Royal monuments and ancient accounts recall the lost glory of an African kingdom

Mark Rose

April 22 2009

Known as The Mausoleum, this multi-chambered tomb of the early fourth century A.D. was associated with the largest of Aksum's obelisks. The tomb was investigated in the 1990s, but looters had ransacked it in antiquity. (Photo: Chester Higgins)In the first century A.D., an unknown merchant recorded details of the Red Sea trade, and mentioned Adulis, the harbor of "the city of the people called Aksumites" to which "all the ivory is brought from the country beyond the Nile." The ruler of Aksum, he wrote, was Zoskales, who was "miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature." Just two centuries later, the philosopher Mani (ca. A.D. 210-276) included Aksum as one of the four great empires, along with Rome, Persia, and Sileos (possibly China). And in 274, envoys from Aksum took part in the triumphal procession staged by the emperor Aurelian when he paraded the captured Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, fettered with gold chains, through Rome.

Today, Aksum is a dusty, regional market town of about 50,000 in northern Ethiopia. If people have heard of it, perhaps it is on account of another queen: the Biblical Sheba. According to the Kebra Nagast (Book of the Glory of the Kings), an early-14th-century compilation that chronicles Ethiopia's rulers, Solomon and Sheba had a son, Menelik, who brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Aksum. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains that the Ark is still kept within the precinct walls of the Church of Tsion (Mary of Zion) in Aksum.

But there is more to Aksum than legends of Sheba and the Ark. In 1980, it was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites because of the vestiges of its past, scattered throughout and around the town: ancient cemeteries with royal tombs, villa-like residential complexes, inscriptions, and monolithic stelae and obelisks.

Click here to comment on this article