Kingdom of Axum: Ethiopia’s Lost Empire

Axum, Ethiopia may be the most interesting place no one has ever heard of. It was once the center of Africa’s largest ancient civilization, rivaling Rome and Persia. But sometime during the 10th century, the Kingdom of Axum (also spelled Aksum) collapsed.

 

Given its remote location, high on the Ethiopian plateau, the once-great Kingdom of Axum was promptly forgotten by the world. The first major excavation was in 1906 — after which the city was ignored again until 1992. To date, 90% of the city’s most famous landmark remains unexplored. In other words, Axum is a historical marvel waiting to be discovered.

 

If you’re patient, open-minded, and take your time, you’ll be fascinated by what you find here. But if you’re expecting Angkor Wat or Petra, you’re likely to be disappointed. This is a city bound to draw more questions than answers.

 

Intrigued yet? In this post, I’ll cover the major attractions in Axum and a few practicalities for your visit.

 

Start here: The Axum Museum

 

The purpose of the Kingdom of Aksum's famous stelae is still a mystery
The purpose of the Kingdom of Axum’s famous stelae is still a mystery

 

The Axum Museum is the best place to start your exploration of the Kingdom of Axum. Before you dismiss me with “I’m not a museum person,” hear me out.

 

On the surface, the town of Axum bears little resemblance to the superpower it once was. And while there are a handful of very visible relics, for the most part, the treasures are hidden.

 

The Axum Museum does a beautiful job putting Axum’s rise and fall into context. It goes through how the city dealt with construction, water supply, and defense. It displays artifacts from former royals. And it provides a good overview of the cultural crossroads in this corner of Ethiopia — tablets inscribed in three languages and a Bible written entirely in Ge’ez. Finally, it lays out a few theories about what caused the kingdom’s decline.

 

You can see the museum in about about an hour and admission is included with the rest of Axum’s ancient attractions. So you might as well breeze through. You’ll get a lot more out of the rest of the historical sites if you do.

 

Essential historical sites

 

The area around town contains dozens, if not hundreds, of small excavations. But you can get a good taste of the Kingdom of Axum at these sites near the city center.

 

A $2.50 ticket buys you admission to all of Axum’s historical sites. Be sure to purchase your ticket at the Stelae Park entrance first — some of the outlying sites will check it.

 

You can arrange an official guide at the booth right next to the ticket office. This is really only worth it if you don’t have a guidebook or other reading material about Axum. The Bradt Guide makes a good companion for exploring the ancient city.

 

The Stelae Park

 

The Kingdom of Axum's iconic fallen stellae
The iconic fallen stellae

 

If you’ve seen any photos of Axum, this is what they’re of. The Stelae Park consists of something like 120 stone obelisks in various states of carving, disrepair, preservation, and collapse.

 

The most iconic of the stelae is the largest, although it can be hard to tell. Originally 33 meters high, it now lies in pieces on the ground. You can even walk underneath it — if you want to take your chances with a 500+ ton stone collapsing on top of you!

 

No one knows exactly what the purpose of the stelae was, although it’s widely believed that they were not meant to be religious. They were constructed over the span of at least several centuries. You’ll notice the different styles — it’s possible their significance even changed over time.

 

As you wander through the stelae park, be sure to check out the tombs that lie below it. A couple are open to the public. They contain burial chambers, possibly of rulers of the Kingdom of Axum.

 

King Ezana’s Park

 

Right smack-dab in the center of town is one of Axum’s most important historical artifacts. A large tablet inscribed in Ge’ez, Greek and Sabaean has occupied the same spot since the 4th century.

 

Wander around the pretty, quiet park and see what else you can find. There are pillars, stone slabs, and small artifacts in fenced-off areas — you wouldn’t even know they were important if they didn’t have yellow tape around them. It’s the kind of place where you could literally trip over a 2,000-year-old artifact and never know it.

 

Queen of Sheba’s Pool

 

The stairs leading to the Queen of Sheba's Bath are supposedly pretty old...
The stairs are supposedly pretty old…

 

Did the mythical Queen of Sheba really use this dank-looking body of stagnant water as a bath? Doubtful, but the pool is still steeped in legend and worth a stop for that reason alone.

 

It’s possible that the pool actually pre-dates the city of Axum, and that the city takes its name from the pool. Look for the stone steps leading down to the water — they could be as much as 3,000 years old!

 

To reach the pool, face the stelae park and follow the road to your right. It goes around a bend. Look for the families washing their cars in the nearby stream.

