Aksumite Religion

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AKSUMITE RELIGION . Civilization first appeared in the Ethiopian highlands in the fifth century before the common era. It was apparently brought by Semitic-speaking immigrants from South Arabia, who transplanted to Ethiopia many of the cultural and artistic traditions of ancient Sheba. They first established themselves in and around Yeha (formerly called Ava), near modern Adwa. In the early centuries of the common era, power shifted northward to Aksum, which remains to this day the most important religious center in Ethiopia. At the height of their power, the rulers of Aksum claimed dominion as far west as the Nile Valley and as far east as the highlands of Yemen. The kingdom of Aksum was converted to Christianity in the fourth century, long before any other region in the interior of Africa.

Comparatively little is known of the religion of pre-Christian Ethiopia. Only fragmentary information is afforded by classical authors, by the victory stelae erected by a few Aksumite rulers, and by the evidence of archaeology. Some additional details can be inferred on the basis of parallels with the better-known religions of South Arabia.

During the Yeha period, the Ethiopian religion seems to have been little different from that of Sheba. The major deities were the familiar Semitic triad of the Sun, the Moon, and Venus. In the Aksumite period a somewhat different triad emerged, consisting of Ashtar (Venus), the sea god Behr, and the earth god Medr. The sun was a female deity, called by the Sabaean name Zat-Badar. As the military power of Aksum expanded, the war god Mahram assumed increasing importance and became the special tutelary of the Aksumite rulers.

At Yeha, Aksum, and various provincial towns there were temples and altars dedicated to several of the principal deities. Temple architecture followed closely the traditions of South Arabia. The buildings stood upon an elevated, stepped platform and were approached by a monumental stairway. Very few interior details of the temples have survived, but the exterior walls were embellished with various patterns of projecting and recessed paneling. Outside the temples were votive stelae and offering tables, many of them commemorating the military victories of particular rulers. Animal and also human sacrifices were apparently a regular feature of the victory celebrations.

The most extraordinary monuments of Aksumite religious architecture are the great stone stelae erected over the tombs of many rulers. They are elaborately carved in the form of miniature skyscrapers, with a false door at the bottom and row upon row of false windows above. They are, however, devoid of inscription. Underground, the royal dead were interred in large rock-cut burial chambers, but these have been so thoroughly plundered that no offerings have ever been found in them. For this reason, and in the absence of inscriptions, it is difficult to form an impression of the part that mortuary ritual played in the religious life of the ancient Ethiopians.


There is no general work on ancient Ethiopian religions. Very brief popular accounts can be found in Jean Doresse's L'Empire du Prêtre-Jean, vol. 1, L'Éthiopie antique (Paris, 1957), pp. 138140, and in Ethiopia (London, 1959), pp. 2127, by the same author. By far the most detailed description of ancient temples and shrines, as revealed by archaeology, is that of Daniel Krencker in his Ältere Denkmäler nordabessiniens (Berlin, 1913). For a brief popular description of temples and other religious monuments, see David Buxton's The Abyssinians (New York, 1970), pp. 8697.

New Sources

Burstein, Stanley, ed. Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum. Princeton, N.J., 1998.

Munro-Hay, Stuart. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh, 1991.

Phillipson, David W. Ancient Ethiopia: Aksum, Its Antecedents and Successions. London, 1998.

Phillipson, David W. Archaeology of Aksum Ethiopia, 19937. London and Oxford, 2000.

William Y. Adams (1987)

Revised Bibliography