Aksum was once the center of a great empire and the seat of learning for the ancient Ge’ez language and literature.
After breakfast Ayu drove us to Northern Stelae Park, which was recognized as a UNESCO site in 1989.. The park contains about 60 stelae. They are made from granite. Rafael, our guide, began our tour by telling us about Aksum. He said that the meaning of the word Aksum is water chief – all the springs were under the chief. He told us that Aksum is the birthplace of civilization under the Aksumite Emperor. It covered a huge area and was the center of trading because they owned the Red Sea.
Up to about 1906 there were over 100 people living in the area of t Stelae Park. These amazing stelae are each made of a single piece of granite and the tallest standing one is 78 ¾ feet (24 meters). All of the stelae face south and watch the sun in its daily journey across the sky. They date from around 300-500 AD and early ones seem to predate the arrival of Christianity to Ethiopia. They are most likely funeral monuments for Axum’s ancient rulers who may have been buried in tombs beneath them. There are locals who believe that they actually date back to 1000 BC
Some of the stelae are carved. Others are rough or smooth granite. The carved ones are made to look like buildings that are intricately carved on the front and sides to look like windows, There are .rows of log-ends dividing each story, and a false door at the base.
The largest of the stelae (108 feet long) has fallen and lies shattered across the ground. It is estimated to weigh 520 tons. If it were standing, it would be the tallest stelae in the world. Rafael said that it is believed that it actually fell before it was fully raised.
The second largest stelae (recently returned from Rome in 2005 after being stolen during Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia in 1937) stands 78 ¾ feet high. It is estimated to weigh 170 tons. They believe it had also fallen because it was returned in 3 parts. The Ethiopians put it back together and restored it.
The third stelae is about 75 feet high and weighs about 160 tons. The Ethiopian has built supports around this one to protect it.
Seeing the largest stelae on the ground allowed us to get a close-up of the carvings.
The first 2 stelae are on all 4 sides. The 3rd one is only carved on 3 sides. Perhaps a decision was made to raise it before the 3rd side was carved because it was easier than rolling it over to carve the 4th side.
Amazingly it is believed that these humongous pieces of stone were transported on giant logs and pulled by elephants at least 5 km to this site.
At the apex of each stelae is a carved semi-circular shape – perhaps symbolizing the heavens. Scholars believe a metal plate with the image of the sun engraved inside a crescent moon was affixed to the front of these top semi-circles.
Here are some photos of the carvings on the stelae.
We also saw the False Door Tomb that was buried until 1972. It is known locally as the tomb of King Ramhai. It is the largest megalithic tomb on earth. The capstone of this tomb is 360 tons and is the second largest stone to be utilized by the Askimites or by any early civilization. There are carvings on the slab that are identical to those found on the stelae.
The tomb underneath the slab was covered until 1994. It is believed that it dates back to the 4th century AD.
We descended into the tomb’s chamber on a stone staircase.
Notice the false door at the top of the staircase.
Rafael told us that by the 2nd century the Aksum started to melt metal clamps.
We could see where they engraved the stone before they poured metal into it
The base of the tomb is a special stone called phoneolite. It is a solid piece of stone that has a sound when you strike it.
There were actually skylights in the tomb.
Here we are waiting our turn to enter.
Rafael showed us a stone that had evenly spaced marks on it. This stone had been used for measuring other stones before they were cut.
This is an example of a small rough stelae without any carvings.
At the place where Leigh had coffee, this little girl was helping her mom grind the coffee.
Then we went to St. Mary of Zion Church. It has historic roots back to the 4th century when King Ezana promoted Christianity. The first Church of St. Mary was built in the 300s AD. In 1635, St. Mary of Zion was reconstructed by Emperor Fusillades on the ruins of the church that had been destroyed by the Muslims. In 1955 Emperor Haile Selassie founded the new Church of St. Mary of Zion next to the old one and it was completed in 1964. Unlike the original St. Mary of Zion, the new church allows entrance to women.
