AXUM, the site of Ethiopians most ancient city, is today a small town blissfully ignorant of its glorious past. The 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion is built on the site of a much older church probably resembling that of Debre Damo, dating from the 4th century AD. Only a platform and the wide stone steps remain from the earlier structure. The Cathedral is the repository of the crowns of some of Ethiopians former emperors. According to church legend, it also houses the original Ark of the Covenant – thus making St. Marys the holiest sanctuary in Ethiopia.
Founded perhaps 500 years after the decline of Yeha, much more is known about the historic highland city of Axum – together with its Red Sea port, Adulis. The latter was abandoned suddenly – probably in the sixth century AD – as the result of an invasion from Arabia, and was never resettled. On the other hand, protected by the mountains of northern Tigray, Axum survives to exert a profound influence on the imaginations and spiritual lives of many Ethiopians.
A small and lowly town surrounded by dry hills, modern Axum does not easily yield evidence of the splendors and pageantry of its glorious past. Its drab breeze-block houses, roofed with corrugated iron, look little different from those of any other contemporary highland settlement and its people seem remarkable only for their impassive stoicism. Part buried, however, but also part exposed, the extensive traces of noble buildings with large stone foundations are found there side by side with the ruins of even more impressive structures: temples, fortresses, and rich palaces. Adding substance to ancient legends of fire-breathing monsters and testifying to the lost truths embedded in myths and fables, the bones of bygone eras protrude everywhere through the soil. Even today, long- buried hordes of gold, silver and bronze coins are exposed by heavy downpours of rain.