Main stelae field

Aksum’s best-known archeological site is a field of 75 sandstone stelae, extending over around 5000 square metres at the northwest end of town. Here, a trio of massive engraved obelisks represent the largest single-block edifices ever constructed in ancient times. Local tradition and archeological evidence broadly concur that the stelae date to the third and fourth centuries AD and were erected to mark royal graves. The mechanism used to raise them, however, remains conjectural: local folklore attributes their erection to the mysterious powers of the Ark of the Covenant, while modern scholars favour the more prosaic explanation that they were dragged into place by domestic elephants.

The largest of the obelisks, Remhai’s stele – traditionally associated with the third-century king of the same name – now lies shattered in five horizontal blocks weighing 520 tonnes in all. Neatly engraved with twelve rows of carved windows and a carved door at the front, it would be over 33m tall were it still standing. Scholarly consensus is that Remhai’s stele collapsed in the process of being raised, but locals claim it stood in place for at least five centuries before being toppled by Queen Yodit during her sacking of Aksum.

The only giant stele to remain in place since it was erected is the 23-metre-tall Ezana’s stele, which has nine storeys of windows and a door at the base, and has been tilted slightly to the right for centuries. Alongside it is the world’s tallest standing ancient obelisk – the 25-metre high “Roman stele”, which was appropriated during the Italian occupation, chopped into three blocks, and reassembled in Rome. Following decades of heated negotiation, the looted obelisk was returned to Aksum and re-erected at its original site in 2005. Unfortunately, this procedure destabilized the base of Ezana’s stele, which is now supported by an unsightly sling supported by metal poles.

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