Published: October 20th 2008
October 8th 2008
I traveled many days in buses but the drive from the Simien Mountains to Aksum was one of the scariest in my life. The road was carved by the Italians into the steep mountain side and any mistake of the bus driver would result in a long drop and certain death. Once I unclenched my hands and the white knuckles were pink again I could enjoy the scenery which is equally spectacular. Luckily for us the bus driver was good and we enjoyed the scenery and our health. Aksum
was Ethiopia’s second capital and marks one of the biggest achievements in Ethiopian history. Aksum was from 400BC for close to 1000 years the capital of the Aksumite Empire. It is also said to have been Queen of Sheba’s capital in 1000 BC. Queen Sheba plays quite a big role in Ethiopia as she is said to have visited King Solomon in Jerusalem where he fathered a child with her (under circumstances which would amount to a lawsuit these days). Then it gets a bit more complex but most Ethiopian Kings claim to be a descendant of this son and therefore have a divine right to rule.
Today there are a
The great stele
Some close ups. You can see the windows hewn into the rock
few sights remaining which makes Aksum one of Ethiopia’s main tourist destinations.
The most impressive are the impressive Stelae’s. Think of a big stone standing upright. Now image that the tallest standing is 24 meters and the largest currently know would have been 33 meters high and would have weight something like 160 tons. This is believed the largest block of stone to have been attempted to be erected by human … ever! Well they didn’t succeed as it seems this Stelae was never upright and fell during the attempt to erect it. It was a bit unfortunate (to say the least) that it fell on a massive 360 ton stone which covered the tomb of Nefas Mawacha. Wouldn’t want to be the project manager of this failed project…
Most of the Stelae were in fact large gravestones and marked the site of a tomb. Some of them were small and un-carved and some massive and carved. The size and decoration indicated the status of the person buried beneath. Some of the carvings are the fines to be found anywhere and that they are still in mint condition today shows how hard the stone is. Some of the carved
The great stele
Would have been 33m high and is believed to be the largest single block of stone ever to be attempted to be erected by humans
Stelae’s have windows and doors including door handles. They look like giant skyscrapers.
As mentioned before the Italians were occupying Ethiopia for a while and in good old occupier tradition they “borrowed” some items (on Mussolini’s order) to make home a bit more beautiful. In Aksum’s case this was a massive 24.6 m Stelae known as Rome Stele or Aksum Stele depending on if you’re in Aksum or Rome. Well that was at least the case until 2005 when Italy finally agreed to hand back the Stele and also to erect it. The Stele is now standing but unfortunately for us it is still covered by scaffolding and there is an ugly fence around it and one other famous Stele. Will be a great sight without it…
Apart from standing rocks there are also underground tombs to be seen and the palace of the Queen of Sheba. That is if you believe the local legend and not the Archeologists. Anyway it’s a medium size place with some walls still standing but by far not as impressive as the Stelae’s. One thing that amazes me time and again is how civilizations can be so advanced and then are replaced with
something a lot less advanced. There was nothing that came close to the Aksum stone masonry for a very long time and arguably even today we cannot produce (or don’t want to) something as impressive.
After visiting the major sites in Aksum we also went to the first capital of Ethiopia Yeha. The town itself is very small and would go through as mini rural town if it wouldn’t have the ruins of a massive temple standing behind its church (which was build reusing the stones from the temple). The temple was build sometime between the 5th and 8th century BC! Yes that’s 2500 years ago and still standing. Today it is only a shell but it must have been impressive as the walls are over 5m tall and the masonry rivals the best in the world. The stones even today are perfectly rectangular and there was no need for mortar. The stones fit so perfectly together that you cannot put a knife in-between. While excavating some minor finds were made which are now exhibited in the museum aka the bed room of the local priest. Many churches have a so called museum where they display some old artifacts
Ethiopia’s Rosetta stone
It contains inscription in Sabean, Greek and Ge ez
and Yeha is no exception. The museum room also doubles as the priests sleeping quarter and the artifacts could easily fit in a small cupboard. Anyway they were interesting and contained some stones with Sabean inscriptions and small metal objects in the form of ibexes which were sacred back then.
The other sight not to be missed is Debre Damo which lies a few km away from Yeah and contains what is most likely the oldest church still standing in Ethiopia. It is build on a flat topped mountain and can only be accessed by climbing a 15 meter wall. Luckily I only had to use my climbing skills a little bit as resident priests help prospective visitor by pulling them up on using a goat skin rope. Still scary enough. Certainly the most interesting way I have ever entered a monastery.
The monks living in Debre Damo are mostly self sufficient and have their own life stock up the mountain. Water is collected in many water cisterns of which some are 15meter deep. All this was build centuries back and I assume they didn’t have jack hammers. The church in Debre Damo is certainly the best build and
nicest to look at in Ethiopia so far. It was constructed using olive wood and stones and is quite attractive from inside and out.
The monastery is said to also have doubled as a “prison” for excess princes. All apart from the first born were locked up here to avoid quarrels between the siblings. Quite clever actually.
There are more photos below