Axum is a city with a rich history and a history of riches.
Formed by a mainly Arabic community from the 10th to the 1st
centuries BC, the Axumite Empire was controlling trade routes
from Africa to Asia for nearly 1000 years and minting coins
at a time when barely any other country was affluent or sophisticated
enough to afford or require such business innovation. The
history of Axum survives in stone inscriptions in the local
Ge'ez language and ancient Greek. Greek geographers described
Axum and its trade in ivory and slaves. The architecture of
this period permeates all Ethiopia's historic cities, such
as Harar and Lalibela.
It was in Axum that King Ezna declared in the early 4th century
that Christianity would be the official state religion. At
that time he was head of the Zagwa Empire that controlled
trade routes through the Port of Adulis, which is 40
miles south of Massawa in Eritrea. However, the true symbolic
transfer of religious power preceded this political declaration
by 1300 years, according to legend.
The Ark of the Covenant
The transfer of the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to
Axum is recounted in a medieval epic written in Ge'ez, "The
Glory of Kings". The Queen of Shebaheard heard
of King Solomon's wisdom and travelled to Jerusalem
to learn about his system of governance. Impressed by her
intelligence and beauty, Solomon proceeded to beget a son
by her even though they were unmarried; he said that he did
it "to fill the earth with sons to serve the God of Israel".
Their son Menelik visits Solomon in Jerusalem as a young man,
and is then appointed King of Ethiopia by his father. Solomon
then instructs the elders of Israel to send their sons to
serve as Menelik's counsellors in Ethiopia (the origins of
the Falasha, Ethiopian Jews). The young Israelites are so
distressed to leave their holy homeland that they carry with
them the Ark of the Covenant.
The likelihood of the ark residing in Ethiopia is a contentious
subject. The ancient Armenian Abu Salih of Cairo wrote
in Arabic that the Ethiopians possessed the Ark of the Covenant
but he describes it as decorated with crosses, not a Jewish
symbol. It's possible that the wood would not have survived
in the humid Ethiopian climate, but the stone tablets could
have remained intact. The modern priests describe the Ark
as a "sellat" which translates as tablet, rather
than the word "tabot", which could mean ark or tablet.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that many people
use the word "tabot" to describe the Ark in Axum,
the Ark in the old testament and every altar tablet in every
Ethiopian church. Ancient tablets have survived in Mecca for
over 16 centuries; there's no reason why the tablets could
not be in Axum. The confusion ensues because the Ethiopian
clergy believe that there could be more than one true Ark
or Tablet, a theory which Hebrew and Greek versions of the
bible can support. Each Ethiopian church altar, where the
liturgy is read, is believed to be a replica of the Ark of
the Covenant or the actual ancient Ark itself. In either case,
it serves as a source of mystical inspiration, especially
during the celebrations of Timkat (the Baptism of Christ)
and Hedlar Seyon (the arrival of the Ark- November).
Sites of Interest
The Ark is guarded by a select group of celibate Monks in
the St. Mary of Zion Church, in the Chapel of the
Tablet. Only one monk is allowed to view the ark (anyone
else would burst into flames, according to legend) and he
appoints a successor shortly before he dies. His duties include
burning incense and reciting the book of Psalms to the Ark.
There are two St. Mary of Zion churches in Axum: one, a square
shaped former military centre built by King Fasilidas in the
early seventeenth century houses a museum of crowns and jewels
of former kings. The compound is forbidden to women, but the
priests do carry the precious objects out of the forbidden
area for viewing. The ruins of the original St. Mary of Zion
lie close to the National Museum. It was built in the
early fourth century, soon after the introduction of Christianity
to Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain
built the most modern St. Mary of Zion in 1965.
The National Museum has examples of stones with Ge'ez
and Sabean inscriptions and there is also a stone stele from
the early 4th century dedicated to King Ezna which is near
the Pentaleon Monastery (which looks out over Axum
to the distant mountains of Eritrea). The stele is uniquely
inscribed with Ge'ez, Sabean, and Greek, exemplifying the
ancient Ethiopian's erudition and expansive trade.
When to Visit
Axum town is surrounded by dry hills with drab houses roofed
with corrugated iron contrasting against the ruins of ancient
monument - temples, fortresses, palaces, and churches. The
best time to visit this small town is during the Timkat
Festival - the Ethiopian Christmas (7th January), or the
end of November during the Festival of Maryam Zion.
If you happen to be in the town after a heavy rain, look under
your feet; the rich civilization of the Axumite Empire resurfaces
and buried hordes of gold, silver, and bronze coins are exposed
through the shallow soil.