nubia, Axum extended from the mountains of present-day Ethiopia to the sun-bleached shores of the Red Sea in present-day Eritrea. The peoples of Axum were descended from African farmers and people from the Middle East who brought Jewish traditions through Arabia. This merging of cultures gave rise to a unique written and spoken language, Geez.

Trade Brings Wealth

The kingdom of Axum profited from the strategic location of its two main cities, the port of Adulis on the Red Sea and the upland capital city of Axum (see the map in the previous section). By A.D. 400, the kingdom commanded a triangular trade network that connected Africa, India, and the Mediterranean world.

A great variety of goods and enslaved people funneled in and out of the markets of these two cities. From the interior of Africa, traders brought ivory, animal hides, and gold to the markets of Axum. Goods from farther south along the African coast came to the harbor of Adulis on the Red Sea. There, the markets offered iron, spices, precious stones, and cotton cloth from India and other lands beyond the Indian Ocean. Ships carried these goods up the Red Sea, where they collected goods from Europe and countries along the Mediterranean.

Axum Converts to Christianity

In these great centers of international trade, Greek, Egyptian, Arab, and Jewish merchants mingled with traders from Africa, India, and other regions. As elsewhere, ideas spread along with goods. By the 300s, Christianity had reached the region. After converting to the new religion, King Ezana made Christianity the official religion of Axum. As the religion took hold among the people, older temples were replaced with Christian churches decorated with intricately designed biblical murals and religious images painted on wood panels.

At first, Christianity strengthened the ties between Axum, North Africa, and the Mediterranean world. In the 600s, however, Islam began spreading across North Africa and other regions surrounding Axum. Many African rulers embraced this new faith, creating strong cultural ties across much of the continent. Axum, which remained Christian, was now isolated from its own trade network—by distance from Europe and by religion from many former trading partners. Civil war and economic decline combined to weaken Axum, and the kingdom slowly declined.


Ethiopia: A Christian Outpost

Though Axum’s political and economic power faded, its cultural and religious influence did not disappear. This legacy survived among the peoples of the interior uplands, in what is today northern Ethiopia. Although Axum’s empire was only a portion of the present-day nation, when referring to their kingdom as a whole, the Axumite kings frequently used Ethiopia, which was a term the Greeks used for the region.

Sculpted Churches Beta Ghiorgis (House of George) is one of the Lalibela solid rock churches created during the thirteenth century. A trench was dug to create a solid block of rock, which was then sculpted and carved into to create the interior and exterior of this cross-shaped church.

An Isolated Ethiopia

Medieval Ethiopia was protected by rugged mountains, and the descendants of the Axumites were able to maintain their independence for centuries. Their success was due in part to the unifying power of their Christian faith, which gave them a unique sense of identity and helped establish a culture distinct from that of neighboring peoples.

Vocabulary Builder
unify—(yoo nuh fy) vt. to form into a single unit

One example of Ethiopia’s distinct culture is the unique churches of Lalibela. In the early 1200s, King Lalibela came to power in Ethiopia. During his reign, he directed the building of eleven remarkable churches, which were actually carved from ground level downward into the solid rock of the mountains. These amazing structures still exist today and illustrate the architectural and artistic skill of the craftsmen who created them.

Despite their isolation, Ethiopian Christians kept ties with the Holy Land. In fact, some made pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They also were in touch with Christian communities in Egypt. Over time, Ethiopian Christianity absorbed many local customs. Traditional East African music and dance were adapted, and their influence is still felt in Ethiopian church services today. In addition, the services are still conducted in the ancient language of Geez.

Judaism in Ethiopia

The kings of Ethiopia claimed descent from the Israelite king Solomon and the queen of Sheba. This belief was recorded in an ancient Ethiopian book called The Glory of Kings and reinforced by the fact that Ethiopians observe some of the Jewish holidays and dietary laws. Some Ethiopians practiced Judaism rather than Christianity. These Ethiopian Jews, the Falasha, lived in the mountains of Ethiopia until the late 1900s, when most evacuated to Israel during a long famine.


