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Lost treasures

Trevor Jenner returns after several years to the ancient monuments of Axum, a testimony to a once-great kingdom, and lists the country’s other captivating historical sites
The Monastery of Pantaleon, situated 5km from Axum on a pinnacle known as Debre Katin, is one of the oldest churches in Ethiopia

There is something about Axum, its wide streets, little traffic, dry sunny climate, ancient monuments and all-pervading air of mystery. Fact and fiction collide here and it is fascinating to speculate on what is true and what is not in this special place. This is the view I had formed of this enigmatic city from previous visits. So I was keen to return to see if it exuded that same mystical atmosphere and to enjoy its treasures again.

From the twin turboprop aircraft on the way to Axum’s regional airport, incredible views opened up of vast plateaus, a plethora of deep gorges, the towering Simien Mountains and the River Tekeze dam, with its huge, picturesque lake — a study of blue water and rose-hued mountains. On arrival, I was met by an old friend, Dawit Tesfay, owner of Covenant Tours.

At this point, it is worth relating some of Axum’s illustrious past. It spawned one of the world’s most important ancient empires, the Axumite Kingdom, which is believed to have started in the 1st century AD and rose to the height of its power in the 4th and 5th centuries. Mani, the 3rd-century Persian prophet and writer, wrote that it was one of the four great kingdoms of his time, the others being Rome, Persia and China. From the ancient port of Adulis on the Red Sea its fleet of ships traded in a host of goods including ivory, gold and frankincense, enabling the realm to flourish. But gradually the rise of the Islamists cut off Axum’s trade with this region. The empire declined and was eventually extinguished in AD 900. Among its remnants are the famous carved stelae. Believed to have been erected between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, they are the largest standing stones in Africa. There is still much to be discovered because only a small fraction of the archaeological remains have so far been unearthed.

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