The city of Axum, in the Tigray Regional State with its magnificent obelisk overshadowing a city in need of direction and support, the historic city, despite its historical worth is still a hidden treasure of Ethiopia that has not received the respect it rightly deserves. A society rich with ancient sites, a population that is still young – Axum is a shock. The place has very few visible tourists coming to its shores.
“There is little infrastructure to host guests, let alone accommodate the local populations,” a young tourist guide tells The Reporter. “Shouldn’t there be proper investments done in order for others to want to come here and experience the area.”
It is easy to see the potential and shortcomings of the place, literally denying it to showcase its historical narrative to the world, despite being recognized by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a world heritage site.
The massive ruins, dating from between the 1st and the 13th century A.D., include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and the ruins of ancient castles. Long after its political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned in Aksum.
Situated in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, Aksum symbolizes the wealth and importance of the civilization of the ancient Aksumite kingdom, which lasted from the 1st to the 8th centuries AD. The kingdom was at the crossroads of the three continents: Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman World, and was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. In command of the ivory trade with Sudan, its fleets controlled the Red Sea trade through the port of Adulis and the inland routes of north eastern Africa.
The ruins of the ancient Aksumite Civilization covered a wide area in the Tigray Plateau. The most impressive monuments are the monolithic obelisks, royal tombs and the palace ruins dating to the 6th and 7th centuries AD.
“I am excited to be in Africa, I learned much about historical facts of the nation and as a young activist, I helped fight the cause of returning the artifact to the rightful owner,” an Italian tourist who was visiting the area said. “Holly, I am disappointed how that treasure has been preserved in the country. It has been neglected.”
To his Australian colleague, Axum is a memorable place and is happy to have visited it.
“This is my first time being in Africa,” she said. ‘With little cosmetic improvements, this place can be a destination for backpackers such as myself, but there needs to better and affordable hotels.”
At 5:00 am, as the darkness is turning blue and as young women are gathering for a bucket water from a nearby water station, where basic electricity is still a luxury, a chatty elderly man, Kiros Tadios, is a guide in the area and he knows its history well, having lived in Axum for more than five decades.
“There is much to discover here. With no infrastructures, even like decent public washrooms, the Obelisk treasure is crumbling down, why would anyone come here. It’s only the elders that are sticking around. Our tourism could have made our young people affluent but it has been a burden as very few are coming to visit us.”
Like Axum, in its outskirts, its historical artifacts are also as neglected and crying for help.
In the Dura Mountain, known as ‘Ethiopia’s Chapel in the Sky’ a 10km ride from the City, most of the once proud artifacts are either damaged or are on their way in to total destruction. The churches that once stood tall are in disarray.
There are no tourists coming in and the lone sign that recognized the area has aged and can barely be read.
For 21 year old, Yosef Abrah, a part time translator and tour operator with faded jeans and torn shirt showing the little he seems to earn from lack of tourism, that is a missed opportunity.
“If we were to invest a little in Dura and help explain its history, we can bring needed attention to it. However, no one wants to invest in it. We are sleeping on treasures and we are closer to losing them,” he said.
Back in Axum, a noted Christian city, the status of its Muslim population has been a wedge issue for most. No Muslims can be buried here nor be able to build a mosque. However, they have been allowed to pray in the open, every Friday.
For Mohamed Mohamed and his friends, they have been forced to pray inside an ordinary room in the heart of downtown. All his Muslim family members have been buried in nearby towns and it hurts him, he cannot be buried here.”
“I am a fourth generation person from Axum. The history of this place is still in my vain and I want to see it grow, prosper and have people appreciate its history and I hope its Muslim population would be valued and recognized” he told The Reporter. “To me, beyond our shortcomings, that is what I want to pass to my own children. Axum is beyond a single individual but the treasure of Ethiopia,” he added.
With much potential and a growing grumbling to help the city reach its potential, last week, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made a surprise visit to Axum, to announce his government’s commitment to invest in the Obelisk and it was followed by the Government of Italy to support the effort.
For many, the recent visit of the Premier was a belated endorsement of its historical worth and many hope the federal government would put in the resources to protect the obelisks.
“This is a testament to our historic civilizations and something that should worry, not just the government, but the people of Ethiopia”, Kiros told The Reporter.
“But, I hope, it will be sooner, than later. If not, we might lose it forever”, he warned.
Ed.’s Note: Samuel was recently on a region wide tour of Tigray and this is the fourth part of a series of articles he would be writing on his experience.