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Historical city travel guide: Aksum, 6th century AD

Location

The city of Aksum is the capital of the East African Empire of Aksum and has been thriving since the 1st century AD. The 3rd-century Persian prophet Mani named the Aksumite Empire as one of the ‘four great kingdoms on Earth’ together with Babylon, Persia, Rome and China.

The city of Aksum is situated approximately 50 kilometres northeast of the Takezze River and 150 kilometres southwest of the Red Sea, at an altitude of approximately 2,100 metres. It is in a plain area between the hills of Beta Giyorgis, to the north west, and May Qoho, to the north east.

The city itself extends over an area of more than 1.2 square kilometres and is the largest city in this region. While not as large as some of the major cities in North Africa, such as Alexandria, it is slightly smaller than Roman London and approximately the same size as pre-Islamic Damascus.

A print of the Mountains of Samen near Aksum. Rays of sunlight shine down onto a mountainous landscape. Buildings with thatched roofs in the foreground.
A View of the Mountains of Samen & the River Takezze. Print by Charles Heath. After Henry Salt (1780-1827). Around 1814.

Aksum is currently governed by King Kaleb, who you should address with the local title negus. He controls and draws considerable wealth from the nearby coastal regions of the Red Sea and the port of Adulis on the Gulf of Zula, where merchants sailing between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean stop to purchase supplies and trade their goods in exchange for local products such as ivory and gold.

A print of the Cathedral of Aksum, a rectangular building with castellations, set among trees. Hilly landscape behind, thatched buildings in foreground.
Eduard Zander (1813–1868), drawing of a view of the Cathedral of Aksum from a sketchbook recording scenery and people of Ethiopia. Pen and black ink, 1853.
When to visit

Aksum enjoys a pleasantly warm and sunny climate throughout most of the year, but you should probably avoid visiting during the rainy season, between July and August, when the temperature and humidity are higher than usual.

A colour print showing one of the obelisks at Aksum. The white obelisk rises high on the left side of the image. Trees and hilly landscapes around.
Obelisk at Axum. Daniel Havell (1786–1826 fl.), after Henry Salt. From Twenty-four views taken in St Helena, the Cape, India, Ceylon, the Red Sea, Abyssinia & Egypt. Hand-coloured aquatint, 1809.

Before travelling to Aksum, please make sure your kingdom or empire has a commercial or political treaty in place with the Aksumite king because the Aksumites have a record of enslaving those who cross their territory without authorisation.

Getting There

By sea

You can reach Aksum by boat along the coast of the Red Sea. You should disembark at Adulis and then travel inland. Walking will take you at least five days but you can always hire a donkey. While in Adulis, don’t forget to visit the local churches and look at the ancient stele erected by the Egyptian king Ptolemy III to commemorate his campaigns in the region over 800 years ago.

By river

Alternatively, you may also choose to travel from Lower (northern) Egypt, by gently sailing up the Nile River. Make sure that you disembark after the city of Swenett (also known as Syene) and before the First Cataract (an area of rapids) as your boat might not be able to sail successfully through it. From here we’d recommend you hire a camel to continue your journey. On your way down the Nile you could visit the Nubian kingdoms of Nobatia, Makuria and Alodia. You can purchase souvenirs such as textiles or a lamp from most of the towns you will pass along the way, or get yourself a tattoo to remember your trip by!

A photograph of a pottery lamp with raised decoration and inscription, and looped handle.
Pottery lamp, Sudan. AD 500–600.

By land

You can also reach Aksum by traveling inland, but this route is risky and not recommended. If you disembark in North Africa, make sure you don’t anger the Vandals, who migrated from northern Europe and conquered these regions in AD 435. They sometimes persecute adherents to monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Manichaeism.

If you are travelling from West Africa you should avoid getting lost in the Sahara Desert as the route is not well known. You could try asking the Garamantes who live in the desert for help, but little is known about their kingdom, so they may or may not be willing or able to assist you.

A photograph of a coloured manuscript showing a baggage train of animals carrying loads, with people marshalling the procession.
A baggage train as depicted in a 15th- or early 16th-century Ethiopian manuscript. Private collection.
Getting around

Most people travel on foot in Aksum, but you could hire a donkey or a camel, or pay someone to carry your baggage.

Useful Information

Language

Most people in Aksum speak a Semitic language called Geʽez. It is written from left to right like Greek and Latin, but it uses symbols that may stand for a syllable or a consonant. If you can’t speak Geʽez you should be able to hire a merchant who speaks Ancient Greek as a translator and guide.

