The city of Axum was the capital of an ancient empire that at its height stretched from what is now northern Ethiopia, parts of Sudan, and present day Yemen. Located along the Red Sea, the kingdom was an important meeting point of cultural and commercial interests. Axum's trade network extended into the Roman Empire, as well as Egypt, Iran, India, and Central Asia. Axum's obelisks, built as monuments to its many kings, remain standing to the present day and serve as testament to the cultural achievements of the ancient empire. The church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, where the Ark of the Covenant is believed to rest, continues to be the spiritual and administrative head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and is an important site of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Christians. Present day Axum is a town of 56,000 people located in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Most residents speak Tigrinya and are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith, with a small community of Muslims also present.
Several initiatives in the city indicate growing awareness of the importance of Axum’s cultural heritage. In 2007, the Ethiopian National Museum opened a modern Archaeological Museum in Axum, with expanded facilities for viewing and exhibiting research findings. Axum has several active archaeological sites, which continue to yield rich information about the ancient civilization. At one time both the political and religious center of the empire, Axum is also home to a rare and varied collection of manuscripts, crowns, and crosses preserved over several centuries by the church of St. Mary of Zion. In 2011, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church announced its plan to build a library and museum that promises to exhibit these sacred and secular objects and antiquities hitherto allowed limited public access.
In recognition of its historical and cultural significance, UNESCO designated Axum’s archaeological areas as a World Heritage Site in 1980. Consistent advocacy by national organizations and concerned community groups as well as ongoing commitment by the Italian government and UNESCO resulted in the return and re-erection of an ancient Axum obelisk from Rome, where it had been taken after Mussolini seized it in 1937 as part of Italo-Ethiopian war spoils. Representing the heights of architectural achievement of the ancient world, this 78 ft. obelisk symbolizes the realm of what was once possible. Its unprecedented repatriation in 2005 invites critical engagement with the future.