Aksum is a city in northern Ethiopia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1980. Historically Aksum was the center of the Kingdom of Aksum and the Aksumite Empire. The region of Aksum has a stable population in the modern world of about 50,000, the majority of whom are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians.
The Kingdom of Aksum began to grow in about the 4th century BCE. The Empire was an important trading power in the Red Sea, helping to link the Roman Empire with the wealth of India. The Kingdom of Aksum profited immensely from its position, and used its wealth to expand its borders and conquer rival neighbors, such as the Kingdom of Kush.
By the early-4th century, the Kingdom of Aksum had converted to Christianity, and was one of the major powers of the old world. The Kingdom controlled much of north-east Africa, and parts of the Middle East. The Kingdom of Aksum acted as an important buffer between Byzantium and the Persian Empire, and allied itself strongly with Byzantium. The Kingdom of Aksum began a slow decline in the 7th century, coinciding with the rise of Islam and the control of trade by Muslim sailors. By the 10th century the Kingdom of Aksum had more or less collapsed, although it lay the groundwork for what would be Ethiopia.
The site of Aksum contains many architectural remnants of this great empire. It also contains historical relics which predate the Aksumite Empire itself. There are obelisks at Aksum which date perhaps to as far back as 5,000 BCE. One of these obelisks, erected sometime in the 2nd century, was sliced up by the Italians in the 1930s and sent to Italy. This obelisk stood nearly 80 feet (24m). In 2005 the obelisk was finally returned to Aksum, and although it has not yet been reinstalled, preparations are underway for its reconstruction.
Aksum is also known for being a possible site for the Ark of the Covenant. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims that the Ark was brought to the region by Menelik I on his way back from a meeting with King Solomon, his father. The Ark is said to be held in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, and is watched over by a guardian who is appointed for life. None but the guardian may view the Ark, and the guardian may never leave the chapel where the Ark is held.
The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is also where historically the Emperors of Ethiopia have been crowned. The Church was originally erected sometime in the 4th century, and was rebuilt a number of times afterwards.
Aksum also contains many large stelae, or slabs, thought to mark various notable graves. The stelae are found mostly in the Northern Stele Park, but are interspersed throughout the site. Aksum also contains the historic site of the Queen of Sheba’s Bath, said to date back to when the Queen of Sheba lived in Aksum, although in reality the bath is a natural reservoir.