By Stuart Munro-Hay
These are the most famous of all the monuments of Aksum. They range from very rough and simple stones erected to mark grave-pits, to massive sculpted towers which represent soaring multi-storeyed palaces. Such huge monuments represent an enormous outlay of labour and skill, particularly in the most elaborate specimens. There are six carved and decorated monuments, the largest, now fallen and broken, formerly exceeding 33 m in height, with a measurement at the base of about 3 × 2 m. It is carved on all four sides and shows 12 storeys. It seems that the kings each tried to outdo the achievements of their predecessors; this largest of all the stelae exceeds by far even its nearest companion, which was only about 24 m high, and c. 2 × 1 m at the base. It was only ten storeys high and, though also carved on all four faces, was not so elaborate. One wonders if the giant stele ever actually stood, or whether it immediately plunged down to smash it is (variously estimated) 400-750 tons to pieces on the terrace wall below, destroying the great tomb, Nefas Mawcha, as it fell. The stelae very often have only about one-twelfth of their length buried, very inadequate support when the total height began to grow, let alone when it exceeded 33 m; the third tallest, also probably about 24 m long but only 21 m above the ground, still (rather surprisingly) stands dominating the terrace of stelae, in spite of the abraded surface of the Stele Park, which leaves it somewhat less support than it originally had. Only very few stones in the ancient world exceeded the Aksum stelae in bulk, notably those forming the trilithon at Baalbek, constructed in the first half of the first century AD, where the largest stone measures something in the order of 20 × 4 × 4 m.
Illustration 33. The pavement in Axum can appear somewhat phallic at times.
The great monolithic towers unquestionably mark the sites of the tombs of the Aksumite kings, although only two tombs which can be directly associated with them have so far come to light. All six of the carved stelae are embellished with the elaborate doors, windows, beam ends and other features typical of Aksumite architecture. At their summits are emplacements for what seems to have been either one or two metal plaques, which we may perhaps imagine as gilded bronze embossed with the sign of the disc and crescent or some other emblem of the kings or gods. All that now remains are the traces of the fixing nails, arranged in positions which could even represent the cross; conceivably those which bore pagan symbols were later `Christianised’ (van Beek 1967). At the base of the decorated stelae were granite base-plates, carved in the case of all but the second largest (those of the largest have never been found) with the kylix, or Greek-style wine-cup with two handles. Some show several of these carved cups, with surrounds of decorative carving to the base-plates. The missing front base-plate for Stele 6 was found by Chittick (1974: pl. VIa). It is supposed that the cups were for offerings; since there is a similar cup carved in the base of a fruit-press cut from the solid rock at Atshafi near Aksum, it may indeed have been for wine-offerings that these altar-like base-plates were prepared. Perhaps the wine-offerings were poured out during memorial ceremonies for the deceased
The stelae appear to have been extracted several kilometers away at the quarries of Wuchate Golo to the west of Aksum and dragged from there into the city. At the quarry the rows of holes cut into the rock to delineate the line of the desired cut can still be seen; wooden wedges, rammed into these holes and swollen with water would have eventually caused the rock to split. In some cases, traces of these wedge-holes remain on the stelae themselves.
The stelae were probably erected with the aid of earthen ramps and tremendous human effort. Very likely each stele was hauled into position, perhaps using wooden rollers, until its base lay beside a pit dug ready to receive it (or possibly sometimes a tomb shaft, only partly refilled, was utilized). Then it was slowly levered up, and as it rose, stones and earth were placed as a ramp beneath it. Eventually, when it had slid into the pit and been levered completely upright, the pit, after being sometimes lined with larger stones, was packed with rubble and the base-plates installed. It must have been a tense moment when the stele reached the point of perpendicularity, and also when once erect, the first steps were taken to remove the supporting ramp. Whether the rather unreliable African elephant could have been utilized in helping to maneuver these giant stones is not known, but makes an interesting speculation.
No Egyptian obelisks could equal the size of the largest of the Aksumite stelae (though the unfinished one in the quarry at Aswan comes quite close). This enormous stone must surely represent the apogee of the manifestation of personal power in monumental structures in the ancient world. The five others are more modest in size but are still very large. We have no accounts of these stelae from ancient visitors to the city, but they must have been an awe-inspiring sight rising in a row on their terraces overlooking the capital. Now all but one lie smashed or partly buried in the stream-bed, save for the second largest, which, transported to Italy as loot during the period of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, now rises, repaired and restored but deteriorating in the polluted air, near the site of the Circus Maximus in Rome.
Prior to these very few stelae were decorated. There is one roughly-shaped specimen with very rudimentary representations of beams and `monkey-heads’, and another with an Ionic pillar and some sort of shrine rather elegantly depicted on it. A third has a circular object, perhaps a shield, topped with an angled and pointed line, carved on it. Finally, one has, carved near its base, the ancient Egyptian symbol of life, the `ankh’ (Anfray 1974). In some cases, these preceded the great carved monuments, but in others, the differentiation was probably caused by respective wealth; they were probably erected by contemporaries who could not hope to raise anything of the order of the decorated monoliths. These plainly dressed stelae range in size from very large (more or less equal in height to all the decorated ones save the very largest examples) to comparatively modest dimensions.
Illustration 35. View (from below) of part of the Ionic capital and shrine on stele no. 7; the plain stele no. 36 now lies beneath it.
From the archaeological evidence, it can be said that in broad terms the development was from the smaller and rougher completely undressed type to the dressed and then decorated types. Some allowance, however, must be made for the relative prosperity of those who erected stelae, and their social grouping. Even after the development of the dressed stelae, some people could doubtless still only aspire to a rough-hewn memorial for their tombs; very likely the larger plain dressed stelae belonged to persons of very high rank, and the decorated ones only to the rulers.