 

Ezana Inscription

 

You can see the Ge'ez and Greek inscribed in this photo -- the Sabaean is on the other side
You can see the Ge’ez and Greek inscribed in this photo — the Sabaean is on the other side

 

This stone tablet is fascinating for its indication of the Kingdom of Axum as a cultural crossroads. It’s inscribed in three languages — Greek, Sabaean, and Ge’ez.

 

The inscription is from King Ezana’s rein, and serves as an offering of gratitude for the conquest of Yemen (hence the Sabaean — an ancient Yemeni language).

 

The tablet stands along the side of the road, in the middle of a field. It’s manned by a guard. Keep an eye out on your left, heading out of town on the road from the Queen of Sheba’s Pool, and you’ll see a little hut just before you reach the hill — the tablet is under that hut. The guard (who speaks no English) will expect a tip.

 

Royal Tombs

 

An Axumite Cross on the wall of one of the tombs
An Axumite Cross on the wall of one of the tombs

 

Two notable tombs of emperors of the Kingdom of Axum make an easy side trip from the town center.

 

Gebre Meskel and Emperor Kaleb both ruled during the 6th century. Local lore claims they lived in palaces above these tombs and are buried in them. That may or may not be true. All we really know is there were once palaces here, and now there are tombs.

 

Bring a headlamp into the tombs to look for the iconic Axumite crosses on the walls. Explore the network of tunnels that were once filled with riches — before the grave-robbers got to them. The local guy manning the site will tell you the tunnels run all the way to Yemen (you’ll hear a lot of questionable lore in Axum; it all adds to the mysticism).

 

The tombs are easy to find. They’re under a canvass cover at the top of the hill from the Ezana Inscription. It’s about a 30 minute walk down the dirt road, with pretty views of the surrounding teff fields. The staff will check your ticket and show you around with no hassle for tips.

 

Dongar Palace

 

Walking through the palace's collapsed walls
Walking through the palace’s collapsed walls

 

Perhaps the most interesting and evocative of the ruins from the Kingdom of Axum, Dongar Palace dates to no later than the 7th century — although it could even be from pre-Christian times.

 

The entire floorplan is intact. You can wander among the ruins of its 50+ rooms and high-tech drainage system. Climb atop the little platform at the back to get an aerial view and a sense of scale. Clearly this was Axum’s most impressive ancient building.

 

Across the street is the Gudit Stelae Field. There isn’t much here, but it’s significant because the locals claim the Queen of Sheba was buried there (again, doubtful).

 

The palace is about 1 km out of town. Follow the main road west, past the market, and you’ll see it on your right. The staff check tickets without a fuss and they won’t even offer to show you around — you’re free to explore this one on your own.

 

Religious Buildings

 

If you thought the Kingdom of Axum’s history was strange, just wait until you start exploring its spiritual side.

 

Cathedral of Maryam Tsion

 

Ladies leaving after a service at the Cathedral of Maryam Tsion
Ladies leaving after a service at the Cathedral of Maryam Tsion

 

Talk to anyone from Axum about what makes their hometown so special and this is the first place they’ll name. What looks like any old church to outsiders is, to Ethiopians, where the original Ark of the Covenant is held.

 

Of course, visitors are not permitted to see it. In fact, the Ark of the Covenant’s guardian is the only person permitted to see it, and he names his own successor.

 

Anyone with a healthy dose of skepticism may wonder whether the famed document actually exists at all, let alone whether it’s authentic — but if you express your skepticism to the locals you’ll be laughed out of the room.

 

The church complex costs $10 to visit. The main appeal is just to say you visited the church where the Ark of the Covenant is held. The fee is especially steep for women, who are not permitted to enter the main church — I opted not to pay and just walked around the outside.

 

You can’t miss the cathedral if you’re in central Axum. It’s directly across from the Stelae Park.

 

Pantalewon Monastery

 

This stunning hilltop religious complex is historically significant and very ancient. It’s been around since the 6th century.

 

Half the fun here is just the views out over Axum and the valley. But there are also a couple of churches and other monastery buildings. Women are not permitted to enter the ancient church, only the more modern one below it.

 

Entrance costs $5. To get to the church, head to Kaleb and Gebre Meskel’s tombs and follow the signs.

 

Practicalities for exploring the Kingdom of Axum

 

Axum is a fairly common stop on the “historical circuit” through northern Ethiopia. It sees a steady trickle of tourist traffic. But it’s still Ethiopia, so expect to have the more outlying sites to yourself. The flip side is the modern town is pretty scruffy.

 

Where to stay in Axum

 

A gravitational force that lures in any and all backpackers that pass by, the Africa Hotel is where you’ll most likely end up. Even mid-range travelers tend to accidentally find themselves here.

