aksum ethiopias 1700

Aksum: Ethiopia’s 1700-year-old World Heritage at a Brink of Perish

Situated 1043km away from the capital in the state of Tigray, Aksum is home to some of the most valuable heritages of Ethiopia. The Obelisks, tombs and churches found in the town as well as the welcoming people are its major characteristics. Even though the remnants of the Kingdom of Aksum portrays the long history the town has, its historical significance is not well-promoted to the world. Now, with the deteriorating condition of the obelisks and other heritages of the town, Aksum is at a risk of losing its status given by UNESCO. EBR’s Samson Berhane, who visited the town last month, writes.

While visiting the chain of mountains in Adwa, the place where Ethiopians defeated fascist Italy by the end of the 19th century, one might feel disappointed leaving the fascinating scenery behind. However, heading towards the north, one will discover Aksum, an old town where there are many small unfinished buildings, small retail outlets as well as food stores. Perhaps, tourists can be easily tricked that this is just one of small towns in the state of Tigray. But the reality is quite surprising. It is here that one of Africa’s ancient civilizations, the Kingdom of Aksum, was born, exactly 1,043km away from Addis Ababa. While passing by the unfinished buildings in the town and three-wheeler vehicles (commonly known as Bajaj) swirling around, tourists may feel betrayed by the false image expectations portrayed in their minds.

This is because the scenery created by advertisements painting Aksum as the land of wonders seem untrue. In fact, it is a puzzle for visitors to find the whereabouts of the Aksum obelisks as there are no signs or direction.

When coming to the town from the Adwa direction, one could easily pass by either of the main asphalt roads and see recent buildings that are relatively taller (four to seven storeys) and might perceive the town to be some other city and not Aksum due to the recent fast development. These buildings being more or less similar in material, form and volume coupled with the congestion and lack of open space in the town cannot be considered as landmarks. On the other hand, when people come from the Shire direction, they will possibly see the Dungur, Ta’akka Mariam ruins and the “Gudit Stele Field” and start to feel the ancient spirit of Aksum which might stay for a moment until they see the buildings that were built recently,which are less memorable and somehow disturbing.

However, sociability being Ethiopians’ biggest suit, residents of Aksum are keen to show a stranger the whereabouts of the historical sites and how to travel around. Three-wheelers, which are everywhere in the town, are ready to take anyone towards the historic obelisks for as low as ETB20. As tourists approach the gate, they are welcomed by guides and introduced to handmade mini sculptures. Depending on their creativity and time invested on the souvenirs, their cost range from ETB30 to ETB700. But the souvenirs are the brief introduction to the overwhelming and majestic obelisk that proudly stands among the small oval shaped monuments spread out on the left and right side of the main attraction. The overly favored child of the historical site stands in the center at 33m high. While the other ten monuments, which seem to be there as a decoration, are left out of the main scene due to pure excitement.

Although it’s a beautiful site for sour eyes, getting a ticket to enjoy the view was not an easy task. With the welcoming guides staring desperately for the arrival of tourists, one would guess the next footstep would lead them to the grand Aksum obliesks. However, driving 200 meters to get a ticket and then drive back to the starting point is the must to do task. The unnecessary back and forth travel to get the ticket creates an inconvenience for most tourists. “This does not make any sense at all,” says Dawit Gere, an Eritrean diaspora who came from overseas to visit the celebrated tourist site. Getting inside the historical overlook of the site with a local guide is not an inexpensive service to buy at Aksum. Local tourists must pay between ETB200 and ETB300, while foreign tourists are asked to spend as much as ETB1,200 for a tour in and around the obelisks.

But as soon as one enters inside the area where the monuments stand and the remnants of the Aksumite kingdom are put in a museum, no one dares to regret traveling to the site thanks to the breathtaking architectural ability of the Aksumites. Being the most impressive structure in Ethiopia, and listed as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1980, Aksum is a living evidence which indeed proves that Ethiopia is a cradle of civilization in Africa and beyond. The Aksumites built many large steles which served spiritual purposes before the emergence of Christianity. One of which is a granite column standing at 24m.

Carved from a single, solid block of a weather-resistant stone similar to granite, this is believed to have come from a quarry several miles south of the city. The organization and resources needed to harvest, transport and carve the stone as well as erecting it demonstrate the high level of the social organization of Aksumite society, as well as the great power of their kings, according to historians. Named after the famous Aksumite King Ezana, the monument is standing at a slight lean in the center of the field and is supported by a material called canvas taunting to save it from falling down. “This is very concerning but the government turned a deaf ear while it is at risk of tumbling down,” says Jambo, an experienced tour guide whose livelihood is dependent on the treasures of Aksum.

