Axum (አክሱም, also spelt Aksum) is a city of 56,000 in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, just south of Eritrea, with which it shares the language of Tigrinya.
It was for nearly 800 years the administrative centre of one of the great empires of the old world along with those of Rome, Persia and China and remains the ecclesiastical capital of the Ethiopian church. It is famous for its stelae, churches, monasteries, tombs and the ruins of palaces and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.
It is one of the cleaner and better kept Ethiopian towns with cobbled side streets and attractive flame trees providing shade in the main street.
Given the often trying conditions of Ethiopian roads, flying into Axum is a much more reasonable option.
- 1 Axum Airport (AXU IATA) (7 km to the east of town). There are daily flights from Addis Ababa, Gondar and Lalibela. Some flights are direct, others make stops along the way. At the airport, there will be taxis eager to drive you into town. A minibus is 75 birr per person (May 2019) and takes 15 minutes. Many hotels also offer van service to and from the airport.
It is likely that you will be security checked 3 times before getting onto your flight out of Yohannes IV/Axum Airport - as there is a security check on the road to the airport, a security check as you enter the airport and a security check after check-in.
Buses from Addis Ababa take a minimum of three days to travel via Dessie and Mekele. It is a very taxing ride over rough roads.
From Gondar, take the dawn bus to Shire (aka Inda Silasie) and change there for Axum – you can get through in a day. The section from Debarik/Debark to Inda Aba Guna (70 km before Shire) is one of the most spectacular in Africa, and used to be very rough, but most of it was paved by the end of 2017. From Shire to Axum is another 90 minutes on tarmac.
From Debarik and the Simien Mountains, the only bus heading north to Shire is the one from Gondar. It is often already full when it arrives at Debarik. You can either take your chances (it isn't always full), or hire someone from Debarik for about 150 birr to go into Gondar the day before and ride the Shire bus to Debarik for you, guaranteeing you a seat. (You must make arrangements the morning prior to the day you want to leave. If you are going trekking, you can make arrangements before you leave for your trek.) There are many buses travelling between Shire and Axum.
To travel the other way, from Axum to Gondar, you must take an afternoon bus to Shire/Inda Silasie, spend the night there, and catch the dawn bus to Gondar. You can get off at Debarik, but you will probably have to pay the full Gondar fare (about 50 birr).
The bus station is about 25 minutes walk east from Ezana park in the middle of town. The bus station is well organised and opens at 6PM sharp. It is as well to be there for the first bus if you are travelling any distance.
It is possible to get to Axum from Addis Ababa in one long day (and vice-versa), though two days is more likely. Drivers can be arranged through hotels or touts and, while not certainly the cheapest option (especially if you are able to take advantage of the Ethiopian Airlines discounts), can be faster and/or more comfortable than other means of public transportation.
Bajaj (blue, three-wheeler motorised rickshaws with 250cc two-stroke engines imported from India) charge tourists about 20 birr for short trips around town. For the Lioness of Gobodra and the Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field, instead of hiring one of the ultra-expensive tourist minibuses, you can catch a minibus going in the direction of Shire (there are many early in the morning) and ask them to drop you at the Lioness of Gobodra turnoff and catch another one back. The Lioness is not easy to find on your own but a group of children will soon appear who will guide you, and they should be compensated appropriately.
An combined archaeological ticket costs 300 birr (May 2019). Tickets are available from the tourist commission off the roundabout 400 m south of the Northern Stelae Field is valid for three days.
Northern Stelae Field contains numerous stelae, including the fallen Giant Stele and the standing Ezana Stele and Obelisk of Axum, tombs and a very worthwhile museum. The monolithic stelae are fashioned out of solid granite. Their mystery lies in that it is not known exactly by whom and for what purpose they were fashioned, although they were likely associated with burials of great emperors. The Ezana Stele, which measures 24 metres (78 feet) high, is standing at a slight lean in the centre of the field and is supported as a precaution against toppling. Another stele, the Obelisk of Axum, 24.8 metres (80 feet) high, fell while the tombs were being pillaged around the 10th century AD. It was stolen by the invading forces of Fascist Italy and taken to Rome, where it stood, from 1937 to 2005. It was returned to Axum and re-erected between the Ezana Stele and the Giant Stele in 2008.
The Great Stele, the biggest monolith in the world, measuring over 33 metres (108 feet) in length and weighing over 500 tonnes, fell somewhere around the 4th century AD and now lies in broken fragments on the ground. The mausoleum and the tomb of the brick walls are now open to the public again. The Tomb of the False Door is very impressive with its accurate workmanship.
- 1 Archaeological Museum of Axum.
- 2 Ezana's tri-lingual tablet. A well-preserved, 2-m-tall, thin tablet in Greek, Ge'ez and Latin discovered in the 1980s by a farmer, and praising God for his assistance in the conquest of land in what is now the Yemen. It issues a death curse to anyone who dares move it. It is in a small round building at the left hand side of the rough road from the northern stelae field to the tombs of kings Kaleb and Gebre Mes'kel. This small building is kept padlocked but the key holder will magically appear (unless at lunchtime between 12:00 and 14:30) if you're patient. As of May 2019, the building is being reconstructed and the tablet is not visible beneath a protective covering.
- 3 Tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Mes'kel. A 20-min walk along the rough road heading northeast from the northern stelae field. Impressive foundations and tombs. From here a signposted and very pleasant uphill rural stroll through giant lobelia shaded lanes will bring you to the Monastery of Abba Pantaleon.