However, we remain completely uninformed as to who was buried beneath or near these memorials, though it is a natural inference that only the kings could have mobilized the necessary labor and skill to the quarry, carve, decorate, and erect the giant stelae or build the larger tombs. At the other end of the scale, a simple rough-cut tomb marked by a rough stele proved to contain sets of glass goblets and beakers, large numbers of iron tools, around eighty pottery vessels of excellent quality and many shapes (some certainly not for basic domestic use). This tomb, in the `Gudit’ stelae field, probably dates to the third century AD and in spite of the unimpressive appearance it clearly belonged to a person of some affluence (Chittick 1974: 192 and pls. XII, XIIIa, XIVa).
Some of the burials found in the Stele Park were of a different nature. In one shaft (Chittick 1974: pl. VIIIa) bodies were found in layers, with few grave goods beside personal ornaments. These, from coins found among them, seem to have been later Christian-period burials of simple type, and there seem to be no stelae associated with the tomb.
One or two bodies found may have been human sacrifices, offered as dedications or on celebratory occasions. King Ezana, for example, mentions offering 100 bulls and 50 captives in an inscription (see Ch. 11: 5); these captives may, of course, have only been dedicated to the gods as slaves. The stelae base-plates furnished with carved goblets resembling the Greek kylix could have acted as offering bowls; but these may rather have been used for wine or the like instead of blood, as noted above. A Yeha stele has a similar offering-cup in its base-plate (Littmann 1913: II, 2), and perhaps the custom was an old one. However, one rough stele (no. 137) was found to have the bones of perhaps two individuals seemingly thrown down into the pit in which it was erected, and there are other examples of human and animal bones, often burnt, among the fill and capping material of the platform complex (Munro-Hay 1989). Such rituals in pre-Christian Aksum call to mind contemporary sacrifices in the neighboring Meroitic kingdom, where the kings are often depicted slaughtering captives en masse in an imagery which descends from the pharaonic art of very early times. In the vast and rich graves found under the mounds at Ballena and Qustul in Nubia, the so-called X-Group rulers contemporary with the later Aksumite kings were buried with human and animal sacrifices, and, though not in Africa, there is also the example of the Romans, who sometimes sacrificed victims at their triumphs.
Illustration 37. The top the northern Stele Field at Aksum.
A few stelae have been noted placed beside structures which have been firmly dated to the Christian period, such as the Dungur villa, the building at Wuchate Golo, and Matara, Tertre D; at the latter place Anfray suggests the stele might denote a sacred edifice (Anfray and Annequin 1965: p. 68 and pl. XLIX, fig. 4). This might well apply also to Wuchate Golo but does not seem to be the case at Dungur.
The origins of the stelae are very difficult to disentangle. Attributions of stelae in Ethiopia to the pre-Aksumite period, though customarily accepted (Munro-Hay 1989: 150), are not necessarily correct (Fattovich 1987: 47-8). A stele tradition appears nevertheless to have existed in the Sudanese-Ethiopian borderlands, and in parts of northern Ethiopia and Eritrea in pre-Aksumite times. Fattovich suggests, plausibly enough, that stelae belong to an ancient African tradition. In the case of the stelae at Kassala and at Aksum — despite the difference in time and the difference in the societies which erected them — he sees a similarity in several features. These include the suggestion that `the monoliths are not directly connected with specific burials’ (Fattovich 1987: 63). However, this is questionable as far as the Aksum stelae are concerned, now that it has been possible to analyze the results of Chittick’s work. Though it is not yet easy to identify tombs for all the stelae, it does seem that, at the Aksum cemeteries, wherever archaeological investigations have been possible there is a case for suggesting that stelae and tombs are directly associated.
Aksum: An African Civilisation of Late Antiquity
- 2-1. The Legends of Aksum
2-2. Aksum in Ancient Sources
2-3. The Rediscovery of Aksum in Modern Times
- 3-1. The Landscape
3-2. Origins and Expansion of the Kingdom
3-3. The Development of Aksum; an Interpretation
3-4. Cities, Towns, and Villages
3-5. The Inhabitants
3-6. Foreign Relations
- 4-1 The Pre-Aksumite Period
4-2 Early Aksum until the Reign of Gadarat
4-3 Gadarat to Endubis
4-4 Endubis to Ezana
4-5 Ezana after his Conversion, to Kaleb
4-6. Kaleb to the End of the Coinage
4-7. The Post-Aksumite Period
- 5-1. The Site
5-2. The Town Plan
5-3. Portuguese Records of Aksum
5-4. Aksumite Domestic Architecture
5-5. The Funerary Architecture
5-6. The Stelae
- 7-1. The King and the State
7-2. The Regalia
7-3. Dual Kingship
7-5. The Royal Titles
7-6. The Coronation
- 8-1. Population
8-2. Agriculture, Husbandry, and Animal Resources
8-3. Metal Resources
8-4. Trade, Imports and Exports
8-5. Local Industries
- 9-1. The Origins
9-2. Introduction and Spread of the Coinage
9-3. Internal Aspects of the Coinage
9-4. The Mottoes
9-5. The End of the Coinage
9-6. Modern Study of the Coinage
- 10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
10-2. The Conversion to Christianity
10-3. Abreha and Atsbeha
10-4. Ecclesiastical Development
- 11-1. The Inscriptional Record
11-2. The Military Structure
11-4. The Fleet
11-5. The Aksumite inscriptions
- 15-1. The Failure of Resources
15-2. The Climate
15-3. External and Internal Political Troubles
15-4. The Najashi Ashama ibn Abjar
15-5. The NatsaniDaniell