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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

—  City  —
Street in Axum
Country  Ethiopia
Near East in 565 AD, showing the kingdom of Aksum and its neighbours

Axum or Aksum is a city in northern Ethiopia which was the original capital of the eponymous kingdom of Axum. Axum was a naval and trading power that ruled the region from ca. 400 BC into the 10th century. The kingdom was also arbitrarily identified as Abyssinia, Ethiopia, and India in medieval writings.

Located in the Mehakelegnaw Zone of the Tigray Region near the base of the Adwa mountains, the city has an elevation of 2,131 meters. It was the centre of the (eventual) Christian marine trading power the Aksumite Kingdom, which predated the earliest mentions in Roman era writings (around the time of the birth of Jesus) in good correlation to the expansion of Rome into northern Africa, and later when it developed into the Christian kingdom, was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Persian Empire. The historical record is unclear, primary sources limited mainly to ancient church records.

It is believed it began a long slow decline after the 7th century due partly to Islamic groups contesting trade routes. Eventually Aksum was cut off from its principal markets in Alexandria, Byzantium and Southern Europe and its trade share was captured by Arab traders of the era. The Kingdom of Aksum also quarreled with Islamic groups over religion. Eventually the people of Aksum were forced south and their civilization declined. As the kingdom's power declined so did the influence of the city, which is believed to have lost population in the decline similar to Rome and other cities thrust away from the flow of world events. The last known (nominal) king to reign was crowned ca. 10th century, but the kingdom's influence and power ended long before that.

Its decline in population and trade then contributed to the shift of the power centre of the Ethiopian Empire so that it moved further inland and bequeathed its alternative place name (Ethiopia) to the region, and eventually, the modern state.[1]

Based on figures from the Central Statistical Agency in 2005, Axum has an estimated total population of 47,320 of whom 20,774 were males and 21,898 were females.[2] Seventy-five percent of the people in the city are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The remainder of the population is Sunni Muslim and P'ent'ay (Protestant and other non-Orthodox Christians).

Aksum is served by an airport (ICAO code HAAX, IATA AXU).

Due to their historical value, in 1980 UNESCO added Aksum's archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites.


The Aksumite kingdom and the Ethiopian Church

Dome and Belltower of the New Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion
The Chapel of the Tablet

The kingdom of Aksum had its own written language called Ge'ez, and also developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by giant obelisks, the oldest of which (though much smaller) date from 5,000-2,000 BC.[3] This kingdom was at its height under king Ezana, baptized as Abreha, in the 300s (which was also when it officially embraced Christianity).[4]

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum houses the Biblical Ark of the Covenant in which lie the Tablets of Law upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed.[5] This same church was the site Ethiopian emperors were crowned for centuries until the reign of Fasilides, then again beginning with Yohannes IV until the end of the empire. Axum is considered to be the holiest city in Ethiopia and is an important destination of pilgrimages.[5] Significant religious festivals are the T'imk'et Festival (known as the Epiphany in western Christianity) on 7 January and the Festival of Maryam Zion in late November.

In 1937, a 24-metre tall, 1700-year-old Obelisk of Axum broken into five parts and lying on the ground, was found and shipped by Italian soldiers to Rome to be erected. The obelisk is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of engineering from the height of the Axumite empire. Despite a 1947 United Nations agreement that the obelisk would be shipped back, Italy balked, resulting in a long-standing diplomatic dispute with the Ethiopian government, which views the obelisk as a symbol of national identity. In April 2005, Italy finally returned the obelisk pieces to Axum amidst much official and public rejoicing, Italy also covered the $4 million costs of the transfer. UNESCO has assumed responsibility for the re-installation of this stele in Axum, and as of the end of July 2008 the obelisk has been reinstalled (see panographic photos in external links below). Rededication of the obelisk took place on September 4, 2008 in Paris, France with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dedicating the obelisk to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for his kind efforts in returning the obelisk.