We took off our shoes, put scarves over our heads and entered the church.
A monk unwrapped the book with drawings for us to see.
This chandelier was given to the church by Elizabeth II.
November 29th each year is the celebration of Santa Maria. Hundreds of thousands of people come to Aksum to this church because the original Arch of the Covenant is kept in the nearby church.
There women in the church and around the church. Some of them were here to pray and some of them may have been here to beg.
In 1965 King Selassie built a separate church for women. That is where it is believed that the Ark of the Covenant is kept. A specially chosen priest stays in the church to guard the Arch and even he is not allowed to ever see it.
A while ago somebody tried to get into the church so it is now surrounded by barbed wire fence. We saw some men praying in the front of the building but outside of the fence. No foreigners are allowed to even approach the fence in front of the building. There is a ravine between St. Mary of Zion Church and where the Ark is kept.
Rafael took us through the Aksum Museum near the church and it was very interesting. We could not take photos in the museum.
Before we went to lunch I took a photo of a spotted pigeon.
We ate lunch at the Antica Cultural Restaurant. The food was so delicious. We also loved the atmosphere of the restaurant.
In the after noon we visited what the locals call the ruined palace of Queens Sheba (or Saba as the locals say). It was discovered in 1980s. When the archeologists did some excavation in 2011, the dated some pottery to the 6th century and said it is actually the palace of a noble. It is named Dungur. But the locals still believe that if they continue exploring, they will find the palace of Sheba underneath.
This is the stove in the kitchen.
This beautiful tree is a Euphorbia Candelabra, which is near Dungar.
Queen of Sheba’s Bath. According to the Old Testament, the Queen of Sheba was born in Axum but travelled to Israel to meet King Solomon. It is said that their son, named Manlike, later became the first emperor of Ethiopia and that it was he who brought the original Arc of the Covenant back to Ethiopia from Israel. This reservoir was romantically named “The Bath of the Queen of Sheba” and the people of Axum still use it. Rafael thought that the actual pool that Queen Sheba used was much smaller and was expanded by Emperor Haile Selassie. It is used for Timket.
This photo is of a string of mountains named Adua. It is where the Ethiopians defeated Italy in 1906 using only simple weapons that the farmers brought from their homes. The women provided a pepper substance that could be thrown into the eyes of the Italians.
Then we visited the Tomb of Kink Kale and his son, Gabre Meske. The tomb consists of one chamber and five rooms. Inside are three sarcophagi.
We accessed the tomb via a long straight stairway. Although King Kaleb created this tomb, it is believed that 9 saints arrived and the king welcomed them. It is said that his body lies at Abba Pentaleowon monastery.
It is also believed that King Gabre Meske is also buried at a monastery. In his tomb, which as 3 rooms, there are several different crosses carved into the stones. I can’t remember which of these crosses is similar to the Axumite Cross.
This is a view looking up the staircase from the tomb.
The last place we visited today was the Ezana Inscription. It belonged to an Askumite King of the 4th century AD known as Ezana. It is inscribed with Greek, Sabean, and Ge’ez. The inscriptions tell the story of Ezana’s victories over his enemies and the story is written three times.
On the way back to the hotel, Ayu took us to a market to buy a watermelon. He also chose 4 oranges for us. Then he asked the woman to give him and extra orange. She said, “No,” but then agreed.
There was a woman near the market who was sitting on the ground with a shallow bowl of teff on her lap. She would shake the bowl until some teff that was not as good sifted to the top and then she would remove it. She did not want me to take a photo of her but she let me take photos of the teff.
Ayu took Sue and I back to the restaurant where we had lunch so we could see the cultural dancing. We both had the same soup for dinner. The dances that were performed by young local men and women were fantastic. It seems like they have no bones in their bodies and it is so hard to believe how they can move the way they do. I took a couple of photos they are a bit blurry because they are moving so, so fast.
This evening is another example of how wonderful Ayu is. It was so nice of him to spend his evening with us.Another wonderful day in Ethiopia.