I had lapsed into following the classic tourist circuit of northern Ethiopia. Not that that was a bad thing. Nor was it touristy. It was more like ‘spot the ferenji’, and a far cry from the streets of Thailand, or for that matter Central America. Aksum is the next stop. The major roading projects that was had seen in action in the Simien, and seen the benefits of on the way to Gonder were yet to make it north of Debark. Mum and Dad had emailed to say they had just watched a documentary a couple of days before titled ‘worlds most dangerous roads’ which featured the road to Aksum. With the intentions of staying away form the gourmet package holiday, I headed down to the bus station once back in Gonder to jump on a bus. I was promptly laughed at for thinking I could come down at 9am and get on a bus. Surely there were minibuses plying the route north on a frequent basis? Stupid ferenji. The roads were only passable by 4WD or somehow big busses, but as hardy as a Toyota Hiace was, it wasn’t good enough for that road. And the bus had left 4 hours earlier. And although only a couple of hundred kms away, it was a battle to get to Shire, the change point, before the last bus to Aksum left. Ethiopian transport does have a redeeming feature of cheap internal flights, that are at a flat rate. So instead of paying $15 USD or so and take a day and a half of terrible roads to get there, I could instead pay $44 USD and get on a 45 minute flight. Lock it in Eddie. On catching up in Aksum with the Belgians from our group in the Simiens who had driven their decked out Toyota Landcruiser on the road from Gonder and barely survived it, I didn’t regret the move, despite my intentions to be a proper ‘backpacker’.
Aksum is an ancient city, once capital to the Aksumite kingdom dating to the times of the Old Testament, where it was one of the three great kingdoms alongside the Romans and the Persians. It was the home of the Queen of Sheeba. A prominent figure from the Old Testament, she travelled to Jerusalem where she mothered a child with King Solomon, the son of David. According to Ethiopian Orthodox belief, their son, Menelik I later travelled to Jerusalem where he received the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets inscribed with the ten commandments. The belief is that this original artefact is housed in a separate chapel on the grounds of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, the main church in Aksum, only able to be seen by one special priest guarding it.
Aksum is also believed to be home of King Bazen, one of the three wise men who travelled to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus. Frankensence, his gift for the occasion can commonly be smelled as part of coffee ceremony which is a daily part of life for most Ethiopians.
The city is most famous for a series of massive stone stellae. these huge granite slabs are up to 33m high, and weigh up to 500 tons. Three of the biggest are inscribed with patterns, whilst the others are plain. They date from the early centuries AD, although the way they were cut from the quarry rock, keeping them perfectly straight is unclear, although not surprisingly, local beliefs consider some divine intervention in preparing them and bringing them from the quarry several Kms away. underground, lies several tombs of the emporors and other important people. The largest of the stellae lies broken on the ground, which is thought to be secondary a mishap when initially erected. The next biggest has only recently made a return to Aksum in the last few years, as it was claimed by Mussolini, cut into bits and re-erected in Rome.
We met up with the others from our Simien trip, for a bite to eat and a couple of beers. there was an interesting dinner where most of us ordered ‘half a chicken’ with what appeared being closer to half a carcass that has already had the meat eaten off. I again opted to booking flights for the next two legs, as both were going to take 2 days of windy gravel roads by public transport, and private vehicle would be just as much if not more than flying.