An Ancient Tour of Axum

**All of the Africa pictures are currently scattered between people, so as soon as I get my mitts on the pictures from Ethiopia, they’ll get added to this post, as well as on Facebook.  Thanks for your patience!**

It’s time I made good on my word.  I mentioned a couple of times during the Burundi trip that at the end, we had a day in Ethiopia lined up but couldn’t tell you what we’d be doing.  As it turns out, we had a couple days in a surprisingly touristy city about an hour’s flight from Addis Ababa.  Ethiopia itself is one the oldest civilizations which still exists today (though it’s had many names), and they’re very proud of that distinction.  The traditional dynastic rulers trace their lineage back to the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who supposedly brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Axum, where it still rests today.  The church where it resides is one of the attractions, though visitors aren’t permitted (even visual) access to the Ark.  Other sites include Stelae (they’re like obelisks) which predate most modern European languages, and such mythological ruins sites as the Queen of Sheba’s palace.

The best part about that is the fact that these sites represent a great deal of Axum’s income.  We were able to book a tour from the lobby of our hotel, which felt very comfortably Western.  Granted, we’d been sleeping in open-air bedrooms and showering with unheated well water for two weeks, so water heaters and beds without mosquito nets felt positively luxurious.  All the transportation we needed in Axum was provided by the hotel we stayed at—including shuttles to and from the airport and our historical tour, though that was an additional charge.

A wholly worthwhile charge at that. A bus took us from our hotel’s front door, with an English-speaking guide, to seven of Axum’s most significant historical sites: The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the Northern Stelae park very near to the church, the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba, the Queen (of Sheba’s) Bath, the “Axumite Rosetta Stone,” a church bearing illuminated illustrations of Biblical scenes which was burnt down and rebuilt, and a series of tombs built for ancient Christian kings.

First, I’ll tell you about the negatives, so we can end on a positive note.  I think our guide mislead us where money is concerned.  There’s a museum at the Stele park, and that museum basically has a gift shop.  However, it’s more like an African market than it is like the shops in museums in the West.  We walked from our hotel—without a guide—to shops we’d driven past on our way to tourist sites and found both more reasonable prices and more cooperative vendors.  This was mostly our own fault for not comparing prices before we spent our money, but I bring this up because we asked our guide about the prices, and he said they’d be about the same everywhere.  We found they were much lower everywhere else—and we could’ve walked back to the museum shop after comparing.

My other big complaint about touristing in Axum is something I’d never been bothered by before: vendors.  It t wasn’t anyone working in a shop, it was the children peddling armfuls of wares we also found in plenty of shops, though I can’t compare the prices for you.  Why requires a bit of explaining.  Since I started making my own, I have become acutely aware of how I spend my money.  Thus, if I don’t really like something about the way a system is run, and I can get the product elsewhere, I’m not going to knowingly fund that system.  In this case, the system is detrimental to the consumer directly: young, adorable, local girls and boys with handmade bronze Axumite cross necklaces (and other ornate handicrafts) won’t leave you alone even after they’ve understood your “no” five times over.  This is not exaggeration, though part of the problem (so to speak) was that my whole group did not share my frustration with them at first, and would express interest, even if it was only cursory.  These children approached us at all of the major sites except the Northern Stele Park and the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace.  By the third time, my patience was wearing thin.  I’d been fleeced by the museum vendors at the Stele park—our first stop—and I’d already made my intentions not to buy anything  abundantly clear to these children, and they were distracting me from the things I’d come to see.  In this way, they sullied my experience in a very memorable fashion.

All that said, I still completely recommend Axum.  There is a deep and rich history to it that is distinct even from the rest of Ethiopia.  Some of the more impressive sites are still being excavated, and, having grown up Christian, ancient Christian history is specifically interesting to me.  At the Stele Park, the biggest monolith in Axum actually fell and broke closer to its construction than to today.  It’s still outrageously impressive, though, and the tombs beneath are too.  They predate Christianity in Ethiopia, and contain a sealed, unmarked sarcophagus—our guide tapped it with a coin and it rang like a bell.  It was cool to then get the opportunity to compare this to an ages-old tomb from after Christianity had entered the culture.  Many of the traditional elements remained—the underground construction, the layout inside, etc—but the iconography and ornamentation was vastly different.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Ethiopian cuisine.  Like the rest of the culture, it is surprisingly distinctive even within its geographical region.  When served traditionally, a big, spongy flatbread (injera) is placed on a platter in the center of the table, and different stews and curries (collectively called wat) are ladled onto it.  Then, everyone takes a bit of injera for themselves (not from the stuff beneath the wat) and uses that as the utensil to bring the saucy meat or lentils from the table to their mouths.  Only some of it is spicy, but it’s all incredibly flavorful, and the amount of variety available in a single meal is intoxicating.

If you’re going to Axum, I recommend doing your own research on the area first.  Some of the history is more myths and legends than actual fact, and some of it is rock solid, so to speak.  Not knowing the difference while we were there was interesting, but I think that knowing going in will make the legends more endearing and the truth more inspiring.  It’s beautiful country, with beautiful people and incredibly rich history and culture, though it may have been the hardest place for me to communicate with locals.  English is less common in Ethiopia than many of the other places to which I’ve traveled, and linguistically, there is more in common with the Middle East than anywhere else—and I have no experience with those languages.  We made it, though, and with a little flexibility and perseverance, so can you.

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