Suitcase and World: Afternoon in Aksum. Stelae and Church.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Afternoon in Aksum. Stelae and Church.

The Stelae Field.  Pat in the foreground - she was my scale model.

After lunch, we headed to the main stelae field to take a closer look at the famed cluster of obelisks. Getting of the van, it was also our first taste at the souvenir vendors who approached each and everyone of us, shoving one item after another for us to look at and buy. I've faced this enough times that I know to not make eye contact and just walk on.

It's believed that the stelae were carved and erected in the area of Aksum sometime during the 4th century AD and that they were grave markers. The largest of the obelisks were for royal burial chambers and were decorated with multi-story false windows and false doors, while nobility would have smaller, less decorated ones. Although there are only a few large stelae standing, there are hundreds of smaller ones in various stages of disrepair. A good read on the stelae can be found on the Sacred Destinations website.

We arrived into the field, standing before the fallen obelisk that I have seen countless images of. This is the largest of the stelae and it's estimated to be 33 meters (108 feet) and weigh around 500 tons which is astonishing considering it is a single piece of rock!

Standing alongside the fallen monolith, it's impossible to imagine how ancient Ethiopians were able to quarry this single piece of rock, transport it to the site and erect it. How do you lift up xxx tons of rock and ground it so it doesn't topple over? The prevailing thought about why the gigantic monolith toppled over was that base was too small to support the weight of the obelisk and that it likely fell as it was being erected. In other words, it was never fully implanted into the ground.

Another view of the fallen giant.

Pat taking a closer view.

The tip of the fallen stelae was missing. In its place was a gigantic slab of rock surrounded by smaller boulders. Archeologists believe that the giant slab was once the roof of a building. Presumably, the monolith brought it down when it toppled over. As a result, the tip of the stelae was smashed to smithereens.

Pat checking out some of the rocks around the fallen giant.  Somewhere in the rubble lies the shattered tip of the obelisk.

The second largest of the stelae is also the tallest one standing. 

A view of the detail on the second stelae.  You can see the false door, with it's knocker, and the false windows.

The second obelisk has a bit of a storied history. In 1937, the obelisk was cut into six section and dragged by hundreds of Italian and Eritrean soldiers (for more than two months) to the port of Massawa.  It arrived via ship in to Naples on March 27, 1937.  Then it was transported to Rome where it was reassembled and placed in Piazza di Porta Capenamin, near the Arch of Constantine, where it stood for decades.  The 180 ton monolith was finally returned from Rome to Axum in April 2005.  It was shipped in an extra large plane in three separate pieces.

Photo from

The now-second tallest is the Stele of King Ezana, which stands at the entrance to the field. Ezana was the first king to convert to Christianity (c.300 AD), and he declared his entire country for Christianity after his conversion. A carving on his stele may refer to this event. The Ezana obelisk is the only one that has remained standing since it was erected. It leans slightly and so it is being propped up to prevent it from toppling over.

Solomon explained that the overall design on the stelae represents a multistorey building which begged me to wonder how did ancient Ethiopians know anything about buildings with multiple floors? In any event, each stelae does have a carved representing the door - there's even a knocker on it. The circular designs represent the cut ends of tree limbs that would have been used to support the floors of each storey of the building. The vertical designs represented windows. The tops of two standing stelae are typical of Axumite design and Solomon said we would see similar shapes in the windows in the churches in Lalibela.

We followed Solomon down in to the tombs that are located beneath the fallen stelae. A set of large stone steps led down to a catacomb of ten chambers. Each chamber would have housed one or more tombs. Shafts brought light and air in from up above. According to Solomon, the emperors were buried along with family treasures and somewhere in time, many of the tombs have been looted and the treasures stolen.

Passing under the fallen giant.

Catacomb of tombs.

One of the now empty tombs.

From the catacombs, we walked a short distance up a hill. Protected by a large metal canopy was another royal tomb. No one knows which Emperor built this particular tomb but apparently, he chose to adorn it simply with a door, complete with a knocker, instead of a stelae.

