Axum or Aksum (Tigrinya: ኣኽሱም? /'aq͡χʼsum/, Amharic: አክሱም? /'aksum/) is a city in northern Ethiopia. The town has a population of 56,500 residents (2010), and is governed as an urban wäräda.
The original capital of the Kingdom of Aksum, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. Axum was a naval and trading power that ruled the region from about 400 BC into the 10th century. In 1980 UNESCO added Aksum's archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites due to their historic value.
Located in the Mehakelegnaw Zone of the Tigray Region near the base of the Adwa mountains, Axum has an elevation of 2,131 metres (6,991 ft). Axum is surrounded by La'ilay Maychew wäräda.
The Kingdom of Aksum and other polities in 565 Axum was the center of the marine trading power known as the Aksumite Kingdom, which predated the earliest mentions in Roman era writings. Around 356, its ruler was converted to Christianity by Frumentius. Later, under the reign of Kaleb, Axum was a quasi-ally of Byzantium against the Persian Empire. The historical record is unclear, with ancient church records the primary contemporary sources.
It is believed it began a long slow decline after the 7th century due partly to the Persians (Zoroastrian) and finally the Arabs contesting old Red sea trade routes. Eventually Aksum was cut off from its principal markets in Alexandria, Byzantium and Southern Europe and its trade share was captured by Arab traders of the era. The Kingdom of Aksum was finally destroyed by Gudit, and eventually some of the people of Aksum were forced south and their civilization declined. As the kingdom's power declined so did the influence of the city, which is believed to have lost population in the decline, similar to Rome and other cities thrust away from the flow of world events. The last known (nominal) king to reign was crowned in about the 10th century, but the kingdom's influence and power ended long before that.
Its decline in population and trade then contributed to the shift of the power center of the Ethiopian Empire south to the Agaw region as it moved further inland. The city of Axum was the administrative seat of an empire spanning 1 million square miles. Eventually, the alternative name (Ethiopia) was adopted by the central region, and subsequently, the present modern state.
Aksum kingdom and Ethiopian Church
The Kingdom of Axum had its own written language, Ge'ez, and developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by giant obelisks, the oldest of which (though much smaller) date from 5000–2000 BC. The kingdom was at its height under King Ezana, baptized as Abreha, in the 4th century (which was also when it officially embraced Christianity).
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum houses the Biblical Ark of the Covenant, in which lie the Tablets of Law upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. The historical records and Ethiopian traditions suggest that it was from Axum that Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. She had a son, Menelik, fathered by Solomon. He grew up in Ethiopia but traveled to Jerusalem as a young man to visit his father's homeland. He lived several years in Jerusalem before returning to his country with the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Ethiopian Church and Ethiopian tradition, the Ark still exists in Axum. This same church was the site where Ethiopian emperors were crowned for centuries until the reign of Fasilides, then again beginning with Yohannes IV until the end of the empire. Axum is considered to be the holiest city in Ethiopia and is an important destination of pilgrimages. Significant religious festivals are the Timkat festival (known as Epiphany in western Christianity) on 19 January (20 January in leap years) and the Festival of Maryam Zion on November 24.
In 1937, a 24-metre (79-foot) tall, 1,700-year-old Obelisk of Axum,broken into five parts and lying on the ground, was found and shipped by Italian soldiers to Rome to be erected. The obelisk is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of engineering from the height of the Axumite empire. Despite a 1947 United Nations agreement that the obelisk would be shipped back, Italy balked, resulting in a long-standing diplomatic dispute with the Ethiopian government, which views the obelisk as a symbol of national identity. In April 2005, Italy finally returned the obelisk pieces to Axum amidst much official and public rejoicing; Italy also covered the $4 million costs of the transfer. UNESCO assumed responsibility for the re-installation of this stele in Axum, and by the end of July 2008 the obelisk had been reinstalled (see panographic photos in external links below). It was unveiled on 4 September 2008.