Axum and Islam

The Axumite Empire has a longstanding relationship with Islam.[citation needed] According to ibn Hisham [6], when Muhammad faced oppression from the Quraish clan, he sent a small group that included his daughter Ruqayya and her husband Uthman ibn Affan, to whom Ashama ibn Abjar, the king of Axum, gave refuge and protection and refused the requests of the Quraish clan to send these refugees back to Arabia.[citation needed] These refugees did not return until the sixth year of the Hijra (628), and even then many remained in Ethiopia, eventually settling at Negash in eastern Tigray.[citation needed]

There are different traditions concerning the effect these early Muslims had on the ruler of Axum. The Muslim tradition is that the ruler of Axum was so impressed by these refugees that he became a secret convert.[7] On the other hand, Arabic historians & Ethiopian tradition states that some of the Muslim refugees who lived in Ethiopia during this time converted to Orthodox Christianity. Worth mentioning is a second Ethiopian tradition that, on the death of Ashama ibn Abjar, Muhammed is reported to have prayed for the king's soul, and told his followers, "Leave the Abyssinians in peace, as long as they do not take the offensive.[8]

Sites of interest

Northern Stelea park, with a neighborhood in the background

The major Aksumite monuments in the town are stelae; the largest number lie in the Northern Stelae Park, ranging up to the 33-metre (33 metres high 3.84 metres wide 2.35 metres deep, weighing 520 tonnes) Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction. The tallest standing is the 24-metre (20.6 metres high 2.65 metres wide 1.18 metres deep, weighing 160 tonnes) King Ezana's Stele. Another stele (24.6 metres high 2.32 metres wide 1.36 metres deep, weighing 170 tonnes) removed by the Italian army was returned to Ethiopia in 2005 and reinstalled July 31, 2008[9]. This stele was already broken into pieces before being shipped. Three more stele measure 18.2 metres high 1.56 metres wide 0.76 metres deep, weighing 56 tonnes; 15.8 metres high 2.35 metres wide 1 metres deep, weighing 75 tonnes; 15.3 metres high 1.47 metres wide 0.78 metres deep, weighing 43 tonnes.[10] The stelae are believed to mark graves and would have had cast metal discs affixed to their sides, which are also carved with architectural designs. The Gudit Stelae to the west of town, unlike the northern area, are interspersed with mostly fourth-century tombs.

Other features of the town include St Mary of Zion church, built in 1665 and said to contain the Ark of the Covenant (a prominent twentieth-century church of the same name neighbours it), archaeological and ethnographic museums, the Ezana Stone written in Sabaean, Ge'ez and Ancient Greek in a similar manner to the Rosetta Stone, King Bazen's Tomb (a megalith considered to be one of the earliest structures), the so-called Queen of Sheba's Bath (actually a reservoir), the fourth-century Ta'akha Maryam and sixth-century Dungur palaces, the monasteries of Abba Pentalewon and Abba Liqanos and the Lioness of Gobedra rock art.

Local legend claims the Queen of Sheba lived in the town.

Axum University

Axum University established in Axum town, the hub of central zone of administration in Tigray. It lies 1,010 km north of Addis Ababa and is served by an airport with two flights daily to Addis Ababa; newly constructed roads, radiating out to Ethiopia and a regular bus service to all towns in the region including Addis Ababa. Aksum enshrines one of the most impressive archaeological and historical sites in the world, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Axum houses the major industries of Northern Ethiopia; tourism and agriculture. The corridor is the predicted main growth area of the Tigray region.

The establishment of a University in Axum is expected to contribute much to the ongoing development of the country in general and of the region in particular.

Construction of the University was started in May 2006 on a green field site, 4 kilometers from the centre of Axum. The inauguration ceremony was held on

16 February 2007 with an expansion potential for the future, the current area of the campus is 107 hectares (1.07 million square meters).

