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Out of Africa (Part 5/7) - Ethiopia - Axum

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

A broken obelisk, Axum, Ethiopia
A broken obelisk: symbolic of Axum's faded charm

Keep on Truckin'

The Simien Mountains receded into the background as our truck negotiated a serpentine and potholed road north out of Debark and in the direction of Axum, our next destination, 280km but ten to twelve hours distant. We had managed to organize the truck pretty quickly on arriving in Debark – someone found us eating our meal, still euphoric from our success in getting through the Simien experience with wallets intact – and acted as a go-between between us and the driver. Buses in these parts are almost non-existent, and if there had been one that day heading in the direction of Aksum, it would have left at 5am. We got two berths in the front of a truck cab, along with the driver and two other random passengers squashed in with us somehow. The first part of that afternoon’s journey was spectacular; although we had left the Simien national park, mountainous terrain still abounded, and the amazing vistas just kept coming as the truck crawled up and down countless breathtaking switchbacks.

Stunning country between the Simien National Park and Aksum, Ethiopia
Stunning country between the Simien National Park and Aksum

The driver crunched through the gears as the truck lurched dangerously close to the edge of the road; countless broken crash barriers and half-destroyed walls stood testament to the dangers of unwary driving in this area. This stretch of road, built by the Italians during their brief occupation, traverses several massive passes, including the Wolkefit Pass, which peaks at around 3000m,and takes in some of the most impressive scenery in Ethiopia. Our driver had prepared himself for the arduous journey by bringing a large sheaf of ‘chat’ to chew on – a mild stimulant which is something like the plant version of Red Bull – and he clung on to the steering wheel wide-eyed as he tapped his feet on the pedals to tinny Ethiopian pop.

Hitch-hiking, Ethiopia
Our truck driver. Don't expect to get anywhere fast in Ethiopia

Shire - truck stop

For about four hours, I was happily transfixed by the stunning scenery outside the window. As darkness began to fall, I asked the driver where we were, and to my dismay we were only just over half way to Axum. The next four hours seemed endless, and the cramped cab became more and more irksome and uncomfortable. Eventually, the truck pulled up about 10pm in a town called Shire (appropriate name for this most provincial of areas, though disappointingly pronounced more like “Shearer”), and the driver announced we were stopping here for the night – our journey would continue at 5am the next morning. We were shown into the most flea-ridden of hotels imaginable, which was acceptable to our traveling friends regardless, but which lacked even water and probably electricity. Although I've never claimed to have high standards, we quickly decided we needed to upgrade to something better, following the previous two nights of extremely basic conditions. We made for the smartest hotel in town – which turned out to be the smartest hotel on the trip, a 'three star' place that would be quite costly anywhere else but was only about 150 birr ($10) each here. We spent the rest of the evening luxuriating in fine style with unheard of conveniences like cable TV (BBC World again), relatively good quality food and drink (tomato soup, spaghetti bolognese and two varieties of beer) and soft beds with fluffy pillows. It seemed like paradise after the Simien mountains - and indeed, everywhere I'd been since I'd left Addis. In reality, it was a bang average place with few frills but a rare ability to provide clean bed linen and keep bedbugs at bay. This, in Ethiopia, is a true find and you need to appreciate small luxuries like this. Needless to say, we failed to make the 5am lift to Axum the next day; we both surfaced about mid-morning the next day and I spent about an hour over breakfast before lazing around for another several hours. The mountains had certainly taken out of us; we were extremely lethargic and the mere effort of travelling the two hours to Axum seemed almost daunting.

Ethiopian bus travel
Ethiopian buses - not for the faint-hearted

Eventually, we made it onto another crowded, sweaty, smelly bus which defied even my low expectations by being slower and more unpleasant than anything previously experienced. The ‘road’ ceased all real pretensions of being a road at all, and just descended into being a surface which happened to link two places together. As I bumped up and down on my backseat, catapulted into the air every few minutes as the bus crashed into yet another pothole, my backside started regretting setting foot on the damn thing. There seems to be an unspoken law against opening windows on Ethiopian buses, which adds to the stifling discomfort of the whole experience, and when you do try to wedge a window open, you’ll find that somebody will stubbornly slam it shut again instantly. A fear or superstition that draughts cause illness, apparently. As darkness fell, we finally pulled into Axum – three hours after leaving Shire. Tired, irritated and hungry after what should have been a routine journey, we made straight for the tired, unimaginatively-named but budget priced Hotel Africa. (A snip at $12 a night with breakfast). Bedbugs were included in that price - obvs.

