St Mary of Zion church Axum
Axum or Aksum is a city in the northern part of Ethiopia. The town has a population of 56,500 residents and is governed as an urban warada.
The original capital of the Kingdom of Aksum, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. Axum was a naval and trading power that ruled the region from about 400 BCE into the 10th century.
In 1980, UNESCO added Axum's archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites due to their historic value.
Axum is located in the Mehakelegnaw Zone of the Tigray Region, near the base of the Adwa mountains. It has an elevation of 2,131 metres (6,991 ft) and is surrounded by La'ilay Maychew warada.
It was for nearly 800 years the administrative centre of one of the great empires of the old world along with those of Rome, Persia and China and remains the ecclesiastical capital of the Ethiopian church.
It is famous for its stelae, churches, monasteries, tombs and the ruins of palaces and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
It is one of the cleaner and better kept Ethiopian towns with cobbled side streets and attractive flame trees providing shade in the main street.
Axum was the center of the marine trading power known as the Aksumite Kingdom, which predated the earliest mentions in Roman era writings. Around 356 CE, its ruler was converted to Christianity by Frumentius.
Later, under the reign of Kaleb, Axum was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Sasanian Persian Empire which had adopted Zoroastrianism. The historical record is unclear, with ancient church records the primary contemporary sources.
It is believed it began a long and slow decline after the 7th century due partly to the Persians and finally the Arabs contesting old Red sea 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 was finally destroyed by Gudit, and eventually some of the people of Aksum were forced south and their old way of life 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. T
he last known nominal king to reign was crowned in about the 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 center of the Ethiopian Empire south to the Agaw region as it moved further inland. The city of Axum was the administrative seat of an empire spanning 1 million square miles.
Eventually, the alternative name Ethiopia was adopted by the central region, and subsequently, the present modern state.
The Kingdom of Axum had its own written language, Ge'ez, and developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by giant obelisks, the oldest of which though much smaller dating from 5000–2000 BCE.
The kingdom was at its height under King Ezana, baptized as Abreha, in the 4th century which was also when it officially embraced Christianity.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum houses the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, in which lie the Tablets of Law upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed.
The historical records and Ethiopian traditions suggest that it was from Axum that Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. She had a son, Menelik, fathered by Solomon. He grew up in Ethiopia but traveled to Jerusalem as a young man to visit his father's homeland.
He lived several years in Jerusalem before returning to his country with the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Ethiopian Church and Ethiopian tradition, the Ark still exists in Axum.
This same church was the site where 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.
Significant religious festivals are the Timkat festival known as Epiphany in western Christianity on 19 January or 20 January in leap years and the Festival of Maryam Zion on November 24.
In 1937, a 24-metre (79-foot) tall, 1,700-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 assumed responsibility for the re-installation of this stele in Axum, and by the end of July 2008 the obelisk had been reinstalled. It was unveiled on 4 September 2008.
The Axumite Empire has a longstanding relationship with Islam. According to ibn Hisham, when Prophet Muhammad faced oppression from the Quraish clan, he sent a small group that included his daughter Ruqayya and her husband Uthman ibn Affan to Axum.
Sahama, the Axumite emperor, gave them refuge and protection. He refused the requests of the Quraish clan to send these refugees back to Arabia.
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.
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.
On the other hand, Arabic historians and Ethiopian tradition state that some of the Muslim refugees who lived in Ethiopia during this time converted to Orthodox Christianity.
There is also 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.
The major Aksumite monuments in the town are stelae. These obelisks are around 1,700 years old and have become a symbol of the Ethiopian people's identity.
The largest number are in the Northern Stelae Park, ranging up to the 33-metre-long 3.84 metres wide, 2.35 metres deep, weighing 520 tonnes Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction.
The Obelisk of Axum is 24.6 metres high, 2.32 metres wide, 1.36 metres deep, weighing 170 tonnes was removed by the Italian army in 1937, and returned to Ethiopia in 2005 and reinstalled July 31, 2008.
This stele was already broken into pieces before being shipped. The next tallest is the 24-metre 20.6 metres high above the front baseplate, 2.65 metres wide, 1.18 metres deep, weighing 160 tonnes King Ezana's Stele.
Three more stelae 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.
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 4th century tombs.
The other major feature of the town are the Old and New Cathedrals of St Mary of Zion. The Old St Mary of Zion Cathedral was built in 1665 by Emperor Fasilides and said to have previously housed the Ark of the Covenant.
The original cathedral, said to have been built by Ezana and augmented several times after was believed to have been massive with 12 naves. It was burned to the ground by Gudit, rebuilt, and then destroyed again during the Gragn wars of the 1500s.
It was again rebuilt by Emperor Gelawdewos and completed by his brother and successor Emperor Minas and Emperor Fasilides replaced that structure with the present one. Only males are permitted entry into the Old St. Mary's Cathedral some say as a result of the destruction of the original church by Gudit.
The New Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion stands next to the old one, and was built to fulfill a pledge by Emperor Haile Selassie to Our Lady of Zion for the liberation of Ethiopia from the Fascist occupation.
