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A titular metropolitan see of ancient Christian Ethiopia. Its episcopal list, from about the middle of the fourth century to 650, is found in Gams p. 462). Modern Axum is the capital of the Abyssinian province of Tigré, and nestles in a kloof, or valley, beneath a lofty peak of the Adoua mountains, at 7,545 feet above the level of the sea. Beneath it is a vast plain in which arise several streams tributary to the Nile. "The features of the place", says a recent traveller, "are very marked; firstly one comes across the large sacred enclosure, nearly a mile in circumference, thickly planted with trees and reeds, in the centre of which rises the cathedral, surrounded by the monastic buildings and the residence of the Etchigeh, or bishop. This enclosure occupies nearly the whole of the entrance to the valley; beyond it on the hill slopes are the houses of the inhabitants, whilst running up the valley is the long line of stupendous obelisks and beyond is the ancient tank or reservoir from which the inhabitants still get their water supply" (Bent, The Sacred City of the Ethiopians).      

The city is of great antiquity, and was, together with Adule (Adoua on the coast) known to the Greeks and Romans as the chief centre of trade, with the interior or Africa, for gold-dust, ivory, leather, hides, and aromatics. The population is of mixed Ethiopic (negroid) and Arab origin, and is probably descended, in great measure, from an Arab colony settled on the coast at a very remote period. The numerous Himyaritic (Arabic) inscriptions in the vicinity exhibit the influence of Arabia; similarly the stone monuments with their evidences of sun and star worship. Moreover, it is well known that in the sixth century of our era the Kings of Abyssinia, then and long after resident at Axum, extended their sway over the Sabæan and Himyarite (Homerite) tribes of Yemen on the opposite Arabian shore. Greek influences are also traceable in the architecture of Axum and from a very early date, probably from the days of the Ptolemies of Egypt. In other words, this "sacred city of the Ethiopians" has been from time immemorial an outpost of ancient civilization against the mass of African barbarism. Axum became a Christian city in the time of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who consecrated its first bishop, St. Frumentius, still honoured as the great patron of Abyssinia; since which time (c. 330) the Abyssinian Church has remained in close dependency on the Church of Alexandria, and yet receives from Egypt its chief ecclesiastical officer, the Abouna. There is still extant (P.G. XXV, 635) a famous letter of the Emperor Constantius (337-361) to Aeizanes, the King of Axum, ordering him to send Frumentius to Alexandria to receive the Arian doctrine from the heretical successor intruded in the place of Athanasius. The other principal ecclesiastics resident at Axum are the above mentioned Etchigeh (Etchagué), or principal bishop, always a native; the Nebrid, a kind of archdeacon or head of the priesthood and rector of the cathedral; the Lij Kaneat, or judge in ecclesiastical matters, together with monks and priests of various grades. There are also many persons known as defteras, described as "lay assistants in all the services, acting as singers and performers in all the church ceremonies; the scribes, advocates, and doctors of Abyssinia and the most instructed and intelligent people of the land" (Bent, op. cit., 161).      

Axum claims to hold in the innermost recesses of its cathedral the original Tables of the Law and the tabout, or Ark of the Covenant that the Abyssinians say was brought from Jerusalem to their ancient fortress of Ava by Menelek, the son of Solomon, and the Queen of Sheba, and transferred later to Axum. The palace of that famous Queen is also shown at Axum. Until 1538 Axum was both the civil and religious centre of Abyssoinia. In that year, it was captured by Mohammed, Prince of Leïla, since which time the Negus resides at Gondar. The cathedral is a fine edifice, and was built in the sixteenth century during the period of Portuguese influence in Abyssinia, but on the substructure of a very ancient Christian church. It has a flat roof and battlements, and there is a corridor outside where the priests dance and sing. Around the cathedral are many large shade-trees beneath which are built smaller churches or treasuries, in which are stored valuables of all kinds. Its sacred enclosure is not only the centre of ecclesiastical life, but also one of the most honoured sanctuaries in Abyssinia, where any criminal can find shelter by ringing the bell in the porch and declaring three times in a loud voice his intention of claiming a refuge. Women are not allowed to enter it. Indeed, all Axum is practically a sacred, inviolable refuge, for which reason the people enjoy a condition of peace and tranquillity unknown elsewhere in Abyssinia (Bent, 163).      

Very interesting are the numerous stone pedestals that once bore metal statues of the pre-Christian kings of Axum, memorials of victory, and the stone monoliths and obelisks, fallen or standing, estimated by Bent at about fifty. The latter form "a consecutive series from very rude unhewn stones up to the highly finished and decorated obelisks, and it is highly probable that we have here the origin and development of the obelisk side by side" (Bent, 132). The only standing obelisk of the decorated kind, highly carved with sham doors and beam ends, in imitation of a many-storied edifice, is nine stories high, and ends with a semi-circular finial, on which is still to be seen a representation of the solar disk. "In other words," says Mr. Bent (p. 185) "we have before us a perfect representation of the Beth-el or House of God terminating in the firmament, in which the Sabæan sun-god is supposed to reside." Altars for animal sacrifices were fitted to the bases of these obelisks; several of them are still visible. Mounds and rubbish heaps are scattered about the sacred enclosure at Axum that doubtless contain many objects of profane and ecclesiastical interest. Near the cathedral is a square enclosure with a pillar at each of its angles, and in the centre twelve stones that Abyssinian tradition says were for the twelve judges of Prester John, but are probably the bases of ancient triumphal thrones of the Kings of Axum. Among the valuable Ethiopic manuscripts found in Abyssinia in modern times is the Book of Axum, or Abyssinian Chronicles, brought back by the traveller Bruce. In 1805 the English traveller, Salt, discovered at Axum a bilingual inscription in Greek and Gheez (the religious language of Abyssinia) of which only the Greek (thirty-one lines) remains. It refers to the exploits of King Aeizanes, already mentioned. In 1833 the German traveller, Rüppell, discovered two other Gheez inscriptions, referring to the deeds of a monarch of Axum in the sixth century. These Gheez inscriptions are valuable for the history of the Semitic alphabet. Some Greek coins, older than the fourth century have been found there, also Ethiopic coins of a somewhat later date, bearing the title "Negush Aksum", or King of Axum.


     LEQUIEN, Oriens Christ. (1740), II, 641-660; SMITH, Dict. of Greek and Roman Geogr., I, 347; TILLEMONT, Mémoires, etc., VII, 284-289; BRUCE, Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile (Edinburgh, 1788), I, 478; SALT, Travels in Abyssinia, 510; BENT, The Sacred city of the Ethiopians (London, 1896), 152-197.

About this page

APA citation. Shahan, T. (1907). Axum. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Shahan, Thomas. "Axum." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by WGKofron. With thanks to St. Mary's Church, Akron, Ohio.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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