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Axum’s stelae field - A view from our expert author
This collapsed stele is the largest ever erected weighing in at 500 tons and, if standing, it would tower 33m above ground © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
No satisfactory explanation has been postulated for how such a massive block of stone was erected – one Axumite tradition has it that it was the work of the mysterious powers of the Ark of the Covenant.
A tour normally starts at the main stelae field opposite the Church of Tsion Maryam, which consists of some 75 or more stelae of various shapes and sizes, concentrated within an area of less than 1,000m². Do note that while most of the larger stelae are linked by local tradition to specific kings, and these traditions are referred to in the text that follows, these associations have little scholarly basis.
The modern view of the stelae field is dominated by the stele accredited to King Ezana, the third-largest ever erected at Axum. This engraved block of solid granite, which stands some 23m high, was transported from a quarry 4km distant, most probably by elephants. No satisfactory explanation has been postulated for how such a massive block of stone was erected – one Axumite tradition has it that it was the work of the mysterious powers of the Ark of the Covenant. The stele is carved with a door and nine windows, which are thought to symbolise the door and nine chambers of Ezana’s Tomb, and the nine palaces built by the king. Ezana’s stele is slightly tilted, and at one point there were fears it might eventually topple over, but recent measurements compared with those taken 100 years ago suggest it was erected at this angle. Unfortunately, the nearby Tomb of the Arches is no longer open to the public due to worries about instability, but you can still look down to see the first archway.
(Photo: One of the many stelae in Axum, this 23m-high pillar of granite is credited to King Ezana © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library)
The largest of Axum’s stelae, credited by tradition to the 3rd-century King Remhai, now lies shattered on the ground. Its collapse is linked by tradition to Queen Yodit, who destroyed many of Axum’s finest buildings, but scholarly opinion is that it toppled over either while it was being erected or soon afterwards, probably because the base of the stele was too small to support it. Remhai’s stele still lies where it fell. It weighs 500 tons and would be over 33m high were it standing. It is decorated with a door and 12 windows.
Not far from this stele, Remhai’s Tomb consists of 12 underground vaults that are high enough to walk through. The most striking thing about this tomb is the precision of its masonry, which consists of large blocks of granite held together by metal pins. In the back vault, Remhai’s sealed stone coffin lies where it was abandoned after Neville Chittick’s excavations were aborted following the 1974 revolution. Another nearby excavation that should not be missed is the Tomb of the Mausoleum. Opened to the public for the 2007 millennium celebration, this tomb has two entrances connected by a corridor. The entrance doors are rock-hewn and feature a common design with doors found at the churches of Tigrai. The west entrance door was damaged (along with many lintel beams) at the time the big stele collapsed, but the east door remains intact. Three ‘shaft tombs’ serve as skylights that illuminate the stack-stone constructed passage, and five burial chambers line each side.