Built in a neo-Byzantine style, work on the new cathedral began in 1955, and allows admittance to women. Emperor Haile Selassie interrupted the state visit of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II to travel to Axum to attend the dedication of the new Cathedral and pay personal homage, showing the importance of this church in the Ethiopian Empire.
The Queen visited the Cathedral a few days later. Between the two cathedrals is a small chapel known as The Chapel of the Tablet built at the same time as the new cathedral, and which is believed to house the Ark of the Covenant.
Emperor Haile Selassie's consort, Empress Menen, paid for its construction from her private funds. Admittance to the chapel is closed to all but the guardian monk who resides there.
Entrance is even forbidden to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and to the Emperor of Ethiopia during the monarchy.
The two cathedrals and the chapel of the Ark are the focus of pilgrimage and considered the holiest sites in Ethiopia to members of its Orthodox Church.
Other attractions in Axum include 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, the 4th-century Ta'akha Maryam and 6th-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.
According to Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia (CSA), as of July 2012 (est.) the town of Axum's population was 56,576. The census indicated that 30,293 of the population were females and 26,283 were males.
The 2007 national census showed that the town population was 44,647, of whom 20,741 were males and 23,906 females. The majority of the inhabitants said they practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, with 78.03% reporting that as their religion, while 10.89% of the population were Muslim.
The 1994 national census reported a total population for this city of 27,148, of whom 12,536 were men and 14,612 were women. The largest ethnic group reported was the Tigrayan (98.54%) and Tigrinya was spoken as a first language by 98.68%.
The majority of the population practiced Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity with 85.08% reported as embracing that religion, while 14.81% were Muslim.
Air transportation in Axum is served by the Axum Airport.
The Axum University was established in Axum in May 2006 on a greenfield site, four kilometers (2.45 miles) from the town center; the inauguration ceremony was held on 16 February 2007. The current area of the campus is 107 hectares, with ample room for expansion.
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.
Obelisk of Axum
The obelisk ends in a semi-circular top part, which used to be enclosed by metal frames.
The obelisk—properly termed a stele or, in the local Afro-Asiatic languages, hawelt/hawelti as it is not topped by a pyramid, is found along with many other stelae in the city of Axum in modern-day Ethiopia.
The stelae were probably carved and erected during the 4th century A.D. by subjects of the Kingdom of Aksum, an ancient Ethiopian civilization.
Erection of stelae in Axum was a very old practice,today it is still possible to see primitive roughly carved stelae near more elaborated obelisks, probably borrowed from the Kushitic kingdom of Meroe.
Their function is supposed to be that of markers for underground burial chambers. The largest of the grave markers were for royal burial chambers and were decorated with multi-story false windows and false doors, while lesser nobility would have smaller, less decorated ones.
While there are only a few large ones standing, there are hundreds of smaller ones in various stelae fields. The last stele erected in Axum was probably the so-called King Ezana's Stele, in the 4th century A.D.
King Ezana (c.321 – c. 360), influenced by his childhood tutor Frumentius, introduced Christianity to Axum, precluding the pagan practice of erecting burial stelae,it seems that at the feet of each obelisk, together with the grave, there was also a sacrificial altar.
Over the course of time, many of these stelae fell to the ground due to structural collapse as, probably, in the case of the Great Stele, measuring 33 m, possibly immediately after their erection, earthquakes or the military incursions of the Imam Ahmad Gragn during the Ethiopian-Adal War from 1529 to 1543.
In the 19th century, of the three major royal stelae, only King Ezana's Stele remained erect, shown in the painting Sight of Axum of Henry Salt (1780–1827).
At the end of 1935, following the Italian occupation, Italian soldiers found the Obelisk of Axum was collapsed and broken. It had fallen in the 4th century and had broken into five pieces.
In 1937, it was taken as war booty and moved to Italy by the Fascist regime, which wanted to commemorate the occupation of Ethiopia and the birth of the ephemeral new Roman Empire.
The stele was transported by truck along the tortuous route between Axum and the port of Massawa, taking five trips over a period of two months.
It arrived via ship in Naples on a ship called Adwa, on March 27, 1937.
It was then transported to Rome, where it was reassembled and erected on Porta Capena square in front of the Ministry for Italian Africa later the headquarters of the United Nations's Food and Agriculture Organization and the Circus Maximus.
It was officially unveiled on October 28, 1937 to commemorate the fifteenth anniversary of the March on Rome. The operation was coordinated by Ugo Monneret de Villard.
A bronze statue of the Lion of Judah, symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy, was taken along with the obelisk and displayed in front of Termini railway station.
In a 1947 UN agreement, Italy agreed to return the stele to Ethiopia, along with the other looted piece, the Lion of Judah.
While the latter was returned in 1967 following the 1961 visit of emperor Haile Selassie to Italy, little action was taken to return the stele for more than 50 years, partly as a consequence of the considerable technical difficulties related to its transportation.
One source also suggests that emperor Haile Sellassie, after hearing of these technical difficulties and of the enormous costs necessary to overcome them, decided to grant the stele to the city of Rome, as a gift for the renewed friendship between Italy and Ethiopia.
