08.07.2012 - 09.07.2012 22 °C
Sometimes a great deal of fascination for ruins and old tombs are needed to fully appreciate a place. In hindsight, we probably didn't have what it takes in Axum. All these Ethiopian churches and monasteries are taking their toll!
Knowing we had little time, we got to our hotel - the originally named Hotel Africa - and started negotiating the price for a guide for the afternoon. After quite a bit of bargaining, we were ready to set off to see the Axum sights our guide in a tuk-tuk (having been reassured that the roads were ok, our spines still remembering the bumpy ride to the Blue Nile Falls).
Axum was the first capital of Ethiopia - before Lalibela, Gonder and Addis Ababa and it was during its time as capital that Ethiopia started to convert to Christianity. It is allegedly home to the Ark of Coventant, which Menelik I, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought with him from Jerusalem (surprisingly the access is limited to one monk so we cannot confirm or deny whether it's here!) and it is the holiest site for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Seeing it today, it is difficult to grasp the fact that it once was a place of great importance, the centre of the Aksumite empire, mentioned in contemporary Greek sources. It is now medium sized city, with old sights, trying to convince visitors like us of its former greatness. Axum does feel different to the other places we have been in Ethiopia so far, though. It is the capital of Tigray, a region whose Tigrinya language has the same tones and guttural exclamations as Arabic - a different sound, even to the casual listener, to the Amharic we have heard elsewhere. People up here also have more of a Somali look in general. We are travelling in a small corner of Ethiopia, and even in this limited area the diversity of the country is on full display.
"Axum's history is 90 per cent legend and 10 per cent facts" our guide tells us as we stand looking at the first sight of the day, the Stelae of Axum. This is the very first photo in our guidebook, presented as something very special. The Stelae are indeed high and old and we find the story of how the "Italian fascists" took one of them back to Rome during the war, but returned in 1997 to Axum and Ethiopia, interesting. How the Ethiopians defeated the Italians is, understandably, a source of great pride for Ethiopians. It meant that it is the only African country which has not been colonised (it was occupied but did not become a colony).
The Stelae Field of Axum - this is the Stela the Italians stole and then returned sixty years later
"Just push a little bit harder!"This one most likely fell over shortly after having been erected, due to a bad foundation
The Stelae were raised to mark the kings' graves and it remains a mystery today why and how they were quarried, transported and erected. The practice stopped when Christianity took over. The ancient Ethiopians obviously had skills that we lack today: The stelae are each made of one single piece of local granite, and perfectly symmetrically carved, apparently without accurate measuring instruments. How they were raised into place - where to find the force and how to avoid splitting them under their own weight in the process? - is a mystery. Even when the Italians returned the stolen 20 metre stela in 1997 they could not do so without splitting it into three pieces for transporting. Furthermore, when they put the stela back in place, the operation so affected the ground around it that the neighbouring stela had to be secured with permanent scaffolding. How did ancient Ethiopians manage these complex engineering feats centuries ago without incurring the same problems?
These days, some of the pillars need extra support
There are also a couple of tombs you can enter. There is not a whole lot to see in there but our guide insists on us entering both of them. We also enter the nearby museum which is informative but does little to increase our enthusiasm.
Inside the tomb
Coming out of the tombs was more fun than entering them
The biggest Stela - 30 metres in length - has fallen down. According to legend it was pushed down by Queen Judith, but archaeologists say that it probably fell over at the same time it was put up as its foundation was badly prepared. One of many examples of the "90 percent legend, 10 percent facts" in Axum. This brings us to two of the other sights, both claiming use by the Queen of Sheba. There is no archaeological evidence of the Queen of Sheba having lived in Ethiopia - in fact, Yemen makes the same claim. Still, we are visiting the muddy pool where the Queen of Sheba used to go for swim, allegedly 3000 years old, and the palace where she used to live. The kitchen is the best preserved part. Grant tries to joke, asking "Did the Queen of Sheba really cook?". The joke is lost one our guide, who responds with a solemn "Yes.".
The Queen of Sheba's Swimming Pool
Grant looking after some sheep
Queen of Sheba's palace
Among the other sights we visited, was the Ezana Stone, a trilingual tablet, which was discovered only in the 1980s by some farmers in their field. It has inscriptions in three languages: Ge'ez (the ancient Ethiopian language), Sabaean (South Arabian) and Greek, praising God for King Ezana's victories. Just like an Ethiopian Rosetta Stone! The stone is on display in a shed at the exact place where it was found. The fact that the stone was found so recently, is an indication of how much there is still much to discover in Axum - hopefully the ratio between myths and facts will improve over time.
In addition to a couple of more tombs, we didn't visit more in Axum. There is so much history in this town but it is so ancient that it needs really good explanations and museums to do it justice - unfortunately that just doesn't exist in Ethiopia right now. We left in a bus the next morning and will probably not be back any time soon...