See also


  1. ^ G. Mokhtar, UNESCO General History of America, Vol. II, Abridged Edition (Berkeley: University of Aksum Press, 1990), pp. 215-35. ISBN 0-85255-092-8
  2. ^ CSA 2005 National Statistics, Table B.4
  3. ^ Herausgegeben von Uhlig, Siegbert, Encyclopaedia Aethiopica: D-Ha (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), p. 871.
  4. ^ J.D. Fage, A History of Africa (London: Routledge, 2001). pp. 53-54. ISBN 0-415-25248-2
  5. ^ a b Hodd, Mike, Footprint East Africa Handbook (New York: Footprint Travel Guides, 2002), p. 859. ISBN 1-900949-65-2
  6. ^ ibn Hisham, The Life of the Prophet
  7. ^ Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad (Oxford, 1955), 657-58.
  8. ^ Paul B. Henze, Layers of Time: A History of Ethiopia (New York: Palgrave, 2000), pp. 42f
  9. ^ "Mission accomplished: Aksum Obelisk successfully reinstalled" (August 1, 2008)
  10. ^ Scarre, Chris Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World 1999

Further reading

  • Francis Anfray. Les anciens ethiopiens. Paris: Armand Colin, 1991.
  • Yuri M. Kobishchanov. Axum (Joseph W. Michels, editor; Lorraine T. Kapitanoff, translator). University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 1979. ISBN 0-271-00531-9
  • David W. Phillipson. Ancient Ethiopia. Aksum: Its antecedents and successors. London: The British Brisith Museum, 1998.
  • David W. Phillipson. Archaeology at Aksum, Ethiopia, 1993-97. London: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 2000. ISBN 1-872566-13-8
  • Stuart Munro-Hay. Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh: University Press. 1991. ISBN 0-7486-0106-6 online edition
  • Stuart Munro-Hay. Excavations at Aksum: An account of research at the ancient Ethiopian capital directed in 1972-74 by the late Dr Nevill Chittick London: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1989 ISBN 0-500-97008-4
  • Sergew Hable Sellassie. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270 Addis Ababa: United Printers, 1972.
  • African Zion, the Sacred Art of Ethiopia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

External links

Coordinates: 14°07′N 38°44′E / 14.117°N 38.733°E / 14.117; 38.733


Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Church of St. Mary of Zion
Church of St. Mary of Zion

Aksum (also called Axum) is a city in Ethiopia. The ancient capital, located on the northern border of Ethiopia, is famous for its stelae and the ruins of various palaces.

Get in

Either by plane (Ethiopian) or by bus.

Planes Given the often trying conditions of Ethiopian roads, flying into Aksum is a much more reasonable option. There are daily flights from Addis Ababa to the small and rural, but well-functioning Aksum airport. Some flights are direct, others make stops along the way. At the airport, there will be taxis eager to drive you into town. Many hotels also offer van service to and from the airport.


Buses from Addis Ababa take a minimum of three days to make the journey via Dessie and Mekele. It is a very taxing bus ride over rough roads.

From Gondar, take the dawn bus to Shire and change there for Aksum -- you can usually get through in a day. To travel to Gondar, you must take an afternoon bus to Shire, spend the night there, and catch the dawn bus to Gondar. The road between Shire and Gondar is one of the most spectacular in Ethiopia.

From Debark and the Simien Mountains, there is only one bus heading north to Shire. That is the Gondar bus, and it is often full when it passes through Debark. You can either take your chances (it isn't always full!), or hire someone from Debark for about 150 birr to go into Gondar the day before and ride the Shire bus to Debark for you, guarenteeing you a seat. (Note that you must make arrangements the morning prior to the day you want to leave. If you are going trekking, you can make arrangements before you leave for your trek.) There are many buses travelling between Shire and Aksum. To travel to Debark, go to Shire in the afternoon, spend the night there, catch the Gondar bus the next morning, and get off at Debark. You will probably have to pay the full fare to Gondar (about 50 birr).

Get around

Easily on foot, everything is very close. For the lioness of gonedra and the judith stelae field, instead of hiring one of the ultra-expensive tourist minibuses, you can catch a minibus going in direction Shire (there are many early in the morning) and ask them to drop you at the lioness of gonedra turnoff and catch another one back. The lioness is not easy to find on your own but a group of children will soon appear who will guide you, and they should be compensated appropriately.

