Why is Aksum an important travel destination in Ethiopia? Claire A Davis visited it recently. She writes about its significance for travelers and historians.
Claire A Davies
March 12, 2020
My first impression of Aksum was of being in the wrong place. The bus dropped me at the side of a long straight, tree-shaded road. The streets were uncrowded, the few people around unhurried.
“Aksum”, said the bus driver, pointing at me.We had arrived in one of Ethiopia’s birthplace of Orthodox Christianity and the site of one of Africa’s most ancient civilisations.
I stood with my bag as the bus pulled away.For once, there was no swirl of people or guides, no interest in the foreigner or offers to carry my bag. Across the road, a camel sleepily blinked an eyelash.
Aksum is important for many reasons, yet it holds little of the drama. I walked alone through the streets unbothered by anyone. The main sites may not high on anyone’s bucket list, however they still make an essential visit for anyone wanting to deepen their understanding of Ethiopia.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Ark of Covenant rests here. Aksum was also the site of Africa’s oldest civilization, the Aksumites, under King Ezana in the 4th Century BC. Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian woman, wise and beautiful, whom, according to the Bible The Kebra Negast, made her home in Aksum. Numerous archeologicial sites are dotted around the countryside and main town. Some are interesting, others a scramble over rocks and an archaeologist’s dig in progress, however the gentle climate and a day with a personable guide can lead to a fascinating few day’s ramble.
The sites are too numerous to list here but here are the main ones.
King Ezana’s Park
Starting at the centre of town, this small fenced park seems an unlikely place for Ethiopia’s own version of the Rosetta Stone. Unceremoniously housed in a shed, this inscribed stelae tells the stories of the King’s victories in Sabeean, Greek and the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez – proof of the far reach of this ancient empire.
The Aksumites built many stelae – symbols of the power of their empire which stretched throughout the horn of Africa and across the Red Sea to Yemen. This remarkable field contains 75 stelae. The tallest, at 33 metres, has collapsed, however King Ezana’s stelae at 23 metres is still standing.
Many stelae were created as tombs. Although the contents of the tombs have long been raided, much of the field is yet to be excavated.
Stone was transported from a quarry around 8 kilometres away – thought to be achieved by a rolling system utilising slaves and domestic elephants.
The museum of Aksum stands adjacent to the field and contains bronze decorative objects, glass drinking goblets, jewellery and other remnants of the empire.
Queen of Sheba’s Pool
Close by, this stone reservoir was created as a bathing pool for the famous queen. Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian woman who resided at Aksum.
Locals believe that bathing in the water has healing properties, especially for fertility.
Church of St Mary of Zion
Reputed to be Ethiopia’s oldest church and founded by King Ezana, the original building was long destroyed by Islamic invaders. The main building is actually 20th century, its squat dome set amongst olive trees reminiscent of Jerusalem. Inside, the huge circular room contains high arched windows in yellow, blue and pink glass and religious paintings in fresh colours. A giant chandelier was donated by Queen Elizabeth II and jacaranda flowers are strewn about the red carpeted floor.
At the back, a priest will show you a 500 year old Bible (for a tip), with the words in Geez; red for the names of persons, black for the test. You are invited to touch the Bible and be blessed. Note before offering a large demoninator note that that priests often seem limited for change.
Outside, the small stone dwelling that contains the Ark of Covenant is fenced off and closely guarded by a specially appointed person. There are various legends as to the fate of those foolhardy enough to cast their eyes on the Ark – such as being struck by lightening.
Men can visit the monastery. Women are not allowed for various reasons, one being the local story that the marauding Queen Gudit came and destroyed the empire and laid waste to all the churches.
Tombs of King Kaleb and Gebre Meskel
A pleasant walk through rural life takes you to these tombs on a slight hilltop. Small children hover around the palace selling supposedly ancient coins surfaced from the fields and chunks of quartz. The palace no longer remains, however you can descend into the excellently preserved burial vaults including large stone sarcophagi. Local legend has it that behind the large stone slabs, there are tunnels leading to Yemen.
In more recent years, the tunnels were used as hideouts against the communist regime known as The Derg who frequently murdered their detractors before making relatives pay for the bullet.
Other things to do
Serious historians can spend a few days on the other sites dotted around the town or visit the regions churches set in caves perilously high up in the rocks, reachable only by ropes. Ethiopia’s oldest structure, the temple at Yeha and the adjacent more recent church of Abuna Aftse are also a good day trip from Aksum.
Getting there and away
Daily flights from Addis with Ethiopian Airlines.
Claire A Davies
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