Another stele still standing is 24.8 meters high, which is believed to have fallen while being pillaged around the 10th century AD. However, after being stolen by Fascist Italy in 1935 and shipped to Rome, where it was hoisted for 68 years, it was returned and re-erected in 2008 thanks to the impressive work done by Ethiopian compatriots, led by the late President of Ethiopia, Girma Woldegiorgis. Behind those, is a stele with a longer height. It is the giant stele, amongst all, which is 33m high and weighs over 500 tonnes. Since it fell a millennium ago, it now lies in broken fragments on the ground. “This is also exposed. There is no one who guards the obelisks from physical contacts that can cause damages. Some tourists sit on it and try to hit it with their hand to check its strength as there is no one to stop them from doing so,” says Jambo.

Under the stele, there is also a tomb of the Brick Aches, which gets flooded during summer season. Dating from the end of the 3rd century, this tomb, discovered by archaeologists in 1970s with fragments of gold, jewelry, beads and bronze, is not being properly preserved because of the low attention given to the tourist site by both regional and zonal authorities. “It is possible to pump out the water from the tomb using a small generator, but nobody dares to do that leaving the site exposed to damage,” says Yonas Berhe, sitting in front of the monument like many of residents of the town spending a quality time with his loved ones. “It makes no sense to deprive attention to one of the most valuable assets of the country that could potentially bring millions of dollars to our town and Ethiopia as a whole.”

Aksum’s Culture and Tourism Bureau is also aware of the problem. “If the water increases, it may erode the soft sand and leave the stele under a rough surface which could damage it. Because of this, the whole stele might collapse,” Head of the Bureau, Gebremedihn Fitusmberhan, warned during the time Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) visited the site. A study conducted jointly by MH Engineering Consultancy, and the Italian Studio Croci last year also discovered that weather related factors and canvas taunting, material used to hold the stele from falling down, are endangering the obelisks (24 and 24.8 meters monuments). A few kilometers away from the obelisk, there is another endangered historical asset of the Aksumites, the tomb of King Bazen, which is believed to carry news of Christ’s birth to Ethiopia two millennias ago.

The tomb, despite its historical importance, is now at a risk of being damaged. Anyone trying to visit the tomb must be ready to get soaked in water because there is nothing that could prevent the water from getting inside the tomb, tourists get disappointed when they visit it. Aksum Tsion Church, which is as old as Christianity, is another historical treasure of the town. Being one of the sacred places for the followers of Ethiopian Orthodox religion, the church got its present day structure during the regime of Emperor Haileselassie, who refubrished it in the 1960s. The emperor also built a chapel nearby as a shed for what the church values the most, the Ark of the Covenant which contains the tablets of the Ten Commandments that Moses received from God on Mount Senai.

Inside the church, there is a museum, which charges ETB20 and ETB100, housing antique treasures and demonstrating the immense wealth of the church. It also includes a collection of former Ethiopian emperors’ crowns, including Yohannes IV, Haileselassie I and Aba Jifar, a dazzling display of gold and silver chalices, crosses, jewellery, drums and even sacred documents gives the museum a different look. But seeing tourists sitting on the centuries’ old chairs of the emperors and touching sacred documents that date back to 17th century is not uncommon. “That is very irresponsible and is very irritating to see aides taking such wrong doings as a normal situation,” says Jambo.
Such disappointments, however, would soon vanish as one walks towards one of the most unique features of the town, Yeha Hotel, where tourists are able to view the obelisks of Aksum from the top and take pictures that would make their journey adventurous. Having 63 rooms, the hotel, built during the period of Emperor Haileselassie I, enables tourists to understand how antique Aksum is.

But business has not been as usual for the half-century-old hotel because of the decline in international and local tourists. “It has dropped drastically. Even though now is not a peak season, gone are the days when Aksum was flooded by tourists from all around the world. This is because of the low efforts by the authorities to promote the historic sites to the world, unskilled tour operators and the political instability,” says Amdom Tekle, the Manager of the Hotel.

This sentiment is shared by Mikael Gebregzibher, the manager of one of renowned hotels in Aksum, Ethiopis. “The political instability in the past three years, coupled with the recent travel alert issued by different embassies, have contributed to the decline in the number of tourists traveling to Aksum,” says Mikael. “Especially after various international media outlets reported that there was a coup attempt in the state of Amhara three months ago, the number dropped drastically.”

