Axum lies in the northern province of Tigre, the cradle of Ethiopian culture. Axum is the oldest city in Ethiopia (it was the ancient capital) and is the holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It is smaller than you might expect and rather inauspicious on first impression, but it does boast some stunning antiquities. In addition to Axum’s historical importance, visitors can enjoy a hassle-free atmosphere and can go about their business in virtual peace.
The roots of modern Ethiopia lie in the Axumite Empire, though nobody knows for certain when Axum and its empire were founded. However there are few that would query that Axum was one of the most important and technologically advanced civilisations of its time, or that it was a major force in world trade between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. Some idea of Axum’s contemporary importance is given by the 3rd century Persian writer, Manni, who listed it as one of the four great kingdoms in the world, along with Persia, China and Rome. Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant is held at Axum, and though this may be questioned the town has retained its position as the centre of Ethiopian Christianity.
How to get there
There are flights to Axum from Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela. There is no direct bus service from Gondar. The easiest way to travel by bus between these two towns is to take a bus leaving for Shire (marked on maps as Inda Selasie). The ride will take around 11 hours and will stop at Debark on the way, which is the base for climbing the Simien Mountains. Once at Shire there are regular buses to Axum and the journey takes around 2 hours.
Where to stay
The Ramhai Hotel is situated on the eastern edge of the town. Rooms, with satellite television, cost around US$ 34/45 single/double.
The Africa Hotel provides clean rooms with hot water for around Birr 50/70 single/double. Set in attractive flowering gardens, the Atse Kaleb Hotel has rooms with cold water for Birr 30/50 single/double.
The best bet for budget travellers is probably the Bazen Hotel, where for Birr 30 you get a very clean room with a double bed and access to a common hot shower.
Where to eat
The Axum Touring Hotel and the Yeha Hotel serve Western food for around Birr 12-15 for a main course. For cheaper good food try the Africa Hotel.
The Mini-Pastry next to the Kaleb Hotel has a pleasant courtyard and serves coffee, fruit juice and a breakfast of scrambled eggs mixed with vegetables served with bread rolls.
What to see and do
A guided tour of the town takes several hours, and two days are required if you want to see everything of interest. But don’t forget to bring along your torch.
The exemplary Axum Museum illustrates just how cosmopolitan and technologically advanced the city was. Here you can purchase a pass which will allow you access to all the historical sites in and within walking distance of the town over as many days as you need (except for the church compound).
At the main stelae field it is possible to see the most impressive technological achievement of the Axumites, who erected several solid granite stelae, the largest of which (now collapsed) was taller even than the similar granite obelisks in Egypt.
Next will probably come the St Mary of Zion Church, inside which there are some good paintings and musical instruments (note women may not enter the church). The Ark of the Covenant is allegedly kept in a sanctified building within the compound of the church, though don’t expect to be able to see it!
Other historical sites include Queen Sheba’s Swimming Pool and the Pantaleon Monastery. The monastery is situated on a euphorbia-clad hill known as Debre Katin, and boasts one of the oldest and most historically important churches in the country. Women may enter the monastery compound and see the various holy crosses and books, but the church itself is men only.
Where to go from there
Heading east from Axum, a daily bus leaves for Mekele, the capital of Tigre. You can also travel to Adigrat, Tigre’s second city, from where it is possible to find transport to Asmara (the capital of Eritrea). Adigrat is a bustling, friendly town, with strong links to Eritrea that give it a decidedly cosmopolitan feel. There is little in the way of sightseeing, but the distinctively Tigrean character of the town, not to say its wonderful mountain setting, make it an easy place to settle in.
The non-stop journey from Axum to Adigrat will take around four hours, but there are several places of interest along the way, most notably the ruins at Yeha, the ancient clifftop monastery of Debre Damo (women are not allowed to enter), and the town of Adwa. Though Adwa is of limited interest to tourists, both the 150-year-old Inda Bedaniel Church and the more recent Adwa Selasie Church are worth a look (minibuses also zip between Axum and Adwa throughout the day).
There are also flights between Axum and Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela.
Source: Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide – third edition by Philip Briggs http://www.bradt-travelguides.com