- 4 Dungur Palace (Palace of the Queen of Sheba) (just out of town to the west, on the main road to Shire). The grand entrance steps and the foundations (topped with well dressed ruined walls up to 3 m high in places) of this palace near the Judith stelae field clearly indicate that this was the largest and most impressive palace in Axum. Although everyone calls it the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, it actually dates from the 7th century AD, about 1,500 years after the time of the Queen of Sheba.
- 5 Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field (just out of town to the west, on the main road to Shire). Of inferior quality in comparison to the Northern Stelae Field. On the other side of the road from the Dungur Palace.
- Lioness of Gobodra. Stone carving of a lion, a few kilometers out of town in the direction of Shire. It is close to the quarry where the stelae were made. Ask a local boy to show you where.
Churches and monasteries
A churches ticket costs 200 birr (May 2019). The combined ticket enables entry to the St Mary of Zion complex and to Arabtu Ensessa Church which is close by.
- 6 Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Often just called Tsion Maryam, Ethiopian legend has it that this complex is the repository of the Ark of the Covenant (the subject of the controversial book The Sign and the Seal), which is said to have been stolen (with God's will) from the temple of Jerusalem by Menelik I, Solomon's own son by the legendary Queen of Sheba. The chapel in which the Ark is kept is not accessible to anyone except the guardian monk, not even the Ethiopian emperors. There are also two churches in the compound: the old church, which was built by Emperor Fasiladas in 1665 and is not accessible to women, and a new church built in the 1960s by Haile Selassie. Pilgrims flock to the church for a festival on Hidar 21 (November 30).
- 7 Arabtu Enessa Church. Open 8AM-12:30PM. near the St Mary of Zion complex, it is . This church is well worth inspecting as it has many colourful murals inside.
- Enda Iyesus Church. Next to the northern stelae field. Closed but interesting murals on the outside.
- 8 Monastery of Abba Pantaleon (Abba Penalewan). Perched at the top of the 40 m rock thumb of Debre Katin, this 6th century monastery offers a stunning panorama out to the convoluted and whimsical shapes of the Adwa mountains, but women may not enter this beautifully simple structure. The priest will usually bring out some vellum manuscripts, brass crosses and crowns and other relics from their treasury.
- Ezana park contains a series of al fresco billiard tables and, in a circular building that looks padlocked but maybe isn't, another tablet from the time of King Ezana inscribed in Ge'ez, Greek and Sabaean.
According to the sign by the fig tree near the churches complex, a replica Ark of the Covenant is paraded on the first seven days of each month according to the Ethiopian calendar, at 21:00. This means 03:00 by the standard clock. Other sources say 05:00 but nothing was happening at 05:00 GMT+3 on 3 May 2019. Even if you don't get to see the Ark of the Covenant just sitting under the fig tree is a must do activity.
There is an ATM that accepts Visa cards at Wegagen Bank.
- AB Restaurant, ☏ +251 912 955 022. 06:00 until 22:00. Close to Ethiopian Airlines office. Serves traditional dishes, with dancing on Saturday nights.
- Africa Hotel (see the Sleep section below) has a large, clean restaurant where a steak club sandwich with lettuce and tomato together with chips cost 30 birr in June 2013. Traditional and other "international" dishes are also served and their bar has a large screen LCD TV if you want to watch some soccer or the manic, shoulder-shaking style of the local dances.
- Pizza Restaurant, turn north one block east of the Africa Hotel into the street that leads to the Remhai Hotel and this small place is on the right of the street. A large pizza, "but-not-as-we-know-it-in Italy, Croatia, Canada or Singapore", cost 60 birr in June 2013.
- Kuda juice is a fun place to eat is local food, Italian food and even some Mexican. Popular with locals and tourists
- Ezana Cafe, Aksum. Really good cafe, mainly local clientele; good coffee, breakfasts, Ethiopian food. Close to Ezana park.
- Underground near the Ambassador Hotel on the west side of town. Large selection of imported spirits.
- Zebra also near the Ambassador Hotel, stays open until about 03:00. Reasonable prices for drinks with a Dashen or St George beer costing 20 birr and popular with the ladies. DJ and dancing every night.
- Yeha Hotel is a great place to have a few drinks. The terrace overlooks the Northern Stelae filed. The views are so good the locals come here for their wedding photos.
- 1 Africa Hotel (On main highway from Shire to Axum Airport right in the middle of town), ☏ +251 347 753 700. One of the more popular hotels in town for travellers with a bearable, although not really desirable, restaurant with excellent salads, a small bar and a friendly helpful owner/manager. Rooms are triples, doubles or singles with individual bathrooms all allegedly with hot showers and DSTV. Nice, secure courtyard with fruit trees. MasterCard and Visa accepted; free Wi-Fi and airport shuttle - just. From 175 birr for a single room.
- 2 Sabean International Hotel (ሳቢያን ኢንተርናሽናል ሆቴል). Business style hotel, decent by Ethiopian standards, poor by Western Standards. Restaurant is one of the better ones in town
- Consolar Hotel (sic) Business style hotel with decent restaurant and free wifi
- Kaleb Hotel. 400 birr for a twin room. Good location midway between the sights and the restaurants, a bit of a walk from both. Nice garden but they play loud music. Worthless Wi-Fi. The food takes an hour to arrive. The bar has slow service because the barmaid does not have access to the cashbox, which is in a different room.
- Yeha Hotel, government-owned hotel overlooking the Northern Stele field from US$55. Good restaurant with mediocre service. Excellent view from terrace.
By minibus to Shire (40 birr), Adwa (around 26 birr)
By minibus to Yeha to see a temple from a pre-Christian and pre-Aksumite civilization, a church, and a small museum