Solomon standing at the entrance to the tomb.

Everyone is all ears!

An empty tomb which looks and feels like it is carved from stone.  Curious thing is that when Solomon picked up a small rock (the one that is atop the tomb in the photo) and hit it against the tomb, it sounded like he was hitting rock against metal. 

Snuck a photo of the inside of the museum entrance.

After our visit to the stelae, we spent time in the Aksum Museum. No photos were allowed inside. Even though the displays were described in English, I wasn't in much of a mood to be in a museum so I did a quick walkthrough. Just as I was about to exit, the attendant ushered me to the side where there were a few benches facing a small TV screen. I took a seat and in seconds the video began to play. It was a documentary on the historic highlights of Tigray, which is the region that Aksum is the capital city of. It was an interesting documentary and I don't know if it was a post lunch food coma coming on or jet lag hitting or a combination of both but I really started getting sleepy. I couldn't help myself - I shut my eyes though I didn't nod off. One by the one, the rest of the group soon joined me.

Before the video ended, Solomon came to retrieve us. Back outside, we went and had a cup of Ethiopian coffee. A young woman was getting ready to roast some beans and her friend was the server. The place didn't look or feel like any sort of a formal cafe but I think it is somehow associated with the museum. 

The *cafe*.

I wasn't planning on having any coffee but the aroma of the roasting beans was too tempting so I ordered a cup. That and I was thinking it might just be what I need to wake me up. I have to say, a cup of sweetened black Ethiopian coffee makes for a perfect late afternoon pick me up.

From the museum, we headed back towards the van.

Some of the smaller, simpler stelaes.

Looking from the fallen giant back towards the van. The dome of the Church of St. Mary of Zion in the background

The stelae field with the Stele of King Ezana, propped up, in the foreground.

Along the way,the souvenir sellers descended upon us. I just kept walking, ignoring them all. Passed the van, we walked through the entrance to the Church of St. Mary Tsion (St. Mary of Zion). It is in this complex that the small chapel that supposedly houses THE Ark of the Covenant is located. Of course, we made a beeline to that little chapel, walking passed a very unkempt set of grounds and two empty pools that during rainy season catch the water running off the domed roof of the church.

St. Mary of Zion Church.

Façade and dome of the church.

 Women gathered on the grounds.  They're draped in white, the color of Christianity in Ethiopia.

We all gazed at the small chapel as Solomon explained its history and the history of the Ark of the Covenant, as believed by Orthodox Ethiopian Christians. For the women in the group, this would be the closest that we would get to the church. Men are allowed inside so Robert and Sam would get to visit later.

The Chapel of the Tablet.

Located directly opposite the church is the main church of St. Mary Tsion. We had to take off our shoes before entering. First time I remember having to do this to enter a church.

Inside was a large open space filled with just a few benches. On the right was the altar and on the left a large space for the chanters - the Ethiopian version of a choir. Colorful paintings and simple stained glass windows adorned the walls.

I did a quick walk around and met up with the group who had congregated in the chanting space. Solomon waved for us to sit down on the benches - several of us opted to stand instead. He introduced us to the deacon and another man who were standing on either side of a podium. The deacon pulled off the layer of cloths covering an object that had been placed atop the podium. It turned out to be a book - the pages of which were made from goat skin. The first few pages he flipped through were beautifully painted in typical Ethiopian style. He began to explain the book but unfortunately, with his heavy accent, I have no idea what the book was about.

The deacon explaining the book to us.  I could not understand him through his thick accent.  :-(

No explanation needed.  Three Wise Men.

Next, the deacon picked up one of the drums, slung it over his shoulders and neck and started to beat on it. I guess he wanted to show us how the instrument is used during the church service.

The drum, an integral part of an Ethiopian church service.

Then we followed Solomon to the altar where the priest administers communion and the drape covered door.  Supposedly, the room behind panels holds the original Ark of the Covenant.  I think Israel would dispute that. According to Solomon, every church in Ethiopia has at least one copy of the Ark of the Covenant in its possession but the original resides in this church.

