Aksum was the capital of ancient Ethiopia when the country was a major world power, ranked with Rome, Persia, and China as one of the greatest kingdoms in the world. Sadly for the tourist, however, while the area's history stretches back as far as 3000 B.C., most of its antiquities remain belowground, unexcavated and unknown.
What Aksum lacks in blockbusters it makes up in historical relevance, from pre-Christian ruins to towering stones from around A.D. 300-500. The peak of Aksum's power lasted from 1000 B.C. until nearly the 8th century A.D., and at one point its borders stretched up to Egypt and across the Red Sea into Arabia.
The city's main attraction is Obelisk Field, a collection of more than 120 obelisks erected in the middle of town by Ethiopia's earliest kings, King Lalibela's predecessors. From the center of the field, the tallest standing stone rises more than 75 feet, like a spear set among swords. I explored the site in about an hour, and it was worth getting up close to the central pillar to make out the detailed carvings of a door and nine floors of windows.
Earlier that day, I rented bicycles for myself and a young student who asked to be my guide. At the tourist office downtown, $6 bought me a ticket granting access to all of the city's ancient sites, and we pedaled out of town. A dusty road led to a ruin the locals call the Queen of Sheba Palace, a maze of rock walls and granite steps that some say dates back to the pre-Christian era.
Ten minutes of hiking and we reached a life-size relief of a lioness. Carved into a granite boulder in the middle of nowhere, it could hold its own in the British Museum. We walked among the boulders that stud the hills to a long stretch of granite with a deep excavated trench, the physical shadow of an obelisk. We were standing in the quarry from which kings carved their monuments, looking at the rock from which Ethiopian history was first cut.
That night, at the restaurant in the government-run Yeha Hotel, I choose a table overlooking Obelisk Field (011-251/34-775-2377, $38; it's easier to book through the Ghion Hotel in Addis Ababa, 011-251/11-551-3222, ghionhotel.com.et). The restaurant is busy, but the terrace is empty, perhaps because the air has a slight desert chill. From a hill across the valley, marked only by three house lights, come the sounds of drums and laughter. The food is hot, the beer is cold, and the obelisks are fading into the dusk. I feel like I'm dining alone with ancient African history.