Axum, Ethiopia

Denver Street in the City of Axum

History of Sister City Relationship

Denver, Colorado and Axum, Ethiopia’s relationship began when Ethiopian-American businessman Daniel Yohannes, the late Councilman Hiawatha Davis, Tsegaye Hailu, and others prepared an application for Axum to become Denver’s ninth sister city in 1995, made official by Denver Mayor Wellington Webb.  After nearly 20 years of civil war and recurring drought and famine, the city of Axum needed peace loving people from around the world to reach out and embrace it.  

Facts At-A-Glance

Pronunciation: ak’soom’
Region: Northern Ethiopia. Located in the Mehakelegnaw Zone of the Tigray Region near the base of the Adwa mountains.
Axum Population: 56,576 (2012)
Ethiopia Population: 102,374,044 (2016)
Mayor: Ato Hagos Gebrewahid (2010)
Spoken Languages: Tigrigna (local)

Axum: Of Interest

  • Axum is a 2,500 year old city and is reported to have been the capital city of the legendary Queen of Sheba. As archaeological expeditions take place, more artifacts are being discovered that attest to the high levels of engineering and architectural achievements of the Ethiopian empire. Obelisks built over 2,000 years ago still stand in the city.  Among the greatest human architectural and engineering marvels, these upright stone works are carved from single granite blocks – many of the original are no longer standing. Of the remaining standing stelai, the tallest is about 85 feet high. Recently unearthed ruins of a complex and sophisticated palace are claimed in legend to be that of the Queen of Sheba.
  • The Axumite Empire (100 B.C. to 1,100 A.D.) was one of the most powerful empires of the day. A highly advanced civilization, the Axumites developed writing and minted gold coins to carry out their maritime commerce with the Roman Empire, Persia, India, and China.  The written language of Geez was also established.
  • When Christianity became the state religion in 350 A.D., Axum rose as one of the earliest holy cities in Ethiopia.   The same year, the Saint Mary of Zion (Orthodox Church of Ethiopia) was the first church to be built. This church is reputed to house the Ark of the Covenant in its vault.  The church also houses an impressive collection of bibles, crosses, and crowns of early rulers.
  • Axum is a popular destination because of its ancient history and its artifacts. It plays a key role in the major industries in Northern Ethiopia – tourism and agriculture.
  • After the recent repatriation of on of the obelisks from Rome, having been taken there by Mussolini’s troops during WWII, Axum now has two standing obelisks.  Most impressive is that tools and evidence have been found that the massive stelai were constructed and transported from five kilometers in distance.
  • An estimated seventy-five percent of the people in Axum are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.   Significant religious celebrations are the T’imk’et Festival in early January and Festival of Maryam Zion in early November.
  • Due to their historical value, UNESCO added Axum’s archaeological wonders to its list of World Heritage Sites in 1980.
  • In 2005, the country of Italy diplomatically returned a 24m tall, 1,700 year old obelisk to Ethiopia after soldiers from WWII had taken the engineering marvel back to Rome. As a symbol of national identity, the return of the obelisk was met with a joyous and large public celebration. In July 2008, the obelisk was fully erected and re-installed in the city of Axum.

Axum – Denver Relationship

  • The long-term goals of Denver Sister Cities International in Axum is to improve the health and welfare of Axum’s citizens through improved water and sanitation facilities, which will help the Axum economy that is heavily dependent on the tourist industry.
  • The last several years have led to numerous cultural, educational, and humanitarian initiatives.
    • Forty thousand dollars was secured in collaboration with Metropolitan State University of Denver (MSU) to build the Gessesso School in Axum, which opened in the summer of 2012.
    • Nine tons of books were raised in a book drive for the University of Axum and two water pumps were donated to the Axum Water Department.
    • By partnering with the Tigray Association, the Axum committee raised $30,000 to purchase and deliver a septic truck to Axum.
    • Nine hundred and fifty visitors were hosted in Denver for the 2012 Tigray Association’s International Conference, including several Ethiopian dignitaries.
    • The Axum committee also facilitated a two-week study abroad program for three professors and fifteen students from MSU Denver.
    • Culturally, the committee has sponsored a month long historical photo exhibition of Axum at the Denver Public Library. Other smaller initiatives have also taken place, such as sending cameras to Axum in order to document the lives of the community members to ultimately be shared on Denver Sister Cities International’s website.
    • After a 2002 feasibility study by a team of professionals from Denver, a low-cost, low-tech sustainable water treatment facility was designed to make the existing ground water source more potable. With the assistance of Denver Water laboratory equipment and supplies, a water quality testing lab was established.  Lab technicians were also trained.  However, before the treatment plant could be build, the ground water yield fell dramatically and the government decided to build a pipeline from a more sustainable source in a nearby town.
    • Through a grant with Proctor and Gamble, the committee was able to provide water purification packets and education to over 600 students, families, and teachers at Hawelti School.  Absenteeism was reduced significantly in the school year.
    • A grant from Denver Sister Cities International helped provide funds to complete a latrine at the Hawelti School.
    • Leak detection equipment donated by Denver Water was sent to help alleviate water shortages.  Volunteer Denver technicians helped trained staff in Axum to operate the equipment.
    • Denver Sister Cities International and the local Ethiopian community raised funds and after fourteen years were finally able to acquire a septic truck from Denver Wastewater Management.  With the help of the Humanitarian Assistance Program of the Department of Defense and United States Agency for International Development, the truck made its way to Axum. The septic truck provided much needed maintenance of pit latrines and helped alleviate the sanitation problem of the city.
    • Denver Sister Cities International has hosted several Ethiopian officials on visits to Denver and facilitated art and pen pal exchange programs. The committee continues to give talks and exhibit Ethiopian artifacts to Denver Metro school children through our “City in a Suitcase Program”.
    • An annual picnic is held at the City of Axum Park and a annual celebration each January at a local Ethiopian Restaurant, bringing a taste of Ethiopian culture to Denver residents.
    • The committee continues to lead delegation trips to Ethiopia. Our 2012 delegation donated 8 C.U.R.E. Kits to Saint Mary of Zion hospital.
  • Recognizing the many similarities between Axum and Denver, the relationship evolved into a natural fit. Axum was a gateway between the east and west, as Denver is becoming today. Economic well-being in both cities came from natural resources and dedication to the environment.
  • On January 20, 1995, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb signed the proclamation and declared the day as Axum Day. On November 12, Mayor Webb, Colorado First Lady Wilma Webb, Lieutenant Governor Gail Schoettler, and Daniel Yohannes led a delegation of ten prominent officials and business leaders on a visit to Axum. The people of Axum turned out in mass lining the streets of the city and giving the delegation a royal welcome. To commemorate the occasion, a Denver Street was named in the middle of Axum.

Committee Chair and Contact Information

Committee Chair: Chuck Kreiman
Phone: (303) 832-1336
Email: axum@denversistercities.org

Axum: Resources

Denver Water
Official page of the Denver Water Department

City of Denver Wastewater Management
Official page of Denver Wastewater Management.

Tigray Development Association
The official page of the Tigray Development Association, a non-profit organization based in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Airlines
Ethiopian Airlines is the national carrier of Ethiopia and the only airline serving the Axum airport.

Ethiopian Embassy
Web page of the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

US Embassy, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Web page of the United States Embassy in the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc.
A non-profit focused on resettlement programs of Ethiopian refugees.

African Community Center Denver
A Denver-based non-governmental organization that helps with the refugee community in the Denver area.