The ancient city of Aksum has maintained its mystery to present day. It is rumored to be the likely resting place and former home of such legendary figures as the Queen of Sheba, King Kaleb, and the Three Wise Men. It is also believed to be the sanctuary of the Ark of the Covenant, which contains Moses’ Ten Commandments.
Aksum still holds many secrets in its garden of ancient stelae. Any imaginative explorer will enjoy the detailed history marked in large carved columns of stone. These stelae often act as tomb-markers, dedicated to important historical figures and momentous events. The largest of these obelisks is 33 meters tall, but sadly, is no longer standing.
As both a Unesco World Heritage Site and the capital of the Axumite state, Aksum is treasured for its vibrant history and the introduction to Christianity into Ethiopia.
Northern Stelae Field
The Northern Stelae field is an archaeological wonder. The surprisingly well-preserved engraved stone columns that tower over visitors and the sense of mystery inspired by the undiscovered tombs beneath one’s feet make this a truly memorable place to visit. Many are drawn to the site by the allure of the ancient riches and cultural artifacts said to be still hidden in the many untouched tombs.
It is here, in the Northern Stelae Field, where Ethiopia’s largest and most spectacular stelae are located. The field contains standing stelae from 1m to 33m high, many with ornate and impressive inscriptions and carvings. There are likely many that still remain buried.
The Great Stele
The Great Stele is the largest of the stelae in Ethiopia. Were it still standing, it would be a towering 33m high. It has been lying broken the 4th Century when it was said to have fallen.
Why it fell is still debated. Regardless, it must have been an incredible event - it collided with the massive sealing stone of a large tomb in the field and collapsed its supports in one tremendous blow that would have shaken the surrounding countryside. It is still considered to be the largest single piece of worked stone in the ancient world, with carved ibex and intricate doorways and windows. Even fallen, it is still a magnificent sight that should not be missed.
Rome Stele (Obelisk of Axum)
Stele 2, alternatively known as the Rome Stele and the Obelisk of Axum, is the 2nd largest stele in the field, at 24m tall. Like the other impressive obelisks here, it is carved with ornate doors and windows that display the skill and craftsmanship of the early stoneworkers of the 3rd and 4th centuries.
After Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, Mussolini ordered the stele to be shipped to Rome and put on display to celebrate his “new Roman Empire.” In 1947, Italy agreed to return it to Ethiopia, but it remained in Italy until 2003, due mainly to the logistical complexity of its return. It was finally rebuilt in Ethiopia and unveiled September of 2008.
King Ezana’s Stele
King Ezana’s Stele is not the largest or most ornate obelisk in the Northern field but is famous and impressive for another reason: it is the largest to remain standing; although today it is reinforced by a sling. After the Rome Stele was returned and erected by a team of engineers, King Ezana’s Stele was also reinforced and the sling was added.
This stele is thought to be the last major stelae constructed, as the practice is believed to be abandoned once the people of Axum adopted Christianity under their King Ezana. Carved on 3 of 4 sides, it is still quite magnificent to behold.
BEST TIMES TO VISIT:
WHY TRAVELLERS LOVE IT:
The heart of early Christianity and the stelae
- Palace of Queen of Sheba
- Northern Stelae Field (archaeological site)
- Abba Pentalewon (monastery)
- Ark of the Covenant Chapel (landmark)
- St Mary of Zion Churches Complex
Aksum’s history is blanketed in mystery. Civilization and trading had thrived here since 400 BC, but whether or not it is the true capital of the Queen of Sheba is still hotly contested by historians, archaeologists, and locals alike.
The thriving city of trade dominated the region for millennia but seemed to drop in influence without a clear reason. The first recorded evidence of the Aksumite kingdom was Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greek sailor’s log describing navigation and trading opportunities in the Red Sea, where it is described as an already bustling and powerful empire.
Abba Pentalewon Monastery
The Abba Pentalewon Monastery was built in the 6th century by Abbas Pentalewon and Abbas Liqanos, two of the Nine Saints to bring Christianity to Ethiopia. The ruins of the original church still lay on on sacred pagan grounds. King Kaleb (the most well-known and documented King of Aksum) is said to have retired here after abdicating his throne. The newer church, built in the 1940s, is also well worth a visit in its own right.
St Mary of Zion Church complex
The St Mary of Zion Church is a site of great importance for all Ethiopian Christians. Its complex has a museum, an ancient church and a newer church to visit and admire.
The answer to one of the world’s greatest mysteries of the antiquity also potentially lies within the complex’s bounds: the location of the Ark of the Covenant. Many scholars and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church agree that the Chapel of the Tablet, on the grounds of the church, is the resting place of the original Ark. However, only the guardian of the Ark is allowed access, and even he is not allowed to see it. Replicas of the Ark are kept in every church of the sect located around Ethiopia, each dedicated to different individual saints.
Palace of Queen of Sheba
On the outskirts of Aksum are the remains of an ancient palace rumored to have belonged to the Queen of Sheba, as well as some spectacularly made tombs and archaeological museums excellent for exploration.