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The birthplace of Ethiopian civilisation was founded on a beautiful plain between two mountains, over two hundred years ago, two hundred and ninety-five kilometres inland from the Red Sea and is known as the Empire of Aksum, Ethiopia's first ancient holy city. It's Kings and Queens and rulers erected glorious monuments to commemorate victories and loses, was the first African civilisation to begin trade by issuing gold and silver coins and were patrons of the fine arts. It is regarded as the second Jerusalem by Ethiopians as during the reign of the Queen of Saba, the Holy Ark of the Covenant was said to have been brought over from Jerusalem by her son, Menelik.
It is however Aksum's archaeological evidence that tells us the most about its historical cultures, beliefs and lifestyles. Apart from its archaeological role, Aksum was also a centre of domestic and foreign trade. A trade route went from Adulis Port to Aksum and from there it ran deep into the south and west land. Multi-story temples and palaces and numerous statues surrounded the city of Aksum and made it a haven for musicians, artisans and traders. Trade contact reached as far as China and the archaeological evidence for this lies in a single piece of iron dated from the third century found in the Tomb of Brick Arches, and cast iron at this early date was only attributed to China.
The best known archaeological evidence supporting Aksum's superiority, still standing in the ancient cemetery, is the huge, stone obelisks, known as ‘stelae' that apparently marked the burial locations of important people. These stelae have long been a source of mystery, speculation and have generated great interest whose origin is still a mystery to us. John Gunter (Inside Africa) writes while describing Aksum that it is ‘the site of some of the most stunning and mysterious objects of antiquity of the world, giant obelisks, made of single blocks of granite, larger than Egyptian obelisks, the origin of which is unknown'. These are best described as tall, thin standing stones, the majority of which are plain stones a few metres high, often with quite rough surfaces. Only six of these stelae are known to us however it is written in the history of Aksum that there were sixty four giant obelisks and two hundred and forty-six medium and small monuments, all which have probably been broken and might be underlying in the ground.
The group of the six largest stelae had careful, detailed carvings that represented multi-storey buildings, complete with windows and a door. These depictions may have represented the ideal buildings they would have liked to build and live in. There are shreds of metal that can be seen at the top indicating that there may have once been a metal plaque attached to it, with perhaps shapes of a star and moon, honouring their God. As stated before, the obelisks may have been placed there as gravestones, and the height may have represented what Aksumites considered to be a faster route into heaven, with the marks of their God at the top. The chief parts of the city cemetery are further to the south of the main stelae field, and appear to have more of an intentional and strategical layout rather than randomly placed. The south is arranged of temples, thrones and the more decorated stelae, used for burying royalty. The stelae are all placed among each other, dominating the field of the lesser stelae, which offers a dramatic and striking sight that was rarely equalled in the early and modern world. The placements and sizes of the stelae clearly indicate a stratified society, ranging from a monarchy to a labour force.
Had the largest stele, known as Stelae 1, stood erect, its total height would have been over thirty meters high, and weighed about six hundred tonnes. The monument itself in bulk would exceed and dwarf the largest Egyptians pyramids and stands as a strong contender as the largest single obelisk which humans have ever attempted to erect. Unfortunately it never stood at its highest point, and lies in the field broken into four pieces, yet even in its fallen state it retains its original glory and power, and the vivid expressions of the imagination of Aksumites. The second tallest stele, conveniently known as Stelae 2, reached a height of twenty six metres, with ten storeys carved into it. This was however stolen by Italian Fascists in 1937, and has stood in Rome for around 70 years and was only recently returned back to Aksum, in its rightful place. Of the six stelae remaining, three have disintegrated and are strewn in diverse parts of the city.
Each side of the larger stelae are carved in with detail and interestingly imitate wooden structure. Complete doors, windows and frames can easily be seen and are considered replicas of multi-storied buildings, with the other houses and palaces of ancient Ethiopia being architecturally related. At the bottom of each stele there is even an artificial doorway with a bolt and lock. Above this are carved windows, each row symbolising a storey, and in between separated by the ends of replicated wooden beams appearing to support each storey. This is a reproduction of the traditional Aksumite ‘monkey head' building method. At the foundation of the stelae, altar-like stones can be seen that would have been used to offer sacrifices to Gods and the finding of large chambers beneath lead to the conclusion of their being used as tombs.
Richard Pankhurst, a well known Ethiopian author and explorer, wrote in his book Under Ethiopian Skies, ‘Taken as a group, the stelae of Aksum are the most wondrous features of this ancient and remarkable city. How lacking modern technology and modern skills did the architects and builders of the Aksumite Kings succeed in quarrying such massive monolithic blocks of solid granite from the surrounding hills, how did they transport objects weighing several hundred tonnes and how finally did they raise them up and embed them in the earth? There are no easy answers to such questions, and the visitor today will find his mind turning superstitiously to thoughts of magic, and of the mysterious interventions of the gods in the affairs of men.'
The industrial skill involved in creating these single blocks of granite to form objects of various heights puzzles the imagination even more so at the realisation that these were built over 2000 years ago. They are unique and resemble no other monument in the world, with decorations along their entire length. Throughout their creations the Aksumites show us that they were a highly organised and technologically advanced civilisation through the way they quarried and transported from Gobedra Hill, and then erected.
Associated with the stelae are the underground tombs, the most significant being a complex labyrinth of stone-built chambers known as the ‘Mausoleum' and an extensive rock cut tomb called the ‘Tomb of the Brick Arches'.