This assertion, however, remains very controversial and was not recognized by successive authorities. Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam who overthrew the emperor in 1974, asked the Italian government to return the stele to Ethiopia.
Another controversial arrangement, according to some sources, seems to be that Italy could keep the stele in exchange for the construction of a hospital in Addis Ababa Saint Paul's Hospital and for the cancellation of debts owed by Ethiopia.
In any case, after the fall of the Mengistu regime, the new Ethiopian government asked for the return of the stele, finding a positive answer from the then president of the Italian republic Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, in April 1997.
The first steps in dismantling the structure were taken in November 2003, under the supervision of Giorgio Croci, Professor of Structural Problems of Monuments and Historical Buildings at Sapienza University of Rome.
The intent was to ship the stele back to Ethiopia in March 2004, but the repatriation project encountered a series of obstacles: The runway at Axum Airport was considered too short for a cargo plane carrying even one of the thirds into which the stele had been cut.
The roads and bridges between Addis Ababa and Axum were thought to be not up to the task of road transport and access through the nearby Eritrean port of Massawa which was how the stele originally left Africa was impossible due to the strained state of relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Another reason for the delay in returning the stele from Italy to Ethiopia in 2004 was because of Italy's claim of not having the money to pay for the transportation. An attempt to get help from the United States was unsuccessful, as Americans stated that their planes were tied up in the war in Iraq.
Numerous attempts by Professor Richard Pankhurst, who spearheaded the campaign to return the stele, remained unsuccessful until an American-Ethiopian, Dr. Aberra Molla, threatened the Italian government with the option of raising the money on the Internet.
The runway at Axum airport was then upgraded specially to facilitate the return of the stele. The dismantled stele remained sitting in a warehouse near Rome's Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport, until 19 April 2005 when the middle piece was repatriated by use of an Antonov An-124, amidst much local celebration.
It was the largest and heaviest piece of air freight ever carried. The second piece was returned on 22 April 2005, with the final piece returned on 25 April 2005. The operation cost Italy $7.7 million.
The stele remained in storage while Ethiopia decided how to reconstruct it without disturbing other ancient treasures still in the area especially King Ezana's Stele.
By March 2007 the foundation had been poured for the re-erection of the stele near King Ezana's Stele, structurally consolidated in this occasion.
Reassembly began in June 2008, with a team chosen by UNESCO and led by Giorgio Croci, and the monument was re-erected in its original home and unveiled on 4 September 2008.
When it was reassembled in Rome in 1937 three steel bars were inserted per section. This caused the obelisk to be hit by lightning during a violent thunderstorm over Rome on 27 May 2002 causing considerable damage.
In the new reconstruction the three sections are fixed together by a total of eight aramid fiber Kevlar bars, four between the first and second and four between the second and third sections.
This arrangement guarantees structural resistance during earthquakes and avoids the use of steel, so as not to again make the stele a magnet for lightning and to avoid rust.
Several other similar stelae/obelisks exist in Ethiopia and Eritrea, such as the Hawulti in Metera. Like the Obelisk of Axum, the other stele have a rectangular base with a false door carved on one side.
Kingdom of Aksum
The Kingdom of Aksum or the Aksumite Empire was an ancient kingdom located in present-day Eritrea and the Tigray Region of Ethiopia. Ruled by the Aksumites, it existed from approximately 100 AD to 940 AD. The polity was centered in the city of Axum.
It grew from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period around the 4th century BC to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD, and became a major player on the commercial route between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.
The Aksumite rulers facilitated trade by minting their own Aksumite currency, with the state establishing its hegemony over the declining Kingdom of Kush.
It also regularly entered the politics of the kingdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, and eventually extended its rule over the region with the conquest of the Himyarite Kingdom. The Persian Prophet Mani who died 274 AD regarded Axum as one of the four great powers of his time, alongside Persia, Rome, and China.
The Aksumites erected a number of monumental stelae, which served a religious purpose in pre-Christian times. One of these granite columns is the largest such structure in the world, standing at 90 feet.
Under Ezana Aksum adopted Christianity. In the 7th century, early Muslims from Mecca sought refuge from Quraysh persecution by travelling to the kingdom, a journey known in Islamic history as the First Hijra.
Its ancient capital, also called Axum, was in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name Ethiopia as early as the 4th century. Tradition claims Axum as the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.
Aksum is mentioned in the 1st-century AD Periplus of the Erythraean Sea as an important market place for ivory, which was exported throughout the ancient world.
It states that the ruler of Aksum in the 1st century AD was Zoskales, who, besides ruling the kingdom, likewise controlled land near the Red Sea: Adulis near Massawa and lands through the highlands of present-day Eritrea. He is also said to have been familiar with Greek literature.
Largely on the basis of Carlo Conti Rossini's theories and prolific work on Ethiopian history, Aksum was previously thought to have been founded by Sabaeans, who spoke a language from the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family.
Evidence suggests that Semitic-speaking Aksumites and semiticized Agaw peoples, who originally spoke other Afro-Asiatic languages from the family's Cushitic branch, had already established an independent civilisation in the territory before the arrival of the Sabaeans.
