This time we included Axum on our visit to the north. None of us had ever been there before so it was all new territory.
Axum was the seat of the Axumite Empire (100-650 CE), a wealthy and powerful kingdom that engaged in international trade with places as far away as Rome and India, and which established colonies in southern Arabia.
A Syrian from Tyre named Frumentius converted Axum’s King Ezana to Christianity in about 340 CE; this was the beginning of Orthodoxy in Ethiopia.
Axum remains a religious pilgrimage site because, according to Ethiopian Orthodox church tradition, the actual Ark of the Covenant is there. For non-religious readers who also somehow missed the first Indiana Jones movie, the Ark is a wooden box containing the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Menelik I, the son of King Solomon of Jerusalem and the Ethiopian Queen of Sheba (yep, there’s a story there), is said to have brought the Ark back to Ethiopia with him after a visit with his father.
Tourists don’t get to see the Ark. In fact, only one person in the world gets to see it: the monk who guards it, who lives permanently in the chapel where the Ark is kept, next to the church.
But there is still a lot to look at in Axum. Ancient sites include tombs, palaces, and fields of monolithic stelae, and there’s a good archaeological museum as well as a church museum filled with the crowns, robes, and goblets of the generations of Ethiopian emperors crowned in Axum’s church.