The flight from Addis Ababa to Axum, or Aksum as its also called, provides a tantalising glimpse of the mountainous highlands which comprise much of northern Ethiopia. We’d have preferred to travel overland, but Ethiopia is a big country with an underdeveloped transport infrastructure. Travel times by road vary from lengthy to inhumane; with only twelve days, Ethiopian Airlines’ internal flights were the only solution.
Axum was the centre of imperial power for the mighty Aksumite Empire. The empire was thriving by 300 BC, by 300 AD it rivalled the empires of Rome, Persia and China in importance. Contemporary reports describe a magnificent city, socially and culturally highly advanced, flourishing on international trade. Today, none of this is particularly obvious when you first arrive in Axum.
The town is decidedly underwhelming. The sense of disappointment is not dissimilar to that I felt on arrival in Timbuktu in Mali. Like Timbuktu, Axum is hot, dusty and sleepy; unlike Timbuktu, Axum is home to a wealth of sites of great historical importance. This area is also the cradle of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the region is dotted with rock-hewn churches and ancient monasteries. What Axum lacks in vibrancy, it makes up for in historical grandeur, and a physical heritage unheard of elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Axum’s main attraction is a large field of stelae and burial sites at the northern end of the town. The largest standing stelae is 23 meters high, and was carved in a local quarry before being transported (possibly by elephants) to the site it still occupies. This is King Ezana’s stelae, and it is carved with a doorway and several windows, thought to mirror the chambers in his tomb. Ezana was the first Aksumite king to embrace Christianity, and this monument has stood since his death in 360 AD.
This was the last of Axum’s stelae to be erected. Although the stelae aren’t thought to have religious significance, the adoption of Christianity as the state religion probably caused the tradition to end. It appears that Ezana’s stelae was deliberately erected at an off-centre angle, but no one has yet come up with a convincing explanation for how it was erected.
There are two larger stelae known to have been erected in Axum. The largest, at 33 meters, belonged to the 3rd Century King Remhai. It lies shattered on the ground after falling over, its 500 ton weight too much for inadequate foundations. The second largest stelae was cut into three parts and taken to Italy during the Italian occupation. It stood in the Piazza in Rome, a giant bauble hanging around Mussolini’s ego and fascism’s supposed superiority. The stelae was recently returned to Ethiopia, but wasn’t re-erected when I was there.
There are numerous historic sites dotted around the town, many in the surrounding countryside. We went to the Gudit group of stelae, bizarrely stranded in the middle of a wheat field. These stelae are small, around 2 meters high, without any carving on them, reminding me of ancient stone circles in Britain. Across from the stelae are the ruins of a ‘palace’. Locals tell you it belonged to the Queen of Sheba, although it was built several hundred years after her reign – no one knows who constructed it.
Axum was connected by the Nile to the Nubian and Egyptian civilisations, and to the Roman Empire; as well as by trade across the Red Sea to the Middle East. It became an important trade junction between China, India, North Africa and Europe. Its all the more frustrating then, that there is so little historical certainty about it. In the absence of fact, myth has attached itself to Axum’s history, particularly the legend of the Queen of Sheba. She looms larger than life in Axum.
There is similar doubt around the remains of another palace, located on top of a hill a short walk away. The Tombs of Kaleb are all that remains of this palace. The problem is, no one really knows if King Kaleb was buried here, and grave robbers have taken anything valuable which might have identified who was buried here. Descending out of the blinding Ethiopian sun into darkness, our guide lit a couple of candles and we had a spooky tour by flickering candlelight. It was all a bit Indiana Jones.
As we walked back from the tombs we passed yet more stelae, just lying in a field, and we were joined by about twenty school children who, between fits of hysterical laughter, were desperate to practise their English on us.
We spent a couple of days in Axum, touring the sites and getting to grips with the altitude and climate. Its a nice town, even if there is little to hold you there beyond its history. Axum is also close to the troubled border with Eritrea, and the disputed status of the border, following a UN-sponsored ceasefire between the two countries, remains a burning issue. We came across a number of UN military personnel, including some Argentinian pilots, who are stationed in the town to monitor the ceasefire. An odd place to wash up when you’re from Mendoza.