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Aksum (Axum; 2000 est. pop., 35,000) is a town in Tigré province of northern Ethiopia, located just south of the Eritrean border. It was the capital of an early Ethiopian empire (1st–12th century A.D.), which is also known as Aksum. The town contains the remains of many ancient monuments, notably a number of tall sculptured-granite stelae (sometimes described as obelisks), the highest of which was originally 33.5 m (110 ft). The cathedral of Maryam Seyon (St. Mary of Zion) is believed to contain the ark of the covenant, carried there from Jerusalem by Menelik, legendary son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The Aksum ruins have been designated (1980) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Aksumite civilization was a blend of indigenous Ethiopian elements, South Arabian traits brought by settlers from Sheba (Saba; present-day Yemen), and influences from Hellenistic Egypt. A 1st-century-A.D. Greek source portrays Aksum as the center of a thriving state whose economy was based on trade in ivory, transported from the interior of Africa to the Red Sea port of Adulis (near present-day Zula, Eritrea) and from there shipped to Arabia, India, and the Mediterranean region. Inscriptions from the 3d century indicate that the Aksumite realm extended from the Red Sea west through Eritrea and northern Ethiopia into Sudan and had established a temporary bridgehead across the Red Sea in Sheba. Christianity was introduced from Egypt by Saint Frumentius in the 4th century, during the reign of Emperor Ezana. In the 6th century Emperor Kaleb again subjected Yemen to Aksumite rule. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt (640), Aksum was cut off from the outside world. It gradually became an isolated and landlocked Christian state surrounded by Islamic neighbors.

One of the Aksum stelae was removed in 1937 by the Italian forces that had occupied Ethiopia; it was set up opposite the Colosseum in Rome. In 2000 the Italian government announced that it would finally return the stele to Aksum; it had promised to do so in 1947. The 1,700-year-old monument had been damaged by pollution and a 2002 lightning strike. It was finally returned to Ethiopia in April 2005. The restored and reassembled stele was publicly unveiled in a September 2008 ceremony in Aksum. By this time, archaeologists had located a vast new network of tombs nearby.

Further Reading:

Burstein, Stanley, ed., Ancient African Civilizations: Kush and Axum (1998).

Munro-Hay, Stuart, Aksum: An African Civilization of Late Antiquity (1991).

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