axum ablisk A world accustomed to remarkable feats of engineering pays little attention to the raising of massive structures. But even modern minds are moved to awe by the mystery of how an ancient civilisation in the fourth century AD managed to erect the monoliths that became the tallest standing single pieces of stone in the ancient world. The famous and elaborately carved Stelae are presumed to be grave markers for the royal tombs built immediately prior to the conversion of the Aksumite Empire to Christianity. Complex underground networks have yielded countless grave goods that testify to a life of extraordinary wealth and sophistication. The Stelae – the tallest of which is over 24m high and weighs 170 tonnes – are a dazzling attraction, deserving of World Heritage Site status.



 Individual Endowments of the Character Area: Empire in Visiting Squence

   king ezan's garden

  1. King Ezana’s Garden

Situated in the city-center, the Ezana garden is one of the archaeological attractions of Axum.  Right at the heart of the city, the garden is fenced with flower-clad barbed wires. A number of antiquities were gathered and placed on view:  one of the inscription stones, several pieces of thrones, including the base of one of the group across the processional way, column bases from the elite residence of Ta’aka Mariam and the Tombs Kaleb and Gebre Meskel and one of the stelae can be inspected in the site.  




king bayzen's tomb 12. King Bazen’s Tomb

This tomb is found close to what was probably the edge of ancient Axum, at the south-western slope of Mai Qoho hill. It is locally known as the tomb of the legendary Axumite King Bazen. It is a rock-cut oven type tomb with shafts on each side at the bottom and multiple burial-chambers approached by a rock-cut adit, 9.5 m long, sixteen steps lead down to a room containing four burial loculi. It was perhaps originally accessed by the twin shafts. 

Located on the southern slope of Mai Qoho hill within the south-eastern necropolis, this tomb is entirely rock-cut, with carved stone steps leading down to a group of burial chambers, five of which open off a rectangular space with a domical ceiling. A light-well has been carved through the rock to illuminate the bottom of the stairway and the rectangular space Openings throughout the complex are carved into rough arches. Several of the architectural features of the Tomb are found in later funerary structures in the Main Stelae Field – the light-well appears as a constructed element of the Mausoleum; the arches are replicated in the Tomb of the Brick Arches where the rough horseshoe shape is given greater definition in brickwork; the narrowly contained adytum with the ‘stairs is found in the Tomb of the False Door and many other examples. ‘Bazen is regarded as having been one of the Magi, Balthazar, who brought f’rankincense to the Christ child, a substance highly valued by the Egyptians as a preservative in their burial practices. A stone inscribed in Ge’ez was found near the cathedral stating “This is the sepulchral stone of Bazen,” howeve’r this is certainly of later date than the Tomb,as the text has a cross at the begi’nning and end, showing that it was after the conversion of King Ezana in the ea’rly 300s. It has not been possible to date the tomb, but it clearly pre-dates the ‘decorated stelae erected in the late 3rd and early 4th Centuries. It was initially ex’cavated by Jean Doresse in 1954

  1. Thron’es along the Processional way

Five thrones’ opposite the present Ezana Gardens were recorded by the Deutsche Axum-Expedition o’f 1906, of which one was relocated to the Gardens during the Italian occupation in’ the 1930s to become a base plate for a stele. One of the thrones has inscriptions in ‘Ge’ez on the base and seat, with the base deliberately broken, as are several other thrones.  ‘

The Portuguese’ visitor, de Almeida, describes the beginning of the coronation ceremony of Susenyos in 1608 as follows:

He arrives at Acçu’’m and encamps in a very big meadow there. When the coronation day arrives he orders his army to be arra’yed so that everyone should accompany him with the proper ceremony. …He approaches this place on the eas’tern side, and reaches the stone which…has an inscription. Here the Abune (bishop) and all the clergy were awaiting him…the grandees dismount and range themselves in two rows…leaving a wide path between which is covered with large, rich carpets. The Emperor too dismounts and walks over the carpets but is met and stopped by three maidens whom they call maidens of Zion.”

These women hold a cord, from which the name of the place, Mebtak Fatli, ‘the cutting of the cord’ is derived. On answering three questions relating to the king designates legendary and actual ancestry, two older women cry out: “Truly, you are the king of Zion, the son of David, the son of Solomon,” after which, the king would cut the cord with his sword, allowing himself and his entourage to pass to the next stage of the ceremony. 

The second group of thrones are found on the foothills of Mai Qoho, inside the gardens of the Nebure’d Palace. This pair would have been for the king and Abune, set slightly higher than the roadway. There are no descriptions of what their significance was, either in terms of their location or in the sequence of coronation events.

The third set of three thrones overlook the public space between the Main Stelae Field and the cathedral yard. Descriptions of the ceremonies involving tribute of buck, goat, buffalo and lion representing the various parts of the kingdom may have occurred in this space.

  1. Hatsani Daniel’s inscription

One of the thrones at the beginning of the processional way has inscriptions in Ge’ez on the broken base commemorating the warlord Hatsani Daniel’s conquest of the Welkite and Kassala people. On the seat of the same throne, Hatsani Daniel declares that he subjugated the Aksumite king, making himself supreme ruler. These inscriptions have been dated to the 7th Century when Aksum was starting to decline, creating a political void that was accompanied by civil war and uprisings. It gives an important historical insight into this period, with the transfer of power from a hereditary ruler to a military leader.

 The Ruins of Arbaetu Ensesa Church

This recently excavated church is located near the stone thrones of Mebtaka Fatli, on the site of a later church by the Deutsche Axum-Expedition in 1906. As can be observed from the reconstructed drawing of the edifice, it was a large multi-room structure comparable to the elite palaces of Ta’aka Mariam and Enda Sem’on. Arches, piers and monumental pillars adorn the building as they strengthen the structure. Built with stone and mud mortar, the stylish edifice is 26m in length and 13m in width. (Tekle Hagos, 24).

