Giant Stelae Are Raised at Aksum

Large monuments constructed of single stones were placed on the northern edge of the city of Aksum.

Summary of Event

The history of the almost impenetrable, mountainous region that consists of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea spans three thousand years. The biblical queen of Sheba is believed to have come from this region, which embraced Judaism around 900 b.c.e. The most important of the ancient Ethiopic states was Aksum. The Aksumite people were a mixture of Cushitic-speaking peoples from the Ethiopian highlands and Semitic-speaking southern Arabians who settled the territories around the Red Sea about 500 b.c.e. Roman and Greek sources indicate that Aksum, a city near the center of the current Ethiopian-Eritrean border from which an empire bearing its name arose, was thriving by the first century c.e. Over mountains to the north, the empire’s port, Adulis, noted as the most important harbor on the Red Sea, enjoyed a strategic position on trade routes between Yemen and the Indian Ocean to the east and Nubia, Egypt, and the Mediterranean to the north. In the second century c.e., Aksum acquired Sabaean and Himyarite tributary states in Yemen across the Red Sea and conquered the coast of what is now Sudan. Ezana

The Aksumite Empire was wealthy, cosmopolitan, and culturally important. In its marketplaces, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, and Africans speaking Sudanic and Cushitic tongues traded ideas and exotic products, such as gold dust, ivory, leather, hides, and aromatics. Jews, Christians, and even Buddhists interacted with followers of Africa’s religious traditions. Coins bearing the inscriptions of some twenty kings have been found throughout the region. Both Semitic, the Aksumite language and its written script, Ge’ez, are part of the longest continuous literate traditions in Africa. They were the forerunners of Amharic, Ethiopia’s modern language.

The Aksumites’ polytheistic beliefs were closely related to pre-Islamic Arabian religion. However, in 330 c.e., under the influence of Syrian bishop Frumentius, newly converted Aksumite king Ezana declared his realm a Christian state. Therefore, Ethiopia is often cited as history’s first Christian country. However, its Christianity differed from that followed in other areas. Because of their Semitic origins, Aksumite and other Ethiopian Christians have viewed themselves as heirs to God’s Old Testament covenant with the Hebrews. Since the fifth century c.e., Ge’ez, rather than Greek, has been the liturgical script of the Ethiopian church. Influenced by Egypt’s Coptic Church, the Aksumites were Monophysites who believed that Christ had a single rather than a dual nature. Until the twentieth century, the Abuna or patriarch of the Ethiopian church, was chosen by the Coptic patriarch in Alexandria. Because the Aksumites had sheltered Muḥammad’s first followers, the Arabs never attempted to overthrow Aksum as they spread across North Africa. Even after its prosperity and power had waned, Aksum enjoyed good relations with its Muslim neighbors. Hence, Ethiopia’s form of Christianity has survived to the present day.

The focus of worship as well as power, Aksum became a holy city in which emperors were crowned. Beneath a lofty peak of the Adwa Mountains, the city lies in a kloof, or valley, over a vast plain at 7,545 feet (2, 300 meters) above sea level. Until the sixteenth century, Aksum was both the civil and religious center of Ethiopia, despite its destruction by ninth century Jewish queen Judith, who slaughtered all the royal princes. In 1538, it was captured by Muslim general Mohammed Gragn (also known as Ahmed Ibrahim al-Ghazi), prince of Leïla, and the Ethiopian monarchy moved to a new capital at Gonder, deep in the Abyssinian Highlands.

According to local traditions, the queen of Sheba’s palace and bath are in Aksum. Its valley’s entrance is dominated by a large thickly wooden enclosure, nearly a mile in circumference, in the center of which rises the city’s cathedral, a monastery and its bishop’s residence. Running up the valley is the long line of monuments and beyond is the ancient reservoir that supplied the city with water until recent times. On a nearby hill are the sixth century ruins of King Kaleb’s Palace.

However, from an architectural perspective, Aksum’s most impressive and best-preserved structures are the roughly 120 granite monoliths that dominate the northern edge of the city. Rising like stone skyscrapers above the city, these stelae are single stone blocks. No one knows exactly when or how they were quarried and erected. Their construction employed considerable manpower and artistic ability with advanced knowledge of architectural, engineering, and mathematical skills. Traditionally, Ethiopians believed that the mystical powers of the Ark of the Covenant, the box that holds the original Ten Commandments, raised the stones after they were carved. Many thought that the stelae were erected some time between 1000 and 700 b.c.e., before Ethiopia’s Jewish era. This may be true of some in a small field near Sheba’s palace, but not of the larger monuments of the northern field.

Modern scholars have estimated their construction to be more recent. All agree that these monuments graced Aksum at the height of its power under Ezana in the fourth century c.e. Although they memorialize the city’s rulers, the intended purpose of certain features of these structures remains a mystery. Nonfunctional doors and windows are carved on their surfaces. Each is crowned with a semicircular finial, on which a disk representing the Sabaean sun god and a crescent moon are often carved. These symbols and numerous Himyaritic (Arabic) inscriptions on the stelae and throughout the city reveal a mingling of Arabian and African influences. About fifty stone pedestals on the stelae are believed to have held metal statues of Aksum’s pre-Christian kings. Metal plates bearing the faces of kings were riveted to the stelae. Altars for animal sacrifices were fitted to their bases.

Now lying broken on the ground in three pieces and totaling 234 feet (71 meters), the tallest stela originally weighed some 500 tons, the largest single piece of stone ever quarried. It may have broken during its erection in the second quarter of the fourth century c.e. Some scholars suggest that the disastrous collapse, which might have been interpreted as a failure of old religious practices, may have contributed to Aksum’s conversion to Christianity. The second largest stela is about 80 feet (24 meters) tall and was taken by the Italians during Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1937. An international campaign was begun in the late twentieth century for its return to Ethiopia from Rome, where it graces a square. Many other stelae are no longer standing. However, of those standing, the tallest is 69 feet (12 meters) and weighs 300 tons.


Isolated and protected by its mountains for centuries, Ethiopia’s mixture of Middle Eastern and African cultures is exemplified by the mysterious stelae of Aksum. Archaeologists believe the city sits on extensive ruins, which cannot be excavated because of the expense of such a project and the need to relocate the current population. To Ethiopia’s millions, Aksum, now the capital of Ethiopia’s Tigré Province, is the seat of their country’s glorious past and a sacred, inviolable refuge with a tranquillity unknown elsewhere.

Further Reading

  • Bent, J. Theodore. The Sacred City of the Ethiopians. London: Longmans, 1896. A detailed account of Aksum by a European traveler.
  • Bruce, James. Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile. 1788. Reprint. New York: Horizon Press, 1964. One of the first accounts of European exploration, this Scottish traveler’s work contains important descriptions of Aksum.
  • Munro-Hay, Stuart. Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1991. An excellent study of Aksum’s history.
  • Pankhurst, Richard. The Ethiopians: A History. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2001. This excellent history of Ethiopia surveys Aksum’s place in the ancient past.
  • Phillipson, David W. Ancient Ethiopia. London: British Museum Press, 1998. This survey of ancient Ethiopia is centered on Aksum.
  • Phillipson, David W. Archaeology at Aksum, Ethiopia, 1993-1997. 2 vols. London: Society of Antiquaries, 2001. The best, most thorough study of archaeological finds in Aksum.
  • Salt, Henry. Travels in Abyssinia. London: Frank Cass, 2001. Salt’s nineteenth century account provides a valuable description of Aksum.

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