Kwasi Konadu

History and Religious Change through Aksumite Coinage

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

Aksum was one of few states in the ancient world to issue their own independent coinage—in gold, silver, and copper. At the height of its power in the fourth and fifth century CE, the civilization and empire of Aksum extended its trade and influence to Egypt, the Mediterranean and across the Red Sea into Arabia.

Through its port of Adulis, Aksum used its coins to engage an international system of commerce. Based on the Roman system, Aksum’s gold coins were often inscribed in Greek and intended for exports, while its silver and copper coins were inscribed in Ge’ez—indigenous script of Aksum, also known as Ethiopic. In the 330s, Aksum ruler Ezana (r. 320s – 350s) converted to Christianity and soon made Christianity the official religion of the state. These coins and their inscriptions not only document something about religious change through pre-Christian and Christian symbols thereon, but they also allow us to trace Aksum’s history. Ezana, the third ruler of Aksum, adopted Christianity for trade purposes—that is, the Roman trade system—because control of foreign trade was a major source of his power and the state’s wealth. The gold coins minted in Aksum below, dated between 320 and 360 CE, show a half-length bust of Ezana’s right side, crowned, holding a scepter, flanked by two wheat-stalks on the front. No doubt wheat-based products were consumed and traded. On the reverse side, there is another half-length bust of Ezana’s right side, wearing a head cloth, holding an object, flanked by two wheat-stalks. Notice the Christian crosses at top, bottom and on both sides.

Sources: Stuart C. Munro-Hay, Catalogue of the Aksumite Coins in the British Museum (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1999), 32; idem, Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), 61-103; British Museum ( reference number CGR25629.