There are few countries as diverse as Ethiopia. The country is home to at least 80 different languages in addition to Amharic, the official language, which itself has more than 200 dialects and its own alphabet. What appears to bind these linguistic groupings together is religion, with the majority of Ethiopians being devout Orthodox Christians - although Sunni Muslims and those of African traditional beliefs live in easy harmony with them. Even though Ethiopia can claim to be the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a state religion, the origins of many much older empires can be traced to within its borders. The most important of these is at ksum - or Axum, to give the town its present-day spelling - that dates its beginnings to two or three hundred years before the birth of Christ. And, long before this, this was the region where Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, reigned.
The town today is best known to the outside world for two central aspects of Ethiopian culture, one hidden to the world, the other being very evident - the enormous monolithic stelae or standing stones. These mark the tombs of a ruling elite of a remarkable civilisation that until around 300AD held sway over both sides of the Red Sea, in both southern Arabia, across the Horn of Africa and deep into the interior of the continent. Greek traders recorded that Aksum was the centre of an African empire that had trade links with India, Arabia, Rome, Egypt and Persia as well as Greece.
To the faithful of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Aksum is also the place where the revered Arc of the Covenant was brought by Menelik I, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, as detailed in the thirteenth-century account Kebra Negast ('The Book of the Glory of Kings'). The Arc of the Covenant is today reputedly kept in a small chapel, the holiest sanctuary in Ethiopia, beside the St Mary of Zion church in Aksum. It's jealously guarded by monks who deny allcomers entry to the chapel or sight of the treasured relic. The original church of Saint Mary of Zion was built in the fourth century during the reign of King Ezana, who converted the Aksumite kingdom to Christianity after he himself was converted by two Syrian Christian priests who told him about the life of Jesus Christ. Christianity spread across the region with churches and monastries being established and the priesthood exerting a powerful influence on the population.
Aksum might also claim to have...