 

That’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s a perfectly acceptable, clean, friendly hotel. It has plenty of rooms. The water works (and sometimes it’s even hot). There’s free WiFi and laundry service, a bar downstairs, a free airport shuttle and a good tourist agency. It’s in a fairly convenient location near several good restaurants, but a bit of a walk from the Stelae Park. Rooms start at $5 a night.

 

The Ark Hotel right next-door offers similar rooms at similar prices, but it’s much less backpacker-friendly. Only try it if the Africa is full.

 

If you absolutely can’t live without Western amenities, the Sabean International Hotel is pretty much your only option. Rooms start at $50 a night and nothing about this place looked worth the money.

 

Where to eat

 

Good coffee abound in Axum
Good coffee abound in Axum

 

Axum has a pretty wide selection of eateries. There are a handful of traditional restaurants, a few cafes, and decent informal places to grab a quick bite.

 

AB Traditional Restaurant and Bar is Axum’s best restaurant. It’s traditionally decorated and has a large menu of very tasty Ethiopian food. Prices are reasonable — you can easily get out of here under $4. They supposedly have live music some nights, but I was never able to figure out when. It’s across from Ezana Park on the way to the Stelae Park.

 

If you’re staying at the Africa Hotel, pop over to Lucy Cultural Restaurant for dinner. It’s a simple place mostly catering to Ethiopian families, but they have an English menu (even if half the dishes on it are never available).

 

On top of its historical treasures, Ezana Park has its very own open-air cafe. It’s a delightful place for a quick meal if the weather is good. They serve sandwiches, stir-fries, and Ethiopian mainstays. The owner is very friendly and the epitome of a local proud of his hometown.

 

Axum Central Cafe is the place to be in the mornings, or if you just want to hang out with Axum’s young and hip. The free WiFi attracts all the local entrepreneurs, and the great (and cheap) breakfast selection draws crowds of families. It’s on the second floor above the bank, opposite Ezana Park. Try the fuul with eggs and yogurt (for under $2).

 

Homey Coffee House is another good breakfast option. It’s convenient for the Africa Hotel (take a left on the main road and walk two blocks). Sit on a stool on the sidewalk and watch Axum’s street life go by.

 

How to get to Axum

 

Axum street life: goats at a filling station
No matter how much petrol you put in your goats, they probably won’t take you to the next town

 

Most travelers fly into and out of Axum. The small but modern airport is at the edge of town. Flights run to most major Ethiopian cities, including Lalibela.

 

Axum is a long, painful bus ride away from pretty much everywhere. With flights so cheap (as low as $10!), there’s really no reason to take the bus unless you’re planning a longer journey through Tigray to see the rock hewn churches. To do this, you can either hop on the one Mekele-bound bus in the morning and ask to be let off in your destination town, or you can go to Adigrat and change there for a minibus.

 

There are no south-bound buses heading directly from Axum to other destinations of interest to travelers. Instead, you’ll have to go to the nearby junction town of Shire Inda Selassie on one of the frequent minibuses. From there, you can pick up the one morning bus a day to Gondar (think 5 am early, so you’ll have to stay in Shire the night before), or ask to be dropped off in Debark if you’re headed to the Simien Mountains. Coming from Gondar you may get all the way to Axum in a day, or you may get stuck in Shire. I heard nightmare stories about this trip in rainy season, so you’re better off flying if you can.

 

No matter which way you approach it, Axum is a minimum two-day (but possibly three) bus ride from Lalibela. You’d have to be a masochist not to fly.

 

Is Axum worth the journey?

 

The historical sites and cultural attractions offered by the Kingdom of Axum aren’t as obviously impressive as their counterparts across the world — or even across Ethiopia, for that matter. If you’re looking for the undiscovered ‘wonder of the world,’ you might as well just head straight to Lalibela.

 

But Axum is the kind of place that gets under your skin. Your curiosity starts to get the better of you as you hear the legends repeated again and again. Did the Queen of Sheba live in that palace and bathe in that pool? Is the Ark of the Covenant really in that church? As unbelievable as it all sounds, you can’t help but wonder if maybe it’s true.

 

Add to that a friendly local population, good food, and a nice balance between truly-urban and small-town Ethiopia, and a few days exploring the Kingdom of Axum are pretty darn enjoyable.

 

Don’t expect this town to knock your socks off at first glance. But take your time, do your research, and talk to the locals and you might just find it the most interesting stop you make in Ethiopia.

 

What else do you want to know about Axum’s ancient mysteries? Leave a comment!

 

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Explore the most interesting ancient city in Ethiopia and perhaps all of Africa: Axum (Aksum)

 

Read more about Ethiopia here

 

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