The modern nation of Ethiopia has its roots in the Kingdom of Axum, which arose the heart of the Simien Mountains, in what is now Tigray, in the northernmost part of Ethiopia. Archeological evidence for human habitation in this area dates back as far as 500,000 years ago. By the tenth century BCE, the people here were living in small farming villages.
Remains of an ancient castle, dating from the Proto-Axumite Period, 7th century BCE
The first mention of the Kingdom of Axum in the historical record was in the first century CE. By then Axum was already a major power which dealt on equal terms with the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, and whose ships sailed as far as India and Sri Lanka in search of trade. Major exports included ivory, tortoise shell, hippopotamus hide, spices, incense, gold, precious stones, and slaves. Originally the people worshipped a variety of gods, including the Serpent God; the Moon God, or Sin; and Astar, identified with the planet Venus. At some point in the pre-Christian era they converted to Judaism, and in the year 330 CE King Ezana of Axum converted to Christianity.
Font where King Ezana was said to have been baptized
A stele erected by King Ezana bearing inscriptions in Gez, Sabean, and Greek
The years that followed were Axum’s Golden Age. By the sixth century, under the rule of King Kaleb, the empire extended from Nubia, in the north, all the way to Somalia, and included modern-day Yemen and South Arabia.
Palace of King Kaleb
After the reign of King Kaleb ended, the power and influence of Axum declined. Archeologists tell us that widespread deforestation led to desertification and the destruction of the empire’s resource base. Adulis, the empire’s major port on the Red Sea, was destroyed by Muslim invaders in the seventh century. The city of Axum shrank, both in terms of area and population. Subject peoples began asserting their independence, and the once proud city of Axum dwindled to the status of a provincial backwater.
In the ninth century, a Jewish queen, Gudit, led a bloody civil war against Ethiopia’s rulers. Her armies besieged Axum, razed much of the city to the ground, and killed the emperor. Gudit had been the leader of a tribal confederation called the Agaw. Not much is known about Ethiopian history in the years following her death, but we do know that within half a century Ethiopia was under control of the Zagwe, or “the dynasty of the Agaw.” The new dynasty established its capital in the city of Rohas, in the heart of the land of the Agaw. Rohas was later re-named Lalibela, in honor of the Zagwe king of the same name. By that time the Zagwe rulers had themselves converted to Christianity.
Accompanied by our guide Sisay, my wife Yaa and I strolled through the old town of Axum, and we could see the residents living probably much as they always have, dwelling in stone huts; raising wheat and teff, a grain used to make the spongy bread called injera which forms the basis of the Ethiopian diet; herding cattle and sheep; and using donkeys and camels for transportation.
Our ramblings took us a tomb which local oral tradition had identified as that of King Remhai, a more or less mythical personage from the pre-Axumite period who was said to have reigned in the fifth or fourth century BCE. The tomb, which was constructed entirely from huge slabs of granite, had two entrances, one still covered with the massive stone slab that had been placed there in a vain attempt to thwart grave robbers. Above the entrances was a mock door carved in stone, which Sisay told us was a symbolic doorway to heaven.
We descended a wooden ladder into the burial chamber, which still contained the stone sarcophagus of King Remhai.
Sisay asked my wife to strike the floor of the burial chamber with her hand. She did so, and we heard a hollow booming sound. Apparently there was another chamber beneath the one we were in, one still undefiled by tomb robbers. Who knows what buried treasures may lie within? But that is a matter to be left to another day.
Immediately adjacent to the tomb of King Remhai was the ancient royal cemetery now known as Stelae Park. From the fourth century BCE to the early fourth century CE, the Axumites buried their kings in rock-cut tombs marked with giant stone obelisks called stelae, each one carved out of a single piece of stone. These stelae were cut out of the rocks in quarries several kilometers outside Axum. We have no idea how they were transported to the site, there being no rivers or canals in the area that could have been used. Legend has it that elephants were deployed to transport these massive monoliths.
At first, the stelae were crude affairs, but as time went on they became both larger and more ornate, adorned with mock windows, mock doors, and even mock door knockers. Jutting out from the sides are mock supporting beams.
This is the third largest of the stelae, called Obelisk Number Three. This stele was on the verge of falling over when the supporting guy wires were installed.
This is the second largest of the stelae, called Obelisk Number Two. It stands 21 meters tall. This stele was removed from Axum and transported to Rome in 1929. In 2005, it was cut into three pieces and taken back to Axum on a cargo jet.
The largest stele, Obelisk Number One, stood 33 meters tall and weighed a staggering 520 tons. Before it collapsed, it was the largest monolithic stela anywhere in the world. It was erected over an underground mausoleum containing ten separate tombs, which contained beautiful carved ivory, including a female figurine created in the Hellenistic style.
No written inscriptions of any kind were found associated with these tombs. Whoever commissioned the building of these tombs and its accompanying stele obviously must have commanded enormous resources and social standing. But today we don’t even know what his name was, nor the names of any of the people who were buried here.
Look upon my works, ye mighty, and tremble!
All photos by author