John baptising Jesus © David Bjorgen
Axum is a city in far northern Ethiopia that is believed by Ethiopian Christians to be home to the Ark of the Covenant, housed in the 16th-century Church of St Mary of Zion. You cannot see the Ark - nobody is permitted to see it under any circumstances - and there are many theories about where exactly the famous holy relic rests. Almost every little church in Ethiopia has a replica Ark, but Ethiopian Christians are adamant in their belief that St Mary of Zion enshrines the true Ark.
Axum's other major attraction is possibly more remarkable than its putative Ark: ancient and colossal stone obelisks (stellae), weighing up to 500 tonnes, and dating from around 300 AD. The Kingdom of Aksum, or Axum, had its own written language called Ge'ez, and also developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by these giant obelisks which are recognised by UNESCO as remarkable historical artefacts. In 2008 one such obelisk was returned to Ethiopia with great fanfare after having been looted by Italy in the early 20th century. The largest number of these impressive sculptures are in the Northern Stelae Park, and the tallest one that remains standing is King Ezana's Stele which is over 78 feet (24m) tall and weighs 160 tonnes. Some tombs have been excavated under the giant stellae but the vast majority of this fascinating underground world has not yet been explored by archaeologists and the extent of the mysteries the obelisks guard is unknown.
Axum is considered a holy city and is commonly the destination of pilgrimages. Although visitors will be impressed by the city's long and proud ancient history and it certainly has treasures worth seeing, the city itself is now rather unremarkable. Axum was once the centre of a mighty empire, although from the 10th century it declined into insignificance leaving behind a dusty, lugubrious town largely ignorant of its glorious past.