East African City-States

While Axum declined, a string of commercial cities—including Kilwa, Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Sofala—gradually arose along the East African coast. Since ancient times, Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Indian traders had visited this region. Under the protection of local African rulers, Arab and Persian merchants set up Muslim communities beginning in the 600s. Port cities as well as offshore islands such as Lamu and Zanzibar were ideally located for trade with Asia. As a result, Asian traders and immigrants from as far away as Indonesia soon added to the rich cultural mix.

Trading Centers Flourish

By the 600s, sailors had learned that the annual monsoon winds could carry sailing ships between India and Africa. On the East African coast, rulers took advantage of the opportunities for trade that these winds provided. They welcomed ships from Arabia, Persia, and China. Traders acquired ivory, leopard skins, iron, copper, and gold from the interior of Africa, as well as from coastal regions. From India, Southeast Asia, and China came cotton cloth, silk, spices, porcelain, glassware, and swords.

Trade was not only beneficial to the merchants; it also helped local rulers build strong, independent city-states. Although they competed for trade, relations between the city-states were generally peaceful. A Muslim visitor described Kilwa, the most successful city-state, as “one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world.” Its royal palace still stands on cliffs that today overlook the ocean. The complex consists of courtyards, terraces, and nearly 100 rooms. Built of coral and cut stone, the structure is evidence of the old city’s splendor.

Vocabulary Builder
complex—(kahm pleks) n. a group of connected buildings that form a single whole

Trade Shapes Swahili

The successful East African international trade system led to the emergence of a vibrant culture and a new language both known as Swahili. By the 1000s, many East African coastal cities had not only grown in wealth but also in size. Traders from the Middle East and Asia began to settle permanently in flourishing trading cities such as Kilwa.

As more settlers arrived, the local East African culture absorbed cultural elements from these new residents. For example, the architecture of private houses and palaces illustrated a blend of East African and Arabic designs that created unique and elegant Swahili buildings and furniture. In addition, over time many Arabic words were absorbed into the local Bantu-based language. In fact, the term swahili comes from an Arabic word meaning “of the coast”. The language itself was eventually written in Arabic script.


The Stone Houses of Great Zimbabwe

To the south and inland from the coastal city-states, massive stone ruins sprawl across rocky hilltops near the great bend in the Limpopo River. The looming walls, large palace, and cone-shaped towers were once part of the powerful and prosperous capital of a great inland empire. Today, these impressive ruins are known as Great Zimbabwe.

Ruins of Great ZimbabweThe Great Enclosure, a portion of which is shown here, is one of the two major ruins of Great Zimbabwe. Archaeologists believe the enclosures did not serve any military purpose, but were built to display the ruler’s power. However, much about Great Zimbabwe is still being debated.

Inland Capital of Trade

The word zimbabwe comes from a Bantu-based word that means “stone houses.” In fact, Great Zimbabwe was built by a succession of Bantu-speaking peoples who settled in the region between 900 and 1500. These newcomers brought iron, mining methods, and improved farming skills. Early settlers raised cattle and built stone enclosures to protect their livestock. In time, these settlers improved their building methods and erected large walls and palaces.

The capital probably reached its height about 1300. By then, it had tapped nearby gold resources and created profitable commercial links with coastal cities such as Sofala. Archaeologists have found beads from India and porcelain from China, showing that Great Zimbabwe was part of a trade network that reached across the Indian Ocean. In addition, they have found artifacts that indicate that Great Zimbabwe had artisans skilled in making jewelry and weaving cotton cloth.

Very little is known about the government in Great Zimbabwe. However, after studying the architecture and artifacts of the ruins, some scholars have suggested that the ruler was a god-king who presided over a large court. Below the king, a central bureaucracy may have ruled an inner ring of provinces, while appointed governors had authority in more distant villages. Although there is much about Great Zimbabwe that remains unknown, as archaeologists continue their research, we are learning more about how the capital and empire developed.

Zimbabwe Falls to Ruins

By 1500, Zimbabwe was in decline. Some scholars suggest that the population had grown too great. Civil war and dwindling trade probably contributed as well. By then, Portuguese traders were pushing inland to find the region’s source of gold. They failed to discover the gold mines, but their attempts further weakened the small states that formed in the region as Zimbabwe declined.

© Pearson Successnet



5 comments on “Kingdoms and Trading States of East Africa

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