Axum: History, yes; ATMs, no

Axum (or Aksum — as with many languages that we transliterate, we found that there often isn’t just one correct spelling for places in Ethiopia) is a small city in Tigrai, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, near the Eritrean border. Tigrayans are ethnically the same as Eritreans, and their first language is Tigrinya, although almost all Ethiopian Tigrayans also speak Amharic. Axum was the center of the Aksumite kingdom, which was formed thousands of years B.C. and began to decline around the seventh century.

Axum is known best for its stelae or obelisks, the oldest of which were built between 5000 and 2000 B.C., and for St. Mary’s Church, which Ethiopians believe houses the Ark of the Covenant. Most Ethiopians believe that King Menelik took the Ark from his father, King Solomon, while visiting him in Jerusalem around the tenth century B.C.

Truthfully, I had seen photos of the obelisks and didn’t think they seemed that special, but in person, they were kind of amazing. Most of them are still standing in their original state after thousands of years. A few exceptions — the one that is broken and lying down is believed to have fallen while it was being erected, because the base is not large enough to support the weight of the structure; one is being reinforced by UNESCO; and one was taken apart and shipped to Rome by Mussolini, but has since been returned and reconstructed by the Italian government.






The trees around the obelisks were growing this berry, which tasted kind of good at first bite, but then became unpleasantly gooey in the middle.




Close to the obelisks there were a bunch of interesting archeological sites, where we saw lots of old tombs and stone carvings and tried to avoid run-ins with the bats.




The most famous carving that we saw was a stone commemorating an ancient king’s military victory, which is inscribed in three languages (so that all of the relevant parties would know about the victory) — Greek, Sabaean, and Ge’ez. Sabaean, Ge’ez, and Amharic all use the same alphabet; Ge’ez is the language in which Ethiopian Orthodox bibles are usually written.




Nearby, and with a beautiful view of mountains, farmland, and baby goats, we saw ruins that Ethiopians believe to have been the palace of the Queen of Sheba, as well as her royal bath, which is now used by nearby villages to collect water as well as for bathing (I tactfully avoided the naked men in my photos).







Finally, we visited St. Mary’s church, which was beautiful. By the altar, the plastic tanks are there for water that people collect and then bring to church to make it holy. The bible pictured here, like many that we saw, has pages made of goatskin and is illustrated using natural inks. It is written in Ge’ez mostly in black text; the red text is for holy words.







On the grounds of the church is this building, which Haile Selassie’s wife built to house the Ark of the Covenant. No one is allowed inside except for the monks who guard it, and they are not allowed to leave the church grounds.


After finishing our “highlights of Axum” tour on our first day there, we realized that we didn’t have enough Birr to pay our guide. No problem — he took us to an ATM. Which was out of order. Could we go to another ATM? No. There is only one ATM in Axum. The guide took us back to our hotel, where I rummaged through my “rainy day fund” of assorted foreign currency and Juliet went to ask the hotel receptionist whether we could solve our liquidity problem by charging extra money on our credit cards when we paid for the room and then getting cash back. I emerged triumphantly with just enough dollars / rands / pounds / shillings to pay our guide. Juliet emerged with the alarming information that our hotel did not accept credit cards — that, in fact, no place in the entire town of Axum accepts credit cards. Juliet dug into her rainy day fund of euros and negotiated a discounted rate for one night at the hotel. I called Ethiopian Airlines and arranged to leave Axum the following morning, instead of the day after that, since we apparently couldn’t afford to stay. We celebrated our problem-solving skills with the cheapest drinks on the menu at the hotel bar — local gin with sprite (Juliet’s verdict: tastes like ouzo) and johnny walker red label on the rocks (my verdict: not as bad as expected, until the next morning).


5 thoughts on “Axum: History, yes; ATMs, no

  1. I’m somehow flattered yet concerned that in every post I seem to be ‘negotiating’ down hotel room rates / animal skins / local drinks… I am however beyond delighted to be reminded of this particular memory of ‘no-ATM Axum’… Missing you!

    • I forgot to mention that in addition to being the chief negotiator and photographer, you were also navigator / hotel-and-restaurant-picker / trip-advisor-searcher / travel buddy extraordinaire! But don’t worry, more Ethiopia posts to come 🙂 Miss you extra whenever I write one!

  2. Amharic, was said to be the language of Moses and he was black according to people in that region, a fact I learned in 1950 from a black Jewish tailor who I met in the Berger home when I first arrived in London.
    You guys are being treated to a rare travelogue by Elana and co. I know I am enjoying it. Keep it going Thanks

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