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.
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?
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?
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Axum (Ethiopia). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Axum. Read more about this site.