In the past financial year, about 18,000 tourists visited Aksum. This means 1,500 foreigners a month. But since July 2019, not close to a third of this number had visited the historic town. Simret Amare, a tour guide, is a witness to the decline. “In the past, we would assist at least one tourist a day. But now I can be Idle for weeks.”

The fact that domestic tourism is not well embraced in Ethiopia is another reason that is dragging back the tourism sector in Aksum. Although close to 41,000 Ethiopians have visited Aksum in the past financial year, down from 46,565 in 2015/16, the number has continually been declining over the past three years. “The tourism sector is not being led by technocrats, rather politicians who do not understand its potential. This, coupled with the security tension in the country, is affecting the tourism sector in our town,” says Mikael.

Above all, the most concerning issue at the moment, for Michael Tesfay, Site Manager of Aksum Heritages, is the deteriorating conditions of the heritages in Aksum. “Illegal construction of houses has been undertaking near the sites in broad daylight. Even though officials at municipality of the town are aware of the situation, they do not take the issue seriously. Meanwhile, the heritage is suffering from manmade and natural hazards,” says Michael. “This, coupled with the bad conditions of the obelisks, would bring undesirable consequences. Unless prompt action is taken, Aksum would be enlisted as an endangered heritage very soon, which would drastically affect tourism as it means the site lost its original look.”

Former UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Culture, Francesco Bandarin, in his recent blog, warned the fact that there is no special law to protect the heritages in Axum is a very concerning issue. A special law needs to be provided to properly indicate the boundary of the site, produce a management plan, and delineate a buffer zone, according to him.

Keeping such concerns in mind, on April 2019, the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage formed a committee to discover the problems that are a danger to the heritages in Aksum and save the stele, which has has tilted backwards, from a possible collapse. “Works are underway to save the heritages in Aksum. The Italian government, for instance, pledged to donate money and provide technical assistance to renovate the Aksum obelisks, which requires Euro3.5 million budget,” states Fanta Beyene, Communications Head of the Authority.

In the mean time, residents of Aksum town, whose livelihood is largely dependent on sectors other than tourism, continue going about their daily routines. Tourism, in fact, is the growing segement of the town’s economy, even though it is not as dominant as that of the trade, service and the public sector.

Most people in the town support their livelihood through engaging in trade, service related businesses or by being employed in the public and private sectors. Several people work in retail, manufacturing enterprises and the like. However, tourism is anticipated to lead the town’s economy in the future with tourism support infrastructure expanding in Aksum. This is due to the growing investment in the city. Over the past two decades, over 92 hotels with an investment capital of ETB4.2 billion opened in the town. In the same manner, industries with ETB1.2 billion worth investment capital have become operational in the town. Adding to this, companies with more than six billion Birr capital are now active in Aksum, creating job opportunities for almost 15,000 people.

Trade is also growing in Aksum. There are more than active 3,500 micro, small and medium enterprises, while there are 8,093 retailers. Seeing the investment and trade potential of the town, all commercial banks, except Oromia International Bank, have opened a branch in Aksum. The construction sector is also booming in the town, but that has not been without costs. Most construction of buildings and structures are undertaken without considering the importance of the place. “As of recent, Aksum is developing faster but with the least consideration of the existing planning and construction,” says Michael, the Site Manager.

Even worse, the construction of a building (museum) adjacent to the main church of St. Mary blocked the view of both the church and the steles. Surprisingly, such a huge structure is designed without due consideration to the unresearched underground layout of the site and the damages to be expected both on the artifacts underneath and the view to the church and stele field.

Meanwhle, with the growth in population and migration, unemployment is rising. A look into population census of different years reveal that the population of Aksum, whose total area is estimated to reach 1,728ha , has been in a continual state of growth over the past three decades. The population of the town was just 17,753 during the first Ethiopian census in 1984 and increased to about 27,773 in 1994. Now, it is estimated to reach close to 80,000. The majority (88.03Pct) of the inhabitants in Aksum practice Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, while 10.89Pct of the population are Muslim, who are banned from building a mosque in the town. What’s more, Aksum is home to Ethiopian citizens from diverse ethnic backgrounds, making it an exemplary town in the face of growing ethnic clashes in Ethiopia. “Nightclubs and traditional restaurants found in Axum are a living proof that people with different ethnic backgrounds can really co-exist,” echoes Abraha Teklebrehan, a lawyer by profession and a resident of the town.

8th Year • Sep.16 – Oct.15 2019 • No. 78


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