Scholars like Stuart Munro-Hay thus point to the existence of an older D'mt or Da'amot kingdom, which flourished in the area between the 10th and 5th centuries BC, prior to the proposed Sabaean migration of the 4th or 5th century BC.
They also cite evidence indicating that the Sabaean settlers resided in the region for little more than a few decades.
Furthermore, Ge'ez, the ancient Semitic language of Eritrea and Ethiopia, is now known to have not derived from Sabaean, and there is evidence of an Ethiopian Semitic-speaking presence in Eritrea and Ethiopia at least as early as 2000 BC.
Sabaean influence is now thought to have been minor, limited to a few localities, and disappearing after a few decades or a century, perhaps representing a trading or military colony in some sort of symbiosis or military alliance with the civilization of D'mt or some proto-Aksumite state.
Kitchen et al. argue that the Ethiosemitic languages were brought to the Ethiopian and Eritrean plateau from the Arabian peninsula around 2850 years ago, an introduction that Ehret (1988) suggests was associated with the establishment of some of the first local complex societies.
Over 95% of Aksum remains unexplored beneath the modern city and its surrounding area.
The Kingdom of Aksum was a trading empire centered in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia. It existed from approximately 100–940 AD, growing from the proto-Aksumite Iron Age period c. 4th century BC to achieve prominence by the 1st century AD.
According to the Book of Aksum, Aksum's first capital, Mazaber, was built by Itiyopis, son of Cush. The capital was later moved to Aksum in northern Ethiopia. The Kingdom used the name Ethiopia as early as the 4th century.
The Empire of Aksum at its height at times extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia. Today a smaller community, the city of Aksum was once a bustling metropolis, cultural and economic center. Two hills and two streams lie on the east and west expanses of the city; perhaps providing the initial impetus for settling this area.
Along the hills and plain outside the city, the Aksumites had cemeteries with elaborate grave stones called stelae, or obelisks. Other important cities included Yeha, Hawulti-Melazo, Matara, Adulis, and Qohaito, the last three of which are now in Eritrea.
By the reign of Endubis in the late 3rd century, it had begun minting its own currency and was named by Mani as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China.
The Aksumite Kingdom adopted Christianity as its state religion in 325 or 328 under King Ezana, and was the first state ever to use the image of the cross on its coins.
Around 520, the King Kaleb sent an expedition to Yemen against the Jewish Himyarite King Dhu Nuwas, who was persecuting the Christian/Aksumite community in his kingdom. Dhu Nuwas was deposed and killed,Kaleb appointed a Christian Himyarite, Sumuafa Ashawa (Esimiphaios), as his viceroy.
However, around 525 this viceroy was deposed by the Aksumite general Abreha with support of Ethiopians who had settled in Yemen, and withheld tribute to Kaleb. When Kaleb sent another expedition against Abreha this force defected, killing their commander, and joining Abreha.
Another expedition sent against them was defeated, leaving Yemen under Abreha's rule, where he continued to promote the Christian faith until his death, not long after which Yemen was conquered by the Persians.
According to Munro-Hay these wars may have been Aksum's swan-song as a great power, with an overall weakening of Aksumite authority and over-expenditure in money and manpower. According to Ethiopian traditions, Kaleb eventually abdicated and retired to a monastery.
It is also possible that Ethiopia was affected by the Plague of Justinian around this time.
The Ezana Stone records negus Ezana's conversion to Christianity and his subjugation of various neighboring peoples, including Meroe.
Aksum remained a strong, though weakened, empire and trading power until the rise of Islam in the 7th century.
However, unlike the relations between the Islamic powers and Christian Europe, Aksum, which provided shelter to Muhammad's early followers around 615, was on good terms with its Islamic neighbors.
Nevertheless, as early as 640, Umar ibn al-Khattab sent a naval expedition against Adulis under Alkama bin Mujazziz, but it was eventually defeated. Aksumite naval power also declined throughout the period, though in 702 Aksumite pirates were able to invade the Hejaz and occupy Jeddah.
In retaliation, however, Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik was able to take the Dahlak Archipelago from Aksum, which became Muslim from that point on, though it later recovered in the 9th century and became a vassal to the Emperor of Ethiopia.
Eventually, the Islamic Empire took control of the Red Sea and most of the Nile, pushing Aksum into economic isolation. Northwest of Aksum, in modern-day Sudan, the Christian states of Makuria and Alodia lasted till the 13th century before becoming Islamic.
Aksum, isolated, nonetheless still remained Christian.
After a second golden age in the early 6th century, the empire began to decline, eventually ceasing its production of coins in the early 7th century. Around this same time, the Aksumite population was forced to go farther inland to the highlands for protection, abandoning Aksum as the capital.
Arab writers of the time continued to describe Ethiopia no longer referred to as Aksum as an extensive and powerful state, though they had lost control of most of the coast and their tributaries.
While land was lost in the north, it was gained in the south; and, though Ethiopia was no longer an economic power, it still attracted Arab merchants. The capital was moved to a new location, currently unknown, though it may have been called Ku'bar or Jarmi.
