AKSUM (also spelt Axum) stands at the epicentre of Ethiopian history. In ancient times, it served as the economic hub of the Aksumite Empire, which lasted for some nine hundred years from the second to the tenth centuries, and capital of a ruling dynasty legendarily descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is also the cradle and spiritual home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which was established here during the fourth-century reign of King Ezana. Somewhat more tenuous is the Ethiopian claim that the original biblical Ark of the Covenant is protected in Maryam Tsion, Aksum’s most venerable church.

Given this pedigree, dusty, low-rise Aksum can come across as surprisingly unimpressive on first contract. Indeed, while most dedicated students of Ethiopian history regard this oldest and holiest of towns as the most rewarding stop along the northern historic circuit, many casual visitors dismiss it as dull by comparison to Lalibela or Gondar. Nonetheless, Aksum is studded with some extraordinary antiquities, including the tallest stelae (obelisks) ever erected by the ancients, and engraved trilingual tablets dating to the time of Christ – all of which can be hugely rewarding when approached with realistic expectations.

Archeological sites aside, the modern-day town’s lively central market (next to the stadium) attracts hundreds of traditionally attired Tigraians from surrounding rural areas on Saturday, the main market day. In addition, the time really comes alive during Meskel, when the festivities climax in front of the main stelae field.

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