Aksum or Axum, in the Tigray region in the north of Ethiopia, is situated at 2,130 metres above sea level. It was the centre of the Empire of Aksum, established in the First Century CE and considered the cradle of Ethiopian civilisation. In its heyday (3rd-6th Century CE), it occupied lands that are now Eritrea, northern Ethiopia, parts of Sudan and Djibouti. Aksumite emperors built impressive fortresses, palaces, and monuments, tall granite stelae, 126 altogether, standing or lying broken in the central square.
The Great Stele, measuring 33 metres, now fallen, is said to be the tallest one ever erected, although it seems it broke straight away. These stelae range from nearly plain slabs to intricately inscribed pillars and are believed to mark graves; they would have had cast metal discs affixed to their sides, which are also carved with architectural designs. In 1980 UNESCO added Aksum's archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites.
In the third century Emperor Ezana was converted to Christianity by Frumentus, a Syrian captive, who later became the first bishop of the Aksumite empire. Ezana made Christianity the state religion of the empire. Aksum is considered a holy city for the Ethiopian Orthodox church; according to tradition, the Church of Our Virgin Mary of Zion contains the Ark of the Covenant. This is claimed to have been transferred from Jerusalem to Aksum in 1000 BCE, before the destruction of Solomon's temple, by Emperor Menelik I, the legendary son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The church has been destroyed and rebuilt several times since then; the present structure was built in 1665 by Emperor Fasilides. However, it is said the Ark was moved to the Chapel of the Tablet adjacent to the old church because a divine 'heat' from the Tablets had cracked the stones of its previous sanctum.
Nearby, the new Basilica of St. Mary of Zion was built in 1965 by Emperor Haile Selassie I. It has a bell tower built in the same style as the ancient stelae and its treasury contains a display of crowns of the ancient kings. Although the city of Aksum has lost much of its glory, many of the stelae are still standing. The tallest standing is King Ezana's Stele, almost 24 metres high. There are also many carved stone thrones that have been unearthed in the overgrown ruins of the ancient palace, all symbols of past glory when Aksum was an important trading centre with its port of Adulis, near the present Eritrean port of Mitsiwa (Massawa).
Aksum is now a city of almost 50,000 inhabitants and one of the main centres of the Tigray Region (Tigray Kilil); its flag is shown at top left.