The economy of Aksu is mostly agricultural, with cotton, in particular long-staple cotton as the main product. Also produced are grain, fruits, oils, beets and so on. The industry mostly consists of weaving, cement, and chemical industries.
From the Former Han dynasty (125 BCE to 23 CE) at least until the early Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), Aksu was known as Gumo 姑墨 [Ku-mo]. It was an important stop on the Northern Silk Road that runs along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert in the Tarim Basin between Kucha and Kashgar. In Buddhist Sanskrit, it was known as Bharuka. The ancient capital town of Nan ("Southern Town") was likely well south of the present town.
During the Former Han dynasty, Gumo is described as a "kingdom" (guo) containing 3,500 households and 24,500 individuals, including 4,500 people able to bear arms. It is said to have produced copper, iron and orpiment.
The Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang visited this "kingdom" in 629 CE and referred to it as Baluka. He recorded that there were tens of Sarvastivadin Buddhist monasteries in the kingdom and over 1000 monks. He said the kingdom was 600 li from east to west, and 300 li from north to south. Its capital was said to be 6 li in circuit. He reported that the "native products, climate, temperament of the people, customs, written language and law are the same as in the country of Kuci (Kucha), but the spoken language is somewhat different." He also stated that fine cotton and hempen cloth made in the area was traded in neighbouring countries.
In the 7th, 8th, and early 9th centuries, control of the entire region was often contested by the Chinese Tang Dynasty, the Tibetan Tufan Empire, and Uyghur Empire; control of cities frequently changed hands. Tibet seized Aksu in 670 AD, but Tang forces reconquered the region in 692. Tibet regained the Tarim Basin in the late 720s, and the Tang Dynasty again annexed the region in the 740s. The Battle of Talas led to the gradual withdrawal of Chinese forces, and the region was contested between the Uyghurs and Tibetans.
Aksu was strongly connected with Kucha, though its spoken language differed a little from standard Kuchean. It was positioned on a junction of trade routes; the northern-Tarim silk road, and a route north to the fertile Ili River valley.
Around 1220 Aksu became the capital of the Kingdom of Mangalai .
Francis Younghusband, visited Aksu in 1887 on his overland journey from Beijing to India. He described it as being the largest town he had seen on his way from Beijing. It had a local population of about 20,000 besides those of the district and a garrison of about 2,000 soldiers. "There were large bazaars and several inns—some for travellers, others for merchants wishing to make a prolonged stay to sell goods.