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Axum's Obelisks

The Royal Tombs of Axum: A Visit by Stuart Munro-Hay

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Obelisk at Axum, Ethiopia

Obelisk at Axum, Ethiopia

Niall Crotty
Without doubt, Aksum's most impressive remains are the royal tombs and their fabulous markers, the 'stelae' or obelisks. Even the plain examples are impressive, cut from hard local granite. But truly staggering is a series of six carved examples. These seem to depict the dead rulers' palaces---their tombs lay beneath, and it was our good fortune to be the discoverers of this underground world. The stelae---or so we may conjecture---were the stairways to heaven for the kings of Aksum. At the base are granite plates with carved wine-cups for offerings to the spirit of the deceased. The largest stela is certainly among the biggest single stones ever quarried by human labour. It testifies to the magnificent self-esteem of the unknown ruler who had it extracted and dragged several kilometres to its final site, and to the skill and artistry of those who prepared and decorated it. Over thirty-three metres tall, the stele represents a thirteen storey tower, with elaborate window-tracery, frames, lintels, beam-ends, even a door with a bolt. This monstrous stone soon fell---perhaps a few seconds after being levered upright---smashing onto the roof block of a tomb nearby. This block (some 17 x 7 x 1.5 metres), was not broken, though the tomb underneath it was crushed, but the great stele separated into three pieces. The top was completely smashed by the impact. Nearby is its largest still-standing neighbour, twenty-seven metres tall. Underneath this 'stele field' is an extraordinary series of tombs, the underground maze which we began in 1973-4 to explore and clear. On all sides tunnels open out---some dug by robbers. The ground here contains fallen stelae, or their base-plates, that have slipped down from above, buried staircases, walls and walled platforms, shafts and other structures, as well as tomb chambers and their contents---skulls and bones, pottery, metal, and piles of other grave-goods.

Text copyright Stuart Munro-Hay 1998

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