Stellae Field: Aksum, Ethiopia
Stellae Field: Aksum

Another night in

Axum is famed for its massive, teetering stellae, ruins of palaces and underground tombs, and is probably deservedly a world heritage site. The ancient memorial obelisks were erected in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, when Aksum was the capital of an extensive empire, which dominated trade between Africa and Asia. The obelisks mark burial chambers, so serve much the same function as the far more famous pyramids of Egypt, a few hundred miles to the north. The town is a major pilgrimage site for many Ethiopians, and curiously many believe that the ark of the covenant was laid to rest here in the Church of St Mary of Zion. Unfortunately, it is not possible to have a look at this, as it is zealously guarded by a carefully chosen and vigilant priest. Those few who have attempted to approach the ark uninvited are said to have burst into flames spontaneously. Truth or myth? Who knows in this crazy country. Neither would surprise me overly. We arrived in the midst of a major religious festival, and the atmosphere in the town was somewhat euphoric as kids roamed the streets banging drums, singing and chanting and generally bothering anyone vaguely foreign looking for money and gifts. We had settled into an evening of cards and St. George beer in our rather disappointing hotel restaurant to escape the madness, only to be attacked by a group who spotted Harry unwisely peering out of the doorway at them. A group of at least twenty kids sang and danced in somewhat of a frenzy around our table while we looked on in bemusement; they were not very content with the handful of birr we gave them, but they were soon shooed out to go and bother someone else. We pretty much gave up on a night out in such circumstances, plumping instead for a decent meal in the Remhai Hotel, one of the town's finest which isn't saying a great deal. Still, they served more than a passable onion soup and lasagna By this point I had unfortunately pretty much given up on Ethiopian food - most unlike me to be so unadventurous where food is concerned - but in all honesty I'd just had too many poor, unimaginative dishes of indeterminate flavour served up with the tasteless soggy dishcloth that is injeera, and so was happy to just eat Italian food every night - most of which was on the right side of acceptable.

Religious festival, Axum, Ethiopia
Religious fervour: we arrived on a religious holiday and there were crowds on the streets

Underwhelming obelisks

On arriving at the site of the Stellae field the next day, I was mildly disappointed. It was a bit like going to a Talent Contest where the stars of the show come onto the stage on crutches and limp around for a few minutes looking a bit decrepit and past it, singing out of tune. If you can imagine a smallish field with a few admittedly impressive structures, around 30m high, with the rest either crumbling and horizontal or else supported by cranes and reinforcing concrete, then you have Axum. You look around for a while, trying to be suitably impressed (few guidebooks forewarn you and my usually reliable Lonely Planet certainly didn't), but in all honesty it's hard to be. The place is somewhat underwhelming when you really want it to blow you away with its majesty and beauty, and it sends you away feeling there could be more to it, it could be better presented, somehow cared for in a way that doesn't destroy utterly its visual appeal.

View of Axum, Ethiopia
Axum is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant

Saying that of course, it's certainly not terrible, and many history buffs I'm sure will be in raptures here. The fact is that here they have the largest obelisks in the world; the biggest is believed to have been transported from a quarry 4km away, it weighed over 500 tons and fell as it was erected in the 6th century, many say causing the downfall of the Aksumite civilization. Such a weight of history is bound to influence and impress people, but somehow it didn't impress me that much. Seeing the Stellae Field the following morning however, as the carnival reached its apogee, was a different matter. Crowds of believers swarmed around the edges of the field as priests inside conducted an open-air service to all and sundry. I climbed up a hill above the park to get a better view and some prime shots; even up there it was hard to escape the crowds (and of course the beggars). What impressed me most about the whole event was the sheer religious fervour which seemed to take hold - something I had observed time and again during my two months in Ethiopia, especially on one of the (many) religious days that occur there.

Obelisk of Axum, Ethiopia
Throngs at the Obelisk of Axum

A health-conscious nation

The rest of my time in Axum was a time of relaxation. I spent most of that Sunday by the outdoor pool at the Remhai Hotel; the first really relaxing thing I'd done since wallowing in the heated pools of the Hilton in Addis. The sun was pretty intense here, and after a few hours in the sun, despite it being only about 25 degrees or so, my skin was bright red. I went inside to watch Arsenal on TV - I followed the throngs, since pretty much everyone in this country follows the team for some reason. It's quite funny watching a football match in Ethiopia. Generally you get a big screen at the front of a large room which has rows of chairs lined up in front of it, and which you have to pay about 10 birr ($1) to watch. No alcohol is consumed or cigarettes smoked; Ethiopians are, it seems, a nation of health freaks. Instead, people just sit and watch the screen in silence, fixated on the action and in absolute concentration - until a goal goes in and the place either erupts in cheers or shouts of anger. This is the atmosphere I watched the game in for half an hour before finding it all a bit too weird and wandering off to find an internet cafe. The snail-slow speeds meant that this task would take up most of the evening. The next stop was to be the rock-hewn cave monasteries of Tigray, and I wanted to try and find some information on it. Axum had been a great place to stop and relax, but once you've seen the stellae field and a few of the surrounding tombs, there isn't a great deal more to do and see, so we were to hit that bumpy road again the next day - far too soon for my backside's liking..

priest at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion - supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant, Axum, Ethiopia
Cross-wielding priest at the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion - supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant


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This blog is part of a series. To see the previous/next parts, on the Simien mountains and Tigray's rock-hewn churches respectively, go here:

Part 4/7: Simien Mountains

Part 6/7: The Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray

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