Christianity and the Queen of Sheba

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church dates the top-down Christianization of Aksum circa 330 AD with King Ezana’s conversion to the monotheistic religion, under the influence of bishop Frumentius. Although the new religion was not widely accepted at first arrival, the significant royal shift from a polytheistic worldview to Christianity is clearly revealed by inscriptions (as discussed in the previous page), and numismatic sources. Some of the coins issued during Ezana’s reign display the crescent and disk motif characteristic of pre-Christian Aksumite religious iconography, while other coins are marked with a cross.

The “Tomb of the False Door”, excavated in 1973-1974, demonstrates that pre-Christian features continued to exist in burial architecture. The tomb is not surmounted by a stela, but by a squat stone structure which, like the highly decorated stelae, maintained a false door as its principal feature.

The Queen of Sheba

Over the years, Aksum became a major religious centre and an important place of Christian-Ethiopian pilgrimage. According to legend, Ethiopia is the kingdom of the Biblical Queen of Sheba, mother of Menelek. Upon his maturity, Menelek went to Jerusalem, where he was recognized by Solomon as his son. On his return to Aksum, he took the Ark of the Covenant (also referred to as Sion) with him, a gold-covered wooden chest which contained the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.

The Ark of the Covenant now allegedly rests in the Chapel of the Tablet, next to the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It is guarded by a single monk, appointed for life. He is the only one who is allowed to go in the chapel, and must choose the next guard prior to his death.

Bath and Palace

Aksum further houses the Queen of Sheba’s Bath and Palace. Mai Shum (meaning chieftain's water) is believed to be the ancient Queen of Sheba's bath or pool. The bath is partly hewn and partly built around the May Qoho hill. Stairs lead its visitors to the water. Annually in January, the bath is the point of focus of Aksum, when the Epiphany is celebrated - also known as Timkat.

Next to the Gudit Stelae Field in the district of Dungur, in the western part of Aksum, lies a mansion that has been identified with the Queen of Sheba in local oral tradition. The complex covered about 3,250 square meters, and included several courtyards and about fifty rooms. A double staircase led to the entrance of the villa. The archaeological remains show that thousands of slabs were used to construct the walls of the mansion.

The Palace of the Queen of Sheba was probably constructed between the fourth and sixth century AD. It is an example of how the Aksumite craftsmanship and organizational skills are represented in the construction of great mansions.