Just before leaving the church, Solomon took us to see two paintings.  I don't know their significance.  I think I was beginning to fade - a combination of jet lag and information overload.

Back outside, everyone had to put on their shoes.

Then, we headed down a set of steps to visit the church's museum.

Entrance to the museum.

Photos not allowed!

We collectively stored our bags and cameras in a storage locker and headed inside as no photography was allowed. Another mish mash collection of stuff. Some things were labelled only to identify the item and perhaps its year of origin e.g., gold robe 1867 but other than that tiny bit of information, there was nothing else to explain the item. Not my cup of tea so I breezed through and went back outside to wait for the others. I didn't think about it so as I sat waiting, I picked up my camera and took a photo of the museum door.

The attendant caught me and with a wave of his fingers reminded me that photography was not allowed. The rest of the group was just a tad more interested in the museum than I because I didn't have to wait long for them all to come out.

From the museum, we headed back to the small church so the men could enter for their visit. The gals waited patiently and thankfully, neither Robert nor Sam were so interested in what was inside that they were back with us just a handful of minutes after they left us.

Some ruins on the church grounds.

The church as two large pools to collect water.

Back in the van, we drove to destination unknown. A swarm of young boys and girls surrounded us as we got out of the van. Dressed in their school uniforms, we thought they were just curious children until they started trying to hawk items for sale. Damn, they sure start young here. We walked by them and down a few steps to enter inside a very small, one room building. There, we saw a huge stone tablet of some sort. It wasn't obvious until I walked up to it and looked closely that it was inscribed. What we were looking at is the tablet known as King Ezana's inscription.  The tablet dates from between 330 AD and 350 AD and was discovered by three farmers in 1988. The tablet records King Ezana's military conquests and praises God for his victories. What's also unique about it is that the inscription is trilingual - in Ge'ez (the ancient Eritrean/Ethiopian language), in Sabaean (ancient South Arabian language) and in Greek.

Detail of one section of the wall.  I don't know what language this is written in.

From the tablet, we rode about another kilometer up an unpaved road to see a pair of royal tombs.  More specifically, the tombs of King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel.

As we drove towards the tombs, school kids ran alongside our van - attempting to keep up.   It took just a few minutes for us to arrive at a bluff.  From there, we had a wonderful view of the area surrounding Aksum.

The van was quickly surrounded by a group of boys who had been kicking around a ball but we became their newest distraction.

The happy boys instantly morphed into seasoned beggars.  I shook my head at every request.

The two tombs were situated under a protective overhang.  Solomon launched into his explanation but I had long lost interest.  My brain was just too tired to take in any more information.  While Solomon talked, I took in my surroundings.  I'm still pinching myself that I'm actually in Ethiopia!

After Solomon was done speaking, we headed down to see the tombs.  In one of the chambers, there were three tombs; the other chambers were empty.

I think everyone was beginning fade.  We were in the tombs for less than 10 minutes.  Back in the van, we backed tracked towards town.  We were done for the day.  Along the way, the van stopped so we could catch a quick look at what used to be Queen of Sheba's Bath but is now a general purpose water hole.  Women were hauling water up in bright yellow plastic containers and there were a few children doing their laundry.

View of downtown Aksum.  Tuk tuks are a common form of transport here.

Dinner was in the hotel restaurant with the gang. The meal was not memorable but the late afternoon view of  the stelae field and St Mary of Zion church, from the hotel's terrace was wonderful.

I lingered at the table after the meal was over and ended up having a delightful conversation with Robert and Carol.

Back in my room, it was the usual nightly duties - shower and writing this blog posting.

Looking back on the day, I had a great time!  I hope it continues as we leave Aksum tomorrow morning to fly to Lalibela where we will spend a day and half visiting the rock hewn churches and cave churches. Very excited to finally get to see the churches in person!

But for now, I am exhausted and will call it a night.

Goodnight from Aksum!