Religion

Most of the population of Aksum became Christian after the Ethiopian King Ezana converted to this new religion in the mid-4th century AD, but locals claim that Christianity was first introduced here by an Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by Saint Philip the Evangelist (Acts 8:26-40). The Kingdom of Aksum was therefore one of the world’s earliest Christian states. By around AD 350, the Archbishop of Alexandria had appointed a Syrian called Frumentius as bishop of Aksum. Christian texts were translated from Greek into the local language, Ge’ez. There are many churches in and around the city and many people wear a cross around their neck.

A colour painting of the story of Saint Philip baptising the Ethiopian Eunuch. An elaborate carriage in the foreground pulled by two horses. River flowing from right to left - downstream a walled town.
German miniature by an anonymous artist showing Saint Philip baptising the Ethiopian Eunuch. Bodycolour on vellum, around 1615–1635.

How to pay
People prefer to use local coins which are minted using silver and copper. If you have a taste for luxury, Aksum is one of the few states that produces gold coins. Trade and foreign currencies are also accepted, but watch out for some forgeries that are in circulation across the Red Sea region!

A photograph of two sides of an Aksumite gold coin featuring the profile portrait of King Kaleb.
An Aksumite gold coin featuring King Kaleb on the obverse and reverse. Around 500–525.
Things to see and do in Aksum

Cathedral of Mary of Zion

The Cathedral of Mary of Zion (Maryam Tsion) rests on a massive stepped base measuring about 66 metres long and at least 41 metres wide. Like churches built across Europe and the Middle East during this period, it is oriented east to west. Some locals maintain that it was built by King Kaleb (fl. AD 500), while others say that is was built by the legendary King brothers Abraha and Atsbaha, who, according to local traditions, climbed a nearby mountain to pray for a revelation about where to build the cathedral. While they were praying, they had a vision of Christ who filled a large lake with earth allowing the brothers to build the church on top of it. Locals consider it as the mother of all the other churches in the country and believe that the Ark of the Covenant is kept in its sanctuary. Unfortunately, visitors are not allowed inside the sanctuary, but you can still walk around the surrounding gardens.

A photograph of architectural fragments at the Cathedral of Mary Zion. Grass and other ruined buildings in the background.
Architectural fragments from the now-ruined Cathedral of Mary of Zion including a lion-shaped gargoyle.

The thrones and inscriptions

If you walk outside the precincts of the Cathedral of Mary of Zion you will come across several large stone thrones. Like the church itself, the thrones are placed on stepped bases which measure around 2 metres by 2 metres. The thrones are surmounted by a thatched roof supported by stone pillars. Many of them bear inscriptions in Geʽez, which commemorate the deeds and conquests of the kings of Aksum. There are also freestanding commemorative inscriptions which are sometimes written in Greek to allow travellers to read them.

A photograph of a stone stela inside a stone building.
Inscription from Aksum written using the Greek, Geʽez, and Sabean alphabets and commemorating the deeds of King Ezana. Around mid-4th century. Photo: Sailko. Creative Commons.

Stelae field

From the Cathedral, walk a short distance northwards and you will find yourself facing some of the largest monolithic carvings to have been ever erected in the world. This area is known as the stelae field.

The stelae mark the burials of some of the prominent figures of the Aksumite state. The three largest ones are elaborately carved with reliefs that imitate the doors, windows, and wooden beams of Aksumite palaces. Unfortunately, the largest of the stelae, to the west, has fallen down due to its weight of over 520 tonnes (equal to more than 50 elephants!).

The dark underground tombs are entered through corridors that give access to a series of side-chambers. In the unlikely case that you are granted access to the tombs you’d better bring a torch if you want to explore this subterranean area.

A photograph of a large stele, once upright, now horizontal on the ground and broken into pieces.
Modern photo showing a portion of the toppled stele with the smaller stelae in the background. The stelea date from around 3rd-4th centuries.

The palaces

Most of the houses in Aksum are small in size and are built using un-dressed mud-set stone and timber for the doors and windows. There are, however, several large palaces in and around the city which we’d recommend visiting. The largest of these is Ta‘akha Maryam which extends over 10,000 square metres. Another large structure, to the west of the Cathedral of Mary of Zion, is Dungur. The palaces are built in a distinct Aksumite fashion by using dressed stone, rubble, mud, and timber beams.

A photograph of architectural ruins of the palace of Dungur.
Modern photo of the ruins of the palace of Dungur. Around 5th–7th centuries AD.
Photo: A. Savin. Wikimedia Commons.
The surrounding area

The Monastery of Dabra Dammo

Like the palaces of Aksum, some of the churches of the Aksumite empire are also built using stones and timber beams. You can see an example of this style of building by visiting the main church of the monastery of Debra Dammo, which is located about 60 kilometres east of Aksum. In this church, timber beams are set at regular intervals in parallel to the line of the wall and are kept in place with shorter perpendicular wooden beams with rounded ends that stick out of the wall. Some locals say that the rounded ends of these beams look like ‘monkey’s heads’.

