|The northern stelae field|
Aksum in northern Ethiopia is acknowledged as the site of one of the world’s great civilisations and yet surprisingly little is really known about it. As you are guided around the place today, a lot of what you are told is merely speculation and conjecture. Rumour has it that the Queen of Sheba came from here, but did she really? Many believe that the one true Ark of the Covenant is kept in a chapel here, but is it really? Some say that there are still hordes of treasure to be discovered in hidden tombs, but are there really? Above all, nobody really knows exactly what the famous stelae signify. So, Aksum is a place of great mystery and wonder and if you have a good guide, as we did, then your interest is sure to be aroused.
|A stele which never made it to an upright position|
Whilst the debate continues as to whether Aksum really was the Queen of Sheba’s capital in the 10th century BC, we are certain that there was a civilisation here as early as 400BC. By 100AD, Greek merchants knew Aksum as a great city and the capital of an extensive empire. For the next 1000 years, both the city and the Aksumite kingdom were seen as among the world’s greatest. Then, quite suddenly, the power of Aksum collapsed and the city turned into a forgotten backwater. Only now, a millennium later, are archeologists taking a serious interest in the sites here.
I’d read about what is known of the stelae fields before going there. Stelae are tall obelisk-like structures, most probably built as tombstones and monuments to show the power and greatness of the ruling families. I expected them to be enormous and impressive, and so they were, but the site of the northern stelae field, which we visited first, was much smaller and closer to town than I expected it to be. Amazingly, each stele was sculpted from a single piece of granite. Such was the size and weight of each piece (the largest weighed 520 tonnes!), that some of them never made it to an upright position, toppling over as they were being erected. These have been left just as they fell. One or two stelae which have been deemed to be unstable in recent years, have been supported with frames and steel ropes. These are the only new additions to this ancient site. The stelae range in size from 1 metre to 33 metres tall and many are decorated with small windows, doors, and even door handles and locks, to mirror the architecture of Aksumite houses.
Local people have assigned each stele to one of their kings and named them accordingly, but nobody really knows who they were dedicated to. For this reason, historians only use numbers to identify each stele. There are 66 in the northern stelae field, with probably even more still to be discovered. Despite the grandeur of all these rock needles before our eyes, our guide kept reminding us that, with 90% of the field not having been dug yet, the chances were that we were walking on even greater treasures than those we could see!
|Stele 2, also known as Rome Stele|
|Detail of Stele 2|
Stele 2, also known as Rome Stele, is the second largest ever produced at Aksum. It is believed to have collapsed sometime between the 10th and 16thcenturies. It broke into three pieces. Unbelievably, in 1937, Mussolini ordered that the remains be shipped to Italy. The stele was reassembled in Rome, where it was known as the Aksum Obelisk. Decades of futile negotiations finally ended in 2005 when it was finally returned home to Ethiopia. It was seen as a great triumph for Richard Pankhurst, son of Sylvia, who had worked tirelessly to get it back. It was raised in Aksum in 2007 and is now, despite its visible cracks, the most impressive of all the stelae.
|Houses have been built close to fallen stelae|
From the stelae field, we visited the very interesting on-site archeological museum. Having the context of what we’d just seen gave meaning to the exhibits. I was particularly taken with some exquisite coloured glassware which had been found in one of the tombs.
|Coffee ceremony at the stelae field|
After pausing for a coffee ceremony, we walked on to the Queen of Sheba’s bath. Despite its name, this was a reservoir rather than a swimming pool or bath, and provided water to Aksum for millennia. It was hewn out of solid rock and is an impressive 17 metres deep. Sadly, what you see today is marred by the fact that the outer portion was coated with concrete in the 1960s, giving the whole thing a very modern appearance.
|Queen of Sheba’s bath|
|The view across to the Adua Mountains|
From there, we got back on the truck and went to visit the tombs of King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel. On the way, we stopped off to see King Ezana’s inscription. This is the Ethiopian version of the Rosetta Stone and, fittingly, remains where it was found by three farmers in 1988. A small shack has been built around it to protect it from the elements.
The tombs themselves are set on the top of a small hill. The views from here are incredible. You can see across the Adwa Mountains to Eritrea. From here it would only take two hours to drive to the Red Sea, but this is impossible due to the political situation between the two countries.
|Queen of Sheba’s palace|
Our next stop was at the Queen of Sheba’s palace, a ruin just outside of town which is more likely to have been a nobleman’s mansion than what its name suggests. It has 44 rooms and I’m sure it’s very interesting, but, by the time we got there, we were hot, tired and hungry and knew that we still had to do the food shopping for our forthcoming camping trip. I’m sure I’m not the only one of our group who switched off at this point!