Believed to have been built approximately between the 6th and 7th century AD (T.Hagos, 48), the ruins of Arbaetu Ensesa church is as much significant for its archaeological importance as it is for its religious values. It is the burial place of Emperor Ella Amida, the grandfather of king kaleb. Ella Amida is famously credited for having welcomed the Nine Saints to Axum.(Sergew, p, 166)

Archaeological evidences also suggest that the church was destroyed during a civil war not very long after its construction. It is conjectured that the church may have been razed by either the Welkait people in the heartland of modern Ethiopia and/or by Arab invaders. (Tekele Hagos, 52). Excavated Axumite coins of the same period in which pronouncements such as “joy be to the people” (T. Hagos, 52), and “Mercy and peace to the people” (BIEA, 24) indicate the fact that Axum had passed through a turbulent period of war.  In view of the customary Christian slogans, these mottos were alien to Axum.

Excavations at Arbaetu Ensesa produced a plethora of coins, crosses, pottery products, glassware, beads, polished stones, metals, livestock remains, etc. It was not accidental, therefore, that its treasures were looted at some point in time. Some of the wealth of treasures unearthed from the site is now kept in Axum’s archaeological museum.

  1. The Nubre’ed’s palace

The Nubre’ed’s palace is almost equidistant from to Mariam Zion cathedral to its northwest to the Ezana garden to its southeast. Right at the foot of Mai Qoho hills, the building is adjacent to the traditional walkway that leads to Mariam Zion. Incidentally, the walkway was the only authorized eastern gateway to the cathedral. It has a large compounded, where stone thrones are found.

Efforts are underway to convert this century-old building into a modern library. The building was renovated recently, courtesy of the US-based Axumite Heritage Foundation.   

  1. Northern Stelae Filed

Located on the slopes of Beta Giyorgis, opposite the Mai Shum reservoir, this Stelae Field appears to predate the Main Stelae Field, with the gradual movement southwards indicated by the changing style of the more elaborate Stelae. This may have been a continuation of the burial places found on Beta Giyorgis, the location of the earliest settlement at Axum.  On this section of the stelae field a number of dressed and undressed Stelae are scattered in the greenery.  Stele 7, stele 6, stele 5 and stele 4 can be cited among the dressed stelae which are also shared the same compound with Inda Eyesus Church.

  1. Stele 7

Unlike most of the other carved stelae with their literal representations of buildings, it has highly stylised sculpture in low relief possibly depicting a shrine sitting on a column with a pairs of scrolls similar to an ancient Greek ionic capital. Oral traditions speak of this design representing the Ark of the Covenant, and that if the stele were to be re-erected; prosperity would be restored to the city.

Despite being highly stylised, the shrine part of the design shows an abstracted version of ‘monkey head’ corners in both the inner and outer rectangle. The back of the Stele repeats the shrine motif with slightly different proportions, but omits the column. The stone is still intact, although it is no longer standing.

  1. Stele 6: The Northern Storeyed stelae

This is the smallest stele perched on the northern side of the main stele field & for the same reason it is known as the northern storied stele. More than 15m high, nearly 1.5 wide and 43 tones weighs, this stele has three storeys. This stele is recognizable by its double crescent head, although Stele 5 shares somewhat similar features. Except on its back, the Stele is decorated on its all sides. The monkey heads of this stele are exceptionally longer; they are projections of about one centimeter. Although stelae are supposed to mark tombs; no underground structure has been identified beneath this stele. This stele is found in a good condition with its complete parts.    

Unlike most of the other carved stelae with their literal representations of buildings, Stele 7 has highly stylised sculpture in low relief possibly depicting a shrine sitting on a column with a pair of scrolls similar to an ancient Greek Iconic capital. Oral traditions speak of this design representing the Ark of the Covenant, and that if the Stele were to be re-erected; prosperity would be restored to the city. Despite being highly stylised, the shrine part of the design shows an abstracted version of ‘monkey

  1. Stele 5: The stlea by the stream

The stele lies into three pieces in the valley, midway between Inda Yesus and Mai Shum. Because of its location, it is sometimes referred to as “the stele by the stream.”  It is a partially decorated stele, the top part of which shows horizontally arranged ornamental triple. It is five storeyed and nearly 16m high & its weight is 75 tones. It either broke or a crack was detected while transporting or carving prior it to erection

This Stele was moved into a stream running down from Beta Giyorgis, leaving the two uppermost sections in the river which has now been diverted. It is elaborately carved as a multi-storey structure, but only on three of its faces. The narrow sides have representations of the beam ends of ‘monkey-head’ construction, while the back face has been rebated to depict corner towers and the beginning of the carving for windows, but it appears not to have been finished before its installation. It was 15.8 meters high and 75 tonnes in weight. Its base plate has the same configuration as Stele 4, but less elaborately carved, although the design of the shaft is more refined in the depiction of windows and door and the corner rebates.

  1. Stele 4: The stelea in front of Enda Yesus:

Located at the western end of the northern (western) Stelae Field, this elaborately carved monolith may have been one that was toppled by Gudit, the legendary Jewish queen who sacked the city in the late 10th Century. Recent investigations have shown that a portion directly under the capping piece, with carving of two spears, had been removed and built into walling of the church of Tsion Maryam. It would have been over 18.2m high and 56 tones in weight. The base plate of this stele is finely sculpted with four circular depressions, the central one within a raised square, which would have been used for offerings to pre-Christian deities.

  1. Inda Eyesus Church

Inda Eyesus (The House of Christ) church is situated north of the stele park. It is separated from the park by stone walls, which makes the churchyard. Still in active use, the church is known for its murals. It is decorated wall to wall by paintings depicting several subjects. St. Mary and child, the Apostles, Saints, among other things, adorn the external walls of the church. The churchyard is also a site of several stelae some of which are decorated. One decorated stele the top of full-moon shaped is the prominent structure in the churchyard of Inda Eyesus.

