Ethiopia is a country that throbs with religious fervor. On Sundays, several cities, including Aksum (sometimes spelled Axum) and Lalibela see thousand-strong crowds of nuns and monks, hermits and families, energetic children and shuffling grandmothers. Wrapped in their traditional white or burnt orange, they thronged into the many churches that adorn the landscape.
It is a society where worship is woven into nearly every aspect of life, such that there is a profound sense of spirituality and a hallowed veneration of the church. This undoubtedly was born from the belief Ethiopia has been chosen by God as the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, which rests in the ancient and glorious city of Aksum.
Brief History of Aksum
Also regarded as the “The Cradle of Civilization,” Aksum is believed to be the center to the start of Ethiopia’s history, which dates as far back as 5th century BC. As an ancient and prosperous kingdom, its territory once included the lands that is today occupied by the nations of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, and Somaliland. Their immense wealth was a result of their advanced agriculture and cattle herding, as well as control over strategic trade routes which saw foreign luxury goods exchanged for gold and ivory.
At the peak of its prosperity, the kingdom of Aksum was said to have even maintained commercial and political contacts with the Greeks and Romans, as well as with India and China. From the 7th century CE, however, increased competition from Muslim Arab traders and the rise of rival local peoples such as the Beja ( ethnic peoples currently inhabiting Sudan, as well as parts of Eritrea and Egypt), saw Aksum begin to decline. They survived as a much smaller territory to the south and rose again to form the great kingdom of Abyssinia in the 13th century CE.
What Makes It Special to This Day?
Aksum built lasting stone monuments and is credited with a number of firsts. It was the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to mint its own coinage and the first to officially adopt Christianity. Across this Christian kingdom, monasteries were founded, churches built, and even translations made of the Bible. Aksum even created its own script, Ge’ez, which is still very much in use throughout Ethiopia today. The success of these endeavours meant that Ethiopia would practice Christianity right into the 21st century CE.
The dozens of impressive monuments (monolithic obelisks, royal tombs, castles, and other historical artifacts) found here all point to one conclusion: the ancient city of Aksum was once home to a great civilization. Its largest standing obelisk, a magnificent structure intricately carved out of stone, towers at over 23 meters high. Today, the most popular site here is the revered and renowned Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It is said with certainty among the locals that this is the final resting place of the biblical Ark of The Covenant. Aksum was also awarded a UNESCO world heritage site status in 1980.
Housing the Ark Of The Covenant
According to Ethiopian lore, the Ark of The Covenant is guarded by a single monk in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. No one else may enter the room and only after his death will the monk leave the grounds. It’s believed to have arrived about 3,000 years ago, brought by Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel. The Queen of Sheba was one of the first rulers of Ethiopia. Legend states that she traveled to Jerusalem where she was seduced by King Solomon, and bore his son on her way home. Menelik would later travel to Jerusalem to meet his father and on his return, one of his men took the ark and carried it with them to Ethiopia, where it has remained to this day.
The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Bible as a gold-gilded wooden chest constructed under instruction from God and carried before the Hebrews on their march towards the Promised Land. After Moses smashed the Ten Commandments, the pieces were collected in this mystic box, along with a gold jar of manna and the staff of Aaron. The 1981 movie, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, has received its fair share of critical reviews for portraying Egypt as the location of the Ark.
Importance to Modern Day Christianity
The Ark of the Covenant is central to Christian and Jewish religious history. Mentions of it across both the old and new testaments of the bible centered around it being the embodiment of the presence of God. Upon his return, King Menelik founded the”Solomonic Dynasty” and the Aksumite kingdom adopted Judaism and the Law of Moses, which is one of the foundations of christianity today. It is also believed that baby Jesus and Mary spent time here in Aksum during their exile, which further lends credence to the city’s importance to modern day christianity.
Want to Visit Aksum?
Located in the north of the Ethiopia, Aksum forms part of the Northern Historical circuit in this country. From Addis Ababa or Gondar, it’s easiest to take a flight to Aksum which lasts about an hour from Addis or a mere 20-minute journey from Gondar. It’s also possible to get public buses to Aksum from regional towns like Shire and Makele. You can visit and enjoy Aksum throughout the year, but the rainy season, which is roughly between the months of May and September, is not as ideal since the place will mostly be wet, damp, cold and muddy.
Aksum is history and mystery bonded in time; a city that has revealed but a tiny fragment of its mystic secrets. Exploring its grand obelisks, ruined palaces, and ancient churches are sure to be the highlight of any trip to Ethiopia.
Check out these tours below that’ll take you to Aksum:
- 15 Days Discover the Historic Routes
- 14 Days Historic Route With Simien Mountains, Tigray Churches And Danakil Depression
- 12 Days Historic Route with Tigray Church