Local history holds that, around 960, a Jewish Queen named Yodit (Judith) or Gudit defeated the empire and burned its churches and literature. While there is evidence of churches being burned and an invasion around this time, her existence has been questioned by some modern authors.
Another possibility is that the Aksumite power was ended by a southern pagan queen named Bani al-Hamwiyah, possibly of the tribe al-Damutah or Damoti (Sidama). It is clear from contemporary sources that a female usurper did indeed rule the country at this time, and that her reign ended some time before 1003.
After a short Dark Age, the Aksumite Empire was succeeded by the Agaw Zagwe dynasty in the 11th or 12th century most likely around 1137, although limited in size and scope.
However, Yekuno Amlak, who killed the last Zagwe king and founded the modern Solomonic dynasty around 1270 traced his ancestry and his right to rule from the last emperor of Aksum, Dil Na'od.
It should be mentioned that the end of the Aksumite Empire didn't mean the end of Aksumite culture and traditions; for example, the architecture of the Zagwe dynasty at Lalibela and Yemrehana Krestos Church shows heavy Aksumite influence.
Other reasons for the decline are more scientific in nature. Climate change and trade isolation are probably also large reasons for the decline of the culture.
The local subsistence base was substantially augmented by a climatic shift during the 1st century AD that reinforced the spring rains, extended the rainy season from 3 1/2 to six or seven months.
Vastly improved the surface and subsurface water supply, doubled the length of the growing season, and created an environment comparable to that of modern central Ethiopia-where two crops can be grown per annum without the aid of irrigation.
This appears to explain how one of the marginal agricultural environments of Ethiopia was able to support the demographic base that made this far flung commercial empire possible.
It may also explain why no Aksumite rural settlement expansion into the moister, more fertile, and naturally productive lands of Begemder or Lasta can be verified during the heyday of Aksumite power.
As international profits from the exchange network declined, Aksum lost its ability to control its own raw material sources and that network collapsed. The already persistent environmental pressure of a large population to maintain a high level of regional food production had to be intensified.
The result was a wave of soil erosion that began on a local scale c. 650 and attained catastrophic proportions after 700. Presumably complex socio-economic inputs compounded the problem.
These are traditionally reflected in declining maintenance, deterioration and partial abandonment of marginal crop land, shifts to destructive pastoral exploitation, and eventual, wholesale and irreversible land degradation.
This syndrome was possibly accelerated by an apparent decline in rainfall reliability beginning 730-760, with the presumed result that an abbreviated modern growing season was reestablished during the 9th century.
Covering parts of what is now northern Ethiopia and southern and eastern Eritrea, Aksum was deeply involved in the trade network between India and the Mediterranean (Rome, later Byzantium), exporting ivory, tortoise shell, gold and emeralds, and importing silk and spices.
Aksum's access to both the Red Sea and the Upper Nile enabled its strong navy to profit in trade between various African Nubia, Arabian Yemen, and Indian states.
The main exports of Aksum were, as would be expected of a state during this time, agricultural products. The land was much more fertile during the time of the Aksumites than now, and their principal crops were grains such as wheat and barley.
The people of Aksum also raised cattle, sheep, and camels. Wild animals were also hunted for things such as ivory and rhinoceros horns. They traded with Roman traders as well as with Egyptian and Persian merchants. The empire was also rich with gold and iron deposits.
These metals were valuable to trade, but another mineral was also widely traded: salt. Salt was abundant in Aksum and was traded quite frequently.
It benefited from a major transformation of the maritime trading system that linked the Roman Empire and India. This change took place around the start of the 1st century. The older trading system involved coastal sailing and many intermediary ports.
The Red Sea was of secondary importance to the Persian Gulf and overland connections to the Levant. Starting around 100 BC a route from Egypt to India was established, making use of the Red Sea and using monsoon winds to cross the Arabian Sea directly to southern India.
By about 100 AD, the volume of traffic being shipped on this route had eclipsed older routes. Roman demand for goods from southern India increased dramatically, resulting in greater number of large ships sailing down the Red Sea from Roman Egypt to the Arabian Sea and India.
The Kingdom of Aksum was ideally located to take advantage of the new trading situation. Adulis soon became the main port for the export of African goods, such as ivory, incense, gold, slaves, and exotic animals.
In order to supply such goods the kings of Aksum worked to develop and expand an inland trading network. A rival, and much older trading network that tapped the same interior region of Africa was that of the Kingdom of Kush, which had long supplied Egypt with African goods via the Nile corridor.
By the 1st century AD, however, Aksum had gained control over territory previously Kushite. The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea explicitly describes how ivory collected in Kushite territory was being exported through the port of Adulis instead of being taken to Meroe, the capital of Kush.
During the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD the Kingdom of Aksum continued to expand their control of the southern Red Sea basin. A caravan route to Egypt was established which bypassed the Nile corridor entirely.
Aksum succeeded in becoming the principal supplier of African goods to the Roman Empire, not least as a result of the transformed Indian Ocean trading system.
