Ancient Aksum obelisks pepper the area, and whether you’re looking down on a small specimen or staring up at a grand tower, you’ll be duly bowled over. The closer you get, the more amazing they are. A full day is a minimum for seeing everything worth seeing. And carry a torch for the tombs.
If you can get your hands on Stuart Munro-Hay’s Ethiopia: The Unknown Land you’ll find an excellent compendium to Aksum’s history, archaeology and major sites and monuments.
A Quick Guide to Aksum's Stelae
For as long as 5000 years, monoliths have been used in northeast Africa as tombstones and monuments to local rulers. In Aksum this tradition reached its apogee. Like Egypt’s pyramids, Aksum’s stelae were like great billboards announcing to the world the authority, power and greatness of the ruling families. Aksum’s astonishing stelae are striking for their huge size, their incredible state of preservation and their curiously modern look. Sculpted from single pieces of granite, the later ones come complete with little windows, doors and even door handles and locks that make them look remarkably like tower blocks.
Despite granite being famously hard, Aksum’s masons worked it superbly, often following an architectural design that mirrored the traditional style seen in Aksumite houses and palaces.
Metal plates, perhaps in the form of a crescent moon and disc (pagan symbol of the sun), are thought to have been riveted to the top of the stelae, both at the front and back. The crescent is also an ancient pagan symbol, originating from southern Arabia. In 1996 a broken plate that could have matched the rusty rivet holes atop a stele was excavated from the Tomb of Brick Arches. It bore the effigy of a face, perhaps that of the ruler to whom the plate’s stele was dedicated. It’s on display in the Archaeological Museum. Despite locals having long ago assigned king’s names to each stele, nobody knows who they were dedicated to. (Though it is certain the kings chosen by locals are incorrect.) For this reason, historians only use numbers to identify each stele.
Ethiopian traditions have it that the Ark of the Covenant’s celestial powers were harnessed to transport the mighty monoliths 4km from the quarries, and raise them – the largest weighed no less than 520 tonnes! Archaeologists are confident that the earthly forces of elephants, rollers and winches were responsible.
Gudit Stelae Field የጉዲት የመቃብር ትክል ድንጋዮች መስክ
Though they’re far less arresting than those found in the centre of town, the stelae in the Gudit Stelae Field are still worth a visit.
The field is named after Queen Gudit, and most stelae here are small, undressed and lie on the ground. Locals suggest the largest stele, alongside the road to the east, marks the Queen of Sheba’s grave. But neither of these associations seem possible since the stelae date to the 2nd century AD.
Despite excavations in the 1970s and 1990s, little is known about the field. Though some mark graves, neither rock-hewn nor constructed tombs have been found. Finds here did include a set of fine 3rd-century glass goblets, which has led scholars to suggest the area was the burial site of Aksumite society’s lesser nobles.
The entire field is cropland, so from June into October you can only walk on the footpath through the middle and along the road.
Northern Stelae Field የሰሜን የመቃብር ትክል ድንጋዮች መስክ
The Northern Stelae Field is Ethiopia’s biggest and most important stelae field. It contains 66 stelae from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, though the original number was higher – some have been removed, others may lie buried.
The stelae range from 1m to 33m in height and from simple slabs of stone (the majority) to finely dressed rectangular blocks, usually with flat sides and a rounded or conical apex. Though they were undoubtedly connected with the practice of human burial, it’s not yet certain if every stele marks a tomb. The three largest and most famous stelae (King Ezana’s Stele, Great Stele and Rome Stele) are found here.
Lying like a broken soldier, the massive 33m Stele 1, also known locally as King Ramhai’s Stele, is believed to be the largest single block of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect, and overshadows even the Egyptian obelisks in its conception and ambition.
Scholars theorise that it fell during its erection sometime early in the 4th century. Comparing the unworked ‘root’ (only 2.7m long) with the sleek, carved base and the intricate walia ibex carvings near its top gives you a vivid idea of the precision, finesse and technical competence of Aksum’s stone workers.
As it toppled it collided with the massive 360-tonne stone sheltering the central chamber of Nefas Mawcha’s tomb. This shattered the upper portion of the stele and collapsed the tomb’s central chamber, scattering the massive roof supports like toothpicks. Seeing that no other stele was ever raised here, it seems likely that the collapse sounded the death knell on the long tradition of obelisk erection in Aksum. Some scholars have even suggested that the disaster may have actually contributed to the people’s conversion to Christianity. More controversially, some propose it may have been sabotaged deliberately to feign a sign of God. Whatever the origin of its downfall, the stele remains exactly where it tumbled 1600 years ago, a permanent reminder of the defeat of paganism by Christianity.
King Ezana’s Stele
Although standing slightly off kilter, the magnificent 23m-high, 160-tonne Stele 3 has done something no other stele of similar stature has done: remained standing (albeit today it’s aided by a sling). Henry Salt, the British traveller and first foreigner to describe it in 1805, proclaimed it ‘the most admirable and perfect monument of its kind’. The stone platform at its base is believed to have served as an altar. Within the platform are four 30cm-deep cavities, which probably collected blood during sacrificial offerings. It’s older than both the Great Stele and Rome Stele and only has carvings on three sides.
At 24.6m high and 170 tonnes, Stele 2 is the second-largest stele ever produced at Aksum. Like the Great Stele, its ornate carvings of multistoreyed windows and doors adorn all four sides. Pillagers raiding the site are believed to have accidentally caused its collapse sometime between the 10th and 16th centuries. It broke into three pieces and the cracks are clearly visible.
In 1937 the stele’s remains were shipped to Italy on Mussolini’s personal orders. On arrival it was reassembled and raised once more in Rome’s Piazza di Porta Capena, where it was known as the Aksum Obelisk. It remained in Rome until 2005, when decades of negotiations were finally victorious over diplomatic feet-dragging. It was returned to Aksum that year and Unesco raised it in 2007, just in time for the Ethiopian millennium celebration. It’s now the most impressive of all the stelae.
Lying prone between the Mausoleum and Tomb of the False Door is another important stele, albeit unassuming and unfinished…hence it’s known as the unfinished stele. The fact it’s unfinished is evidence that the final carving of stelae was finished on site and not at the quarries.
Although none still stand, there are several large stelae in the field east of Enda Iyesus church. The most notable boasts decoration near the top, and is sometimes called the unique stele. The large relief of a house-like object, formed by a rectangle surmounted by a triangle, is claimed by some to be early proof of Aksum’s claim to house the Ark of the Covenant; look underneath for further intricate relief carvings. There are always plans to raise this stele once again, but they remain just plans.
Tickets & Visitor Centre
The brand new Aksum Visitor Centre was due to open in the weeks after our visit and it's a welcome addition to the traveller's experience. Aside from information on the town, the centre will offer some streaming documentaries on Aksum's history and it is here that you can buy your ticket that covers many of the city's historic sites.
One admission ticket (adult/student Birr50/25) covers Aksum’s archaeological sites, but not the St Mary of Zion church compound and the monasteries of Abba Pentalewon and Abba Liqanos. The ticket is good for three days.
Although you can see the monuments on your own, an official guide (Birr402 per day for one to four people, Birr517 to Birr617 for larger groups) adds greatly to the experience. All are trained and many are history students, so you’ll get much more out of your visit than if you simply wander around unaided.
The Aksum Guide Association is next to the Northern Stelae Field entrance.
Three guides we recommend are: