Axum or Aksum is a city in the North of Ethiopia at the base of the Adwa mountains. Once the capital of the region, Axum is still a comparatively large city with a population of around 50,000 people. Axum is most famous for being one of the supposed sites of the Ark of the Covenant, in the care of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Due to its historic and cultural value, Axum was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
The Aksumite Empire was a naval trading power that ruled the region as early as the 4th century BC until the 10th century AD. Around 356 BC, the empire converted to a variety of Christianity under the guidance of a Lebanese monk called Frumentius or Abuna. Later under Emperor Kaleb, Axum allied with Byzantium.
The Aksumite Empire peaked under the Emperor Ezana in the 4th century as it embraced Christianity. Coins issued around 270 AD were the first to bear Christianity’s symbol of the cross, following the Roman design by also showing the ruler.
The empire fell into decline after the 7th century as the Arabs began contesting Red Sea trade routes, eventually cut off from trading with Alexandria, Byzantium and Southern Europe. Axum was then laid waste to by the Empress Gudit of Semien and the power centre moved south to Agaw.
Supposed to have been brought to Ethiopia by the Queen of Sheba, the infamous Ark of the Covenant is currently under the care of the patriarch of the Ethiopian Church in a vault at the church of St Mary of Zion. The Ark is occasionally brought out for ritual processions. Most of the time, however, it is under guard in the church.
Other important sites within the city are the Stelae Park. Much excavated, the stelae are thought to mark graves. Further areas of interest include the Queen of Sheba’s bath (Sheba is thought to have lived in Axum) and two Royal Palaces, on from the 4th century and one from the 6th century.
Getting to Axum
Axum is best reached by car, just south of the border with Eritrea along the B30 highway. The ancient site is about a 3 hour and 45 minute drive from Mek’ele, the northern region’s capital city.
Ethiopia Historic Sites
Discover 5 of the best historic sites in Ethiopia, from the incredible rock-hewn Lalibela Churches to the ancient capital of Axum, in our historic traveller's guide.