Axum, centre of an ancient African Empire

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.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Typical house in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Typical house in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl eats a ice lolly, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

A young girl eats a ice lolly, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Men working in the fields, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Men working in the fields, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Ancient stelae in honour of King Ezana, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in honour of King Ezana, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, 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.

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Ancient stelae belonging to King Remhai, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae belonging to King Remhai, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tomb in the stelae field, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tomb in the stelae field, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Gudit stelae group, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Camels in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Camels in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Tombs of Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Stelae, Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

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.

Ethiopia, home of coffee and the origin of the species

Ethiopia is a beautiful and fascinating country. A country which defies cliché. Yet the legacy of the vicious Marxist government, and the terrible droughts and famine of the 1980s, still frame people’s perceptions of it and it’s people. It is a country like no other, where received wisdom is hopelessly out of kilter with reality. Our twelve days in Ethiopia, splitting our time between Axum in the north, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana and the extraordinary Lalibela, would only be a taster of this amazing country.

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Church in the colours of the Ethiopian flag, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

My first impression of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, wasn’t great. I arrived at 2am, and the drive through the dark, silent streets was at high speed. When my taxi arrived at the hotel I discovered my room had been given away. I could see my name on the reservation list, but a European tour group was stranded by a cancelled flight – one of the group was happily sleeping in my bed. Ironically, the tour group organiser came to my rescue, suggesting another hotel. I finally got to bed around 4am.

Not honouring hotel bookings is small fry compared to some of Ethiopia’s more entrenched problems. I was thinking about my trip a few years ago, while reading a recent news article. The only opposition member of the Ethiopian Parliament, Girma Seifu Maru, was quoted saying that the government’s suppression of opposition was storing up trouble for the future. Thats putting it mildly. On my first day in Addis Ababa, a taxi driver pointed out the university, adding that, thanks to a government crackdown on student protests, most of the students were completing their studies in prison.

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Things don’t seem to have improved much between my visit and now. Corruption, poverty, a lack of transparency and accountability continue to blight the country’s 94 million inhabitants. As does the proxy war Ethiopia is fighting in Somalia on behalf of the United States and its allies. Yet if Ethiopia’s present is beset with problems, its ancient history might point toward a glorious future.

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

A lion in Zion, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Africa

Boasting Africa’s richest historical heritage, the human history of the country can be traced back to some of the earliest stone tools (around 2.5 million years old). Around 800 BC, when the Phoenicians were founding Carthage, an ancient kingdom existed in Ethiopia. This gave rise to the Aksumite Empire which, by 300 AD, stretched across the Red Sea to Yemen, and was considered one of the world’s great powers (alongside the Roman, Persian and Chinese Empires). The famed Axum Stelae are evidence of the sopistication of the Aksumite civilisation.

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ancient stelae in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Landscape near Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Global trade routes, and proximity to the Middle East, meant the Aksumite Empire was heavily influenced by the monotheistic religions that flourished there. There is an ancient Jewish tribe, the Falasha, which has existed in Ethiopia for centuries. The Ethiopian Queen, Makeda, also known as the Queen of Sheba, is supposed to have visited King Solomon’s Jerusalem. Allegedly, Solomon is the father of her child, Menelik, who established Juadism as the religion of the Aksumite Empire.

This may be myth, but it was the foundation stone of legitimacy for Ethiopia’s monarchy. Part of the King Solomon story relates how the Ark of the Covenant was brought and hidden in Ethiopia by Menelik. It apparently remains under lock and key in Axum’s Maryam Tsion Church, and only one living person has actually seen it.

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

A young shepherd looks over the Blue Nile waterfalls, Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

When Christianity emerged it was adopted by the Aksumite Empire, which in 324 AD became one of the first Christian kingdoms. The legacy of this can be seen across Ethiopia. There are monasteries and churches throughout the country, many over 1000 years old – the extraordinary rock-hewn churches of Lalibela being some of the finest examples. As Islam spread across the region, Ethiopia became isolated from developments elsewhere in the Christian world. This isolation has bequeathed the unique Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity to the world.

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Young girl in a village near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian houses in Axum, Ethiopia, Africa

Given this, it’s ironic that Ethiopia is the site of some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to human evolution. In 1974, in the remote and dangerous Afar Depression, teams of scientists discovered numerous Hominid bones that are a major piece of evidence that our ancestors evolved in, and migrated out of, Africa. This includes the 3.5 million year old skeleton of Lucy, an iconic human ancestor and an evolutionary ‘missing link’. Lucy wasn’t on display when I was in Addis Ababa, she’d been packed off to tour the United States.

Unique amongst African nations, Ethiopia was never colonised. During the 19th Century ‘Scramble for Africa’, Ethiopia fought tenaciously for its independence from would-be colonisers. The continuity of hereditary monarchy was only interrupted once, between 1936 – 41. The brief Italian occupation left little behind other than second rate pasta and third rate wine. The culture, religion and cuisine remain uniquely Ethiopian.

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Rock-hewn Ethiopian Coptic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopian Coptic priest in Lalibela, Ethiopia, Africa

The hereditary monarchy held on to power into the modern-era, ruling over a largely feudal society. This all came to a dramatic end when, in 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie was ousted by a hardline Communist military government, the Derg. Ethiopia became a Cold War satellite of the Soviet Union, and the Derg unleashed a period of terror. It was the failed policies of the Derg which led to the famine of the 1980s. Propped up by Soviet military aid, it was only in 1991 that the Derg was finally forced from power.

Since then, Ethiopia has fought a crippling war against its neighbour, Eritrea; a conflict that still flares up periodically. It also adopted a democratic constitution, but has lurched from one rigged election to another, keeping the same party in power since 1991. New elections are expected in 2015, their outcome may determine the course of Ethiopia’s future and whether-or-not the bottled-up dissent spills onto the streets.

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

The Blue Nile waterfalls, one of the origins of the River Ethiopia, Africa

Ethiopia is also the home of one of humanity’s defining pleasures: coffee. The coffee bean originated in Ethiopia, and Ethiopian varieties are considered some of the finest in the world. Coffee plays a special role in Ethiopian society, including an elaborate coffee ceremony – the ritualised making and drinking of three cups of coffee for each person. As a visitor, you’re regularly called upon to drink coffee several times each day. Its easy to spend your entire time in the country permanently wired.