The Aksumite population consisted of Semitic-speaking people collectively known as Habeshas,Cushitic-speaking people, and Nilo-Saharan-speaking people the Kunama and Nara.
The Aksumite kings had the official title King of Kings.
Aksumites did own slaves, and a modified feudal system was in place to farm the land.
The Empire of Aksum is notable for a number of achievements, such as its own alphabet, the Ge'ez script which was eventually modified to include vowels, becoming an abugida.
Furthermore, in the early times of the empire, around 1700 years ago, giant Obelisks to mark emperors' and nobles' tombs underground grave chambers were constructed, the most famous of which is the Obelisk of Aksum.
Under Emperor Ezana, Aksum adopted Christianity in place of its former polytheistic and Judaic religions around 325. This gave rise to the present day Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was only granted autonomy from the Coptic Church in 1953, and Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church granted autonomy from the Ethiopian Orthodox church in 1993.
Since the schism with orthodoxy following the Council of Chalcedon (451), it has been an important Miaphysite church, and its scriptures and liturgy continue to be in Ge'ez.
Before its conversion to Christianity, the Aksumites practiced a polytheistic religion related to the religion practiced in southern Arabia. This included the use of the crescent-and-disc symbol used in southern Arabia and the northern horn.
In the UNESCO sponsored General History of Africa French archaeologist Francis Anfray, suggests that the pagan Aksumites worshipped Astar, his son, Mahrem, and Beher.[
Steve Kaplan argues that with Aksumite culture came a major change in religion, with only Astar remaining of the old gods, the others being replaced by what he calls a triad of indigenous divinities, Mahrem, Beher and Medr.
He also suggests that Aksum culture was significantly influenced by Judaism, saying that The first carriers of Judaism reached Ethiopia between the rise of the Aksumite kingdom at the beginning of the Common Era and conversion to Christianity of King Ezana in the fourth century.
He believes that although Ethiopian tradition suggests that these were present in large numbers, that A relatively small number of texts and individuals dwelling in the cultural, economic, and political center could have had a considerable impact.
Their influence was diffused throughout Ethiopian culture in its formative period By the time Christianity took hold in the fourth century.
Many of the originally Hebraic-Jewish elements had been adopted by much of the indigenous population and were no longer viewed as foreign characteristics. Nor were they perceived as in conflict with the acceptance of Christianity.
Before converting to Christianity King Ezana II's coins and inscriptions show that he might have worshiped the gods Astar, Beher, Meder/Medr, and Mahrem. Another of Ezana's inscriptions is clearly Christian and refers to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Around 324 AD the King Ezana II was converted to Christianity by his teacher Frumentius, the founder of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Frumentius taught the emperor while he was young, and it is believed that at some point staged the conversion of the empire.
We know that the Aksumites converted to Christianity because in their coins they replaced the disc and crescent with the cross. Frumentius was in contact with the Church of Alexandria, and was appointed Bishop of Ethiopia around the year 330.
The Church of Alexandria never closely managed the affairs of the churches in Aksum, allowing them to develop their own unique form of Christianity.
However, the Church of Alexandria probably did retain some influence considering that the churches of Aksum followed the Church of Alexandria into Oriental Orthodoxy by rejecting the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.
Aksum is also the alleged home of the holy relic the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark is said to have been placed in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion by Menelik I for safekeeping.
Ethiopian sources such as the Kebra Nagast and the Fetha Nagast describe Aksum as a Jewish Kingdom. The Kebra Nagast contains a narrative of how the Queen of Sheba/Queen Makeda of Ethiopia met King Solomon and traces Ethiopia's to Menelik I, her son by King Solomon of Israel.
In its existing form the Kebra Nagast is at least 700 years old and is considered by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church to be a reliable and historic work.
The Empire of Aksum was one of the first African polities economically and politically ambitious enough to issue its own coins, which bore legends in Ge'ez and Greek. From the reign of Endubis up to Armah (approximately 270 to 610), gold, silver and bronze coins were minted.
Issuing coinage in ancient times was an act of great importance in itself, for it proclaimed that the Aksumite Empire considered itself equal to its neighbors.
Many of the coins are used as signposts about what was happening when they were minted. An example being the addition of the cross to the coin after the conversion of the empire to Christianity.
The presence of coins also simplified trade, and was at once a useful instrument of propaganda and a source of profit to the empire.
In general, elite Aksumite buildings such as palaces were constructed atop podia built of loose stones held together with mud-mortar, with carefully cut granite corner blocks which rebated back a few centimeters at regular intervals as the wall got higher, so the walls narrowed as they rose higher.
These podia are often all that survive of Aksumite ruins.
Above the podia, walls were generally build with alternating layers of loose stone often whitewashed, like at Yemrehana Krestos Church and horizontal wooden beams, with smaller round wooden beams set in the stonework often projecting out of the walls, these are called 'monkey heads' on the exterior and sometimes the interior.
Both the podia and the walls above exhibited no long straight stretches, but were indented at regular intervals so that any long walls consisted of a series of recesses and salients.
