This holy city and former capital, found 350 mi/565 km north of Addis Ababa in the northern province of Tigrai, is ancient, dating back 2,000 years. A major stop in caravan routes heading to the Red Sea, Aksum (the early site is referred to as Axum) was the home of Ezana, the Ethiopian king who converted to Christianity in the fourth century.

Several sites in Aksum are legendarily associated with the Queen of Sheba, to whom Ethiopians refer as Makeda and claim was impregnated by King Solomon on a visit to Jerusalem. The fruit of this royal union was Emperor Menelik I, the founder of the so-called Solomonic Dynasty that ruled Ethiopia almost continuously until the death of Haile Selassie almost 3,000 years later. However, most credible historians regard these legends as pure fabrication, and sites such as the "Queen of Sheba's Palace" and the "Queen's Well," although very ancient, probably postdate her era by several centuries. An equally unverifiable local legend has it that the Ark of the Covenant was stolen from King Solomon by his son Menelik I and now lies in a special building in the fourth-century church compound of Tsion Maryam (Mary of Zion). The chapel is guarded night and day by a monk who is forbidden to let anyone inside.

What is true is that sometime after the conversion to Christianity, Ezana's dynasty incorporated the Solomon story into its origins. Not to be outdone, later dynasties, such as that associated with King Lalibela, went to even greater historical depths and claimed Moses as their founder. A display in a modern church in Aksum contains the crowns of ancient kings.

Although the civil war left its scars, most of Aksum's ruins, which date from AD 400, were untouched. The ruins include palaces, buildings and dozens of stelae, or obelisks, each carved from a single piece of stone (some as tall as 75 ft/22 m). The stelae, several of which have fallen, mark the burial places of Aksumite kings and resemble three- or four-story buildings, complete with windows and doors.

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