Ancient Empire

Ancient Empire
Aksum, Ethiopia

Aksum, Ethiopia

From one World Heritage site to the next…off we went through the mountains to visit the ancient city of Aksum. Aksum is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. Aksumite kings dominated the region on both sides of the Red Sea, from a few hundred years BCE until around the 10th century AD. It was one of the 4 great empires of the ancient world, along with Greece, Rome, and Persia.

This highway was built by the Chinese and is considered to be inferior to the Italian highways. A lot of the infrastructure in Ethiopia is built by China, including the telecom system and several highways. The stone work is mostly done by the Ethiopians, who have been building stone buildings for centuries.

On the road to Aksum we made several viewpoint stops, including this Baobab tree, which is also sometimes called the upside-down tree because its branches sometimes look more like roots. The cactus-like trees are a type of succulent that thrives here on the drier side of the Simien Mts. though probably not actually a cactus.

Arriving in Aksum we headed straight for its most famous site, where memorial stelae were built to honor the Aksumite kings. The huge one that is broken in several pieces is an illustration of the old axiom that pride goeth before a fall. Had it stood it would have been about twice as tall as the others.

Our local guide Kudis showed us the tomb of one of the kings, which contains a stone coffin (he tapped on it to show us the hollow sound it made). There is also a surprisingly accurate measuring device used for official business.

Nowadays Aksum is probably most famous for the St. Mary of Zion church. This church was built on the site of the original cathedral built in 1665 and is one of the holiest sites in the Ethiopian Church. This is because Aksum was reputed to be the realm of the Biblical Queen of Sheba. The story goes that Sheba made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to receive the wisdom of King Solomon. While she was there, the King tricked her into sleeping with him, and she came home pregnant. Her son became Emperor Menelik I. When he grew into manhood, he decided to go back to Jerusalem to meet his father. Solomon received him and graciously sent him home with 12,000 escorts, a thousand from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. They also carried with them the gift of the Ark of the Covenant, which is claimed to be stored to this day in the small chapel behind the church.

Of course, many people are skeptical of the Ethiopian claim to the Ark of the Covenant, since no one is allowed to see it. They say this is because it is such a powerful object that ordinary humans must stay at least 800 meters away in order to avoid injury. A single guardian, chosen for his purity from among all the priests, keeps the Ark safe 24/7, and his next two successors are chosen ahead of time, lest he should die suddenly and leave the Ark unattended. Every Ethiopian Orthodox church has at least one replica of the Ark, which is kept in the Holy of Holies in the center of the church.

Two of the priests showed us some of the sacred books they use in their liturgy. These books are written in Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language from which Ethiopia’s official modern language, Amharic, derives. Ethiopia is one of the few African countries to have an alphabet of its own.

We were lucky to have Kudis, who is an archaeology student, to show us the ruins of an ancient palace complex which some archaeologists believe is built on top of the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace. There is much more excavation to be done here.

We also visited the reservoir which locals call the Queen of Sheba’s Bath. It’s a great place to cool off on a hot day, and do your laundry as well.

From the reservoir we climbed up the back roads of the town in search of King Kaleb’s tomb. I was amazed at some of the impossible roads our drivers were able to navigate. I decided not to climb up this steep hill to the tomb, and stayed with about half of our group to have a conversation with some of the children who live in the neighborhood. I can’t tell you their names because my memory for names is just terrible these days, but they were smart kids and spoke very good English and we thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Of course they were interested in selling us their handicrafts, which many of the children and their parents make to sell to tourists. We are taught not to give money to children who are begging or selling things, because they are trying to discourage this way of life and keep the children in school to improve their future, but they are so adorable it is very hard to say no to them!

Our next stop in Aksum was the Ezana Stone, which is a sort of Ethiopian Rosetta Stone, bearing the same inscription in Greek, Sabean, and Ge’ez. The Sabean language came from Saba in Yemen, and the Sabean civilization was influential here. Before they became Christians many Aksumites followed a Sabean moon god, and many of the churches have crescent moon motifs that pay tribute to that ancient cult.

Before leaving Aksum we visited the ancient town of Yeha, which is home to the oldest standing structure in Ethiopia, the Temple of Yeha. This was a Sabean moon cult temple dated to about 700 BC.

There is also a small museum on the Yeha site with artifacts bearing Sabean inscriptions.


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