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Ethiopia: Axum

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Axum > Ethiopia > Africa

[Visited: October 2006]

Centres of fallen empires have a certain melancholy over them; sometimes, it is hard to imagine them in their heydays. After arriving at Axum, and walking the quiet streets of this town, it is not easy to imagine this was once the centre of power of the region, the capital of the Axumite empire, one of the great empires of the entire continent. The empire included most of what is now Eritrea, its port to the world was Adulis on the Red Sea, and it is still considered as the basis of current Ethiopia. The empire lasted from before Christ to the 7th century, after which it declined. At the time, it was one of the most advanced civilizations when it comes to technology and trade.

Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Great Stele at Axum: symbol of overreach of the Axumite empire

While Axum itself nowadays seems a quiet backwater, one of the reasons why it is so attractive is that its soil very likely contains many cultural and historical artifacts that attest to the richness of the empire. Even now, the town already boasts many proofs of its history, but much more seems to be waiting to be uncovered under the ground. The most evident proof of Axumite power are the stelae, proudly standing on the western side of town. They are finely decorated, precisely carved, and large: the largest ones are taller than the tallest obelisk of ancient Egypt. The function of the stelae is still subject to discussion, probably they mark graves of emperors. In fact, under the stelae field in Axum you can find tombs of emperors, unfortunately robbed of their treasures - but then again, who knows there might still be yet uncovered tombs still holding their original contents?

Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): King Ezana stele: tallest, slightly tilting obelisk

The largest currently standing stele of Axum is of King Ezana. It towers 23 metres above the field, and is finely carved with a door and windows, probably representing the door and windows of his tomb. One obelisk had been taken by the Italian occupiers in the 1930s, but is back in Axum awaiting resurrection. The tallest stele lies broken on the ground - it symbolizes overreach of the empire. In the drive to build always larger stele, the able Axumites apparently went too far, and the sorry sight of the Remhai stele testifies to their overconfidence. In any case, while the stelae were probably transported from the quarry to Axum by elephant, it is still not clear how the stelae were erected. The mysteries still surrounding the stelae of Axum reminded me of the mysteries of the famous statues of Easter Island. Question is: will these mysteries be solved? Should they be? Or are they an important part of the very attraction of these unique proofs of human creativity?

Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Finely decorated base of the Stele of Ezana
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Mausoleum in stelae field of Axum
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): One of the chambers of the mausoleum of the stelae field of Axum
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Remhai stele of Axum: the tallest, but broken stele
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Entrance to the Tomb of the False Door under the stelae field of Axum
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Door in the King Ezana stele
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Axum: windows carved out in the King Ezana stele in Axum
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): King Ezana stele in Axum
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Slender stelae of Axum against a cloudy sky
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Tomb of the Brick Arches lies under the stelae field of Axum
Picture of Axum (Ethiopia): Interior of the Tomb of the Brick Arches under the stelae field of Axum

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