Axum and Islam
The Axumite Empire has a longstanding relationship with Islam. According to ibn Hisham, when Prophet Muhammad faced oppression from the Quraish clan, he sent a small group that included his daughter Ruqayya and her husband Uthman ibn Affan to Axum. Sahama, the Axumite emperor, gave them refuge and protection. He refused the requests of the Quraish clan to send these refugees back to Arabia. These refugees did not return until the sixth year of the Hijra (628), and even then many remained in Ethiopia, eventually settling at Negash in eastern Tigray
There are different traditions concerning the effect these early Muslims had on the ruler of Axum. The Muslim tradition is that the ruler of Axum was so impressed by these refugees that he became a secret convert. On the other hand, Arabic historians and Ethiopian tradition state that some of the Muslim refugees who lived in Ethiopia during this time converted to Orthodox Christianity. There is also a second Ethiopian tradition that, on the death of Ashama ibn Abjar, Muhammed is reported to have prayed for the king's soul, and told his followers, "Leave the Abyssinians in peace, as long as they do not take the offensive."
The major Aksumite monuments in the town are stelae. These obelisks are around 1,700 years old and have become a symbol of the Ethiopian people's identity. The largest number are in the Northern Stelae Park, ranging up to the 33-metre-long (3.84 metres wide, 2.35 metres deep, weighing 520 tonnes) Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction. The Obelisk of Axum (24.6 metres high, 2.32 metres wide, 1.36 metres deep, weighing 170 tonnes) was removed by the Italian army in 1937, and returned to Ethiopia in 2005 and reinstalled July 31, 2008. This stele was already broken into pieces before being shipped. The next tallest is the 24-metre (20.6 metres high above the front baseplate, 2.65 metres wide, 1.18 metres deep, weighing 160 tonnes) King Ezana's Stele. Three more stelae measure 18.2 metres high, 1.56 metres wide, 0.76 metres deep, weighing 56 tonnes; 15.8 metres high, 2.35 metres wide, 1 metres deep, weighing 75 tonnes; 15.3 metres high, 1.47 metres wide, 0.78 metres deep, weighing 43 tonnes. The stelae are believed to mark graves and would have had cast metal discs affixed to their sides, which are also carved with architectural designs. The Gudit Stelae to the west of town, unlike the northern area, are interspersed with mostly 4th century tombs.
The other major feature of the town are the Old and New Cathedrals of St Mary of Zion. The Old St Mary of Zion Cathedral was built in 1665 by Emperor Fasilides and said to have previously housed the Ark of the Covenant. The original cathedral, said to have been built by Ezana and augmented several times after was believed to have been massive with 12 naves. It was burned to the ground by Gudit, rebuilt, and then destroyed again during the Gragn wars of the 1500s. It was again rebuilt by Emperor Gelawdewos (completed by his brother and successor Emperor Minas) and Emperor Fasilides replaced that structure with the present one. Only males are permitted entry into the Old St. Mary's Cathedral (some say as a result of the destruction of the original church by Gudit). The New Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion stands next to the old one, and was built to fulfill a pledge by Emperor Haile Selassie to the Our Lady of Zion for the liberation of Ethiopia from the Fascist occupation. Built in a neo-Byzantine style, work on the new cathedral began in 1955, and allows admittance to women. Emperor Haile Selassie interrupted the state visit of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II to travel to Axum to attend the dedication of the new Cathedral and pay personal homage, showing the importance of this church in the Ethiopian Empire. The Queen visited the Cathedral a few days later. Between the two cathedrals is a small chapel known as The Chapel of the Tablet built at the same time as the new cathedral, and which is believed to house the Ark of the Covenant. Emperor Haile Selassie's consort, Empress Menen, paid for its construction from her private funds. Admittance to the chapel is closed to all but the guardian monk who resides there. Entrance is even forbidden to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and to the Emperor of Ethiopia during the monarchy. The two cathedrals and the chapel of the Ark are the focus of pilgrimage and considered the holiest sites in Ethiopia to members of its Orthodox Church.
Other attractions in Axum include archaeological and ethnographic museums, the Ezana Stone written in Sabaean, Ge'ez and Ancient Greek in a similar manner to the Rosetta Stone, King Bazen's Tomb (a megalith considered to be one of the earliest structures), the so-called Queen of Sheba's Bath (actually a reservoir), the 4th-century Ta'akha Maryam and 6th-century Dungur palaces, the monasteries of Abba Pentalewon and Abba Liqanos and the Lioness of Gobedra rock art.