  1. The Main Stelae Park

This underground complex of ten burial chambers would have been accessed from a sunken courtyard immediately to the south of the site on which Stele 1 was to be placed. Its doorway was carved out of a single slab of syenite, the same stone as used for the carved stelae.

The excellent craftsmanship followed the same design as the false doors of the Stelae, imitating the timber ‘monkey-head’ method of building. Access to the individual chambers was via a passage lit from above with three roof lights lined with granite. The walls of the passage were of rubble stone, plastered with a gritty render giving the surfaces a similar texture to the solid syenite used for framing the openings and for the roofing slabs.

The floor was originally paved with sandstone in the passage and all of the chambers. The collapse of Stele 1 caused some damage to the nearly completed mausoleum, suggesting that it was abandoned unfinished. This disaster, combined with the conversion of King Ezana, contributed to the end of this approach to burial, although some elements of continuity can be seen in the Tomb of the Brick Arches on the far eastern side of the Main Stelae Park.

  1. Stele 3: The Upright Storeyed Stele

This monolithic stele is the third largest and still stands upright on its original position since it is rising in the early 4th century. It has remained the most prominent symbol of Axumite civilization. It weighs 16o tons & measures 23.6m high above its base plate. The stele is carved on three faces to represent a tower-house of 9 Axumite storeys, windows and doors. The back is undecorated except for a circle carved in relief near the apex.  There is a stone platform with bowl shaped cavities and border of vine leaves around the base. 

  1. Stele 2: The Second Largest Stele (stele Taken to Rome)

It is the second-largest decorated stele in Axum. It has an approximate length of 24.6m and weighs 170 tons. Like stele 1 it is decorated on all its sides depicting 11 storeys, windows and doors of Axumite styles. It has been physically removed by the Italians during the unsuccessful attempt to colonize Ethiopia in 1937 and was erected in Rome for many years in front of the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). It came back to its home after 68 years in three successive Antonov flights between 19 and 23 April, 2005 after a series of efforts by successive Ethiopian scholars, government and the peoples and re-erected at its original historical place on September 4, 2008 with colorful celebration.   

  1. Stele 1: The Great Stele

The most massive of giant obelisks, a tumbled fractured ruin, was believed to have fallen to the ground more than a thousand years previously. In its heyday, thought, it had stood 33m tall and must have dominated the entire area. The archaeological and structural evidence points to its never having stood, having topped over a trace wall on to the Tomp of Nefas Mawcha as it was being raised.  The engineering needed to quary and to transport a single stone, possibly weighing as much as 520 tons over a distance 4km, testifies to the technical and organizational skills of axumites in the early 4th ceentury. It was thought to be the largest single piece of stone ever succefully quarried and erected in the ancient world.

This fallen stele was painstakingly hewn to mimic a high, slender building of 13 storeys – each storey complete with elaborate representations of windows and other details, and demarcated from the next by a row of symbolic beam – ends. At base could be discerned a false door complete with a knocker and lock, all perfectely carved in stone.   

  1. The Tombs of False Door

This tomb is located at the western end of the main stelae field, some 65m west of the Mausoleum. It was excavated by the famous British archaeologist, Niville Chittick, and dates to the late 3rd or the early 4th centuobaries AD. The tomb’s substructure was constructed on horizontally placed huge stone slab measuring at least 7 x 5 am, which itself was placed into a large pit dug deep into the natural clay. The stone slab was probably meant to provide support to the huge structure above. The tomb’s substructure, reached by steps, contains an antechamber and inner chamber that are both surrounded on three sides by a passage. The inner chamber contains a single stone sarcophagus. The tomb is constructed with huge and massive granite slabs. The superstructure may have been a flat-roofed room measuring 12m2 and 2.8m high lying over the roof of the structure, which may have been level with the ancient natural ground surface (chitick,1974). A slab carved with a false door identical to those on the stelae was set vertically in the middle of its south wall, directly above the stairs leading to the tomb.

  1. The Mausoleum

This underground complex of ten burial chambers would have been accessed from a sunken courtyard immediately to the south of the site on which Stele 1 was to be placed. Its doorway was carved out of a single slab of syenite, the same stone as used for the carved stelae. The excellent craftsmanship followed the same design as the false doors of the Stelae, imitating the timber ‘monkey-head’ method of building. Access to the individual chambers was via a passage lit from above with three roof lights lined with granite. The walls of the passage were of rubble stone, plastered with a gritty render giving the surfaces a similar texture to the solid syenite used for framing the openings and for the roofing slabs. The floor was originally paved with sandstone in the passage and all of the chambers.

The collapse of Stele 1 caused some damage to the nearly completed mausoleum, suggesting that it was abandoned unfinished. This disaster, combined with the conversion of King Ezana, contributed to the end of this approach to burial, although some elements of continuity can be seen in the Tomb of the Brick Arches on the far eastern side of the Main Stelae Park.

  1. Nefas Mewcha

To the south of Stele 1 is the world’s largest megalithic tomb (dolmen), measuring 17 x 7m with an estimated weight of 360 tons. This forms the roof to the central part of an underground complex surrounded by spaces on all four sides roofed with smaller granite slabs. Its name means “the place of the going forth of the winds”, derived from the legend that the wind funneling through it would blow out any light. The large stone slab is finely worked on its underside but left unfinished on the upper face, suggesting either that it was to be covered over with earth or that it was left incomplete when Stele 1 collapsed on to it. It was almost certainly planned to be a tomb, part of the Stele 1 complex that included the Mausoleum, but set outside the Stelae Park area demarcated by the terrace wall. This could indicate that the upper terrace was reserved for the close relatives of the king, whereas Nefas Mawcha was for more distant relatives. The grand scale of this structure and the others in the complex are testament to the power of the monarchy at this period in Axum’s history.

