Axum is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever visited. The buildings that line the streets are faded shades of blue and green, wood-laden donkeys and camels weave their way between tuk-tuks and dated cars, pedestrians go about their business and children hustle to sell you silver crosses and impressive hand-carved souvenirs. At the end of the main road, the last of the tall obelisks dominate the skyline, while others lie fallen alongside them. Nearby the Cathedral of St Mary of Zion draws pilgrims to prayer, while a lone monk takes full responsibility as keeper of what legend claims to be the original Ark of the Covenant. The sky seems lower, the sky a dark indigo, with the hills and surrounding landscape unchanged since biblical tails were inscribed here.
Children at play on the cobbled streets.
More About Axum
Axum is the ninth-oldest continuously inhabited city in northern Africa and dates back to 400 BC. Located in northern Ethiopia, today the residents seem blissfully unaware of it’s glorious past that saw the Kingdom of Axum, also known as the Aksumite Empire, thrive as a trading nation from 100 to 940 AD. The empire grew from the Iron Age period in 4th century BC, to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.
The Stelae Park
Various monuments were carved and erected in the 4th century by subjects of the Kingdom of Axum. The main Obelisk of Axum is 1700 years old, 24 meters tall, made of granite and weighs 160 tons. It is ornamented with two false doors at the base and features decorations resembling windows on all sides. Researchers have uncovered a number of tombs in Axum since the 1970s, but sadly many had been pillaged by tomb raiders and only one such grave, the Tomb of the False Door, is now open to visitors.
At this UNESCO World Heritage site there are many other stelae that were probably carved and erected during the same era. Construction of stelae in Axum was a very old practice and it is still possible to see the detail and symbolism on the primitive roughly carved stelae, as well as the more elaborate obelisks. Their purpose is said to be as markers for underground burial chambers. The largest of the grave markers were for royal burial chambers and were decorated with multi-story false windows and false doors, while lesser nobility would have smaller, less decorative ones.
While only a few are left standing, the many that lie alongside them have their own story to tell.
Stray dogs find a good place to rest on the base of one of the steles.
The Church of St. Mary of Zion
The most sacred shrine in Ethiopia is the 17th-century Church of St. Mary of Zion that is found in Axum and claims to contain the Ark of the Covenant. The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian ruler of the Kingdom of Axum during the 4th century AD, and has been rebuilt several times since then.
St. Mary of Zion contains the original Ark of the Covenant that was moved to the Chapel of the Tablet adjacent to the old church after a divine ‘heat’ from the Tablets had cracked the stones of its previous sanctum. Emperor Haile Selassie’s wife, the Empress Menen, gifted the new chapel to the community.
According to oral history, the Ark came to Ethiopia with Menelik I after he visited his father, King Solomon. Today only the guardian monk may view the Ark and is appointed for life by his predecessor and confined to the chapel of the Ark of the Covenant for the rest of his life, praying before it and tasked with protecting it.
We caught a glimpse of the guardian monk through the gate and tried to engage in conversation, but he wanted neither that, nor his photo taken.
On our visit we take a tour of the Church with one of the Orthodox priests who shows us the beautifully adorned walls and murals that depict narratives from Orthodox Christianity. We go on to see the bible that is hand painted and scripted. The resident priests study a page a day, with it taking a year for him to work his way from front to finish.
The distinctive style and vibrant colours seen in all Ethiopian religious art.
Some of the worshippers and pilgrims select to pray outside the church, which was almost empty.
Bathi of Ethiopian Airlines.
The Palace of Queen of Sheba
Dungar is the name of the ruins of a substantial mansion located in the western part of Axum, the former capital of the Kingdom of Axum. Dungar is known locally and popularly as the Palace of the Queen of Sheba. We walked the ruins, taking in the enormity of the scale and setting, wondering who really lived here, and what their role was in the community.
Our guide from Ethiopian Tourism and offical photographer Henok Birhanu Abebe taking a closer look at the tiny wild flowers.
The surrounding landscapes can only be described as biblical, scattered with historic landmarks that include the so-called Bath of the Queen of Sheba as well as the vast Royal Palace that was said to be her home. On the evening of our visit we headed 2km out of town to visit the underground tombs of the 6th century Emperor Kaleb and his successor Gebre Meskel, taking advantage of the long evening shadows and golden hour for some play with the local children that were there to sell us delicate crosses and carvings, Eritrea clearly visible in the distance.
Everywhere you look as you walk the wide streets, you’re met by sights you would love to photograph, but always sensitive to the privacy of others, especially in an area that does not have a lot of tourists, I only captured a few moments to share.
Styling beautiful Ethiopian youth everywhere that speak great English if you’d like a chat and get some insight into life in Axum.
I spent my Birthday here this year, wondering the ancient city in northern Ethiopia, making friends and discovering more about the great battles, history and change of leadership and religion the area has witnessed.
One of my favourites memories from Axum is from the morning that we left. We stopped on the main square to watch a group of children playing football on the streets, laughter and squeals of delight as they chased a battered ball across the cobbled streets, aqua painted walls bringing colour to the rust and brick backdrop.
NOTE: Just beyond the Stelae park is the most incredible market, with artefacts and treasures made from silver and bronze, wooden carvings, fabrics and jewellery, and there are many teenagers selling items too. Drive a hard bargain, as much as you will want to support them and have something special to take home with you, their start rate is usually rather exorbitant and a good offer would be half of it .
Remember to read my post on ‘Gondar. A place of impressive Castles and Ecclesiastic Churches‘, listen to my radio interview and watch the video too.
The view from my room on the fifth floor of the Sabean International Hotel on the main road.
THE ESSENTIAL DETAILS
- Ethiopian Airlines flies directly from Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban
- Internal fights are easily booked and the ‘Tourist Circuit’ that connects Addis Ababa with Gondor, Axum and Lalibela is efficient and convenient.
- Learn more with Ethiopian Tourism at https://www.ethiopia.travel/
- The currency is the Ethiopian Birr and you would do well to ensure that you have some cash on you as credit cards are not widely used and you will meet many people trading in beautiful jewellery,crosses and fabrics as you walk around the cities.
- It is important to dress modestly for sacred and religious visit, including head cover, long skirt and a shawl or scarf to cover your arms.
- What to Pack: Camera (ask permission to take photos, some paces are sacred and many may not want to be in your holiday snaps), light, loose clothing and comfortable walking shoes, something warm for the evenings, it does get cold here. Sunscreen and a hat as you will spend quite a bit of time outside and will want to walk the streets and get a coffee at a local stall.
- Ethiopia is an hour ahead of South Africa.
*I was invited as a guest of Ethiopian Airlines and Ethiopian Tourism, travelling with them and hosted throughout in collaboration with Lesley Simpson Communications, travelling to Addis Ababa, Gondor, Axum and Lalibela, exploring the ancient land.