Stairway to Heaven

Axum, Ethiopia

January 9, 2013

A couple of kilometers to the north of Axum lies another ancient site. The lane leading up to the site is predictably lined with small stalls selling the usual tourist kitsch. Small boys tag along next to me clutching small replicas of the stelae hoping for a sale. Long before I am at the site, I see them. A field of stelae greets the eye – some stand upright, some lean drunkenly and some have toppled off to lie broken on the ground. Some are slender towers, some are large, some no more than ten meters tall while some are far loftier. The tallest stands almost ninety meters and the largest lies in several pieces on the ground. Dating from around 300-500 AD, these stelae mark tombs and burial chambers of kings and nobles.

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The stelae are not quite the same as Egyptian obelisks, but are flatter rectangles with tapering sides. Each is cut from the rock walls and would have to have been dragged to the site of their installation, awaiting finer carving. Some of them have the same odd half-circle shape I saw from Lalibela. Nobody quite knows the reason but some claim that the shapes are supposed to represent the sun and a crescent moon. Some of the stelae have a conical top and some are pyramidal. There are holes in the stone at the top – rumor has it that these stelae were once covered in plates of gold and silver, the metal riveted through the holes.  The grander ones have carvings on all four sides and the patterns are curiously modern – geometric shapes composed of straight lines and circles. The grandest one has a door carved at the bottom, complete with a knocker. Was it meant to be a stairway to heaven for the kings? A direct access so to speak? Some have altars at the base with grooves cut into them. What were the grooves for? To carry away blood from sacrifices perhaps? There are guesses aplenty but no definitive answers. Some of the stelae lead down to the tomb underneath.

Curiously though none seem to have inscriptions. Given the advanced civilization they were built in, the robust trade that the Axumite kingdom did with parts of present-day Yemen, southern Arabia and even southern India, I would expect more evidence in the shape of inscriptions. If these are really memorials to kings, shouldn’t there be accounts carved on them exalting the deeds of the deceased kings? Shouldn’t the egos have demanded that as it did in other older civilizations? Perhaps the engravings were on the gold and silver coverings that have long since disappeared. There does exist one large stone slab with engravings on three sides. Written in Sabean, in Ge’ez, the fore runner of Aramaic and in Greek, they speak clearly to the connections between the Axumite civilization and its neighbors. An old man, a resident of the site claimed to be able to read the Ge’ez but I was no wiser when I heard him speak the words. They did not come with a translation.

Located on a little rise, commanding a grand view of the stelae field are the tombs of the sixth century ruler, King Kaleb and his son, King Gebre Meskel.  A flight of stone stairs lead into the large underground chamber. The walls of the staircase as well as the tomb are made of large blocks of stone but not all stones are the same size nor are they regular in shape. But each has been fitted so skillfully that no gaps remain. They remind me of the stone buildings and walls built by the Incas that I saw in Cuzco and other parts of Peru. There is no sign of any stone staples like the ones I saw at the great stelae. Here too there are no inscriptions or engravings to tell tales of eons gone by.

In the chamber beneath lie three sarcophagi in all their lonely splendor. There are no decorations. The wealth these kings were buried with, if any has long since fallen in the hands of centuries of grave robbers. One sarcophagus is quite deep and another appears to have shattered in place. It lies like pieces of a loosely-joined jigsaw puzzle.

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