  1. The Tomb of the Brick Arches

Believed to be built in the 1st century A.D, the Tomb of the Brick Arches is situated on the northern side of the stele park. By contrast with the regularity of the Mausolem, the layout of the Tomb of Brick Aches is quite irregular, a series of circular chambers each divided in two with rubble wall. The entrance is down a steep flight of carved stone stair lined with rubble walling to the first of the arches from which it is named. This is the earliest known example of a constructed horseshoe arch, possibly inspired by rock – cut example in India. Despite the activity of tomb robbers, the remaining artefacts offer a rich and detailed insight into life at Axum at the Empire. Luxury goods include imported glassware, an intricately carved ivory throne and piece of a decorative box inlaid with colored glass. More mundane articles include mirrors and a wealth of ceramics, indicating specializwd tableware, differenciated cooking vessels, footpaths and containers for cosmetics and hair care products. The locally manufactured goods give an indication of the diversity and sophistication of local crafts that would have been traded throughout the Mediterranean and the Far East. This challenges the view that African trade goods in the regions south of Egypt were entirely primary products – unworked metals, ivory tusks and the like.

  1. Archaeological Museum

The new archeological museum is located at the back of the main stelae field at the compound of the Dejazmach Gebresilsssie Bariya Gabir who was the Governor and Nebure’d of Axum in the early 20th century AD.  The museum displays artifacts collected through archaeological excavations in and around Axum. It also portrays the pre to the post Axumite historic scene related to Axumite Empire in paintings done by local paintings in which tourists can learn a lot about the general development of the entire of Axum.

axum coins Ancient Axumite coins

Axum was the only African state in ancient times, outside the Roman dependencies, to issue its own national coinage. The Axumite coinage lasted from about 270AD, into the early seventh century, and seems to have been used in both external trade and internal market transactions






Religion permeates daily life in Aksum, intimately connecting past and present. The Aksumite Empire was the first state in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion in the fourth century AD. Devotees have not forgotten their roots. Aksum has remained the country’s spiritual nexus, long after the political capital moved south. During religious festivals, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims throng the streets, mingling with priests, monks, nuns, beggars, and sellers of religious trinkets. Candlelit processions re-enact routes worn by centuries of fervent feet. Local churches – some of the world’s earliest – brim with ecclesiastical treasures.

Just a few kilometres beyond the city limits, rock-cut churches are rare jewels reminding of a time when faith literally moved mountains.

Individual Endowments of the Character Area: Religion in Visiting Squence

temple of the ark Axum - Cradle of Cristianity

Axum’s importance, as the first place in the world to adopt Christianity as the State religion, is presented in the Religious route. Celebrating present day rituals, the route begins by retracing the path of the Timket procession, circulating around the Cathedral Precinct, then taking in the more important of religious endowments of city.

Axum was the first ancient Empire to adopt Christianity as the State religion (pre-dating the Roman Empire), in approximately 330AD. Legend speaks of two young slaves from Syria, Frumentius and Aedesius, who were sole survivors of a shipwreck and taken in by Aksum’s royal family. After converting the young King Ezana, Frumentius was sent to Egypt to be appointed as the first bishop of Aksum by the Prelate of Alexandria, thereby setting up a formal relationship between the Egyptian Coptic Church and the Ethiopian Church that survives to the present. Because of its early establishment, Ethiopia’s isolation from the rest of the Christian world for several centuries, and the association with Judaism, religion as practiced in Aksum has strong associations with both Judaism and Islam, including the celebration of the Sabbath (Saturday), regulation on the preparation and consumption of food, and other cultural practices. The purity of religious practice has been preserved because of the city’s status as the religious and ceremonial centre of the country, conferring the spiritual legitimacy of the Solomonic line.Because the centre of government moved south with the decline of the Aksumite Empire, political and economic pressures for change were avoided.

  1. 22. The Nine Saints

Although Christianity as a state religion was introduced in the 4th century, its expansion is attributed   to the Nine Saints of the 6th century. The effort is, thus, sometimes referred to as the “Second Evangelization” of Abyssinia. Despite being of the Middle Eastern origin, the Saints Known by their Ethiopian Christian names: Abune Aftse, Abune Alef, Abune Aregawi, Abune Gerima, Abune Guba, Abune Likanos, Abune Pentaleon, Abune Tsahma, Abune Yemata. Establishing their respective monasteries across Tigrai, north Ethiopia’s region to which Axum belongs, the Syrian Saints tirelessly taught Gospel. The churches they established became not only centers of religious scholarship and artistic excellence but also repositories of magnificent royal treasures and ecclesiastical manuscripts.

  1. Saint Yared: the inventor of Ethiopian church music

It was during that same period that Saint Yared (not one of the Nine Saints, though) of Aksum developed for the church an indigenous musical system not replicated in any part of the world. Yared’s hymns were so moving that even “… the King and the Queen and the bishops and priests and the king’s nobles ran to the church and they spent the day in listening to him.” (Sergew,1972: 163).  Yared’s approach to and influence on Ethiopia’s church music was eclectic. Philosophically, music for Yared was “of a divine, not human origin.” He also combined spiritual singing with dancing or Shibsheba. No other church in the world combines dancing with chanting. Typically, Ethiopian Orthodox priests sing and dance using instruments such as Drum and Sistra, wearing their snow-white ceremonial dresses embroidered with the national tri-colour. The sights and sounds of the Shibsheba are truly soulful. The discovery of the spiritual melodies of the church is believed to be the greatest accomplishment of the 6th century in Ethiopia. Not only was Yared an iconic figure of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s hymnary, but also became Emperor Gebre Meskal’s distinguished cultural advisor. 

He was also a symbol of academic persistence. Apparently, Yared was not that strong academically. He made several unsuccessful attempts before he excelled in school. He was later inspired by the now proverbial insect that dropped down seven times before it successfully climbed up the tree under whose shade Yared was sitting, observing and reminiscing.

