Axum

Ethiopia is old; old beyond all imaginings. As Abyssinica, its culture and traditions dated back over 3000 years. Ethiopia’s north most state, Tigray contains the first outposts of the high and mountainous escarpment in which the country’s remarkable civilization was born and nurtured towards the edge of this escarpment, the city of Axum emerged several years(centuries) before the birth of Christ as the capital of a state that traded with ancient Greece, Egypt and Asia, with its navies sailing as far a field as Ceylon, Axum late became the most important power between the roman empire and Persia and for while controlled a part of south Arabia.

The visitors to Axum today will be struck most forcibly by two things, first the ages of its antiquities and secondly the remarkable quality and advanced design that went in to the indicating a level of culture and technology virtually unsurpassed in the ancient world.

The oldest building dating from the pre-Christian era, away further excavation before their origin can be confirmed. One side occupies an imposing site where archeologists have discovered the remains of what was once a massive palace with finely mortared stone walls, deep foundations and its own impressive drainage system. The floor of the large throne room has been discovered fallen in. it is not difficult to imagine the rulers of ancient Axum holding court there. The obelisk achieves their peak of perfection on a pleasant grassy site near the churches of St. Mary of Zion. There are also private bathing areas of sophisticated design and there is a well preserved kitchen dominated by two huge bricks oven, local legend has it that this palace was the original seat of the queen of Sheba. In a large field on the other side of the Gondar road, facing the palace, there are a number of rough hewn granite slabs, some standing, some fallen, among the giant stele said to be the nobles and kings burial place.

The stelea to the north of the town, perhaps 2000 years old are early examples of an art form that came in to its own in Ethiopia around the time of the time of the birth of Christ and that flourished until the 4th century A.D although found in all parts of Axum, the obelisk achieve their peak of perfection on a pleasant grassy site near the churches of St. Mary of Zion. Here amongst the number of plainer stelea, there are also three finely carved monuments which because of their size and the intricacy of their beautiful proportioned execution, astonish the beholder. Only one of these amazing monuments is still standing although another had been looted during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia was erected in Rome.

The standing obelisk at Axum rises to a height of over 23metres and is enquisitely carved to represent the nine storey building in the fashion of “tower houses” of south Arabia. The front elevation of this lovely and impressive stelea tapers gradually to the summit and is crowned by a semi-circular head piece which some authonties believe to have represented the sun… the symbol of the pagan religion called Almouqa they used to worship during the pre axumite time. The main decoration in the front elevation is provided by the semblance of window and of beams  of timber supposedly inserted horizontally in to the walls with a row of imaginary  long ends slotted in to them as supports. The house like appearance is enhanced by the presence, at the base of the monument of a symbolic doors surmounted by a row of rectangular windows, somewhat smaller than those on the eight storey above. An additional, and very successful, decorative feature is provided by a shallow central recess which extends, on the front elevation from the base to the summit.

The architectural decoration on the front of the obelisk is carried out also on both sides with suitable modification the back is however undecorated, except for a circle carved in relief near the apex, with the representation of four bowls grouped together in the centre and a fifth touching at the circle edge.

The altar probably intended for sacrifices, is fitted to the base of the front of the stelea. This altar which contains four circular bowls sunk in its surface, is decorated with a border of vine leaves.
The largest stele at Axum has long since fallen over 33metres in length and perhaps the biggest single piece of stone quarried in ancient times, it is engraved with decorative motifs similar to those on the standing obelisk but with a design representing no fewer than 13 storey.

Another interesting but quite differently decorated stele also now fallen measures 9metres in height- it bears on its front side, a column carved in a low relief with a capital formed of two leaves supporting a mysterious object represented by a rectangle surmounted by a triangle or painted arch. These two latter emblems are also found in a slightly squatter form, on the rear of the stele. What it was in fact supposed to be is, however, a matter of speculation. Some authorities have argued that it signified a house or palace, others a grave perhaps of ancient axumite monarchs while others hold that it is a representation of the Ark of the Covenant.

A number of underground galleries and chambers, roofed and walled with massive granite blocks fitted together with an almost  supernatural precision, lie beneath the fortress, local tradition identifies these as tombs of emperor  Kaleb(514-42)  and of his son GebreMeskel. Each tomb approached down a steep stone stairway while at the entrance to the wider ground vaults a vestibule leads in to three separate chambers with doorways carved to resemble those decorating the great stelea, empty stone coffins lie within these deeply buried chambers, which according to one legend once contained great riches in gold pearls.

Returning to the centre of Axum from the tombs of Caleb and GebreMeskel, the travelers follows a steep newly cut road that offers striking views over the old city to the park of the stelea and at the foot of the road, to the left, stands a large deep water reservoir, the Maishum which according to legend was once the bath of the queen Sheba.