In its heyday in the 4th century, the Axumite Kingdom was one of the four great powers of the world ruling the two southern sides of the Red Sea. The glory of the Kingdom can still be pictured as you gaze on the colossal rock stelae, the stone work of royal tombs and the legendary bath of the Queen of Sheba.
On first sight, it’s hard to imagine that AXUM was ever the site of a great civilization. Yet Aksum is one of Ethiopia’s star attractions. Littered with massive teetering stelae, ruins of places, underground tombs and inscriptions rivalling the Rosetta stone itself, the town once formed part of the Axumite kingdom that Dr. Neville Chittick described as “ the last of the great civilizations of antiquity to be revealed to modern knowledge’. Aksum is undoubtedly one of the most important and spectacular ancient sites in sub-Saharan Africa. Justifiably, UNESCO lists it as a world heritage site.
Aksum has a vibrancy, life and continuing national importance very rarely found an ancient site. Pilgrims still journey to Aksum and the great majority of Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant resides here.
The largest obelisk, which was 35 meters long and weighed 500 tons, is the biggest piece of stone ever cut by humanity anywhere in the world but today it lies broken on the ground. Near it stands a smaller but nevertheless most impressive 24-metre-high obelisk – the pride of Ethiopia.
The settlement was also the site of Ethiopia’s oldest church, which dated back to the coming of Christianity as the state religion, early in the 4th Century. The original building has long since disappeared but a structure erected on its site by Emperor Fasiladas in the early 17th Century is still there. A nearby outhouse is the reputed repository of the biblical Ark of the Covenant. This historic relic cannot be seen but visitors there can see and photograph a number of the remarkable crowns that belonged to several notable Ethiopian monarchs of the past.
Just out of the town, the remains of an early Axumite palace, popularly thought to have belonged to the Queen of Sheba, are well worth a visit. The remains are located at Dangur, near the mountain from which the obelisks were originally excavated. The beautifully worked tombs of several ancient Axumite rulers and the local archaeological museum are also worth a visit. About 45 per cent of the Ethiopian population is Muslim. Most of the Christians belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, whose 4th Century beginnings came long before Europe accepted Christianity. A further small percentage of the population adheres to traditional and other beliefs, including Judaism.
A good time to visit Axum is during one of the major religious festivals, particularly the celebration of Maryam Zion in late November.