‘Lost’ ancient town uncovered in Ethiopia was once part of the powerful Aksum Empire that dominated East Africa and rivalled Rome

  • Village of Beta Samati has been uncovered and found to belong to Aksum Empire
  • Village was inhabited between 750BC and 650AD in Northern Ethiopia 
  • Askan Empire was in existence between 80BC and 850AD it is believed 
  • Discovery of key buildings, a basilica and certain objects reveal that despite the rise to prominence of the Askan capital city the village remained important  

A village in Ethiopia has been discovered which belonged to the little-known Empire of Aksum – a bustling, sprawling metropolis to rival Rome that survived for centuries. 

The Empire dominated much of Eastern Africa from the first century BC through to 825AD and rivalled its Roman contemporary in size and power. 

The town predates the empire’s rise by several centuries and is thought to have been inhabited between 80BC and 650AD. 

It has been given the name Beta Samati – meaning ‘house of audience’ in the local Tigrinya language.

Its enormous historical importance comes as it proves settlements that existed before the rise of the Empire thrived before and after Askum emerged. 

It is one of the only settlements from the Empire ever found and contains various buildings, an ancient Aksumite basilica and a range of individual items.

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A village in Ethiopia has been discovered by archaeologists (pictured) which belonged to the little-known Empire of Aksum – a bustling, sprawling metropolis to rival Rome that survived for centuries

The most striking of the individual objects is a ring (pictured) made of copper alloy and covered with gold leaf. A red stone in the centre, called a carnelian, is engraved with the image of a bull’s head over a vine or wreath

‘Beta Samati is a very densely populated ancient settlement with both residential and religious structures,’ said Dr Ioana Dumitru, from Johns Hopkins, who worked on the paper. 

The village was abandoned in 650AD, with the entire mysterious empire crashing down less than two centuries later. 

Lead author Michael Harrower, Associate Professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of the research, said: ‘The Empire of Aksum was one of the world’s most influential ancient civilisations, but it remains one of the least widely known.

‘The excavations of Beta Samati help fill important gaps in our understanding of ancient Pre-Aksumite and Aksumite civilisations.’  

The modern-day region of Ethiopia known as Yeha has been the focal point of a study scouring for signs of the Aksumite Empire and similar civilisations. 

It was previously thought the region thrived between 800BC up to the dawn of the Aksumite Empire in the first century BC, and was then abandoned in preference for Aksum’s capital city of the same name. 

Parts of this ancient capital city still survive, with ancient obelisks marking its presence.  

But the Southern Red Sea Archaeological Histories (SRSAH) project proves this was not the case, revealing the Yeha region remained important throughout Aksumite times and the town of Beta Samati was a key hub of trade and commerce. 

Dr Harrower called the village ‘an important administrative centre located on the trade route that connected the capital of Aksum to the Red Sea and beyond’. 

Beta Samati was first occupied by the Pre-Aksumites around 750 BC and for more than a millennium was a crucial regional hub.

During the time of the town, the Kingdom of Aksum rose to prominence and converted to Christianity. 

‘Beta Samati spans Aksum’s official conversion from polytheism to Christianity and the rise of Islam in Arabia,’ said Harrower

Local residents brought in experts to investigate a hill as it likely had some deep historical role.  

The 80ft (25m) mound was found to be an artificial tell – created over generations of occupation and radiocarbon dating cemented the occupied timeline of 750BC through to 650AD.

WHAT WAS THE AKSUM EMPIRE?

 The Empire dominated much of Eastern Africa from the first century BC through to 825AD and rivalled its Roman contemporary in size and power.

It spread as far as Arabia and was one of the leading powers of the time, alongside Rome, Persia and China. 

Parts of this ancient capital city, also called Aksum, still survive, with ancient obelisks marking its presence.  

Aksum originally had a polytheistic religion, with many traditions originating from modern-day Yemen. 

During the 4th century, King Ezana converted Aksum to Christianity.  

Little else is known about the Empire, as archaeological digs in the area have rarely taken place.   

A Christian stone pendant found in the basilica with a cross on the left and, on the right, the word ‘venerable’ in Ge’ez – an ancient Ethiopian language, which remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 

Local residents brought in experts to investigate a hill as it likely had some deep historical role. The 80ft (25m) mound (pictured) was found to be an artificial tell – created over generations of occupation

The site was excavated at two locations and the archaeologists discovered various buildings as well as evidence of glass and metal production and signs of food processing and consumption.

Towards the bottom of the hill, excavations revealed a basilica, believed to be one of the earliest places built for Christian worship in the Aksumite kingdom. 

It was built shortly after King Ezana converted the empire to Christianity during the mid-fourth century AD.

The role of the basilicas in Aksumite society has baffled scientists, due to there being so little evidence to study. 

But the building itself, and a range of other objects found nearby, including animal figurines, crosses, stamp seals, and so-called tokens, prove Yeha was not desolate during the rein of the Empire, but was an important realm. 

The most striking of the objects is a ring made of copper alloy and covered with gold leaf.

A red stone in the centre, called a carnelian, is engraved with the image of a bull’s head over a vine or wreath. 

‘It looks a lot like a Roman ring, except for the style of the bull insignia,’ surmises Dr Harrower.

‘Politics and religion are important factors in shaping human histories, but are difficult to examine archaeologically,’ says Dr Harrower. 

He adds that is also has implications for our ‘understanding of political and religious change among ancient civilisations more broadly.’ 

The village of Beta Samati has been studied in detail in the journal Antiquity. 

The Aksum Empire dominated much of Eastern Africa from the first century BC through to 825AD and rivalled its Roman contemporary in size and power. Beta Samati predate it by several centuries and maintained its importance through the rise of the Empire 

 

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