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Aksum: Land of the Queen of Sheba

The oldest continuously-inhabited city in sub-Saharan Africa, Aksum was founded more than 3,000 years ago in the days of the Queen of Sheba. It served as capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, which was the dominant trade entity in the Horn of Africa for over a millennium prior to the rise of Islam, stretching from the Sudanese Nile across the Red Sea to Yemen. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, Aksum today is replete with towering obelisks, ruined palaces, engraved tablets and other ancient artefacts dating back to its glory days.

  • Established shortly after Aksum's leaders converted to Christianity, the 4th-century Cathedral of Tsion Maryam (Mary of Zion) is Ethiopia's oldest church. The original church, modelled on Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, fell victim to the warrior queen Gudit in the 10th century, but the foundations of one of the original 12 temples is still visible. A replacement church, built in the 17th-century Gondarine style by Emperor Fasilidas, has a beautifully painted interior.
  • Aksum's Chapel of the Tablet is said to be where the Biblical Ark of the Covenant now resides. According to legend, this most holy of Old Testament artefacts was carried to Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik I - son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Jerusalem - some 3,000 years ago.
  • A pre-Christian Stelae Field opposite Maryam Tsion incorporates the tallest blocks of solid stone ever erected in ancient times. The largest of the giant stelae, a 33-metre tall granite megalith attributed to the 3rd-century King Remhai, toppled over and shattered whilst it was being erected. Alongside it, the two tallest standing stelae are both comparable in stature to a ten-storey building, standing 25 and 23 metres high.
  • The Aksum Archaeological Museum displays a wealth of ancient artefacts uncovered around Aksum, ranging from 3rd century Aksumite coins to glasses imported from Egypt.
  • Other sites of interest include May Shum (also known as the Queen of Sheba's pool), the ruined Dongar Palace, a trilingual tablet inscribed in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek by King Ezana, and the 6th century tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel.

Getting There

Aksum lies 1024 km north of Addis Ababa via Mekele or 1180 km via Gondar.

Daily flights connect Askum to Gondar, Lalibela and Addis Ababa (www.ethiopianairlines.com). The airport is about 5km east of the town centre and most hotels offer a free transfer service.

Tours can be booked with local tour operators in Addis Ababa and the main towns.

Getting Around

Taxis and bajaji (tuc-tucs) are readily available to visit all the tourists sites in and around town. Any hotel or tour operator can arrange more formal transport. Guides are optional but recommended and can be arranged at the Aksum Guides Association next to the ticket office for the central stelae field.

Accommodation

Dozens of hotels are scattered around central Aksum, most of them catering to the budget and midrange market. There are also a few upmarket options.

Annual Events and Festivals

Aksum is an excellent place to celebrate Meskel (27 September except on leap years), a unique Ethiopian Christian festival commemorating the alleged 4th century discovery by Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, of the True Cross on which Jesus was crucified. The centrepiece of this colourful festival is the burning of a massive pyre in front of the central stelae and the Cathedral of Maryam Tsion. Other popular festivals are Timkat (January 19 except on leap years) and the day of Kidus Maryam (Saint Mary) on 1 December.

Shopping

Plenty of craft stalls running along the main road east of the central stelae field. This is a good place to buy traditional cotton cloths worn by the women of Tigrai, as well as baskets, crosses and other traditional handicrafts.

 

Guide to Aksum and Yeha by Gian Paulo Chiari, (2009), www.aradabooks.com - the most detailed site guide to Aksum in print.

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia by Philip Briggs (7th edition 2015), www.bradtguides.com - detailed background information and up-to-date hotel, restaurant and other listings.

Axumite Heritage Foundation - www.axumiteheritagefoundation.org.

Aksum Tourist Information Office - tel +251 (0)34 7753924. Tigrai Culture and Tourism Bureau -www.tigraitourism.com.

  1. The 4th century Cathedral of Tsion Maryam (Mary of Zion) is the country’s oldest church. Ethiopians believe the Biblical Ark of the Covenant resides in the nearby Chapel of the Tablet.
  2. The Central Stelae Park contains more than 120 granite obelisks – some more than 20m high - erected before the Aksumite monarchy converted to Christianity in the 4th century.
  3. A wealth of ancient artefacts uncovered around Aksum, ranging from Aksumite coins to glasses imported from Egypt, are displayed at the Aksum Archaeological Museum behind the central stelae field.
  4. Said to have been excavated for the Queen of Sheba, May Shum, literally the Chief’s Pool, is the setting for a colourful baptismal ceremony, part of the annual Timkat (Epiphany) festival.
  5. King Ezana’s Park is named for the 4th century Aksumite monarch named in a tablet that stands within its confines, together with other remains of the old city.
  6. The rock-hewn Tomb of King Basen is the burial site of a monarch best known to outsiders as Balthazar said to be, one of the Biblical Three Wise Men who visited Jesus in his manger.
  7. It is said that Dongar Palace, 1km west of the modern town centre, was built for the Queen of Sheba around 3,000 years ago.
  8. The Gudit Stelae Field opposite Dongar Palace is named after the militant Jewish queen who deposed the Aksumite monarchy in the 10th century.
  9. One of the most mysterious sites around Aksum is the unique 3 metre-long figure of a pouncing lion engraved into a rock face on Gobo Dura hill.
  10. The Ezana Inscription is a trilingual tablet inscribed in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek - detailing its namesake king’s famous conquest beyond the Red Sea to present day Yemen in the 4th century AD.
  11. The Tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel are the remains of a 6th century palace whose grounds are said to have been trod by tame elephants and giraffes.
  12.  Set atop a prominent rock pinnacle visible from town, the 6th century Monastery of Pantalewon houses some beautiful old paintings, illuminated gospels and gold crosses.
  13. The closest rock-hewn church to Aksum, littlevisited Dereka Abba Meta is excavated into a forested gorge about 10km south of the town centre.
  14. Set among rocky hills 20km east of Aksum, Adwa is revered by Ethiopians as the site of their historic repulsion of invading Italian troops on 1 March 1896.
  15. The 5th century monastery of Abba Garima - located 8km south-east of the town of Adwa - is home to the so-called Garima Gospels, recently carbon-dated to before 660 AD, making them the world’s oldest known illustrated Christian manuscripts.
  16. Situated 50km northeast of Aksum, Yeha was the capital of the pre-Aksumite kingdom of D’mt and it still houses a 12m high sacrificial temple comprising more than 50 layers of masonry.