Mariam Tsion Axum – Annual pilgrimage

Date: 30 November or 01 December/2024

Location: Axum, Tigrai

The Church of St Mary of Zion is built on the site of the first Christian church in sub Saharan Africa, which was constructed during the reign of Ezana, King of Axum, in the 4th century AD.

Every year, on 21 Hidar in the Ethiopian calendar or 30 November or 01 December in a leap year, more than 100,000 people come to Axum from all over Ethiopia to commemorate the founding of this church, with many pilgrims coming on foot, having walked for up to a month. There is a marvelous atmosphere in the town, and great spectacles for the visitor with processions of the clergy and deacons, with drumming, dancing and chanting.

Ruins of the first church can easily be seen in the church compound – it was destroyed twice, in the 10th and 16th centuries. In the 17th century it was rebuilt by Emperors Galawdewos and Fasilides – that building is still standing, but is closed to women. In the 1950s Emperor Haile Selassie built a modern Cathedral, next to the old one, and open to both men and women. Queen Elizabeth of England attended the inauguration.
A chapel within the church compound is believed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to house the Ark of the Covenant, or the original tablets of Moses on which are inscribed the 10 Commandments, said to have been brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon of Israel and Queen Saba, or Sheba.

In addition to the attractions of the festival, and the Church of Mariamtsion, Axum has a number of fascinating historical monuments.

From around 200 BC to 700 AD, Axum was the seat of an Empire which extended across the Red Sea to Arabia, traded with India and China, minted its own coinage, had its own alphabet and notational system, constructed great engineering works and dams and which was reckoned by the 3rd century Persian historian Mani to be one of the four great powers of the ancient world, alongside Persia, China and Rome. Today the visitor can see stelae (the largest single pieces of stone erected anywhere on the world, it is still not understood how they were transported from the quarry 4 km away and erected), the tombs and castles of kings, Axum Museum and sites with the ruins of residential houses.

On a day trip from Axum, we can visit the temple at Yeha, Ethiopia’s first city, settlement in the area dates back more than 2800 years. There are the remains of a temple dedicated to Ilmuqeh, the moon god, and next to the temple is the church of Abune Aftse, one of the “9 Saints” who did much to spread Christianity in Ethiopia. The temple at Yeha is the oldest building in sub Saharan Africa.

We can integrate the festival of Hidartsion with visits to other places on the Historic Route, to the rock hewn churches of Gheralta, to the Afar Region, and/or other parts of the country, the Omo valley, bird watching, trekking and other activities.

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