This helped to strengthen the walls. Worked granite was used for architectural features including columns, bases, capitals, doors, windows, paving, water spouts often shaped like lion heads and so on, as well as enormous flights of stairs that often flanked the walls of palace pavilions on several sides.
Doors and windows were usually framed by stone or wooden cross-members, linked at the corners by square monkey heads, though simple lintels were also used. Many of these Aksumite features are seen carved into the famous stelae as well as in the later rock hewn churches of Tigray and Lalibela.
Palaces usually consisted of a central pavilion surrounded by subsidiary structures pierced by doors and gates that provided some privacy.
The largest of these structures now known is the Ta'akha Maryam, which measured 120 × 80m, though as its pavilion was smaller than others discovered it is likely that others were even larger.
Some clay models of houses survive to give us an idea of what smaller dwellings were like.
One depicts a round hut with a conical roof thatched in layers, while another depicts a rectangular house with rectangular doors and windows, a roof supported by beams that end in monkey heads, and a parapet and water spout on the roof.
Both were found in Hawelti. Another depicts a square house with what appear to be layers of pitched thatch forming the roof.
The stelae or hawilt/hawilti in local languages are perhaps the most identifiable part of the Aksumite architectural legacy. These stone towers served to mark graves and represent a magnificent multi-storied palace. They are decorated with false doors and windows in typical Aksumite design.
The largest of these towering obelisks would measure 33 meters high had it not fallen. The Stelae have most of their mass out of the ground, but are stabilized by massive underground counter-weights. The stone was often engraved with a pattern or emblem denoting the king's or the noble's rank.
Given the often trying conditions of Ethiopian roads, flying into Axum is a much more reasonable option. There are daily flights from Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela to Axum Airport, 7 km to the east of town.
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.
Note that it is likely that you will be security checked 3 times before getting onto your flight out of Yohannes IV/Axum Airport - as there is a security check on the road to the airport, a security check as you enter the airport and a security check after check-in.
Buses from Addis Ababa take a minimum of three days to travel via Dessie and Mekele. It is a very taxing ride over rough roads. Via Gondar and Shire.
The section of the bus ride from Debarik/Debark to Inda Aba Guna 70 km before Shire/Inda Silasie, is just as gruelling but spectacular but then it is technically possible to complete the 90 minute journey from Inda Silasie to Axum on tarmac by minibus the same day.
From Gondar, take the dawn bus to Inda Silasie and change there for Axum – you can usually get through in a day. To travel to Gondar, you must take an afternoon bus to Inda Silasie spend the night there, and catch the dawn bus to Gondar.
The road between Shire and Gondar is one of the most spectacular in Africa, but currently, North of Debarik until Mai Tsebri, also one of the roughest as the road is being re-made, a process likely to take about 2 years.
From Debarik 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 Debarik.
You can either take your chances it isn't always full, or hire someone from Debarik for about 150 birr to go into Gondar the day before and ride the Shire bus to Debarik for you, guaranteeing you a seat.
Please 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 Inda Silasie and Axum. To travel to Debarik, go to Inda Silasie in the afternoon, spend the night there, catch the Gondar bus the next morning, and get off at Debarik. You will probably have to pay the full fare to Gondar,about 50 birr.
It is theoretically possible to get to Axum from Addis Ababa in one long day and vice-versa, though two days is more likely.
Drivers can be arranged through hotels or touts and, while not certainly the cheapest option,especially if you are able to take advantage of the Ethiopian Airlines discounts, can be faster and/or more comfortable than other means of public transportation.
Bajaj, blue, three wheeler motorised rickshaws with 250cc two stroke engines imported from India charge tourists about 20 birr for short trips around town.
For the Lioness of Gobodra and the Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field, instead of hiring one of the ultra-expensive tourist minibuses, you can catch a minibus going in the direction of Shire,there are many early in the morning and ask them to drop you at the Lioness of Gobodra 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.
A 100 birr ticket from the tourist commission, located off the roundabout 400 m south of the Northern Stelae Field, is valid for three days and covers admission to all sights that require it, except Tsion Maryam the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Zion complex which costs 200 birr for the whole ecclesiastical compound.
Tsion Maryam. Ethiopian legend has it that this complex is the repository of the Ark of the Covenant, 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.
The chapel in which the Ark is kept is not accessible to anyone, even the Ethiopian emperors. The high entrance fee to the church compound 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. Pilgrims flock to the church for a festival on Hidar 21 (November 30).
Northern Stelae Field contains numerous stelae, including the fallen Giant Stele and the standing Ezana Stele and Obelisk of Axum, tombs and a very worthwhile museum.
The monolithic stelae are fashioned out of solid granite. Their mystery lies in that it is not known exactly by whom and for what purpose they were fashioned, although they were likely associated with burials of great emperors.
The Ezana Stele, which measures 24 metres (78 feet) high, is standing at a slight lean in the centre of the field and currently supported as a precaution against toppling.
Another stele, the Obelisk of Axum, 24.8 metres (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 was returned to Axum and re-erected between the Ezana Stele and the Giant Stele in 2008.
