Intriguing city in Ethiopia that is home to mysterious obelisks and the Ark of the Covenant

Axum in Ethiopia is one of the most mysterious places in the world. Who where the Axumites, who built the remarkable obelisks, some of which are over 20 metres high? Another interesting thing are strange connections to the ancient Egyptians, as well as the Incas.

In 1980, UNESCO declared the town of Axum to be on the World Heritage list. And Axum is still famous for its intriguing obelisks, which are believed to date back to the 4th century BC. Axum also has several churches with very old Bibles that you can visit.

Northern Stelae Field

The Northern Stelae Field in Axum. ©Corno van den Berg

The Northern Stelae Field is the most impressive attraction of Axum. You'll see many obelisks. It’s likely they were memorials for important kings in the Axum kingdom. This kingdom’s glory years were between the 1st century BC to the 9th century AC. The largest obelisks that’s still upright is 24,6 metres high.

But right behind that is one that used to be 33 metres high, but it fell and broke into many pieces. Some of the obelisks have a sacrificial alter at their foot. Some of these huge obelisks will make you feel very small. Make sure you visit the part to the right in the Northern Stelae Field, it’s a little bit tucked away.

Queen Sheba’s bath

Legend goes that the pool near the Northern Stelae Field was once upon a time where Sheba did her bathing. These days it’s quite an unremarkable pond, where locals come to get water. It was filled with cement in the sixties, which has ruined its charm, as well as any evidence of its supposed interesting past.

Stray animals used to come here to drink, but they are no longer permitted to do so. Swimming is also not allowed. You might not even notice it, so if you can’t find it, ask around.

Tomb of the False Door

One of the obelisks is known as the Tomb of the False Door. It has one, just like many of the fallen-down obelisks of Axum, and it’s carved out of granite. This one is still upright, however. The tomb was uncovered by British archaeologist Neville Chittick in 1974. You can find this tomb to the left of the large collection of obelisks in Axum. They discovered a door to a room for treasure here, but tomb raiders had already emptied it out.

You can still visit the underground chambers. You’ll see a stone tomb, likely to have houses the king’s body. Next to it is a large chamber for treasures, which is now mostly empty. Notice the large metal pins meant to keep the huge rocks together. Take a flashlight to have a good look around.

Ttombs of father and son Kaleb and Gebre Meskel

The tombs of father and son Kaleb and Gebre Meskel in Axum. ©Corno van den Berg

The tombs of father and son Kaleb and Gebre Meskel are about 1,8 kilometres north-east of Axum. They probably date back to the 6th century. When you visit the site, you’ll notice how precisely the buildings have been carved out of the hill. Giant ivory tusks were found in these tombs, which are now housed in the archaeological museum.

This site also has many legends. One of those says the tunnels lead all the way to Eritrea, and even on to Arabia. Recently, they did indeed find tunnels that head north, south, east and west, but it is still unknown where they lead to. More research is required.

Roman Obelisk

When you visit the obelisks in Axum, you’ll soon hear about the ‘Roman’ obelisk. This obelisk was ordered to be transported to Rome by the dictator Mussolini,back in 1937. It was located on the Piazza di Porta Capena for decades. Italy ruled over Ethiopia during this time, with an iron fist.

Ethiopia asked the Italian government to return the obelisks, and this was done in 2005. It’s interesting that such a claim also keeps popping up when it comes to the Ark of the Covenant, as Israel believes it belongs to them.

Archaeological Museum

There is a small, but interesting museum behind the field of obelisks. It’s full of treasure that has been discovered in the area. For example, there are golden coins and many artefacts such as pots, sculptures and carved ivory.

The most interesting item here is a stone mask, discovered in 1996. It’s believed to have been on top of an obelisk. Like with many things in Axum, nothing is entirely certain and archaeologists can only come up with theories. But that makes Axum intriguing.

Rosetta Stone of Axum

Het famous Rosetta Stone of Axum. ©Corno van den Berg

It looks a lot like a small shed alongside the road. An old lock and a guard are there to keep its contents safe. In truth, it’s not likely that someone will be able to just pick up and take this large, remarkable rock, named the Ezana Stone. Three farmers discovered the stone back in 1981 while ploughing a field. The stone has inscriptions in three languages.

So it’s often referred to as Axum’s Rosetta Stone, in comparison with the actual Rosetta Stone found in Egypt. The Ezana Stone is believed to date back to 320 to 350 AC. Archaeologists were able to compare and translate the three languages on the stone: ancient Greek, Ge’ez and Sabaean. The text tells of King Ezana’s conversion to Christianity and his attempts to convert Ethiopia and parts of Arabia. It also describes how the Golden Ark came to Axum.

Gudit Stelae Field

An amazing old firing pin in Gudit Stelae Field. ©Corno van den Berg

South of Axum, you’ll find the Gudit Stelae Field, across from the supposed Palace of Sheba. Here, there are several obelisks in a wheat field, some are small and some are large, some have carvings on all four sides, some have none.

Some are no longer standing and have broken in pieces. If you look closely you’ll see that each of them is cut out of one single piece of granite. According to local legend the largest belongs to the tomb of the Queen of Sheba.

The city of Axum

One of the ancient Bibles in Axum. ©Corno van den Berg

The heart of Axum is practically made up of the old and the new churches of St Mary of Zion, with the church with the Golden Ark in between. The new church was built in the sixties by the former king, Haile Selassie. It’s not a very interesting place to visit, but the old church is. There is a throne in front of this church on which all kings to this date have been crowned.

This area is great for meandering around between the many buildings, including an old outdoor court of justice. Near the church with the supposed Golden Ark is a small museum, which can be called a miracle in itself, and holds crowns and robes that belonged to former kings. It’s a great way to end a visit to potentially one of the most mysterious cities in the world.

One of the fake doors in Axum. ©Corno van den Berg

Best time

The dry season on Ethiopia lasts from October to May, but you can really visit this part of the country at any time. It can be extremely busy here during festivals, and accommodation is likely to be booked out, so do make sure you have a booking.

Some churches, including the one that supposedly houses the Golden Ark, are not accessible to women. They are not even allowed near it.

Visting Axum

Axum is on the itinerary of most organised tours in the north of Ethiopia. It’s about 220 kilometres from Gondar (which is to the west), and it’s about 187 kilometres north of the famous town of Lalibela.

Axum has its own airport, 7 kilometres out of town. You can take a taxi to or from the airport, and several hotels have airport transfer services. There are connecting flights from Addis Ababa, amongst other places.

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