Tomb raiding in Axum

Exploring the ruins of Axum makes you feel as if you’re making first contact with an ancient civilisation. There’s the same history and grandeur of the world’s most famous ancient sites, but the town as a whole is almost completely free of tourists.

Axum is unique. The ancient sites are serene and fairly well kept, and there are no trees growing out of the cracks of buildings. Oh, and the town’s also said to be home to the real Arc of the Covenant. But because there are so few tourists, you have the place to yourself, and the ability to feel like a real explorer.

The Axumite Empire spanned from around 100 AD until 1000 AD. It was the dominant power in the region, ruling much of what is now northern Ethiopia, Eritrea and eastern Sudan and Yemen, as well having a sphere of influence which extended even farther in every direction. Owing to its position, it became an important trade facilitator between Rome and the East. In the mid-200s, long before the empire’s peak in 600 AD, the Persian prophet Mani classified Axum as one of the four great powers at the time, with the others being Persia, Rome, and China.

Such a powerful and prosperous Empire also left behind a great deal of cultural and material wealth. Axumite coins are regarded as some of the world’s finest from that time, and are an extremely useful source for tracing the lineage of Axumite kings. They also highlight the empire’s economic ambitions and how it perceived its place in the world.

Perhaps more prominent are the stelae that litter the ancient capital—enormous slabs of granite erected much like obelisks or totem poles. These monoliths marked the graves of nobility and were decorated to appear as palaces with large doors and windows. At the top of each stela is an ancient sun-and-moon symbol from the area’s indigenous pagan religion.

In 324 AD, King Ezana II converted to Christianity, which had been introduced by his childhood tutor, the Syrian Saint Frumentius. After this point the new religion quickly spread across the empire, and coins changed from having pagan symbolism to praising the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless, the stelae continued to be erected, and the sun-and-moon symbol continued to be used widely.

axum aksum collapsed stelae (2)
Ancient history is unavoidable in Axum, with stelae littering fields and parklands.

Being the former capital of such a mighty empire means that history is everywhere in Axum. Hang a right down an inconspicuous laneway off the main road and you’ll find yourself at the tomb of King Bazen. Perhaps more important to the modern tourist is the fact that this tomb is also said to house Balthazar, who was one of the three wise men who brought myrrh. Yep, as in the guy from the Bible.

The story isn’t that implausible, either. For the uninitiated (as I was), Balthazar is always believed to have been black, and was said to hail from either Saba (modern-day Yemen, which was for a while controlled by the Axumite Empire) or Ethiopia proper. On top of that, he is said to have returned to his homeland to announce the birth of Christ. So there you have it.

Upon approaching the tomb, a robed monk unlocks the gate and leads me down into the underground crypt. It’s pitch black, save for the light of the two candlesticks he’s using to guide our way, and I already feel like Indiana Jones even though I’ve only just started. The monk doesn’t speak any English, but he points at the various chambers and sarcophagi, calling out the names of the figures who lay within.

Back above ground, more ancient marvels are well-with walking distance. Head through the town centre and bam—you’re at the main stelae field. These stelae are the largest and most ornate, while the field itself is also the most-well kept.

axum aksum stelae field (1)
The main stelae field is quite large with very few tourists.

Notable appearances include the Great Stela, which is the largest single piece of stone erected in human history. The 33 metre-tall monolith has since collapsed and fractured into several pieces, but even seeing the sections of stone untouched from their position on the ground is still really impressive. You can get a real sense of catastrophe from looking at the remains, and in doing so it becomes much easier to understand why this incident may have encouraged locals to convert from paganism to Christianity.

Next to it is the Roman stela, which was seized by fascist troops and relocated to Rome at the behest of Mussolini as a kind of war trophy. It was finally repatriated with the help of UNESCO in 2007 after many decades of outcry. The 25 metre-tall, 170 tonne monument is the second tallest of the lot, but it’s the most impressive thanks to its uprightness and intricate decorations.

axum aksum stelae field (2)
The stelae vary greatly in size and intricacy. Seen here are the Roman stela and a much smaller, unnamed one.

The third notable stela is that of King Ezana, which is similarly tall and decorative. Although it hasn’t collapsed or been pillaged by Italians, it is leaning very precariously and as such is supported by an enormous sling. Of the large stelae, King Ezana’s is the largest and the only one to have remained standing since it was first erected.

axum aksum king ezana's stela stelae
King Ezana’s Stela has remained standing for over a thousand years, albeit with the support of a sling in recent years.

There are heaps of other stelae in the immediate vicinity of the main three, but what I found more interesting were the tombs that lay beneath. The main mausoleum is enormous and kind of modern-looking. Its long, central hallway is illuminated by a series of skylights. Proof, in my opinion, that the kings had the foresight to cater to tourists 1500 years later.