A photograph of the church of Dabra Dammo. A stone building with decorative stonework and red curtains behind the entrance.
Modern photo of the church of Dabra Dammo. Photo: A.Savin. Creative Commons.

The monastery of Dabra Dammo is situated at the top of a flat mountain with a sheer cliff-face. To reach the top you must pull yourself up a 15-metre rock face with a rope. So make sure you’re feeling up to the test before setting out. According to the monks, the founder of their monastery, Abuna Aregawi, was able to reach the top of the mountain by getting a snake to pull him up. He was part of a group of monks known as the ‘Nine Saints’.

A colourful painting showing Abuna Aregawi being pulled up a cliff-face by a snake.
Mengesha Fiseha, painting on cotton showing Abuna Aregawi being pulled up by a snake to the top of Dabra Dammo. Ethiopia, 2007–2008. © Mengesha Fiseha.

The Monastery of Abba Garima

The Monastery of Abba Garima, another member of the Nine Saints, can be reached by travelling on foot for two days eastwards on the road to Adulis. Some of the manuscripts in this monastery are dazzlingly illustrated with portraits of holy men. You could politely ask the monks to show them to you. The area surrounding this monastery is dotted with churches if you feel like exploring. Some churches are perched at the top of high mountains, so be prepared to do a lot of climbing!

A painting of a Holy Man wearing green robes. Border of colourful motifs.
Portrait of a Holy Man from the Garima Gospels. Around 5th–6th centuries AD.
Photo: Michael Gervers.

Trekking

The landscape around Aksum is breath-taking and, for those who like the outdoors, perfect for trekking. The Semien mountains, 50 kilometres southwest of Aksum, have incredible views. Make sure to also look out for the troops of baboons that live in this area. These territories are not under Aksum’s control, so you travel here at your own risk.

A photograph of the Semien mountains, with monkey on ride in foreground, overlooking mountainous terrain behind.
A modern photo of the view from the Semien mountains.
Entertainment

Not much has been written about the customs of the locals but going by the 6th-century Greek Chronicle of John Malalas, the procession of the Aksumite kings is especially magnificent if you are lucky enough to witness one. The king is said to wear gold threaded linen and a tunic decorated with pearls. He has bangles and necklaces made of gold and travels on a chariot pulled by four elephants.

A photograph of a coin showing an enthroned Aksumite king.
Obverse of a coin showing an enthroned Aksumite king holding a cross-sceptre and wearing an elaborate crown. Around 600–630.
Shopping

Aksum is a vibrant commercial centre which has access to goods imported from the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean through the Red Sea port of Adulis. You can buy glassware, beads, metalwork with glass inlays, carved wood, pottery, both locally made and imported. The Aksumite Empire is particularly well known for its carved elephant ivory, but it’s quite expensive.

A photo of an Aksumite jar, with wide body and narrow spout, small loop for holding or carrying.
An Aksumite jar. Around 3rd–4th century.
Eating and drinking

There is plenty of good food and drink to try in the city. The Aksumites make oil using the plant guizotia abyssinica and grow a number of edible crops such as emmer wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, grapes, and oats. While you are in town you should try injera – a large flat pancake that is made using fermented flour and water. This flour is made by grinding the tiny seeds of an indigenous plant called teff (a type of cereal grass).

A photograph of in-situ rock art of a cow with large curved horns picked out in a deep red on a lighter background.
Digital photograph showing painted rock art of a cow with curved horns. Saka Sharifa, Ethiopia. Photographed by David Coulson.

The Aksumites also eat meat and herd chickens, sheep, and goats as well as zebu – a humped ox that was also depicted in rock art in the nearby regions. People around Aksum also keep Sanga cattle, which are noticeable for their very large horns.

A print of two 'sanga', or 'galla oxen' with large horns curving upwards.
Artist’s interpretation of ‘The Sanga’. Print by Charles Heath, after Henry Salt (1780–1827). From A Voyage to Abyssinia and Travels into the Interior of that Country by Henry Salt. 1814.

The Aksumites import wine from the Mediterranean, but their preferred local drink is hydromel, locally known as tej. This is made by adding powdered buckthorn leaves to a mixture of honey and water for flavour and fermentation. The drink is delicious, but also quite strong.

We hope you enjoyed your trip to Aksum!

In the mood for more time travelling? You can read these other blogs in our historical city travel guide series: