The early history of Axum or Aksum, like most Ethiopian history, is shrouded in such a fog of legend that the truth remains largely unknown. While debate continues between historians and the majority of Ethiopians about whether or not Axum really was the Queen of Sheba’s capital in the 10th century BC, what’s certain is that a high civilization started to rise here as early as 400 BC. By the 1st century AD, Greek merchants knew Axum as a great city and the powerful capital of an extensive empire. For close to 1000 years, Axum dominated the vital sea-borne trade between Africa and Asia and the kingdom was numbered among the ancient world’s greatest states. But then, quite suddenly, the power of Axum collapsed and the city turned into a forgotten backwater.
The initial response upon arriving at Axum is how small and inauspicious the town appears to be given its history. Axum may lack the immediate impact of Lalibela or Gondar, but this most ancient of Ethiopian capitals, the holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, does boast a wealth of quite startling antiquities: the extensive stelae field, subterranean catacombs, mysterious ruined palaces, multi-lingual tablets dating from the time of Christ – and much more besides.
For as long as 5000 years, monoliths have been used in northeast Africa as tombstones and monuments to local rulers. In Axum, this tradition reached its peak. Like Egypt’s pyramids, Axum’s stelae were like great billboards announcing to the world the authority, power and greatness of the ruling families.
Axum’s astonishing stelae are striking for their huge size, their incredible state of preservation, and their curiously modern look. Sculpted from single pieces of granite, the later ones come complete with little windows, doors and even door handles and locks that make them look remarkably like tower blocks. Despite the stone being famously hard, Axum’s masons worked it superbly, often following an architectural design that mirrored the traditional style seen in Axumite houses and palaces. Metal plates, perhaps in the form of a crescent moon and disc, are thought to have been riveted to the top of the stelae both at the front and back. Ethiopian traditions have it that the Ark of the Covenant’s celestial powers were harnessed to transport the mighty monoliths 4km from the quarries, and raise them; the largest weighed no less than 520 tons! Archaeologists are more confident in the earthly forces of elephants, rollers and winches
Ark of the Covenant
Few other objects in history match the enduring legend of the Ark of the Covenant. But what is this Ark and is it really sitting inside a small Axum chapel? The Old Testament says that the Ark was constructed on Mt Sinai by Moses, and that it houses the two stone tablets on which are inscribed the Ten Commandments. In Old Testament days the Ark was housed in King Solomon’s Great Temple in Jerusalem and was used by the Israelites as an oracle. It was also carried into battle. After the sacking of the Great Temple in 587 BC, the Bible falls silent as to the Ark’s whereabouts – some say it was buried in a secret chamber under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and others say it was destroyed. But according to Ethiopian tradition, the Ark of the Covenant was carried off from Jerusalem and brought to Ethiopia in the 1st millennium BC by Menelik, the son of Solomon and Sheba. It’s now believed to sit in Axum’s St Mary of Zion church compound. Today, every other Ethiopian church has a replica of the Ark known as the tabot. Kept safe in the Holy of Holies or inner sanctuary, it’s the church’s single most important element, and gives the building its sanctity. That the chapel at Axum contains something of great spiritual significance is undoubted, but is it the real Ark of the Covenant? The simple answer is that nobody actually knows. At the end of the day though, does it really matter what exactly is inside that Axum chapel? The very fact that many people believe that this chapel contains the word of God should be enough to make it real.
Traditional Ethiopian History in Brief
Ethiopians themselves are in little doubt about their early history. According to oral tradition, Ethiopia was settled by Ethiopic, the great-grandson of Noah. Ethiopic’s son, Aksumai, founded the capital of Axum (or Askum) and also a dynasty of rulers that lasted for between 52 and 97 generations. The last, and many say the greatest, of these monarchs was Queen Makeda who, in the 11th and 10th centuries BC, owned a fleet of 73 ships and a caravan of 520 camels which traded with places as far afield as Palestine and India. Makeda ruled Ethiopia and Yemen for 31 years from her capital a few kilometers outside modern-day Axum, which, according to Ethiopians, was known as Sabea. Early in her rule, it is claimed, the Queen of Sabea (better known to Westerners as the Queen of Sheba) travelled to Jerusalem to visit King Solomon. She brought with her gifts of gold, ivory and spices, and in return she was invited to stay in the royal palace. The two monarchs apparently developed a healthy friendship, the result of which was that Makeda returned home not only converted to Judaism but also pregnant with Ibn-al-Malik (Son of the King), whose name later became bastardized to Menelik. At the age of 22, Menelik returned to Jerusalem to visit his father. He was greeted by a joyous reception and stayed in Jerusalem for three years, learning the Law of Moses. When he decided to return home, he was, as Solomon’s eldest son, offered heirship of the throne, which he declined. Solomon allowed Menelik to return to Ethiopia, but he also ordered all his high commissioners to send their eldest sons with Menelik and each of the 12 tribes of Israel to send along 1,000 of their people. Accompanying Menelik on his journey home was Azariah, the first-born son of the high priest of the temple of Jerusalem. Azariah was told in a dream that he should take with him the holiest of all Judaic artifacts, the Ark of the Covenant. When Menelik was first told about this he was angry, but then he dreamt that it was God’s will. King Solomon discovered the Ark’s absence and led his soldiers after Menelik’s enormous entourage, but he too dreamt that it was right for his son to have the Ark, though he insisted on keeping its disappearance a secret. The Ark has remained in Ethiopia ever since, and is now locked away in the Church of St Mary Zion in Axum. On Menelik’s return, his mother abdicated in his favor. The Solomonic dynasty founded by Menelik ruled Ethiopia almost unbroken until 1974, when the 237th Solomonic monarch, Haile Selassie, was overthrown in the revolution.
I hope you found this interesting. Please feel free to leave any thoughts, questions or comments that you might have.
Briggs, Philip (2012-09-24). Ethiopia (Bradt Travel Guides). Bradt Travel Guides. Kindle Edition.
Planet, Lonely; Jean-Bernard Carillet; Tim Bewer; Stuart Butler (2013-05-01). Lonely Planet Ethiopia, Djibouti & Somaliland (Travel Guide). Lonely Planet Publications. Kindle Edition.