Another tomb—of which the uppermost level has been damaged—has an interesting false door serving as yet another reminder that I’m Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Archaeologists believe this meant it contained immensely valuable treasures. Meanwhile, other tombs beneath the field already show clear signs of grave robbery.

Wandering around, entering ancient underground tombs on a whim, without any intrusive restoration going on or any barriers to keep you away from where the bodies are, and almost without another tourist in sigh is something I will never get over. Adding to this is the fact that 90% of the site has yet to be excavated.

Immediately behind the main stelae field is an excellent museum of Axumite history. It’s the perfect place to contextualise everything there is to see in Axum, and sorely needed for those such as myself (and I assume pretty much everyone else who visits) who were not taught about the Axumites in school. Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed, but I can say that the museum houses an extensive collection of ancient artefacts and clearly explains everything you need to know about Axumite civilisation in English, Amharic and Tigrinya.

Next to the museum is another field, this time full of collapsed stelae. This was extremely interesting to wander through, with the stelae from different centuries bearing markedly different designs.

axum aksum collapsed stelae (3)
The collapsed stelae are interesting in their own way.

Speaking of archaeology, apparently only 2% Axum’s areas of historical importance have been excavated or surveyed. Judging by what’s been found already, one can only imagine the wealth of artefacts and monuments just waiting to be dug up.

Just outside of town is the Gudit Stelae Field, named after the murderous and destructive queen who reigned over the fall of the Axumite Empire. These stelae less impressive and lay scattered across a tract of farmland, but they’re nevertheless enchanting and happen to be seldom-visited by foreigners. Preliminary archaeological evidence suggests it was a burial site for the empire’s lesser noblemen, but as with pretty much everything in Axum, more work is needed to know for sure.

gudit stelae field axum aksum
Crude stelae litter farmland in the Gudit Stelae Field.

Across the road is the Dungur Palace, known locally to have been home to the Queen of Sheba (yes, that Queen of Sheba, yet another Biblical figure). Archaeology instead suggests that like the stelae field opposite it, the palace was home to lesser nobility or perhaps a particularly wealthy merchant.

Either way, the 44-room, 1500-year-old mansion is very impressive. It was originally double story but only the ground level remains. As usual, I was the only person when I was there, despite it being the high season. After wandering around the rooms/foundations, there’s a nifty observation deck out the back where you can get a better perspective of the scale of the building.

dungur palace axum aksum
The gatekeeper (left) did laps around the Dungur Palace in an effort to look busy why I was there.

It was out the front of the palace (and out of sight of the authorities) where I was approached by a group of men selling souvenirs. I quickly learned that this was just a front; they were far more interested in selling me Axumite coins starting at US$50. When I inspected the coins, they appeared identical in craftsmanship and detonation to those I saw in the archaeological museum. Keeping in mind that most of Axum has yet to be excavated, and that farmers occasionally find ancient treasures in their fields, I had no reason to believe these to be fake.

Naturally buying these coins is illegal as it plunders the area’s cultural heritage. The government is so concerned about this supposedly burgeoning trade that airport staff are trained especially to detect these tiny ancient coins. When I left the country, I was actually pulled aside because the metal detector identified some loose coins in my luggage. Suffice to say, they were just regular coins as I had no interest in joining the international underworld of antiquities traffickers. I just wish I had taken a photo of them.

Wander towards the north of the town and there’s even more to see! A 10 minute walk from main stelae field brings you to the Ezana Stone, a massive granite tablet inscribed with the King’s military victories and honorary titles. It was uncovered by a trio of farmers in 1988 (a testament to how little of Axum has been excavated) but was created around the year 350 AD. Being pre-Christian (for Ethiopia, anyway), the records thank the God of War for King Ezana’s successes.

ezana stone axum aksum
The Ezana Stone in all its glory. It was roughly the height of a person.

The text is inscribed in three languages: Ge’ez (formerly widely-spoken but currently the liturgical language of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity), Sabean (a dead language once spoken around modern-day Yemen) and Ancient Greek (the academic and economic lingua franca of the day, proving how globally important the Axumite was). Because of this, the tablet has served as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the Sabean language, in addition to being an unusually detailed primary source regarding Axumite Kings. The massive stone is now kept in a small shed by the road which can be hard to miss, but it’s well-worth keeping an eye out for this excellent specimen.

At the end of the road are the tombs of King Kaleb and his son, King Gebre Meskel, who ruled during the 6th century AD. The architecture of these tombs is not unlike those in the town itself, but these one do display a much more refined level of stonemasonry. Down below, the burial chambers and sarcophagi are well-preserved and constructed in the then-newly-introduced Christian tradition. Unusually for Axum, the local legends surrounding these tombs mostly match up with archaeological evidence.

