Aksumite Stelae: true treasures of human craftsmanship

The organizational and technological skills of the Aksumites were represented by the construction of stelae (singular: stela/stele). These monuments were created in line of older African traditions and made of single pieces of local granite. They were cut out and transported from quarries located at least 4 km away (Gobedra Hill) to the location where they needed to be erected.

In most cases, the stelae mark elite and royal burial tombs. The largest stelae appear to decorate the graves of the Aksumite kings. The monoliths are spread over multiple terrains, including fields in the northern and southeastern sides of the city, the Gudit Stelae Field, and the Central Stele Park. The latter began to emerge as a regional ceremonial and settlement centre around 100 AD, and houses the finest manufactured and decorated monoliths of Aksum. Due to their height and weight, the erection of stelae was not an easy task, and the fact that many had probably already toppled before finishing the job should not come as a surprise.

Central Stele Park

The Great Stele, the Stele of Aksum, and Ezana's Stele have received great attention due to their height, weight, carvings, and significant historical value. They were positioned on the gently sloping ground of the Central Stele Park and were to be admired from the downslope part of the then relatively young centre of Aksum. This forced the inhabitants and visitors to literally look up to the monuments.

The Great Stele

The Great Stele or Stela One measures 33 m in length and about 520 tonnes in weight. The monument is likely the largest single monolith which humans have ever attempted to erect. The Great Stele probably fell down whilst attempts were being made to erect it. When it fell, it hit the megalithic structure known as Nefas Mawcha, a rectangular chamber, funerary in purpose. The stela predominantly rests on slabs, presumably pushed underneath the monolith for preservation purposes after it had tumbled.

Contrary to all other stelae, the Great Stele was carved on all four sides. It represents a thirteen-storey building with windows and false doors at the foot, both front and back – implying the belief in a kind of afterlife. The indentations on each side of the stela are elaborately undercut. This concept causes the strong Aksum sunlight to enhance the apparent relief of the carved surfaces. Excavations have revealed that major tombs survived on either side of Stela One.

The Stele of Aksum

The Stele of Aksum or Stela Two, is approximately 24 m high and weighs 200 tonnes. In accordance with Italy’s Fascist ideal of re-establishing the Roman Empire, both physically and culturally, Italian troops occupied Ethiopia in the 1930s. Not only did the Italians take ownership over the second largest stele in Aksum, they also seized a statue of the Lion of Judah (an important Ethiopian symbol), a number of royal and ecclesiastical crowns, the state archives, and paintings.

Like the Great Stele, the Stele of Aksum lay broken in several pieces when the Italians transferred the Stele of Aksum to Massawa, then Naples, and finally, Rome in 1937. The stela was re-constructed at the Piazza di Porta Capena in front of the (former) Italian Ministry of Colonies, close to the Circus Maximus. The stela became a symbol of Italy’s desire to colonize Ethiopia, drawing a direct parallel between the Roman Empire and the modern Italian state.

In 1947, the Italian government signed a peace treaty to return all treasures to Ethiopia. It was only in 2005 that the stela was dismantled in Rome, and shipped by plane in three pieces to Aksum. The monolith’s re-erection in 2008 marked an important national event: the ancient piece of art had returned to its original location after residing abroad for almost seventy years.

King Ezana's Stele

Stela Three was manufactured and placed in honour of King Ezana (fourth century). It is the only large stela that was never relocated nor ever fell down, and is presumably the last obelisk erected in Aksum. Under Ezana’s reign, Christianity was introduced to the Aksumite population. As the religious preference of the elite shifted towards Christianity, new practices were introduced, leading to the end of the use of stelae as burial markers.

It is clear that the grave memorial does not stand absolutely vertical. Its leaning position, however, is exaggerated by the slope of the ground on which the stela stands and by the displacement of the front baseplate. Following the concerns of the stela’s tilting position, it was structurally consolidated in 2008. The pictures on the right show in detail how the stela is prevented from possibly falling down.