Chapel of the Tablet, at the Church of St. Mary of Zion
Aksum (also spelled Axum) is a city in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. The ancient capital, located on the northern border of Ethiopia, is famous for its stelae, churches, monasteries, tombs and the ruins of palaces. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980. It has a population of 56,000.
There are daily flights from Addis Ababa to the small and rural, but well-functioning, Aksum airport. Some flights are direct, others make stops along the way. At the airport, there will be taxis eager to drive you into town. Many hotels also offer van service to and from the airport.
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 and change there for Aksum – you can usually get through in a day. To travel to Gondar, you must take an afternoon bus to Shire, spend the night there, and catch the dawn bus to Gondar. The road between Shire and Gondar is one of the most spectacular in Ethiopia. The bus should be about 130 birr and take between 12-20 hours depending on weather, more info below. Beware of taking the road during bad weather conditions.
From Debark and the Simien Mountains, there is only one bus heading north to Shire. That is the Gondar bus, and it is often full when it passes through Debark. You can either take your chances (it isn't always full), or hire someone from Debark for about 150 birr to go into Gondar the day before and ride the Shire bus to Debark for you, guaranteeing you a seat. (Note that 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 Aksum. To travel to Debark, go to Shire in the afternoon, spend the night there, catch the Gondar bus the next morning, and get off at Debark. You will probably have to pay the full fare to Gondar (about 50 birr).
From Mekele there is a daily bus departing at dawn, be at the bus station in Mekele at 5am as there are many passengers that want good seats. It is a bit chaotic finding the bus in the morning. When the gates to the bus station open most of the passengers run for the buses. The ride is about 6 hours with a breakfast stop in Adwa. The bus is about 40 birr.
Easily on foot; everything is very close. For the Lioness of Gobedra 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 Gobedra 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.
Church of St. Mary of Zion. Ethiopian legend has it that the Church 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, even the Ethiopian emperors. The expensive entrance fee to the church compound deters most; sometimes the guards let you have a look from the outside without having to pay. There are two churches in the compound: the old church, which was built by Emperor Fasiladas in 1665, and a new church built in the 1960s by Haile Selassie. Pilgrims flock to the church for a festival on Hidar 21 (30 Nov).
Northern Stelae Field including the Ezana Stele and the Giant Stele. The numerous 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 biggest monolith (and the largest in the world), measuring over 33m (108 ft) and weighing about 500 tonnes, fell somewhere around the 4th Century AD and now lies in broken fragments on the ground. The second largest, which measures 24m (78 ft) high, is still standing at the entrance to the field, although it is leaning at a slight angle. Another stele, 24.8m (80 ft) 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 Aksum and re-erected in 2008. The Tomb of the False Door is very impressive with its accurate workmanship.
Palace of the Queen of Sheba: only the foundations of this palace near the Judith stelae field remain. Although everyone calls it the Palace of the Queen of Sheba, it actually dates from the 7th Century AD, about 1500 years after the time of the Queen of Sheba.
Lioness of Gobedra, a stone carving of a lion, a few kms out of town in the direction of Shire. It is close to the quarry where the stelae were made. Ask a local to show you where.
The tombs of the kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, a 20-minute walk along the road heading northeast from the northern stelae field. Impressive foundations and tombs. Take a torch.
Ezanas Scriptures on the way from the northern stelae field to the tombs of the kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, usually closed. Wait for the keybearer.
Judith (Gudit) Stelae Field out of town in the direction of Shire, of inferior quality in comparison to the Northern Stelae Field.
Ezana Park, where there is another multilingual script table of King Ezana.
Archaelogical Museum a collection of stone artefacts giving you an idea how advanced the culture was.
A ticket from the tourist commission, located off the roundabout 400 m south of the Northern Stelae Field, covers admission to all sights except the Church of St. Mary of Zion.
Monastery of Abba Pantaleon (Abba Penalewan). The monastery overlooks the city, features relics and interesting artwork. It is a bit difficult to reach. Men only.edit
St George Draft Beers. Just about 100m away from Hotel Africa (curbside opposite the street, about 100m towards city centre) is simple place where they serve quite affordable draft beers from the St. George family (apart from St. George itself, they serve Amber and Castel). The music they play is loud, but since it's outside and the sidewalk is broad, you can choose a place with a little more atmosphere and enjoy a glass, while maybe buying peanuts for 2 birr from one of the boys that will come by. editedit
Kaleb Hotel, from 40 birr (single). The rooms are fine but the place is fairly noisy as there are discotheques nearby. The food is not worth mentioning.
Africa Hotel,. One of the more popular hotels in town for travellers with a bearable, although not really desirable, restaurant, a small bar, and a friendly helpful owner/manager. Some people have complained about stomach sickness after eating their food. Rooms are doubles or singles with individual bathrooms with showers. Ok courtyard with fruit trees, but the large number of cars here means it not as nice to sit as in front at the street. A double room was 200 birr in Dec 2013, though the sign with faranji prices stated 250 birr.
Yeha Hotel, government owned hotel overlooking the Northern Stele field. Good restaurant with mediocre service. Excellent view from terrace.
By minibus to Shire (15 birr), Adwa (around 8 birr).
By minibus to Yeha (be prepared for a bumpy ride). Here you will see a temple from a pre-Christian and pre-Aksumite civilization. There is also a church next door, and a small dark room where you can see typical Ethiopian church relics – ancient texts, crosses, portraits, and so on. Outside, you can see boys reciting passages in Ge'ez, the ancient scriptural language of Ethiopia, as part of their church education. The town of Yeha is hardly recognizable as a town. Cheap souvenirs and strange treasures are available for sale from the children outside the temple/church complex, but nothing else is available. Look up at the unusual mountains for a glimpse at a certain lion of Ethiopia.