Given the abundance of ancient monuments and ruins in Axum, it’s odd that the town also has what’s described as an old quarter. Tuk tuks and vans give way to camels and donkeys, and between cobblestone thoroughfares are dirt laneways. Unfortunately, unlike old town in Harar, there’s little of interest here and wandering through feels as though you’re intruding on a desperately poor section of Axum’s population.

axum aksum old quarter
Axum’s old quarter is less lively than the rest of the town.

The only areas of the old quarter which are worth vising are the handful of piazzas centrered on grand fig trees. Here you’ll find charming arrays of tailors and restaurants. The former was great for repairing my torn backpack. The latter introduced to me the magnificence that is ful.

axum aksum piazza
Cafes, tailors and… not much else: Axum’s charming piazzas.

Ful is a paste made form fava beans and eaten with bread rolls instead of injera, for once. It’s technically eaten across the Arab world too, but Ethiopian full is quite unique. Aside from a richer flavour and denser texture, Ethiopian ful comes with extras. Everywhere that serves ful (and that means pretty much every hole-in-the-wall restaurant in the Tigray Region, seeing as it’s a local specialty) will also offer what’s called special ful. Special full comes with added scrambled egg, chillies, and a small bowl of yoghurt.

This quickly became my staple in the Tigray Region as a sort of respite from injera-based meals. When served, the components of the meal are separated, but as a foreigner, waiters at every restaurant and café I visited decided to put on a show and masterfully whisk the components of the meal together in front of me. Everyone really did seem proud of this delicious meal, and I don’t blame them.

axum aksum piazza 2
When it’s not market day, you can sit beneath the fig trees of Axum’s piazzas and grab a coffee or three.

What might be the most significant attraction in Axum is also the least interesting. Positioned between the old town and the main stelae field is the St Mary of Zion church complex. Inside the complex is where the Ark of the Covenant is said to reside. It was the Ark’s powers that supposedly allowed the enormous slabs of granite to be transported for the stelae.

Every church in Ethiopia has a replica of the Ark, but they’re kept from public view (usually behind a Chinese shower curtain). The supposed real one is no different, except for the fact that foreigners cannot even approach the entire building thanks to two tourists making a run for it in the past. So while this very location is the centre of Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, it’s mundane as a tourist attraction.

That being said, this religious significance does have cultural manifestations which are of interest to foreigners. While walking from one piazza to another, I quickly found myself swarmed with a massive torrent of worshippers exiting the adjacent Arabtu Enessa Church. It was Lalibela all over again. The group eventually congregated in a piazza, where the massive crowd chanted in support of flag-carrying procession. A seemingly-spontaneous spectacle if ever I saw one, yet I felt too intrusive taking photos in the thick of it and as such I only have a very distant one which shows just a fraction of people present.

axum aksum piazza 3
A huge religious ceremony suddenly took place as I walked through one of Axum’s piazzas.

Axum is skipped my many people who are short of time, and I must admit I only visited it as an afterthought. But having been there, I can honestly say that the whole town was spectacular. It was also amazing value—a single ticket, which was cheap even by Ethiopian standards, allows access into all of the town’s ancient sites. Throw in the fact that they’re all walking distance, and that the town itself is really pleasant and quaint, and you have the perfect combination.

If ever there was a place to let your imagination run wild and transport you back millennia, it’s Axum. Go and unleash your inner-Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. Just don’t steal any ancient coins while you’re there.

arabtu ensessa church axum aksum
The rear of the Arabtu Ensessa Church.
axum aksum piazza sunset
Sunset over an Axumite piazza.
axum aksum car
Despite is historical and religious significance, Axum is a surprisingly small town. Accordingly, the traffic is very light.
axum aksum old quarter
Some of the main streets in Axum’s old quarter are beautifully paved.
axum aksum collapsed stelae (1)
This stela is sometimes called the Unique Stela because it’s the only one with a house carved at the top. Some believe it’s early evidence of Axum’s claim to being the home of the Ark of the Covenant.
axum aksum children soccer
Just outside the tombs of King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel, a group of children play soccer with an empty water bottle.
axum aksum rome stelae
The base of the Roman Stela. With windows and a door carved into the front and rear faced, could these be the first representations of skyscrapers?
gudit stelae field axum aksum 2
Larger stela lay toppled at the Gudit Stelae Field.
axum aksum king bazen tomb steps
Descending into King Bazen’s tomb.
tomb of the brick arches
The Tomb of the Brick Arches, beneath the main stelae field, is closed to tourists so more archeological surveying can be done. It’s supposed been damaged inside by grave robbers.
king kaleb tomb steps axum aksum
The tombs of King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel are much more modern-looking than the others.
axum aksum king kaleb tomb 2
One of the crypts in King Kaleb’s tomb.
axum aksum pavement
The pavement in Axum can appear somewhat phallic at times.

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