The holiest city in Ethiopia, Aksum (also known as Axum) is home to fascinating Christian and pre-Christian sights. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Aksum, which existed from the 2nd century BC to the 10th century AD. It was a naval and trading power that at its height covered most of what is now Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
It is home to the supposed Ark of the Covenant, kept in the Chapel of the Tablet, a small building in the heart of a religious complex of buildings. The roof of the current building on the left is weakening so they’ve built a new chapel next door. Inside lives a monk, the only person who is allowed into the Holy of Holies room upstairs containing the ark. He has lived in the compound for around twenty years and is not allowed to leave, though may have visitors downstairs. My guide was unsure how they’re going to move the ark to the new building if only old monk is allowed near it…
Neighbouring the chapel is the 17th century Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, built on and partly from the remains of a 4th century church on the same site. That church was destroyed by an invading Jewish queen in the 10th century. As a monastery only men may enter the church and surrounding area. The church interior is simple but has some beautiful paintings, most hidden behind large curtains, but a white Mary and black Mary were on display and a few others. There was also a thousand year old holy book, painted on velum (goat skin) with amazingly vibrant colours.
The nearby New Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion was built in the 1960s after Haile Selassie visited Aksum and found no covered place for women to pray as the 17th century cathedral is only open to men. It is probably the most echoing building I’ve been in, with it’s huge round interior and hard surfaces. There were some lovely paintings in traditional Ethiopian Orthodox style, and books made of velum with attractive illustrations.
The nearby museum had some of the most incredible things I saw in Ethiopia, including many of the crowns of the kings, and various ornate and hugely decorative items and clothes. Unfortunately no photography was allowed, probably wise given the seemingly limited security for a priceless collection.
Across the road is the Northern Stelae Field, home to giant stelae dating from between the 5th century BC and 4th century AD when Ethiopia converted to Christianity. I learnt that obelisks are memorials, whereas stelae are gravestones. There are no descriptions on any of them so much of the information about them is guesswork.
The largest is stelae 1, a 33m high giant, weighing 520 tonnes, believed to have broken when it was being erected. The 2.4m deep foundations may have been a problem…
Underneath it is a large, ten room, tomb.
Stelae 2 is the iconic image of the city, a 25m high, 170 tonne carved single piece of stone. The carvings are of a skyscraper effectively, with a false door and windows on each floor. It had been lying on the ground in five pieces when the Italians removed in 1937. It was repaired and erected in Rome, before finally being returned to Aksum in 2005 and reinstalled in 2008.
Stelae 3 is the smallest of the three giants, and therefore probably the oldest. Carved on two sides it is the only one that has remained standing since it was erected. The supports were installed when it started to lean, after the Italians used cranes to remove stelae 2.
Nearby is the Tomb of the False Door dating from the late 4th century, after the stelae were erected, which was smaller than the other tombs I saw in Aksum.
The much newer Jesus Church nearby was covered in colourful and often quite graphic paintings.
Only about 10% of Aksum has been excavated. Queen of Sheba Palace or Dungur Palace was uncovered in the 1960s. The locals believe it was the palace of the famous Queen of Sheba but the site is too new by many centuries, though her palace may be underneath this one. It has 40 rooms, and 85% of the site is original. The perimeter wall is new but is built from stones found on the site.
Across the road are more stelae, some of the 400 found around Aksum. These are in a farmer’s field, which would have been full of wheat before the recent harvest.
Queen of Sheba’s Bath was originally much smaller, but was expanded by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1960s to use as a reservoir for the city. 16m deep, it is used for the annual Timket festival, when hundreds of people jump into the water after it is blessed by priests.
The Tombs of Kings Kaleb & Gebre Meskel were built for the last powerful kings of the Aksum Kingdom, at the beginning of the 7th century. Both tombs are empty and were never used as they decided to be buried in a church instead. Discovered in the 1960s, they have interlocking stone work like the Inca, but were built centuries beforehand.
The Ezana Stone is the Ethiopian Rosetta Stone, with Ethiopian, Yemen and Greek languages talking about Ezana, the last pagan and first Christian king. The stone was found by three farmers in 1982, and has been left where it was found as it has a death curse on it if it is moved.
To end with some scenic shots of the incredible landscape we drove through on the way from the Simien Mountains to Aksum.