AXUM, or Aksum, an ancient city in the province of Tigré, Abyssinia (14° 7' 52" N., 38° 31' 10" E.; altitude, 7226 ft), 12 m. W. by S. of Adowa. Many European travellers have given descriptions of its monuments, though none of them has stayed there more than a few days. The name, written Aksm and Aksum in the Sabaean and Ethiopic inscriptions in the place, is found in classical and early Christian writers in the forms of Auxome, Axumis, Axume, etc., the first mention being in the Periplus Maris Erythraei (c. A.D. 67), where it is said to be the seat of a kingdom, and the emporium for the ivory brought from the west. For the history of this kingdom see . J. T. Bent conjectured that the seat of government was transferred to Axum from Jeha, which he identified with the ancient Ava; and according to a document quoted by Achille Raffray the third Christian monarch transferred it from Axum to Lalibela. This second transference probably took place very much later; in spite of it, the custom of crowning Abyssinian kings at Axum continued, and King John was crowned there as late as 1871 or 1872. A. B. Wylde conjectures that it had become unsuitable for a royal seat by having acquired the status of a sacred city, and thus affording sanctuary to criminals and political offenders within the chief church and a considerable area round it, where there are various houses in which such persons can be lodged and entertained. This same sanctity makes it serve as a depository for goods of all sorts in times of danger, the chief church forming a sort of bank. The present town, containing less than a thousand houses, is supposed to occupy only a small portion of the area covered by the ancient city; it lies in a kloof or valley, but the old town must have been built on the western ridge rather than in the valley, as the traces of well-dressed stones are more numerous there than elsewhere.
Most of the antiquities of Axum still await excavation; those that have been described consist mainly of obelisks, of which about fifty are still standing, while many more are fallen. They form a consecutive series from rude unhewn stones to highly finished obelisks, of which the tallest still erect is 60 ft. in height, with 8 ft. 7 in. extreme front width; others that are fallen may have been taller. The highly finished monoliths are all representations of a many-storeyed castle, with an altar at the base of each. They appear to be connected with Semitic sun-worship, and are assigned by Bent to the same period as the temple at Baalbek, though some antiquarians would place them much earlier; the representation of a castle in a single stone seems to bear some relation to the idea worked out in the monolith churches of Lalibela described by Raffray. The fall of many of the monuments, according to Bent, was caused by the washing away of the foundations by the stream called Mai Shum, and indeed the native tradition states that "Gudert, queen of the Amhara," when she visited Axum, destroyed the chief obelisk in this way by digging a trench from the river to its foundation. Others attribute it to religious fanaticism, or to the result of some barbaric invasion, such as Axum may have repeatedly endured before it was sacked by Mahommed Gran, sultan of Harrar, about 1535.
Literature. - Classical references to Axum are collected by Pietschmann in Pauly's Realencyclopädie (2nd ed.); for the history as derived from the inscriptions see D. H. Müller, Appendix to J. T. Bent's Sacred City of the Ethiopians (London, 1893), and E. Glaser, Die Abessinier in Arabien (Munich, 1895). For the antiquities, Bruce's Travels (1790); Salt, in the Travels of Viscount Valentia (London, 1809), iii. 87-97 and 178-200; J. T. Bent, l.c.; and A. B. Wylde, Modern Abyssinia (London, 1901). For geology, Schimper, in the Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde (Berlin, 1869).
(D. S. M.*)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)