The modern town of Axum does not easily show the evidence of the splendors of its glorious past. Nevertheless, the historic footprints are represented by extensive traces of noble buildings with large stone foundations, side by side with the ruins of even more impressive structures such as: temples, fortresses, and rich palaces.
The hand of nature in the form of heavy downpours of rain, seems to take the place of systematic excavations, to bring to light some of the long-buried hordes of gold, silver and bronze coins. Was there a pre-Axum civilization of Ethiopia?
The Axumite Kingdom
Axum, was a great commercial civilization trading with distant lands, such as Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India, Ceylon, etc. Its main exports were gold, ivory, rhinoceros-horn, hippopotamus hide and slaves. It imported mainly textiles, finished metal wares, and metals to be used for the manufacturing of local crafts.
Thestelea erected in Axum seem less like pillars of stone and more like lightning rods to heaven. The purpose of these prodigious monolithic stelea may have been to draw down power from the firmament in a ritual, undoubtedly accompanied by occasional sacrifices. Most of the obelisks have altars at their bases, all aligned towards the rising sun. Four deep holes in the center of one were presumably made to collect blood from the sacrifices. Like many other monolithic Ethiopian works, it is carved to resemble a conventional building – in this case a nine-story tower-house.
Of the three tallest stelea, one is still standing, another is lying broken into pieces, but otherwise intact, and the third is being returned to its rightful place from Rome, where it has been standing ever since the Italian Invasion of Ethiopia during the second World War.
Post Christianity Axum
Axum still holds a significant place among the members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, because of the Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion.
This church was built on the site of a much older church, probably resembling that of DebreDamo, dating from the 4th century AD. Only a platform and the wide stone steps remain from the earlier structure. The Cathedral is the repository of the crowns of some of Ethiopia’s former emperors, and is believed to house the original Ark of the Covenant – thus making St. Mary the holiest sanctuary in Ethiopia.
The significance of Monasticism in the Ethiopian Coptic Church
DebreDamo, uniquely enough, offers that broader horizon of the Ethiopian spiritual entity, and the significant place monasticism holds in the Ethiopian Coptic Church. the case with some Ethiopian monasteries, and mainly for religious reasons, women do not have the access to visit this site. The monastery is found on a cliff 24 meters high that makes the entrance an event by itself. Monks lower a safety rope to be tied around the waist and to climb with. This lack of access, may have preserved the art treasures of DebreDamo all through out its 1400 years history.
The treasures include an extensive collection of illuminated manuscripts, some of them not found anywhere else in Ethiopia, and intricate carvings on the beams and ceiling of the ancient church around which the monastery is built. There are also large number of paintings including several that depict the legend of the foundation of DebreDamo by AbunaAragawi.
The monastic community is virtually self- sufficient, growing selected crops and rearing sheep and goats for their milk and meat. The monastery also has its own reservoirs, spectacular caverns hewn deep beneath the surface of the cliff-top centuries ago, somewhat similar to those at the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.