A contender for the oldest continuously inhabited city in sub-Saharan Africa, Axum (also spelt Aksum) is also Ethiopia’s most historically and archaeologically important town, as well as being the site of its earliest church and the spiritual home of its unique brand of Christianity. Given its estimable pedigree, however, modern Axum, set at an altitude of 2,130m on the central Tigraian Plateau around 1,000km north of Addis Ababa and 30km south of the Eritrean border, can be quite disappointing on first contact.
The town centre is more unkempt and modestly proportioned than might be expected, and many visitors find its scattered antiquities, which earned it UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1980, lack the wow factor of the Gondarine castles or the churches of Lalibela.
That said, approached with realistic expectations, this most ancient of Ethiopian capitals does boast a wealth of startling relics: skyscraping stelae and dank subterranean catacombs, mysterious ruined palaces and illuminating multilingual tablets, not to mention an ancient swimming pool traditionally associated with the legendary Queen of Sheba, and a 4th-century church claimed to house nothing less than the original Ark of the Covenant.
Further afield, a handful of characterful old monasteries lie within walking distance of the town centre, while more remote attractions include the pre-Axumite temple at Yeha. At least two days are required to visit most places of interest in the immediate vicinity of Axum, ideally in the company of a knowledgeable local guide, and once you’re hooked, the questions that arise during the course of exploring this ancient and enigmatic city will linger on for months.
The earliest known settlement at Axum, established during or before the 7th century BC, was a village located on the plateau of Beta Giyorgis, the flat-topped hill that rises to the immediate northwest of the present-day town. By the 4th century BC, this village had expanded to become an important pre-Axumite residential area complete with palaces, other monumental buildings and rock-hewn pit graves marked with small megaliths. Although some settlement appears to have existed at the base of the hill throughout this period, it was probably only in the 2nd century AD that the royal cemetery now referred to as Stelae Park was established there and the present-day town centre became the focus of imperial and trade activity. It was at around this time that Axum emerged as the capital of the Axumite Empire, and as the most important political and market centre in the Horn of Africa.
Axum’s influence peaked over the 3rd to 6th centuries AD, when it ruled over an empire that extended over some 2.5 million km2 all the way west to the Sudanese Nile and east across the Red Sea to southern Arabia, and controlled a vast trade network whose tendrils reached Mediterranean Africa and Europe, as well as parts of Asia. One product of this exposure is that the empire’s rulers adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century AD and Axum became the birthplace of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which remains the country’s most numerically significant religion to this day. The Church of Maryam Tsion was founded opposite Stelae Park at around this time.
Axum’s influence started to decline after its vassal state in Southern Arabia was captured by Persians in the 6th century. By the end of the 8th century, Axum had become completely isolated from its former trade routes to Egypt and the Mediterranean as a result of the rising Islamic influence in Arabia and North Africa. The city’s influence dwindled further towards the end of the millennium, when it was captured by the enigmatic Gudit, a Jewish queen who razed many of the city and the empire’s most important Christian shrines.
Not much is known about events in Axum between the 10th and the 15th centuries. Evidently it retained its role as Ethiopia’s holiest Christian city, but settlement was largely confined to the small area between Maryam Tsion and the eastern slopes of Beta Giyorgis. The Portuguese missionary Francisco Álvares, who visited Axum in the early 16th century, described it as ‘a large town of very good houses, such that there are none like them in the whole of Ethiopia, and very good wells of water, and worked masonry, and also in most of the houses ancient figures of lions, dogs and birds, all well made in stone’. About ten years after this, Axum was attacked by the army of Ahmed Gragn, who razed much of the old town and destroyed its premier church. A century later, according to Manuel de Almeida, Axum had been reduced to ‘a place of about a hundred inhabitants [where] everywhere there are ruins’.
Axum has grown vastly since Almeida’s day. Panoramic photographs taken by the Deutsche-Aksum Expedition suggest it harboured a population of a few thousand in 1909, though – somewhat disorientatingly at first glance – it appears that the town was then concentrated to the west of Maryam Tsion, while what is now the city centre, east of the watercourse called May Hejja, consisted of unsettled plains.
Ethiopian Airlines flies daily between Axum and Gondar, Lalibela and Addis Ababa. The airport is located on the Adwa road almost 5km east of the town centre. Most hotels offer a free transfer to town, failing which a taxi shouldn’t cost more than US$5. There is no direct routing to Mekele but Ethiopian Airlines does operate four flights a week there from Shire, only 65km west of Axum.
Article By: Kaleab Ayenew