Axum - Mysterious Monoliths

Axum ObeliskAmong all the different narratives, the Ethiopian Legend - where Sheba's name becomes Makeda - is the richest and the most convincing. It appears in the 'Glory of Kings' (the Kebra Negast), the Ethiopian national saga written in the 14th century.

Christianity came to the Axumite Kingdom early in the 4th century when two Christian youths from Syria, Frumentius and Adesius, landed from a ship on the Axumite coast. During Ezana's rule Frumentius was appointed the Kingdom's first Archbishop, after which the Ethiopian Orthodox Church continued to recruit Axumites to the Christian faith.

The oldest church in Africa, south of the Sahara, is the first St Mary of Zion Church, originally built around the 4th century. Emperor Fasilidas replaced it with a newer church around 1635 which is still a place of active worship, notable for its crenellated, fortress-like walls.

Its hushed interior, resplendent with many beautiful murals and paintings, evokes a mood of contemplation in an atmosphere of antiquity.

The modern Chapel next to St Mary of Zion church is said to contain the sacred Ark of the Covenant, but no one except the Orthodox priest who serves as the chapel's custodian is allowed to enter the building.

Still accessible today are underground vaults believed to be the tombs of the 5th century King Kaleb and his son, King Gabre­ Meske!' Steep steps made of large blocks of neatly-carved stone, which fit together precisely without any mortar to hold them in place, lead down to a labyrinth of galleries containing what appear to be coffins.

Coins minted in the reign of King Kaleb are among the thousands of Axumite gold, silver, and bronze coins unearthed since that period.

Axum is renowned for the world's tallest monoliths, or obelisks, carved from single pieces of rock. Some experts believe they were erected to mark the passing of some ancient royal personages; others say that they had an astronomical function. In ancient times seven of the tallest obelisks stood in what is today known as the 'Park of the Stelae' just north of the modern town square. The largest obelisk, measuring over 33 metres, fell long ago and now lies in pieces.

Another, 24 metres high, which was in Rome, was returned to Ethiopia in April 2005 and a third, 23 metres high, remains standing. All three of these stelae (obelisks) were neatly carved with 'doors' and 'windows' to give the appearance of very tall buildings.

Preceeding Axum, the town of Yeha was the centre of the earliest known civilisation in northern Ethiopia. But all that remains of the city-state, established in the mists of time, are the towering, yellow limestone ruins of the Temple of the Moon, which dates back to the 5th century BC.

Inscriptions and fine objects of bronze and other artefacts have been excavated from Yeha since 1909. The temple stands on a small hill, at the foot of a mountain.