Aksum - The Whole Town is a Museum

The stunning giant stellae in the North Stellae Field across from the Church Complex could not be missed. Even as I was arriving to town by bus from Shire, I passed by the Gudit Stellae Fields where stellae are strewn all over the cornfields, jutting out between the stalks. But there is much more in this city on the Tigray Plateau, 2000m high and about 30 km from Eritrea.

North Stellae Field
PHOTOGRAPH BY Norman Sung
Thousand Year Old illustrated Bible painted on goatskin
PHOTOGRAPH BY Norman Sung

A km or so from the North Stellae Field, we find the Queen of Sheba's Baths, really a water reservoir in function, but people dive in to get baptized during Timkat, which is about to happen in a few days as I write this (and I wish I was there to experience). Further up the hill, hidden in a dingy little shack, I find King Ezana's Inscription – written in three languages – Ge'ez (the language you see in the thousand-year old Ethiopian Bibles), Sabean (a South Arabian language then widely used in what is now Yemen), and Ancient Greek – boasting his conquests. A few kilometers more I reach a crest, and there is the tomb of King Kaleb, the Aksum King who adopted Orthodox Christianity as the State Religion in the 4th Century AD (second after Armenia), and that of his son, Gebre Meskel (the name literally means “son of the Cross”). In the distance, I see the beautifully strange volcanic-formations of the Adwa Mountains, where Menelik II and his thousands of troops fought and defeated the Italians in 1896, saving Ethiopia from European Colonization. Teff is growing in the surrounding fields and is being harvested as the rainy season ends. Abba Pentawelon Church is further out. The friendly priest proudly shows the thousand year-old illustrated Bibles painted on goatskin, a good collection of crosses from all the main Ethiopian styles (Aksum, Gondar, Lalibela), the crowns of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, and his pottery beer container with a leather-skin cover.

Heading in the other direction from North Stellae Field, I reach the remnants of a big mansion called Dungur's Palace, right across from the Gudit Stellae Field. Probably built around 6th Century, the (mandatory) guide at the site shows me around, pointing to the pillars, room dividers drainage holes, kitchen area in the intact foundational stones and steps. According to him, there were 53 rooms. A few kilometers along the road westward, I climb the hill to reach one of the stellae quarry sites. A few men are loading rocks onto the back of a truck – it is still an active quarry today. I find unfinished stellae stone (drill cut marks on the side of a rectangular slab), and a huge boulder on which a lively-looking lioness and a St. George cross are etched. A great panorama of the flat plain and the growing city, with the pinnacle of Mount Gelila in the distance.

Centre of the Kingdom

This was the center of one of the mightiest kingdoms in ancient Ethiopian history. As the artifacts show, Aksum had contact with the Greeks (and the Romans) and was in control of the Red Sea and Southern Arabia in what is now Yemen and projected its power well into the Gulf of Aden. The corn and teff fields are still littered with Aksumite coins, which people will try to sell to you, but however tempting, one must not buy and take out of the country (that is what the luggage X-ray machine and the “Customs” guys as you enter the departure area in Addis airport are for).

I find modern Aksum to be a pleasant provincial town. Like every other urban center in Ethiopia, it is rapidly growing, with new universities, schools, multi-storey apartments and hotels being cobbled together everywhere. There is concern that as the town expands, some of these archaeological treasures will become more difficult or even damaged to find as only 4 percent of Aksum has been archaeologically surveyed. Already, a major tomb complex I visited is located behind a warren of ho-hum shops.

Aksum is also a religious center and a pilgrimage town, and that is where the living museum part really comes in. I arrived on the third day of the Ethiopian month, and the fixer hanging around my hotel trying to get me to charter a vehicle to the Tigray Rock Churches told me to get up at 4:30 in the morning and go take part in the procession that occurs during the first 7 days of each Ethiopian month.

Pre-dawn Procession

So I set my alarm clock, and groggily trotted through the deserted main street to the North Stellae Field / Church Complex area the next morning. The special short mass had already started. The priests were in an LED-lit canopy in the open square just to the east of the big fig tree, chanting and waving the incense pot. Hundreds of people, all wearing simple white cloth, men and women, had gathered forming a large circle around the priests' altar, all holding lit candles. More people joined. Soon, there must have been over a thousand. The priests exited the temporary altar, and under the cover of red umbrellas decorated with gold, they paraded out, with the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant, carried above the main priest's head, and started proceeding down the street. The crowd followed: we would be proceed through the streets around the Church Complex, making a counter-clockwise loop through the neighbourhood as viewed overhead. Someone noticed I didn't have a candle, and gave me one. We proceeded, the crowd chanting from time to time with words that sounded to me like “Harenna Maryam” as we shuffled through the dark streets.

Procession
PHOTOGRAPH BY Norman Sung

Being in the midst of a candlelight procession with people all dressed in white, devoutly chanting prayer songs while walking together in the starry night, made me feel a purposeful yet serene bond, with a thousand other strangers in a strange land. It seemed so implausible, but that was how I felt and there is no other way to describe it. To top it off, as we made the final turn west in front of the big stellae, I saw a shooting star across the sky westwards, as we made our way back to the altar where the Tabot was put back. The concluding portion of the mass took place as an ever-brightening blue glow permeates upwards from the eastern hills. Magic!

There is an excellent archaeological museum behind the stellae in the North Stellae Field. It describes the history of Aksum, displays the coins, pottery, and some of the traded objects that made Aksum rich, and there was a good panel comparing Ge'ez with modern day Amharic. Since I was not permitted to take photos inside, I must only recall from memory.

By tradition, the stellae of Aksum were moved from the quarry onto the site strapped to the backs of the elephants, and there were such paintings in the museum. Once you see the size of the stellae though, you know this is completely impossible – a hundred elephants will be crushed to pulp with that weight. In Ethiopia, myths blend together with actual events; getting hard facts and only the factual explanations can be very hard.

Rise and Fall, and History Continues

One explanatory panel really stuck with me, and that was why Aksum declined and ultimately fell towards the 9th Century AD, because of the parallels and relevance to interpret the events of today. The first factor mentioned was deforestation, probably coinciding with a mini-climate change that caused a shortage of materials, perhaps even food. That I can relate to: across Ethiopia today, deforestation and environmental stresses are painfully evident, but even 100 years ago, Addis Ababa almost had to be abandoned because all the local trees were chopped down. It was only through the introduction of a non- native specie, the fast-growing, dry-climate adapted Eucaplytus tree from Australia, that saved the capital from having to be moved.

But it also mentioned that Aksum lost control of what is now Yemen to the Persians, who were expanding in that direction around 7th Century AD. That is when I realized a parallel in today's geopolitical situation. The current war in Yemen is, at its core, a proxy war between the Arabs (primarily Saudi) and Iran (the Persians). Though Aksum (today's Ethiopia) is not a major player this time around, Southern Arabia has been fought over for centuries due to its strategic importance.

I also gained a new insight into the diplomatic jargon of “regional conflict”. It is not a one-time event of neighbouring peoples fighting due to some issue or a general rise in political tension. Rather, it refers to periodic flare-ups over the course of time, as happens when one group or nation feels more powerful while sensing weakness in its neighbour, or as discontent with the power structure leads to a shift in coalition and alliances.

In the next post, I will talk about my travels to the other side of the country, which is very different, and talk about the museums and field visits there.

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Norman Sung