  1. Patriarchs from Egypt

One of the two Syrian boys rescued from a ship that capsized in the Red Sea, Frumentius (later Abune Selama) was instrumental in the conversion to Christianity of King Ezana of Axum in the 4th century AD. Abune Selama (Father of peace) was the first patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church. Up until the 20th century, Ethiopia bishops had been appointed by the patriarch of the Coptic church of Egypt before they were ordained in Alexandria. It was only as recently as the 1950s that Ethiopia started to appoint its own patriarch. It is ironic, if not bemusing, though, that Ethiopia – a country where in sovereignty and territorial integrity is a much loftier value than diplomatic relation maintained such an inferior position to a country that competes for domination in all aspects of the bilateral relations. This is indicative, nonetheless, of the close religious ties of the two countries. Most often than not, Ethio – Egypt relations is overshadowed by the dispute over the rights of the use of the waters of the River Nile, whose source is Lake Tana to the far south west of Axum.

  1. Cathedral Complex

Oral tradition suggests that the church of Zion Maryam was built near the site of an earlier shrine but the sanctity of the site has prevented archaeological verification. The only excavations have been to the north of the cathedral podium when new storm water pipes were installed. This confirmed the northern edge of the first church, but did not explore deeper.

The compound comprised a cluster of six interconnected courtyards at the time of the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition in 1906. These have been remodelled, with only the treasury building remaining of the three courtyards and their structures to the north of the church. A new building was constructed to house the Ark of the Covenant, which is only seen by a specially designated monk guardian. A new cathedral was built in the 1960s to the north of the older church, and unlike its predecessor, is open to women, who may also visit the museum housing the treasures of the church. To the south-east of the sacred precincts is a cluster of accommodation for priests, monks and nuns, many of whom engage in the manufacture of church artefacts such as icons, manuscripts and hand-woven fabrics.

  1. Churchyard thrones

The culmination of the public events leading up to the coronation took place in the courtyard in front of the church of Tsion Maryam, the cathedral until the building of the new structure adjacent. The fifteen thrones comprise a pair set separately for the king and Abune, while the remainder forms a line for the twelve judges, representatives of the religious and secular dimensions of his reign. Two of the thrones appear to have been added to form a pair on a single enlarged base, possibly when one of the positions was held jointly by two people. Some of the pillars to the thrones were built into the entrance hall of the Tsion Maryam church. There are several descriptions of the rituals that took place here, including presentation of gifts, the scattering of gold for the people and the anointment of the king. The priests sang chants composed by Yared, the legendary 6th Century priest-musician, for the coronation of GabreMesqal. Rich fabrics covering the thrones and the ground on which the king walked feature in all of the accounts through the period from the time of King Zara Ya’qob in 1434.  The finale to the ritual, after the king had been into the church, was the blessing that took place outdoors at the thrones, in full view of the people. The last of the kings to be crowned at Aksum was Yohannes IV in 1872.

  1. Emperor Yohannes’s Cannons

The culmination of the public events leading up to one observes two artillery cannons placed on each side of the western gate of the old St. Mary cathedral of Aksum. The artillery guns are mounted on cart-like metal wheels drawn by human or animal force. These weapons were captured by Emperor Yohannes IV who is one of the patriotic leaders who died defending their country from foreign aggressors. Before he was killed by retreating Sudanese Dervish militias, he fought deadly wars against the invading army of Egypt’s Khedive Ismael from whom he captured sizeable armaments.  The two cannons placed at the western entrance of St. Mary’s cathedral at Aksum are samples of the weapons he seized in 1875-76 in the historic battle fields of Gundet and Gurae. Inscribed in Arabic on the canons is apparently the name of Ismael. The cannons symbolize Ethiopia’s stunning successive victories which temporarily toned down the perpetual Egyptian aspiration to control the source of the Blue Nile. Not much is known why these artilleries were kept in a place of worship, but the keeping of the arms in such a highly revered church may not be all too surprising, given the fact that the king of kings was a devout Christian, who enjoyed calling himself “the king of Zion”.  It could as well be a stern message to friends and foes alike. Certainly, no place was more high-profile than Mariam Tsion of Aksum to show off the king’s invincibility.

  1. Tseftsef

The monumental steps to the church of Zion Maryam are the site of religious and other ceremonial events, including coronations. The David Throne at the top of the stairs was used for anointing the newly crowned king, marking the culmination of the ceremony. Tseftsef however, had a more significant role in the lives of the people, because any pronouncement by the king or a priest from the stairs had the force of law.

  1. The Old Rectangular Church

The present church, built in the mid-17th Century under the Emperor Fasilidas, is located south of the original five-aisled church built at the time of the Aksumite Empire. The outline of the 4th Century building can be traced in the 3.4m high podium on which the present church stands. The original church was burned down by Queen Gudit in the 10th Century, and rebuilt only to be destroyed by Imam Ahmad bin Ibrahim (Gragn the Left Handed) in 1535. Fortunately, the Portuguese visitor Alvarez described it just before its destruction, from his observations of 1520. Traces of the Aksumite walling can be seen in the large dressed corner stones on the southern and eastern sides of the podium. Between them, the rubble walling steps back each metre up the face, with a course of slate to shed water from the ledges formed by the stepping. The existing building is not accessible to women: oral tradition links this to the sack of Aksum by the Jewish Queen Gudit, but religious authorities explain that its origin as a monastic house is the reason. It would appear that this prohibition did not apply to the earlier church, as the Prophet Mohammed’s wives, seeking sanctuary at Aksum, brought back descriptions of the beauty of the church and its murals. The church is unusual in having a sanctuary longer than the nave, although Ethiopian ritual predominantly takes place out of doors. The name of the church apparently derives from its altar stone that is said to have come from Mount Zion.

  1. The Chaple: final resting place of the Ark of Covenant

Despite Solomon’s entreaty to persuade his son to stay in his kingdom, the Ethiopian prince declined to accept his father’s offer and, instead, chose to return to his beloved Axsum. Most significant to Ethiopians is the journey back to his homeland. As was the custom or perhaps royal protocol then in Israel, any journey of a king’s son included the sons of the chief priests of Jerusalem. Accordingly, the Ethiopian prince was accompanied by Zadok’s son, Azarias - who actually stole the original Ark of the Covenant of God from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. After a long and arduous journey through Egypt and the Sudan across the Sahara Desert, the holy object arrived in Axum, where it is safely kept ever since. The possession of this sacred object makes Axum the holiest city of our universe. As is known, the Ark contains the stone tablets in which God inscribed the Ten Commandments.

