Axum is ancient city located in the northern part of Ethiopia. It was the original capital of the eponymous kingdom of Axum, which ruled the region from 400 BC into the 10th century. The kingdom was also arbitrarily identified as Abyssinia, Ethiopia, and India in medival writings.
Axum city has an elevation of 2,131 meters and was a powerful trading center. The major Axumite monuments in the town are Stelae. These stelae are believed to mark the sites in Axum. The largest one lies in the Northern Stelae Park, ranging up to the 33 M high 3.84 M wide 2.35 M deep 520 tones. Great Stele, believed to have fallen and broken during construction. Another stele (24.6 M high 2.32 M wide 1.36 M deep 170 tones) removed by the Italian Fascist army was returned to Ethiopia in 2005 and reinstalled July 31 2008. This stele was already broken into pieces before being shipped. Three more stele in the area measure 18.2 M high 1.56 M wide 0.76 M deep 56 tones, 15.8 M high 2.35 M wide 1 M deep 75 tones, 15.3 M high 1.47 M wide 0.78 M deep 43 tones. The Stelae are believed to mark graves and would have had cast metal discs affixed to their sides, which are also carved with architectural designs.
The power of Axum was based largely on trade. The Red Sea was an important thoroughfare for trading vessels at the time. Merchants from the Roman Empire traveled up and down the sea, trading in harbors along both the African and Arabian coasts, and sailing with the favorable monsoon winds on to India. Axumites exported local products such as ivory, tortoise shell, hippopotamus hide, spices, incense, gold, obsidian, emeralds and other precious stones, and slaves. These items were exchanged for manufactured goods from the Mediterranean, including iron weapons, articles made of precious metals, glassware, cloth of great variety, garments, pottery, wine, and olive oil. Excavated Axumite tombs contain many of these foreign objects, particularly glassware. Although Aksum commonly imported iron weapons, iron was also smelted locally and manufactured into tools and weapons. For the first few centuries of the kingdom’s existence, trade was conducted by barter and direct exchange of commodities.
In about ad 270, Axum began minting coins in the style of Roman coins. Coinage made the exchange of products and tax collection more convenient, facilitating Axumite trade. Axumite coins were made of gold, silver, and bronze, and carried the name of the ruler in whose name they were issued. The coins are therefore important to historians’ understanding of the history of Axum, providing royal names and a rough chronology of events.
It is believed it began a long slow decline after the 7th century due partly to Islamic groups contesting trade routes. Eventually Axum 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 Axum also quarreled with Islamic groups over religion. Eventually the people of Axum were forced south and their civilization declined.
Initially, Axum contributed to the rise of Islam as the king of Axum provided refuge to the followers of the prophet Mohammed who were being persecuted by the lords of Arabia. When Muhammad faced oppression from the Quraish clan, he sent a small group that included his daughter Ruqayya and her husband Uthman ibn Affan, whom Ashama ibn Abjar, the king of Axum, gave refuge to, and protection to, and refused the requests of the Quraish clan to send these refugees back to Arabia. These refugees did not return until the sixth year of the Hijra, and even then many remained in Ethiopia, eventually settling in eastern Tigray. This situation made Ethiopia an exception by the prophet Mohamed to the sweeping rule of Islamic conquest.
Legend and history portray Ethiopia as the only country in the world where the three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have very early roots. As indicated in the Kebra Negast, romantic and inspiring story, the Queen of Sheba (Makda, as she is known in Ethiopia) traveled to the court of Solomon, having been persuaded to visit the King who had a reputation of great wisdom and might. When she arrived in Jerusalem a banquet of specially seasoned meat was given in her honor and, at the end of the evening, Solomon invited her to spend the night in his chambers. Makeda agreed but first extracted a commitment from the King that he would not take her by force. To this he assented, on the single condition that the Queen makes a promise not to take anything in his house. Solomon then mounted his bed on one side of the chamber and had the Queen’s bed prepared at the other side, placing near it a bowl of water. Made thirsty by the seasoned food she had consumed, Makeda soon awoke, arose, and drank the water. At this point Solomon seized her hand, accused her of having broken her oath and then worked his will with her.
According to the story, that night the King dreamt that a great light of brilliance, the shekina, the divine presence, had left Israel and moved to Ethiopia. Shortly afterwards the Queen departed and returned to her country and there, nine months and five days later, she gave birth to a son Menelik, the founder of the Ethiopian Solomonic dynasty. When the boy had grown up he went to visit his father who received him with great honor and splendor. After some time at Solomon’s court, the youth determined to return once more to his mother’s realm. Thereupon the King assembled the elders of Israel and commanded them to send their first-born sons with Menelik. Before the young men departed they abducted the Ark of the Covenant and took it with them to Ethiopia, which now became the second Zion.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Aksum houses the Biblical Ark of the Covenant in which lies the Tablets of Law upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed. This same church was the site 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. Significant religious festivals are the T’imk’et Festival, known as the Epiphany in western Christianity, on 7 January and the Festival of Maryam Zion in late November.