My VSO adventures

Tag Archives: Akum

Over the last couple of months I’ve had some time to explore more of Ethiopia. In January my parents came out for a much anticipated visit. When they made their way to Axum we took a couple of days to explore all of the sights around the town. Axum was the centre of the Askumite empire which stretched all the way to Yemen and was a major civilisation at the time and force in world trade. The empire rose to prominence between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. Legend has it that the dynasty of Kings who ruled was established after the Queen of Sheba (who came from Axum!) visited King Solomon and they had a son who became King Menelik. There is much which is still unknown about the period and many ancient sites around the town still to be excavated. The most obvious site is the stelae field which consists of 250 numbered stelae. There are 2 large, decorated standing stelae which stand at 23m and 26m high. Another stelae, which would have been 33m high, lies where it fell as it was erected.

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Further up the hill there is the Mai Shum (Queen of Sheba bath) and following this a stone which has inscriptions on it in Greek, Sabean and Giz (which is still the language of the Ethiopian church) from King Ezana’s reign. He was the first christian king of the Askumite empire in the 4th century AD . This Ethiopian equivalent of the Rosetta stone is in a small hut which was built over it after it was found. The inscription warns any who move it will meet an untimely death!

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At the top of the hill are the tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, Askumite kings. Further outside of town is Dongar palace which is also known as the Queen of Sheba palace. It dates from the 7th century AD and was likely built as a nobleman’s palace. Further out from this is the stelae quarry, where there are still the remains of stelae which haven’t been completely freed from the rock. There is also a carving of the Gobedra lioness which was carved in pre-Christian times with a cross beside it which was added later.

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In the middle of town is King Basen’s tomb. He would have ruled the Askumite empire at the time of Jesus’ birth and is supposed to be the wise man who brought frankincense as a gift.

The following day we went to Yeha temple, 50km outside Akum. The temple was build 2,500 years ago during the pre-Askumite Sabean period and is still being excavated by a German team. We then headed back to Akum to experience Timkat which is called the Ethiopian Epiphany. The festival really is a celebration of the baptism of Jesus. On Saturday afternoon there is a procession of all of the treasures from the church, including the Ark of the Covent, up to Mai Shum. This is accompanied by singing and dancing. On the Sunday morning the water in Mai Shum is blessed and people jump into the Holy Water to be blessed.

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After leaving Askum I went with my parents to Lalibela. It is here that you find the famous rock hewn churches of Ethiopia. King Lalibela wanted to create the second Jerusalem in the 12th century and built 13 churches high up in the mountains, carving down into the rock. We saw the churches in the Northwestern and Southeastern cluster as well as the cross shaped Bet Giyorgis. Dad and I also took a walk up the mountain to see the smaller church of Asheton Maryam which was built by King Lalibela’s nephew and house some spectacular ‘treasures’, as the crosses and books belonging to churches are called.

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We also managed a trip to a lovely restaurant called Ben Abeba, jointly owned by a Scot and an Ethiopian. There was a spectacular view of the sunset as well as some very nice gin cocktails!

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