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Most world civilizations fell as humans inadvertently destroyed the natural resources on which the survival of their societies was based. As their populations grew, people depleted natural resources through unsustainable economic activities causing ecological suicide (Diamond, 2005). The Aksumite Empire was one of the ancient civilizations whose existence was mainly supported by the natural environment and the natural resources of the region. It was due to ecological suicide, rather than Islamic conquest, that the Aksumite Empire declined.
Where they lived and the historical Period
The Aksumite Empire was a powerful civilization that existed between AD 100 and 700. It was located in Eastern Africa in the Ethiopian province of Tigray and extended across the Red Sea to the Arabian shores (Connah, 2002). Its most powerful ruler, Ezana, AD 325-360, expanded the empire by conquering the Arabian Peninsula and the Kush Empire (Fage, 2001).
The Queen of Sheba
The Queen of Sheba is considered to be a prominent figure in the history of the Aksumite Empire. She was a beautiful queen who traveled to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon, and to establish trade relations between her kingdom and the Israelites after getting news about his outstanding wisdom. Legend has it that they had a son named Menelik I, who later established the Aksumite Empire and a lineage of kings that ended in 1975 with Haile Selassie (Fage, 2001).
Climate, Environment, and Food Supplies
The Aksumite Empire covered two climatic and topographical areas. Adulis, which was the main seaport, was located along the shores of the Red Sea (Connah, 2002). The region had scarce rainfall, and it was not favorable for agriculture. However, the sea port was only about 60 kilometers from the Ethiopian highlands that experienced plentiful rainfall and had arable soils. It was in these highlands where the agricultural supplies that sustain the kingdom were obtained. Timber was one of the major trade commodities of the Aksumites and was also obtained from the highlands.
Trade with other Civilizations
The position of Adulis made it a key naval link between Europe and India (Phillipson, 2012). However, even before they established trade with the Romans, the Aksumites were trading with Arabs, Egyptians, Kushites, and other Asians. Timber and ivory were the main export commodities for the Aksumites while spices, silks, glass, and bronze were their main imports (Fage, 2001).
How they sustained to live
According to Pillipson (1998), the ability of the Aksumites to take full advantage of their environment sustained their economic success for centuries. While the fertile highlands provided timber and agricultural produce to feed the populations, the rather dry coastal regions emerged as strong trade points. However, with the increase in the demand for the agricultural products and timber, the Aksumites cleared huge forest covers in the once fertile totally affecting the environment.
The collapse of the Aksumite Empire
After flourishing for close to a millennium, the Aksumite civilization eventually declined. Researchers, climatologists, and archeologists provide a myriad of explanations as to why the mighty civilization vanished over time. Among the reasons given for this collapse is the rise of the Islamic caliphates that overtook the regional trade and established authority over most of the critical trade routes that supported the Aksumite Empire (Phillipson, 1998). However, the rise of Islam is refuted by some researchers as a key factor in the fall of the Aksumite Empire considering that most of the Islamic leaders considered Aksum to be a friendly entity (Phillipson, 2012). As such, the decline of the empire can be attributed to the internal problems rather than external forces.
Although little is known about the agricultural systems of the Aksumites, it is often speculated that agriculture played a crucial role in the rise of the Aksumite Empire. In an equal measure, the decline in agricultural production is considered to be the main reason the civilization declined (Diamond, 2005). Ecological problems are, therefore, the most logical explanations for the collapse of the Aksumite Empire. Environmental studies conducted in the region support the argument that environmental degradation was the main reason behind the collapse of the once vibrant civilization. For instance, according to Connah (2002), it is due to the increase in aridity that took place after 500AD that led to agricultural decline in most parts of the empire leading to a decline in food production.
The excessive cutting down of trees to meet the demand for timber totally altered the climate of the region. Rainfall patterns were greatly affected by these activities leading to acute shortages of water. Great famines that were accompanied by plagues claimed the lives of many people. With time, the leadership became greatly unpopular which ultimately led to the decline of the empire.
Unsustainable economic activities are considered to be among the main reasons why the collapse of some of the great ancient civilizations was inevitable. The Aksumite Empire thrived on trade, agriculture. As the population grew and the demand for timber rose, people engaged in large-scale deforestation causing catastrophic climatic implications. Agriculture in the Ethiopian highlands that were considered the breadbasket of the empire dwindled. Since there was no enough food to feed the people, the civilization eventually declined.
Connah, G. (2002). African Civilizations: An Archeological Perspective (2nd Edition). New York: Cambridge University Press.
Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books.
Fage, J.D. (2001). A History of Africa. London: Rutledge.
Phillipson, D.W. (1998). Ancient Ethiopia, Aksum: Its Antecedents and Successors. London: British Museum Press.
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Phillipson, D.W. (2012). Foundations of an African Civilization: Aksum and the Northern Horn, 1000BC-AD. New York: Boydell & Brewer Ltd.