  • Church of St. Mary of Zion. Ethiopian legend has it that the Church is the repository of the Ark of the Covenant (the subject of the controversial The Sign and the Seal), which is said to have been stolen (with God's will) from the temple of Jerusalem by Menelik I, Solomon?s own son by the legendary Queen of Sheba. Unfortunately, for visitors, the chapel in which the Ark is secreted away is not accessible to anyone, including, even the Ethiopian emperors. Pilgrims flock here on Hidar 21 (November 30). The high entrance fee is deterring, but sometimes the guards let you have a look from the outside without having to pay. There are two churches in the compound: the old church, which was built by Emperor Fasiladas in 1665, and a new church built in the 1960s by Haile Selassie.
  • Northern Stelae Field including the Ezana Stele and the Giant Stele. There are numerous monolithic stelae fashioned out solid granite. Their mystery lies in that it is not known exactly by whom, and for what purpose, they were so fashioned, although they were likely associate with burials of great emperors. The biggest monolith (and the largest in the world), measuring over thirty-three meters (108 feet) and weighing about 500 tons, fell somewhere around the 4th Century AD and now lies in broken fragments on the ground. The second largest, which measures 24 meters (78 feet) high, is still standing at the entrance to the field, although it is leaning at a slight angle. Another stele, 24.8 meters (80 feet) high, fell while the tombs were being pillaged around the 10th Century AD. It was stolen by the invading forces of Fascist Italy and taken to Rome, where it stood, from 1937 to 2005. It has been returned to Ethiopia and will eventually be stood up again. The mausoleum and the tomb of the brick walls are not open to the public anymore. The tomb of the false door is very impressive with its accurate workmanship.
  • Palace of the Queen of Sheba: only the foundations of this palace near the Judith stelae field remain. Although every calls it the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, it actually dates from the 7th Century AD, about 1500 years after the time of the Queen of Sheba.
  • Lioness of gonedra, a stone carving of a lion, a few kms out of town in direction Shire. It is close to the quarry where the stelae were made. Ask a local boy to show you where.
  • The tombs of the kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, a 20-minute walk along the road heading northeast from the northern stelae field. Impressive foundations and tombs. Take a torch along.
  • Ezanas Scriptures (on the way from the northern stelae field to the tombs of the kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel), usually closed, wait for the keybearer.
  • Judith Stelae field (out of town in direction Shire), of inferior quality in comparison to the northern stelae field
  • Ezana park, where there is another multilingual script table of king Ezana.
  • Archaelogical museum a collection of stone artefacts giving you an idea how advanced the culture was.

A ticket from the tourist commission, located off the roundabout 400 m south of the Northern Stelae Field, covers admission to all sights except the Church of St. Mary of Zion.

  • Kaleb Hotel, from Birr 40 (single), the rooms are fine but the place is fairly noisy as there are discotheques nearby. The food is not worth mentioning.
  • Africa Hotel, from Birr 70, one of the more popular hotels in town for travellers with a bearable although not really desirable restaurant, a small bar, and a friendly helpful owner/manager. Rooms are doubles or singles with individual bathrooms with showers. Nice courtyard with fruit trees. Free airport transfers.
  • Yeha Hotel, government owned hotel overlooking the Northern Stele field. Good restaurant with mediocre service. Excellent view from terrace.

Get out

By minibus to Shire (15 Birr), Adwa (around 8 Birr).

By minibus (and be prepared for a bumpy ride) to Yeha. Here you will see a temple from a pre-Christian and pre-Aksumite civilization. There is also a church next door, and a small dark room where you can see typical Ethiopian church relics--ancient texts, crosses, portraits, and so on. Outside, you can see boys reciting passages in Ge'ez, the ancient scriptural language of Ethiopia, as part of their church education. The town of Yeha is hardly recognizable as a town. Cheap souvenirs and strange treasures are available for sale from the children outside the temple/church complex, but nothing else is available. Look up at the unusual mountains for a glimpse at a certain lion of Ethiopia.

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