Coins of the Axumite king Endybis, 227–235 AD. British Museum. The left one reads in Greek "AΧWMITW BACIΛEYC", "King of Axum". The right one reads in Greek: ΕΝΔΥΒΙC ΒΑCΙΛΕΥC, "King Endybis".

Around the 8th century BC, a kingdom known as Dʿmt was established in northern Ethiopia and Eritrea. Its capital was around the current town of Yeha, situated in northern Ethiopia. Most modern historians consider this civilization to be a native African one, although Sabaean-influenced because of the latter's hegemony of the Red Sea, while others view Dʿmt as the result of a mixture of Sabaeans of southern Arabia and indigenous peoples. However, Ge'ez, the ancient Semitic language of Ethiopia, is now thought not to have derived from Sabaean (also South Semitic). There is evidence of a Semitic-speaking presence in Ethiopia and Eritrea at least as early as 2000 BC. Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony in some sort of symbiosis or military alliance with the Ethiopian civilization of Dʿmt or some other proto-Aksumite state.

After the fall of Dʿmt in the 4th century BC, the plateau came to be dominated by smaller successor kingdoms, until the rise of one of these kingdoms during the 1st century BC, the Aksumite Empire, ancestor of medieval and modern Ethiopia, which was able to reunite the area. The Aksumites established bases on the northern highlands of the Ethiopian Plateau, and from there expanded southward. The Persian religious figure Mani listed Aksum with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the four great powers of his time.

In 316 AD, a Christian philosopher from Tyre, Meropius, embarked on a voyage of exploration along the coast of Africa. He was accompanied by, among others, two Syro-Greeks, Frumentius and his brother Aedesius. The vessel was stranded on the coast, and the natives killed all the travelers except the two brothers, who were taken to the court and given positions of trust by the monarch. They both practiced the Christian faith in private, and soon converted the queen and several other members of the royal court.

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