What to see and do in Axum
Axum, also known as Aksum, is the birthplace and holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and wandering the streets truly feels like stepping back in time to the Old Testament. It is located in the northern region of Tigray, at the foot of the Adua mountains, about 2100 meters above sea level. Axum forms part of the so-called Northern Historical circuit in this country and is one of the 9 UNESCO heritage sites in the country. It is a renowned place for its magnificent monuments recalling the greatness of the Axum Kingdom that, for almost ten centuries, dominated a vast area and trades between Africa and Asia. Walking on the streets of the ancient capital, you can feel the charm and mystery surrounding this place: according to the legend, it was founded by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, who gave birth to the lineage of Ethiopian kings.
When to go
Like most of Northern Ethiopia, you can visit and enjoy Axum any time of the year, but the best period is during the dry season, roughly between October and March. January and February are perfect because the temperatures are bearable. Avoid the rainy season as it’s wet, damp, cold and muddy.
How to reach Axum
The best way to reach Axum is by flight from Addis Ababa. You can also catch the public bus from Gondar, via the city of Shire, where you may have to change or spend the night. Anyway, we suggest booking a vehicle with a driver through a local agency to visit the north circuit and its beautiful attractions.
Where to sleep
Axum is a small town, and it does not offer a great choice of accommodation. We slept at Sabean Hotel, a nice accommodation next to many shops and restaurants.
Where to eat
The choice of restaurants in town is not that great, but we ate at Antica Special Cultural Restaurant, and the food was delicious. Besides a wide choice of Ethiopian and international dishes and beers, you can also enjoy a pleasant night as they often offer a show with a traditional dance group. One of our favourite dishes was the Kitfo, a traditional dish of minced raw beef marinated in mitmita (a chilli powder-based spice blend) and niter kibbeh (a clarified butter infused with herbs and spices).
Currency Exchange and Method of Payment
The local currency is the Ethiopian Birr. 1 USD is about 41 Birr. There are several banks where to exchange your currency and many ATMs which accept international cards. The method of payment is cash.
We would never think of travelling without proper coverage because the medical expenses could be very high. We always recommend travel insurance from World Nomads that we’ve used during our time in Ethiopia and throughout Africa. The northern circuit includes many hiking activities, and it’s always advisable to have travel insurance.
Best attractions in Axum
1. Northern Stelae Field
This ancient archaeological site is dotted with Axumite steles and tombs. The curious thing is that over 90% of these treasures have not yet been unearthed. The highlights of the site are the Axum Obelisk, a 24.6-meter tall decorative 4th-century monument; The great Stele, nowadays lying on the ground and dating back to the 4th century; The King Ezana’s Stele, a 24-meter tall monument said to be the most important stele in Axum; The Tomb of the False Door, dating back to the IV century; The Tomb of the Brick Arches, dating back to the III century; The Tomb of Nefas Mawcha, dating back to the III century.
2. Archaeological Museum
The Museum is next to the Northern Stele Field and hosts various inscriptions in the Sabean and Ge’ez language dating back more than 2500 years ago.
3. Baths of the Queen of Sheba
Despite the colourful legends, this huge water reservoir wasn’t where Queen Sheba came to bathe. It was an important reservoir rather than a swimming pool or a gargantuan bath, and it’s been used as a water source for millennia. Anyways, this water reservoir is also used for the Timkat celebration, the Coptic Ephiphany.
4. Tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebrel Meske
The tombs are set on a small hill offering nice views of the jagged mountains of Adwa. The local tradition attributes the tombs to the 6th-century King Kaleb and his son, King Gebre Meskel. The structure is completely made of stone, some with peculiar carvings.
5. King Ezana’s Inscription
King Ezana’s Inscription is an extraordinary stone tablet housed in a small shed, discovered by a local farmer more than 30 years ago, with several ancient languages inscribed on it such as Ge’ez and Ancient Greek. . The stone dates back to the IV century and commemorates the Christian military campaigns of King Ezana.
6. Dungur Palace
It probably was the residence of an Aksumite nobleman. The ruins date back to the VI century, and small rough stones characterize the architectural style. Our driver told us that Dungar palace is also known as the Palace of Queen Sheba because there is the possibility that its ruins are underneath Dungar as archaeologists have discovered more ruins under these ruins.
7. Church of Saint Mary Zion Complex
This is the most important Ethiopian Orthodox church in the country, and, according to tradition, it’s the place where the original Ark of the Covenant is kept. Anyway, only the guardian monk (according to the Bible) but a visit to the church is well worth it. The original church is believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian ruler of the Kingdom of Axum, during the 4th century AD and has been rebuilt several times.