Salambo discovering Ethiopia
Before spending a few days in Gheralta, we had a cultural stop in the northern city of Axum where we flew to from Addis. Axum, often considered as the cradle of Ethiopian culture, was the centre of the powerful Axumite Empire which ruled over the region from around 400 BC to the 10th century. At its height, the Kingdom extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan. With its strategic geographical location, it had tight trading links with Rome and India, and was considered by many as one of the four great powers together with Rome, Persia and China. Axum was its thriving political, cultural and commercial heart.
Today, very little remains from its glory days. Axum is a relatively small city located on the edge of the country, not far from the tense border with Eritrea. Its main claim to fame is the World Heritage archeological park which contains the very distinctive Axumite stelae. Less impressive are the nearby Queen of Sheba bath and King Ezana’s stone, a giant stone with carvings relating the story of King Ezana in three languages, Sabaean, Ge’ez, and Greek, similarly to the Rosetta stone for ancient Egypt.
King Ezana, who ruled the empire from 320 to 360 AD, was probably the most famous of historical Axumite kings. Like Constantine in Rome, he was the first king to convert to Christianity and is widely credited for having brought Christianity into Ethiopia. His conversion is documented on the Ezana stone. One of the archeological park’s stelae, the largest standing one and last one to be erected, bears his name. The purpose of those tall and narrow stelae, carved with multi-storey squares and rectangles representing doors and windows, was to indicate the location and number of underground tombs. So for instance, if a stela had 10 storeys of carvings, it indicated that 10 tombs were lying underground. Some of the burial chambers can still be visited in what is in fact an important ancient graveyard. The other still intact stela is the so-called Obelisk of Axum which stood in the city of Rome for many decades until it was returned to Ethiopia in 2005 and re-erected in its original location in Axum three years later. It was Mussolini who had taken it to Rome during the Italian occupation in the 1930s, to re-enact the ancient Roman practice of taking obelisks from conquered territories (Egypt at the time). Many of the other 30 or so stelae in the park have collapsed and are now lying on the ground.
Axum is also the home of the church of St Mary of Zion, where according to local belief, the Ark of the Covenant is kept. This small medieval church, which cannot be visited by women (so I was out), is now overshadowed by a larger non-descript modern one built by Emperor Hailé Selassié. Needless to say that I wasn’t able to see whether the Ark of the Covenant is actually there.
However, I could visit the Bath of the Queen of Sheba, who according to the Ethiopian legend lived in Axum. That was a disappointment. The name itself called for an exotic pool set in attractive surroundings where the beautiful Queen would have intimate moments. It is nothing more than a water reservoir, half carved in the rock, half built in concrete, and full of muddy water. In my opinion, one day is sufficient to see and enjoy what Axum has to offer.