© Adam Jones, Wikimedia Commons

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 oldest continuously inhabited town south of the Sahara, Axum (also spelt Aksum) sits at an elevation of 2,130m on the central Tigrayan Plateau, 1,000km north of Addis Ababa and 30km south of the Eritrean border. Historically and archaeologically, it is the most important city in Ethiopia; it also hosts the country’s first church, and forms the spiritual home of its unique brand of Christianity.

Axum stelae field Ethiopia by Ariadne Van Zandbergen
Nobody really knows how these massive stone blocks came to be © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

The most iconic monument at Axum is the field of 120-odd stelae, ranging from small, roughly hewn stones to finely engraved obelisks the height of a ten-storey building, concentrated within an area of 1,000m2 opposite the Cathedral of Maryam Tsion. The site incorporates what are probably the three tallest stelae ever erected in ancient times, neatly engraved blocks of solid granite that stand (or, in one case, stood) between 23m and 33m high. The stelae were excavated at the quarry at Gobo Dura, more than 4km to the southwest, and were most probably dragged to their present location by domesticated elephants. There’s no entirely satisfactory explanation for how the Axumite engineers erected these massive blocks of stone – tradition has it that the supernatural powers of the Ark of the Covenant were put into play, but a more rational explanation would involve pulleys and elephants.