MY FIRST reaction is: ‘Why have a I never heard of this place?’ Axum, in the extreme north of Ethiopia, is the country’s oldest city and was its ancient capital. In the heart of Tigray province, the roots of modern Ethiopia lie in the Axumite Empire that was once one of the world’s four greatest powers, along with Persia, China and Rome. From 200 BC to 700 AD, its empire traded across the Red Sea as far as India and China and had its own alphabet.
During the empire’s heyday, in the 4th century AD, the Ark Of The Covenant (see Legend And Belief, below) was taken to Axum. Around this time the king led the country into a conversion from its own form of ancient Judaism to Christianity. The town is now the center of Ethiopian Christianity with an imposing, if utilitarian, cathedral built by Haile Selassie dominating the center.
This modern work, however, is dwarfed by a massive 25m obelisk on the other side of the road. Carved with nine storeys, and recognizable door and windows, it’s a remarkable monument. Nearby lies an even bigger one; at 33m the largest single stone every quarried in the ancient world, smashed during its erection in the third century.
Between the two is the 24m ‘Rome Stele’. Stolen from the site in 1937, during the brief Italian occupation of Ethiopia, it dominated Rome’s Piazza di Porta Capena until 2005. It was broken into several pieces for transport and suffered serious damage from a lightning strike in 2002. Ironic then that one of the reasons given for its long etention, despite repeated promises to return it, was that it would be better looked after in Italy.
The biggest obstacle to its return was one of transport: with only a few planes in the world capable of carrying its weight, it had to be broken into three pieces. This puts into perspective the achievements of the ancients in transporting whole monuments from many miles away, possibly using elephants for motive power.
Under the stelae are the tombs of the kings of Axum. After the awe inspired by the pillars outside, it’s hard to have any left for these empty chambers, long robbed of their precious contents. But my guide points out that the entire ceiling is one large granite slab and I try to comprehend what that meant in terms of construction. Archaeologists are only just starting to explore this site and still dream of stumbling on a tomb to rival the glories of King Tutankhamen.
The Italians were also responsible for another act of vandalism by building a road through the ancient palace. A jumble of stones bulldozed to one side turn out to be the thrones on which the kings of Axum were crowned. Similarly to the statue of Oxymandias, they lie scattered like child’s play things to form a resting place for tired pilgrims and unknowing tourists.
Legend and belief
During the reign of Solomon, ‘The Queen of Sheba, having heard of Solomon’s fame, came to test him with subtle questions’ (1 Kings 10:1). According to Ethiopian legend, Sheba was seduced by Solomon by a simple trick. He promised not to lay a hand on her if she vowed not to take anything of his. He then fed her a spicy meal and left her to go to bed.
During the night, waking with a raging thirst, Sheba drank a glass of water from her bedside. King Solomon, watching from hiding, pounced with the claim that she had broken her work. She bore him a son, name Menelik, who became the first Emperor of Ethiopia. On reaching adulthood, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem for a year but, on his return, took the Ark Of The Covenant with him as revenge for his mother’s seduction. The ark is now said to be in the church of Mary Zion in Axum, guarded by a monk who spends his whole life inside the church grounds. Even he is not allowed to see the Ark, for fear of its power. Every church in Ethiopia has a replica of the Ark.
The Emperor of Ethiopia has always clamed direct descent from Menelik – and hence King Solomon. Haile Selassie (Might Of The Trinity) was the 225th in this line and his mysterious death, after six decades of rule, soon after the revolution of 1974 marked the end of a unique piece of history. Rastafarians take their name from his original title – Ras (Duke) Tafari Makonne – and believe that, as a god, he is still alive.