As described in the Bible, Moses received detailed instructions from the Almighty regarding the size, design, construction and content of the Ark. Hence, the Ark is referred to in Ethiopia as Tselate Muse (Mose’s Ark). For many historians, the mysterious disappearance of the original Ark of the Covenant of God from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem has remained inexplicable, if not enigmatic. Such a murky historical cleavage has driven the entire world into a historical wilderness. No other single ecclesiastical object has ever attracted so much interest and triggered so much debate in modern history. Often, the unconventional debate has been between Western scholars and ordinary Ethiopians, who remained stubborn advocates of their history.

Although no other country in the world has claimed ownership of the sacred relic, it took Ethiopians millennia to convince the enlightened world that they are the God-chosen guardians of the one-of-a-kind relic. In recent times, apparently, the world has reluctantly recognized Axum’s persistent and unequivocal claim as the final resting place of the ‘lost’ Ark of the Covenant of God.

Of course, one side of the issue has to do with proof. But the flip side of it is faith. And in Axum, faith overrides all other considerations. As the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Pawlos, proclaimed, “…faith does not go well with scientific proof. We don’t doubt it, that it is here, in our place. We don’t have to prove it to anyone. You want to believe, it’s your privilege. If you don’t want to believe, it’s your own privilege again… It is here and we believe it.” (Munro Hay 2005:39). The Ark of the Covenant of God remains “the sign and seal” of God’s presence on Earth.

In Axum, this is a perpetual fundamental value. For Axumites, this is a cradle-to-grave lesson taught with ardor through candlelight stories. As Munro-Hay corroborates, “the Ark retains an unusual prominence, being not merely a tantalizing mystery of the past but a living daily presence.”(2005, p.2) Today, the Ark, placed in a special chapel in the compound of the church dedicated to St. Mary of Tsion in Aksum, is the most revered and venerated object in Ethiopia. Replicas of the Ark are kept in all the country’s tens and thousands of churches, where only the most senior members of the clergy could visit. But no powerful ruler of an empire or a celebrated saint is allowed to have even a slight glimpse of the genuine Ark in Aksum. An earthly power, humanly wisdom, material wealth or any quid pro quo does not guarantee access to the Ark.

The guardian of the Ark - appointed only by his predecessor – is the only soul who has access to the Ark. Adhering to a very strict disciple and performing meticulous rituals, the guardian-for-life monk treats the Ark with utmost sacredness it deserves. For example, he has to pray and burn incense before approaching the object. Mistreatment of the powerful Ark or any deviation from the divine norms could have destructive consequences not only to the guardian himself but also to the entire polity. Thunderous physical destruction, sweeping natural calamities and even crippling disease could strike in a light of speed. Theories about the nature and power of the Ark are legion and polarized. For the Aksumite faithful, the Ark is an embodiment of God, whereas for those entrenched in rationality and science, it is a miraculous instrument invented in Mount Sinai. No volume of evidence is enough to bridge such an abyss gulf of departure points

 Every year, thousands of pilgrims return to Axum to receive the blessing of the Ark in a colourful procession in which its replicates, covered in richly ornamented fabric, is paraded through the streets of the city. The Ark is not an object like any other. The Axumites cannot stop it should it wish to leave Axum. Nor was it brought to Axum because of human wisdom or trickery. It is only God’s will and desire that has kept it in Axum. It is because of the profundity of the faith of the Axumites that God has chosen Axum as the final resting place of the Ark.

  1. The Ancient Church of Saint Mary of Tsion

The Ancient Saint Mary Church in Axum was the first church to be built in black Africa. Perhaps it was Ethiopia’s only built-up church for about two centuries – from the 4th AD to the 6th AD. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian pilgrims who seek for a genuine Christian transformation descend to Axum at least once every year. The power of St. Mary of Axum is so miraculous that the deaf, the sightless, the sad, the misfit and the sinful all march towards Axum to seek for mercy, healing or confession.

Even the seemingly invincible, the wealthy and the most knowledgeable human creatures kneel down in front of her doorsteps. Others journey to Axum to beg Our Virgin Lady for their dreams to come true. Holding out hope of fulfilling their wishes, particularly many infertile women and men flock to Axum from all corners of the country. The colorful celebrations of St. Mary’s day (November 30 in most years) and Palm Sunday (Hosa’ena) in the Zion of Axum attract thousands of visitors every year.

Unfortunately, it was not always all roses for Axum and its churches. Around the 10th century AD, for example, Judith - a pagan queen from the south - razed the country’s many churches, including the first-ever church to be built in sub-Saharan Africa. Although it was later rebuilt, the church was destroyed again in the 16th century by a Muslim rebel from eastern Ethiopia – Imam Ahmed (Ahmed Gragn, Ahmed the left handed). Today, one can only see the ruins of the edifice. The rubbles hardly portray the values and significance Ethiopian Christians attach to the church, which many believe was built in “a miraculously dried lake.”

To the north and south side of the ruined building lie two churches – both dedicated to Saint Mary - of distinct architectural orientation. As is known Ethiopia’s church architecture generally falls into two categories: rectangular and round (circular). Churches built in or before the 17th century AD are rectangular, whereas those built after that period tend to be round. This fact is evident in Axum’s St. Mary churches. Built by emperor Fasiledes in the 17th century, the older church imitates the architectural motifs of the palaces of Fasiledes at Gondar. Its interior is adorned by exquisite murals depicting biblical stories.

