Although its very early history is still unknown, Ethiopian legends first recorded in the fourteenth-century Kebre Nagast (Book of Kings) make Axum the capital of the Queen of Sheba in the tenth century BC,
Rising to importance around the time of the of Christ, Axum was the capital far-reaching Axumite kingdom, dominated the vital crossroads of Africa and Asia for almost a thousand years.
Its principal ecclesiastical building, the church of St Mary of Zion , is where, according to Ethiopian legend, the Ark of covenant resides. The Axumites introduced a universal written language, and created a new imperial power in this part of Africa . They also gaveEthiopia its first organized religion — Christianity — in the 4th: century AD.
The spectacular rise of Islam in the seventh century was the main cause of the Kingdoms’ decline. After the decline of the Axumite realm the city remained Ethiopia ’s religious capital, as well as the place where several medieval emperors made their way to celebrate their coronation rites. The town abounds in archaeological remains, including the graves of kings, the foundations of a palace, inscribed tablets, and great carved obelisks.
Just north of the town square stand a number of famous obelisks, or monolithic stelae, with which Axum is widely identified. In ancient times there were seven of these monoliths of granite standing together, but the biggest, which was the largest monolith in the world —measuring over thirty-three meters (108 feet) and weighing about 500 tones — fell at some remote period in the past, and now lies in broken segments on the ground to the right of the standing stelae The second largest stela, about twenty-four meters (79 feet) high, had also fallen and was stolen during the Italian Fascist occupation on the personal orders of the dictator Mussolini. The third largest stela, which is slightly smaller, measuring twenty three meters (75 feet) still stands in Axum .
All seven giant stelae are made of single granite and have identical decoration. Each was erected in the centre of a step platform of stone on a terrace of polished limestone. At the base of each standing stela is a stone altar containing several bowl-shaped cavities, which it is thought served as receptacles for sacrificial offerings to the dead. Each stela resembles ~ tall, slender, multi-storeyed house in the architectural style of the Axumite houses and palaces, which had walls displaying an alternate recession and projection and were made of alternating horizontal layers of Stone and timber, with projecting ends of timber-beams, technically called ‘monkey heads’, and a flat roof surrounded by a parapet.
The stelae are even decorated with representations of doors, windows, and, in some cases, door handles. Riveted to the top at the front and back were inscribed metal ornaments in the form of the pagan crescent and disc, symbols of the moon, with an arc at the top of the stela representing the cosmic universe.
In addition to these obelisks there are a number of others of various degrees of excellence, including many roughly hewn, undecorated, slabs of stone. To the left of the principal obelisks, in the Park of the Stelae, one can enter the newly excavated tomb of Ramha, former king of Axum .
Also of great interest is Axum’s Church of Saint Mary of Zion . There are in fact two such churches, one old and one new, both located in a spacious walled compound directly opposite the Park of the Stelae. The older, a rectangular battlemented building, was put up in the early seventeenth century by Emperor Fasilidas, the much more modern structure was erected nearby by Emperor Haile Selassie, who opened it in company of Queen Elizabeth II of at Britain in 1965. The older structure, far the more interesting of the two, is guardian of many crowns of former Ethiopian rulers and other valuables, which have been put in a small museum-building in the compound. Unfortunately, the latter two are closed to women, who are, however, allowed to inspect some of these treasures, which are carried to the edge of the restricted areas this purpose.
The church courtyard also contains many antiquities. These include sculpted stones, which formed part of the old demolished church. Visitors may also see the stone thrones on which the monarchs of past were crowned.
Nearby is a small national museum, open to visitors on payment of an entry fee which houses a remarkable collection antiquity. There are several stones bearing Sabaean and Ge’ez inscriptions, as well as many other artifacts, including figurines that reveal the hair style cur-in ancient Axum .
From the museum it is a walk of less than half a minute to the ruins of the original Church ofSaint Mary of Zion which, according to tradition, was erected after the advent of Christianity as the religion in the early fourth century.
Also of immense historical importance Axum is a trilingual inscription erected by the early fourth-century King Ezana to record his victories. It is written in three scripts, Sabaean, Ge’ez, and Greek. Of archaeological importance interest near the park is a tomb believed to be of that of King Bazen, who is said to have reigned at Axum at the lime of the birth of Christ.
Perhaps the greatest mystery about this strange and ancient city is the claim that it is the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant — a claim connected in Ethiopian tradition to legends of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, whose son Menelik is said to have brought the Ark to Axum some 3,000 years ago and founded the Solomonic dynasty.
There are a number of sites associated by local folk with the Queen of Sheba herself. Amongst these the most notable is a huge water reservoir, hewn out of solid rock, known as the Queen of Sheba’s Bath, which forms the focal point of the annual ceremony of Timkat (Epiphany) in which, each January, a replica of the Ark is carried out in procession.
Equally impressive are the ruins of the so-called Queen of Sheba’s Palace or Taakha Maryam, which stands on the outskirts of town on the Gondar road. Of particular interest here are a still-intact flagstone floor, thought to have been a throne room, and a number of stairwells, which hint at the existence of at least one upper storey there are also private bathing areas of sophisticated design and a well-preserved kitchen dominated by two brick ovens.
Across the road, in a field facing the palace, visitors may also inspect a number of rough-hewn granite stelae, some standing more than four metres (13 feet) high, some fallen and broken. Most are undecorated but one, the largest, is carved with four horizontal bands, each topped by a row of circles in relief. This crude obelisk, much older than those in the Park of the Stelae, is thought by the townspeople to mark the grave of the Queen of Sheba. No excavation work has been carried out beneath it.
Another monument of great importance, about three kilometres (two miles) away overlooking the dramatic Adwa Mountains — near which Emperor Menelik defeated the Italians in 1896—is square in plan and measures about sixty metres (197 feet) on each side. The walls, which have long since crumbled, show signs of having originally been projected at the corners to form four towers.
Beneath the fortress stairways lead down into underground galleries and chambers which are roofed and walled with massive dressed granite blocks that fit against one another without any mortar in the joints.
The Lioness of Gobedra, a drawing of a lioness cut in relief on a large piece of stone is also another interesting site for tourist visiting this area.