The history of Axum

We stopped to take photo’s at a church not sure if it was the Church of St Mary where the Ark is kept. A small voice suddenly said behind me that this is the church of 4 languages. I asked him where the famous Church of St Mary is and he said he will show us and be our guide if we wish. Our new guide’s name was Bahran and13 years old. He proudly told us that he passed to grade 9 and that it is now there 6 week summer holiday in Axum.   He hopped into the Hilux sitting with me in the front seat telling us that he is going to become a “famous engineer” because the country needs him to help recover the economy. He told us that he already made up his study roster for the new school year. I asked him if his mother helped him with that on which he said that she could not help him with the roster and that she does not even knows anything about his studies. His mom is baking enjera to sell to the poor people and his dad is a sheep farmer who stays on the farm while they, his mother, him and 2 sisters stays in central Axum, renting a house “ we stay in the middle house” he said. He was a total fascinating child and cute beyond words! He showed us the Northern Stellae field telling us about the Italians, took us to Queens Sheba’s bath, showed us the Church of St Mary’s where they were busy with a special pilgrimage ritual, took us to King Kaleb’s Palace and the so called ruin of Queen Sheba’s palace. We thoroughly enjoyed the sightseeing drive with him. He also took us to the Eritrea Corridor complaining about Ethiopia’s President that won’t make peace with Eritrea. He also invited us to his home for coffee which we sadly had to decline because we had to drive to Hawsen in Tigray before dark. He asked our email address because his mother gave him the previous day 10birr and he then ran to the internet café to open a Gmail address, Skype and Facebook so now he can email us with “hallo my South African father and motherSend a kissWhen we asked him what we must pay him, he said he do not want money but need a school uniform because the uniform changes for grade 9’s. He is really a very special child!!

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The Church of St Mary’s where the Ark is supposedly kept

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In front of Sheba’s supposedly palace. Bahran took the photo.

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Did Sheba really lived here…..?

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This was Queen’s Sheba’s bath

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View of the Church of St Mary and the big Obelisk 

IMG_0340IMG_0335IMG_0305IMG_0343                                                                    The Monastery

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Axum city

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On their way to church

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The Eritrea Corridor

Now for the history of Axum…..hope it is not too boring!

Northern Ethiopia consisted of migrants from Southwest Arabia. They arrived during the first millennium B.C. and brought Semitic speech, writing, and a distinctive stone-building tradition to northern Ethiopia. They seem to have contributed directly to the rise of the Aksumite kingdom, a trading state that prospered in the first centuries of the Christian era and that united the shores of the southern Red Sea commercially and at times politically. It was an Aksumite king who accepted Christianity in the mid-fourth century, a religion that the Aksumites bequeathed to their successors along with their concept of an empire-state under centralized rulership.

Kingship and Orthodoxy, both with their roots in Aksum, became the dominant institutions among the northern Ethiopians in the post-Aksumite period. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a dynasty known as the Zagwe ruled from their capital in the northern highlands. The Zagwe era is one of the most artistically creative periods in Ethiopian history, involving among other things the carving of a large number of rock-hewn churches.

In these regions, the two dominant peoples of what may be termed the “Christian kingdom of Ethiopia,” the Amhara of the central highlands and the Tigray of the northern highlands, confronted the growing power and confidence of Muslim peoples who lived between the eastern edge of the highlands and the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In religious and ethnic conflicts that reached their climax in the mid sixteenth century, the Amhara and Tigray turned back a determined Muslim advance with Portuguese assistance, but only after the northern highlands had been overrun and devastated. The advent of the Portuguese in the area marked the end of the long period of isolation from the rest of Christendom that had been near total, except for contact with the Coptic Church of Egypt. The Portuguese, however, represented a mixed blessing, for with them they brought their religion–Roman Catholicism. During the early seventeenth century, Jesuit and kindred orders sought to impose Catholicism on Ethiopia, an effort that led to civil war and the expulsion of the Catholics from the kingdom. The period of trials that resulted from the Muslim invasions, the Oromo migrations, and the challenge of Roman Catholicism had drawn to a close by the middle of the seventeenth century. During the next two-and-one-half centuries, a reinvigorated Ethiopian state slowly reconsolidated its control over the northern highlands and eventually resumed expansion to the south, this time into lands occupied by the Oromo.

Drought, economic mismanagement, and the financial burdens of war ravaged the economy.   The kingdom of Axum was the ruling power that ruled the region from about 400 BC into the 10th century. The kingdom was also arbitrarily identified as Abyssinia, Ethiopia, and India in medieval writings. In 1980 UNESCO added Aksum’s archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Site .

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 main primary sources.

It is believed it began a long slow decline after the 7th century due partly to Islamic groups contesting 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 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 so that it moved further inland and bequeathed its alternative place name (Ethiopia) to the region, and eventually, the modern state.

The Kingdom of Aksum 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.[4] 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.

In 1937, a 24-metre 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 as of the end of July 2008 the obelisk had been reinstalled. Rededication of the obelisk took place on 4 September 2008 in Paris, France with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi dedicating the obelisk to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano for his efforts in returning the obelisk.

Even though much of Axum’s history is still shrouded in semi-darkness, it is clear that Axum was and still is the capital of the Christianity religion, reaching it’s peak at the reign of Ezana in the 4th century and upheld its position for about 12 centuries.

Whatever else can or cannot be said about Axum, since much of its early history is still shrouded in semi-darkness. It was certainly a city known well to Greek traders as the center of a considerably large empire, which “dominated the vital crossroads of Africa and Asia for almost a thousand years” (Ethiopian Tourism Commission, Spectrum Guide to Ethiopia). Classical Greek was used by King Ezana as one of the languages of stone inscriptions, stones which were used as coins at that time.

Axum declined between the 9th and 13th centuries, notably due to the twin threats posed to it by the rebellion of the legendary Queen Yodit (also popularly known as Gudit) and the fast spread of Islam at the time, though it did not suffer a direct attack by the latter.

Axum was revived about 1270, with the renaissance that saw the expanding of the empire and the flourishing of Ethiopic (religious) literature. It started to lose its footing and, then, decline once and for all as the glorious city it had been towards the end of the 16th century, eventually giving way to different towns as seats of various kings, princes, and warlords, until, in the middle of the 16th century Gondar replaced it as the permanent capital of expanding Ethiopia. One thing that Axum had been, and still is, is Christianity’s religious capital.  

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