.33. The church museum

This houses the treasures of the church, the most noteworthy of which are a series of golden crowns, woolen dresses, golden crosses and parchment manuscripts, among many other things. In store are also goods donated by faithful individuals whose wishes and dreames they confided to St. Mary were fulfilled.

  1. The modern Cathedral of Saint Mary

This cathedral was completd in 1964, inaugurated by Emperor Haile Selassie, the last king in the long line of Solomonic Dynasty, with Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom as his guest. It was designed by Greek architects, with a large centralized dome that appears to hover above the main space because of the ring of widows at its base. Unlike many of the religiousbuildings in the comlex, the Cathedral is welcome people of both genders.

  1. Mekeyede Egzi (Steps of Christ)

On the flank of Mai Qoho is a flight of stairs formed in the natural rock that is the source of a legend in which Christ helped the jointly ruling Kings Ezana and Saizana to drain a swamp by causing dust to fall from heaven. The legend speaks of the building of the stelae to placate the homeless swamp spirits, and that the gold that rained from heaven with the dust was used to build the first church in Axum, the original Zion Maryam.

  1. Rock-cut Shrine

Cut into the hillside of Mai Qoho is a shrine attributed to Abune Libanos, one of the legendary Nine Saints who took refuge from persecution in Syria in the 6th Century A.D. At the time, the king of Axum was Taizena, father of King Kaleb. Ethiopian religious literature, mostly hand-written in the ancient Ge’ez script, speak of the many miracles and gadlan (struggles) that characterised their mission of converting the general population to Christianity. There are several rock-cut churches dedicated to Abune Libanos in the Tigrai region and further south at Lalibela.


Aksum’s living traditions are sustained by the legends that course through its veins. The Queen of Sheba Bath is a monument to a revered ruler who is celebrated across religious texts. Her role in the descent of the Aksum dynasty from King Solomon is described in the Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings), which gives an account of her journey to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC. Their union yielded the future king of Ethiopia, Menelek I, who crossed the Red Sea to claim his birthright, and carried back to Aksum the Ark of the Covenant. Recent archaeological excavations may give substance to these oral traditions, legitimising Aksum as both a birthplace of myth, and a seat of verifiable history.


The legend of Makda, Queen of Sheba, and her son, Menelik I, the first Solomonic king of Axum, is the theme of the route that takes the visitor to the sites associated with these personalities, and up in to the part of the city where the oldest habitation has been discovered.

  1. The Mai’shum Reservoir

Mai Shum is connected with Queen of Sheba. The name itself has two components: “Mai” (water) and “shum” (chief) – the “chieftain’s water.”  Situated on the northern part of the city, Mai Shum is believed to have been the site of the queen’s swimming pool.  It is continually replenished by the water that flows from the Mai Hejja stream. Modified in recent times, the dam-like structure is partly carved out of rock and partly built with stone and cement mortar.

Ever since the introduction of Christianity to Aksum, the pond-like reservoir is used to celebrate Timkat (Epiphany), during which its holy water is sprinkled to the Christian faithful.  Historians hypothesize that it - as a source of water - could also be the principal reason why Aksum was, in the first place, chosen as a site of settlement and seat of the great empire. Evidences indicate that it served as a source of water supply to the gardens in the vicinity of Aksum.  In fact, the site where the original Mariam Tsion cathedral rested is thought to have been a lake.


Existing building types and craft practices in Axum have remained unchanged for centuries. The visitor is taken on a winding route through the Old City to engage with craftspeople, and enjoy a traditional coffee ceremony and ethnographic museums. The route is best experienced on foot, allowing the visitor to explore, stop for refreshment and engage with shopkeepers and craftsmen, to absorb the unique atmosphere. This route can be started at any time of the day.

  1. Old Town and Present Life

Archaeological evidence suggests that the first settlement at Axum was on the hill of Beta Giyorgis, overlooking the plain on which the centre of the town is presently sited. As the city expanded during the Empire, large dwellings were built on the flat land to the south-west of this hill, with the area around the Gudit Stelae Field being used as an extensive manufacturing centre, with evidence of stone carving, ivory working and carpentry, supplying the practical and luxury goods that were exported as far afield as Spain and China. Grave goods from the Tomb of the Brick Arches and the Mausoleum have many similarities with modern crafts, including basketwork, ceramics and beadwork.

The manufacture of indigenous beer, the coffee ceremony and the preparation of injera, a pancake of the indigenous teff grain, are examples of ancient practices that survive authentically into the present. The ethnographic museums, located at various points within the Old Town, preserve a complete way of life in houses that date too long before their first documentation in 1906 by the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition. Ancient methods of animal slaughter, conforming to religious dictate, and techniques of leather working, especially for use in the manufacture of religious artefacts, can still be found within the city.

  1. Melaka Axum (Old Town)

The area to the south and west of the Cathedral complex is representative of the traditional architecture of Aksum, with square and circular houses of rubble stone walling, one or two storeys high, some with basements. Pitched roofs were traditionally of thatch, but most have been replaced with profiled steel sheeting. The ethnographic museums are restored traditional houses that give a clear impression of the interior architectural quality, decorative treatment and lifestyle of the people.

The original layout of this part of the town would have had narrow, winding roads, as can still be seen on the foothills of Beta Giorgis. The dominant street pattern of broad radiating and grids on the plain below was given by Ras Mengesha Seyoum in the 1960s in an effort to modernize the town.

In the 4th and 5th Centuries, this part of the city would have been dominated by extremely large elite residences set within rectangular ranges of ancillary buildings. The density of the city has prevented extensive excavation, so the street layout and forms of the smaller buildings between these palaces has not been established.

  1. Ta’akha Maryam

Ta’akha Maryam is the smallest of the three elite dwelling complexes recorded by the Deutsche Aksum-Expedition, measuring 120 x 80m with a central pavilion of 24 x 24m, six times the size of the contemporary palace at Hadramawt in South Arabia. The central structure of nine rooms was raised on a high platform reached by grand flights of dressed stone stairs. The corner rooms, two of which had staircases to at least one upper level, project beyond the main volume to resemble towers, as described by the 6th Century merchant, Kosmas Indikopleustes. The main rooms were of generous size, the largest being 7 x 6m, would have had timber or stone pillars to support the roof or upper floor.

