Axum's ancient treasure

Guarding an explosive artifact, an Ethiopian city claims its place in the pantheon of ancient empires.

axum church art 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
axum church art 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Nestled in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, ignored by most historians and unknown to most tourists to Africa, is the site of one of the ancient world's most powerful empires. The monuments to its former glory stand tall - 20 meters high, to be precise, in the form of dozens of stone obelisks - but the city that is their home is determinedly inauspicious, as authentically Ethiopian and undeveloped as any of Ethiopia's modest cities. Situated in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, Axum is Ethiopia's oldest city and the holiest in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the country's dominant religion. It is the cultural repository of Ethiopian history and the cradle of Ethiopian civilization, and even today Axum stands as a symbol of everything that is Ethiopian: charmingly beautiful, stubbornly rural, burdened with history, filled with farm animals and preserved much as it looked a thousand years ago. The only difference is that the mud-and-tin shacks around town now sell batteries and cold Cokes, and Ethiopian Airlines runs several flights here every week. Though Axum is one of Ethiopia's hottest tourist spots, it's hardly overrun by tourists. There are no fancy hotels in Axum - at least not by Western standards - and only one paved road runs through the city, which retains the feel of a sleepy rural town. Trucks and mopeds share the road with donkey-drawn carts and herds of goats, and the city is as dusty as any Ethiopian village. But there is a tranquility about Axum that settles the spirit and opens the soul, and it's a wonderful place to encounter Ethiopia. Among Axum's treasures, aside from dozens of obelisks - some of which have been felled by war and weather - are extensive underground tombs with multiple rooms, ruined palaces, an ancient queen's pool carved into a hill (which is used by Axumites as a source of dirty drinking water), 2,000-year-old stone tablets and churches both ancient and new. Axum also purportedly houses a historical artifact of great interest to Jews: the Ark of the Covenant. As nearly every schoolchild in Ethiopia is taught, the Ethiopian people are the descendents of Menelik, the product of a night of romance between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Though the Tanach notes the Queen of Sheba's visit to Jerusalem, no mention is made either of a sexual encounter between the two or of a child, whom Ethiopians say was born unbeknownst to Solomon only once the queen had returned to Ethiopia. Years later, according to the legend, the young Menelik went to Jerusalem to meet his father, and when he returned home he took with him the Ark of the Covenant, leaving a counterfeit in its place. Today the church that is said to house the ark is closed to tourists, who can see the famous building only from the other side of a simple gated fence. A single designated priest, who lives in the building that houses the ark, is the only person allowed to see the ark, and nobody is allowed to see him, my guides informed me solemnly. So when I spotted a man coming out of the famous church and pointed him out to my vigilant guides - "Who's that, then?" I demanded - their faces turned ashen and they anxiously warned me not to photograph the priest. They said such a sighting was exceedingly rare (my skepticism was not deterred.) Visitors are allowed into most of Axum's churches, some of which date back to the 4th century and are filled with stunning paintings depicting Christian scenes or images of Menelik leaving Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant. The churches also contain startlingly beautiful crowns from various rulers of the Axumite kingdom and religious books more than a thousand years old. The books are filled with colorful illustrations and are written in Ge'ez, the Ethiopian Semitic language used by both Jewish and Christian clergy. Outside the church, mendicants, cripples and Ethiopians both young and old pray, swaying back and forth against the church's cold stone walls much like Jews pray at the Western Wall. The first excavations of Axum were conducted exactly a century ago, by a German expedition funded by the German kaiser. But from 1906 until 1992, shortly after Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was deposed, very little excavating was done at Axum. Recently, however, archeologists have begun to return to Axum to explore its rich archeological history. Now, I'm told, new discoveries are made each month. Just a few months ago, Italy returned to Ethiopia one of Axum's most magnificent and intricately carved obelisks, which the Italian fascists had stolen during their brief occupation of the country in the late 1930s. Still, only a tiny fraction of Axum's known sites have been excavated, according to the Bradt Travel Guide to Ethiopia, one of the only current guidebooks to Ethiopia on the market. And if current archeological digs under way in Axum are any indication, historians have yet to uncover the bulk of what remains buried of the ancient Axumite empire. Though a city of great historical significance, Axum is still a small town, and even its fanciest hotel falls short of typical Western standards. In the budget hotels, running water may be restricted to certain hours of the morning and evening - common practice outside the metropolis of Addis Ababa - and Axum's nightlife is modest, to say the least. But what Axum lacks in tourist kitsch it more than makes up for in authenticity. The souvenir shops scattered around the city don't have much by way of postcards, but there are plenty of beautifully carved African masks, Ethiopian artwork, old prayer books, crosses, amulets and even Stars of David. Intrepid visitors would be wise to leave the relative comforts of their hotel to pay an evening visit to one of the local bars along the main drag, where the silence of the night is shattered by lively Ethiopian music and dancing. In most Ethiopian venues like these, men dance with men and women dance with women. So quaff a beer, accede to the solicitation of an Ethiopian to dance and shake your shoulders. And don't forget to bring your camera. I was pleasantly surprised by the notable absence of bands of aggressive beggars in Axum - which is commonplace in other Ethiopian towns - but in Axum you may face a far more formidable tourist trap: less-than-forthright tour guides who will charge you exorbitant prices for unnecessary services. My friend and I encountered a group of guides who waited for us outside our hotel to offer us a 600-birr (300 shekels) full-day tour of the city. Aside from the fact that for many Ethiopians that's more than a year's salary and it didn't include a host of hidden fees, vehicular guiding services are largely unnecessary in Axum: Almost all of the city's historical sites can be reached on foot, and many have their own guides that come with the required fee. It's also a lot more interesting to meander past the fruit stands, antique stores and stone-and-mud homes that fill Axum than drive over its bumpy dirt roads in a poorly outfitted minivan. Though the amounts you'll pay at Axum's tourist sites are piddling by Western standards, they are quite substantial by Ethiopian standards, and budget travelers may find themselves reticent to spend 60 birr - about 30 shekels - to see the inside of a church when a hotel room in the city costs 35 birr. Nevertheless, you'll probably only be here once, so you may as well spend the money and support the local economy - it can use a little help. Traveling to Axum: Ethiopian Airlines ( runs several flights a week to Axum from Addis Ababa, but be sure to book your flight far in advance: Because seats are all priced the same, flights fill up weeks in advance. The trip takes roughly an hour and a half from the capital and costs about $160 each way. Because one-way flights are no more expensive than two legs of a round trip, it makes sense to combine a visit to Axum with some other places in northern Ethiopia, such as Lalibela, Gondar or Bahar Dar. There are also plenty of abandoned Jewish villages and populated Jewish cemeteries in the 100 km. or so around Axum; the province had a significant Jewish population until almost all of its Jews left for Israel by way of Sudan in the early 1980s. Round-trip flights to Addis Ababa from Tel Aviv are $633 per person on Ethiopian Airlines, the only airline that flies directly to Ethiopia from Israel. Though flights may not always take off on time, Ethiopian Airlines' fleet of planes is considered reliable by Western standards. This is one of the poorest countries on earth, so the hotels in Axum range from $37 per night (the Yeha Hotel, part of the government-run Ghion chain) to more than half a dozen places in the $10 price range, to budget hotels that cost $2 to $5 per night. Though even the Yeha falls short of Western standards, it is clean, and so are some of the hotels in the $8 to $10 price range.