The Great Stele, the biggest monolith in the world, measuring over thirty-three metres (108 feet) in length and weighing over 500 tonnes, fell somewhere around the 4th century AD and now lies in broken fragments on the ground.
The mausoleum and the tomb of the brick walls are now open to the public again. The Tomb of the False Door is very impressive with its accurate workmanship.
Ezana's tri-lingual tablet. A well preserved, 2 m tall, thin tablet in Greek, Ge'ez and Latin discovered in the 1980s by a farmer, and praising God for his assistance in the conquest of land in what is now the Yemen.
Since it issues a death curse to anyone who dares move it, it is in a rectangular building with a galvanized, corrugated roof that looks like a small farm building at the left hand side of the rough road from the northern stelae field as the tombs of kings Kaleb and Gebre Mes'kel hove into view.
This small building is kept padlocked but the key holder will magically appear unless at lunchtime between 12:00 and 14:30 if you're patient.
Tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Mes'kel. A 20 min walk along the rough road heading northeast from the northern stelae field. Impressive foundations and tombs.
Take a torch. From here a signposted and very pleasant uphill rural stroll through giant lobelia shaded lanes will bring you to the Monastery of Abba Pantaleon.
Monastery of Abba Pantaleon or Abba Penalewan. Perched at the top of the 40 m rock thumb of Debre Katin, this sixth century monastery offers a stunning panorama out to the convoluted and whimsical shapes of the Adwa mountains, but women may not enter this beautifully simple structure.
The priest will usually bring out some vellum manuscripts, brass crosses and crowns and other relics from their treasury.
Dungur Palace the Palace of the Queen of Sheba just out of town to the west, on the main road to Shire.
The grand entrance steps and the foundations topped with well dressed ruined walls up to 3 m high in places of this palace near the Judith stelae field clearly indicate that this was the largest and most impressive palace in Axum.
Although everyone calls it the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, it actually dates from the 7th Century AD, about 1,500 years after the time of the Queen of Sheba.
4 Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field,just out of town to the west, on the main road to Shire. Of inferior quality in comparison to the Northern Stelae Field. On the other side of the road from the Dungur Palace.
Ezana park contains a series of al fresco billiard tables and, in a circular building that looks padlocked but maybe isn't, a tablet from the time of King Ezana inscribed in Ge'ez, Greek and Sabaean.
Lioness of Gobodra. A stone carving of a lion, a few km out of town in the direction of Shire. It is close to the quarry where the stelae were made. Ask a local boy to show you where.
There is an ATM that accepts Visa cards at Wegagen Bank.
Wine And Dine
AB Restaurant. 06:00 until 22:00. Close to Ethiopian Airlines office. Serves traditional dishes, with dancing on Saturday nights.
Africa Hotel has a large, clean restaurant where a steak club sandwich with lettuce and tomato together with chips cost 30 birr in June 2013. Traditional and other international dishes are also served and their bar has a large screen LCD TV if you want to watch some soccer or the manic, shoulder-shaking style of the local dances.
Pizza Restaurant, turn north one block east of the Africa Hotel into the street that leads to the Remhai Hotel and this small place is on the right of the street. A large pizza, but not as in Italy, Croatia, Canada or Singapore, cost 60 birr.
Underground near the Ambassador Hotel on the west side of town. Large selection of imported spirits.
Zebra also near the Ambassador Hotel, stays open until about 03:00. Reasonable prices for drinks with a Dashen or St George beer costing 20 birr and popular with the ladies. DJ and dancing every night.
Africa Hotel,on main highway from Shire to Axum Airport right in the middle of town. One of the more popular hotels in town for travellers with a bearable, although not really desirable, restaurant with excellent salads, a small bar and a friendly helpful owner/manager.
Rooms are triples, doubles or singles with individual bathrooms all allegedly with hot showers and DSTV. Nice, secure courtyard with fruit trees. MasterCard and Visa accepted; free Wi-Fi and airport shuttle - just. From 175 birr for a single room.
Brana Hotel, on main highway from Shire to Axum Airport, eastern fringe. This is one of the three most luxurious and modern hotels in town and everything works, unusual for Ethiopia.
Rooms are large and both luxuriously and comprehensively furnished with rooms on the first floor above the ground having a balcony with a good view of the surrounding mountains. Restaurant with excellent salads, a large bar, and a friendly and helpful manager.
Rooms are triples, doubles, twins or singles with large en suite bathrooms, all with hot showers and 20 of the 28 rooms have hip baths. 13 channels of satellite TV including BBC World, Al Jazeera and 4 movie channels. Secure courtyard with car-parking for 12 vehicles.
Conference room caters for parties of up to 300 with overhead projector and whiteboard, etc. Standby 26 kW generator. MasterCard and Visa accepted; free Wi-Fi and airport shuttle . From 900 birr for a single room.
Sabean International Hotel
Kaleb Hotel, from 120 birr for a single. The rooms are fine but the place is fairly noisy as there are discotheques nearby. The food is not worth mentioning.
Yeha Hotel, government owned hotel overlooking the Northern Stele field from US$55. Good restaurant with mediocre service. Excellent view from terrace.