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Axum

Axum is one of the most culturally significant places in Ethiopia. As with much of Ethiopia, exploring this town is to walk the tightrope between facts and legends, and no doubt the local guides will try and sway you towards the latter. That’s all part of the fun. 

Axum is most famous for its Stelae field, where giant obelisks rise dozens of metres into the sky. These incredible structures became a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1980. They have fascinating history dating back to 400 BCE. 

Axum is less built up than many of the other towns in the north of Ethiopia, and the lack of quality hotels here mean most visits are kept to just one night. The Stelae and the nearby churches can be explored in an afternoon, and Axum is ideally located as a springboard for further explorations of Tigray and the Gheralta Mountains. Similarly, it’s often placed right before or after an expedition into the Danakil Depression

Exploring the City

As the home to the Queen of Sheba and (as the story goes) the Ark of the Covenant – the storied artefact of Moses’ 10 commandments – Axum is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in northern African, dating back to 400 BC.

A quick trip to the north of the city reveals the Stelae field of various monuments that were carved and erected in the 4th century, known as the Obelisks of Axum. The proud pillars, each over 1,700 years old, 24 meters tall, made of solid granite and some weighing over 160 tons, are impressive sights to behold.

In the same area, researchers have uncovered a number of tombs in Axum since the 1970s, but sadly many had been plundered by tomb raiders and only one such grave, The Tomb of the False Door, is now open to visitors.

Do not miss the Church of Saint Mary of Zion. Locals will tell you it is one of the most sacred of places in the whole of Ethiopia, not only does it house the Ark of the Covenant, but also has a long history dating back some 1,700 years. 

This World Heritage site is often referred to as “Abyssinia” in medieval texts and is considered the heart of ancient Ethiopia. It is a marvel of obelisks, ruins of castles, undiscovered tombs, beautiful churches and other cultural treasures spanning several centuries and embracing different religions.

The Obelisks of Axum

Formerly the heart of the Axumite empire that spanned for nearly one thousand years, Axum is home to a 24-metre megalith surrounded by a ring of smaller Obelisks.

Built in the 4th century by King Ezana, the 160 tonne monument had stood in place for over a thousand years, until the colonial aspirations of a nation far from Ethiopia arrived at her borders. 

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is considered by many a period of hardship within the country, with many long hidden artefacts and national treasures being stolen by the occupiers, and despite its mammoth measurements, the Monolith of Axum was taken from Ethiopians in the 1930s.

Found, semi-submerged in a pit by a group of Italian soldiers in 1935, the Obelisk was removed from its home, partially dismantled, and after over two years in limbo, was transported to Rome as a spoil of war.

It was re-erected in Portal Capena square, in front of the Ministry for Italian Relations in Africa, a somewhat ironic end to this stolen spoil of war.

Obelisk of Axum

Towering stelae in Axum.

For nearly 90 years it stayed in Rome, and despite a UN ruling in 1947, as well as multiple talks of its return over the years, the lack of funding and technical challenges involved in its repatriation meant very little could be done without Italian cooperation. 

King Ezana’s Obelisk remained imprisoned in Rome until 2008. However on the 4th September, 1700 years after the granite Obelisk was first erected, and 70 years after it was stolen, it was repatriated to widespread praise across Ethiopia.

The return of the Monolith set the precedent for the return of other stolen sacred artefacts, mainly looted by British troops. Now back in home, towering over the smaller Obelisks that encircle it, this graphite monolith is one of Axum’s key attractions.

The obelisk features two ornamented false doors, with layers of varying designs and decorating slithering up the tower, around rows of false windows, to the semi-circular domed top.

The detailing on these decorations is so precise that the windows and doors all have locks carved into them, and every inch on the Stelae shows levels of artistry and craftsmanship not seen for many years after its construction.

The graphite used in the construction is believed to have come from a quarry several miles south of the city, and the level of organization and infrastructure needed to facilitate a project of this calibre demonstrates a level of social organization and technology previously thought impossible for the time.

Finding the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia

Despite the countless history channel reruns and eighties classics, the truth lies far from face melting powers, demonic apparitions and fascist new world orders. Despite common consensus, the ark is not hidden in secretive military bases, or deep within the Vatican vaults.

Despite all the fallacy and folklore, the actual truth is just as mysterious as any Hollywood screenwriter could conjure. 

The ark has been part of popular culture since pre-biblical times, with scripture claiming the Israelites worshipped the Ark, and its otherworldly powers. It has been said that when activated the Ark will release the wrath of God, with blazing fire and blinding lights that have the power to part the sea and wipe away all those unfortunate enough to stand in its way.

After King Solomon’s temple was sacked and burned down in 586 BC, the Ark was thought lost to the flames. For nearly 1000 years, the location of the ark was unknown, until it re-emerged, halfway across the world. 

Although it is unknown who managed to transport the ark to Ethiopia, or even how it was moved, reports of the Ark’s powers started flowing from the land in the late 1600s, in the rule of Emperor Iysau, who is reported to have spoken to the ark and had control over its potential for destruction and dismay.

He built the Church of Mary of Zion in Axum to house the weapon of mass destruction, where it remains to this day, under lock and key. For those brave enough to enter its final resting place, just remember Indy’s words, don’t look at the box!

Getting There

Aksum lies 1024 km north of Addis Ababa via Mekele or 1180 km via Gondar.

Daily flights connect Askum to Gondar, Lalibela, and Addis Ababa (www.ethiopianairlines.com). The airport is about 5km east of the town center and most hotels offer a free transfer service.

Tours can be booked with local tour operators in Addis Ababa and the main towns.

Getting Around

Taxis and bajaji (tuc-tucs) are readily available to visit all the tourists sites in and around town. Any hotel or tour operator can arrange more formal transport. Guides are optional but recommended and can be arranged at the Aksum Guides Association next to the ticket office for the central stelae field.

Accommodation

Dozens of hotels are scattered around central Aksum such as Atrons Fantasy Hotel and Spa, Yared Zema International Hotel, Sabean International Hotel, Obelisk Hotel, Brana Hotel, Consolar International Hotel, Yeha Hotel, Armah International Hotel, Ethiopis Hotel, Atse Kaleb Hotel, Nyala Hotel and others, most of them catering to the budget and midrange market. There are also a few upmarket options.

Annual Events and Festivals

Aksum is an excellent place to celebrate Meskel (27 September except on leap years), a unique Ethiopian Christian festival commemorating the alleged 4th century discovery by Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The centrepiece of this colourful festival is the burning of a massive pyre in front of the central stelae and the Cathedral of Maryam Tsion. Other popular festivals are Timkat (January 19 except on leap years) and the day of Kidus Maryam (Saint Mary) on 1 December.

Things to do

Shopping

Plenty of craft stalls running along the main road east of the central stelae field. This is a good place to buy traditional cotton cloths worn by the women of Tigrai, as well as baskets, crosses, and other traditional handicrafts.

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