Application of the name has varied at different times and in different contexts. Late Antiquity saw a continuation of the earlier practice whereby Ethiopia designated Nile Valley regions south of Aswan or, more broadly, the African continent south of Egypt. Some more recent writers have retained this usage, causing confusion with the modern nation of Ethiopia. Designation of the modern nation itself causes further uncertainties; the polity did not attain its recent geographical extent until the late 19th century. From 1962 until 1991 it incorporated also what is now the separate nation of Eritrea. Substantial parts of both modern nations maintain cultural continuity with the tradition that is commonly designated Ethiopian, although it is more appropriate to refer to the general geographical region as the northern Horn of Africa. The geography of this region was not clearly distinguished by outsiders in Late Antiquity, being often considered as part of India especially when, as was then usual, it was approached by way of the Red Sea.
The core of the northern Horn comprises the highlands now divided between, on the one hand, Tigray and adjacent regions of northern Ethiopia and, on the other, south-central Eritrea. It was here that, during the first eight centuries ad, the ancient kingdom of Aksum, named after its first capital in what is now central Tigray, flourished. This is the principal part of the northern Horn that falls within the purview of this volume which is concerned primarily with those aspects of Aksumite civilization that impinged upon that state’s contemporaries in the Mediterranean basin. The Aksumite kingdom was, for example, the only polity of its time in Ethiopia, or for that matter in any part of sub-Saharan Africa, marked by indigenous literacy, its own coinage, Christianity, trade, and diplomacy with the Mediterranean basin. It is important, however, to emphasize that the Aksumites also had relations with neighbours whose economic and political circumstances were significantly different, albeit in some cases their antecedents during the last millennium bc had been closely related.
Territory directly subject to Aksum extended to part of the Red Sea coast and, at least in the 4th century, northwards and westwards to the Nile Valley and adjacent plains of Sudan and northern Eritrea. To the south, the extent and nature of penetration is less clear, although it appears that crops and, perhaps, other resources originating from these regions became available in the Aksumite kingdom. The transfer of the political capital from Aksum to a more easterly location, while marking economic decline, did not interrupt the strong cultural continuity that is now recognized in the highlands through the closing centuries of the 1st millennium. The coastlands and offshore islands, however, saw increasing influence from southern Arabia, notably the adoption and spread of Islam; contacts between these communities and the Christian kingdom in the highlands are as yet poorly understood.
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