The outer range of buildings formed a series of courtyards around the pavilion, together housing the service functions of the public rooms in the centre.

One of the column bases of fluted octagonal form, discovered in a small portico in the southern wing, can be seen in the Ezana Gardens. The perimeter was built in the classic Aksum style, with stepped rubble walling layered with slate coursing between massive dressed corner stones, some of which are still visible. Regularly spaced abutments, ten on each of the long sides and six to seven on the shorter, would have given additional strength to the walls.

  1. Inda Sem’on, Addi kilte

Enda Seymon is the largest of the elite dwellings to be excavated, with a pavilion measuring 35m square containing two halls 19 x 10m, each of which needed 28 columns to support the structure above. As with Ta’akha Maryam and Enda Mikael, these structures have been dated to the late 4th and early 5th Centuries when the Aksumite Empire was at its height. Evidence from contemporary tombs would suggest that these buildings were elaborately decorated and furnished with the richest luxury goods of local and international manufacture. The decorated stelae of this period give an indication of the refinement of architectural detail, especially the characteristic window and door detailing.

  1. Inda mika’el Addi kilte

This is ruined palace in the old town examined by the DAE in 1906 that dates between the 4th and 5th centuries AD.The central pavilion of Enda Mikael measures 27x27m, comprising ten rooms following with the same pattern as Ta’aka Mariam except with one of the central rooms subdivided.


The Dwelling Compounds - In a survey of the areas of old Axum a recurrent typology of buildings can be identified. The original dwelling unit is a compound: a curvilinear precinct containing one or more isolated buildings. The precinct in the Tigrai region is made of stones collected from the farmed fields around. Also, in the case of sloping terrain, the precinct corresponds with the contour line and the containing walls which are also used for agricultural purposes.

Often, mainly in more rural areas, compounds are formed by fences made by thorn bushes. Inside the compound, even in examples that can be found in the very centre of the city of Aksum, the land is used for growing small crops, vegetable patches, and keeping cattle, sheep and goats. In wealthy dwellings the land inside the compound may be kept just as a garden. The compound is the evidence of a subsistence economy based on the "plough and cereals complex".

The precinct is the border between private land and the outside; the village, the road. In the richest dwellings the passage between outside and inside is marked by a portal built in the wall, with a canopy roof above it, and a wooden door that is sometimes decorated.

There can also be two consecutive portals to be crossed before reaching the internal core of the compound. The last portal, similar in shape, is the door of the house. It is the precinct that makes the village, the city, and, on a vaster scale, the built landscape.

  1. Fitewrari Belay’s Ethnographic Museum

This is a typical house of Tigraian aristocrats. Past the main gate is a wide open barn surrounded by stone walls, which make up the fence of the compound. The house itself is a one-storey building, the central ceiling of which is dome-shaped. The ceiling is made of large wooden beams, bamboo and elephant grass, several non-free-standing columns support the building. Windows of double – arched wooden frames provide the building an imperial grace. It has also several false windows the purpose of which is mainly decorative, although they are commonly used as shelves and often for placing the traditional kerosene-and-cord source of light-kuraz. A series of hangers of horn are also firmly embedded in the wall.

The house is now inhabited by the descendants of a 20th century aristocrat Fitewrari Belay. The residence-turned museum displays household paraphernalia, including kitchen ware, pottery products, baskets, musical instruments, equestrian decorations, glassware, and wood-and-leather chairs, among many other things.

  1. Weizero Etenesh Ethnographic Museum

This circular traditional Tigraian building is located between Mariam Zion and the church of the Four Beasts. It is a compartmentalized one-storey structure. Its ceiling is hand – decorated with clothes and bamboo in a style called chimchema. Still inhabited, it is a place where one could see the typical, living Tigraian culture. Among other things, household materials, farming tools and musical instrumentals are in display.

The Character Area: Dungur Palace

  1. Dungur Palace

The Dungur palace is an elite dwelling located on the road to Shire, just outside the built-up parts of the city which has preserved far more of the archaeological evidence than the inner city structures. Since its initial excavation and dating by Anfray in the 1960s as late 6th Century, its legendary attribution as the palace of the Queen of Sheba has been dismissed. However, very recent exploratory work is revealing a far older structure beneath the 2m high podium.

The layout of the complex is extremely similar to the elite dwellings within the town, with a central free-standing pavilion reached by stairs on two facades and surrounded on all four sides by courtyards lined with ancillary buildings. These have provided evidence of use as bakeries, cold stores and bathing rooms, complete with water storage and drainage system.

  1. The Gudit Stelae Field

The Gudit stelae field is situated on the south of the Shire road, opposite the Dungur palace. Its name derives from Queen Gudit who sacked the city in the late 10th century, though the dating of tombs associated with the stelae point to an earlier date. Most of the stelae are rough, of undressed stone, with many of them overturned or irregular angles, so this attribution may refer merely to its appearance and the association of Gudit with the overturning of other stelae.

Evidences from the few excavated tombs show that this was the burial ground of the middle and lower classes, with modest pit graves containing a limited range and quantity of grave goods. The dating of these is 2nd and 3rd century, while many of reuse of one of the stelae base plates in the place of Dungur suggests that the cemetery had fallen out of use by the 6th century.     


Church of the Four Beasts is located to the west of the old church of Tsion Maryam, behind a tall wall facing the Daero Ela Piazza. The sanctity of the site is reflected in the number of citizens kissing the wall as they pass by. The Deutsche Aksum-Expedition of 1906 shows this church as being circular, gaining its present square format in the 1960s. It is noted for its beautiful baptistery and for the paintings within the church. Beneath the sanctuary are two Aksumite shaft tombs, not accessible to visitors, however several carved stones from the same period can be seen in the church