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Ethiopia: The Obelisks of Axum

October 5, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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Photos by Ken and Peg Herring

Located in the Tigray region of modern Ethiopia, the city of Axum was once the center of a powerful state.  Its signature monuments were a series of obelisks, the largest of which weighs an astounding 520 metric tons.  The obelisks, which show a similarity to those of ancient Egypt, date from before the rise of the Roman Empire.

1) The largest obolisk, now fallen.  Some scientists believe it crashed during the initial installation

Several other monuments survive in their original locations.  They were once thought to mark graves, a notion I find absurd.

2) Another obelisk.  Note that this example resembles house logs stacked atop one another.  Smaller obelisks, more in the Egyptian style, flank the larger work, which is purported to weigh 160 metric tons.

Some authorities refer to the obelisks as stelae, not wishing to associate them with Egypt or other advanced cultures.  A stela is usually defined as a stone slab carved with writing or symbolic meanings, used to mark special events or histories.  The Mayans made great use of them and their stelae looked nothing like obelisks.

3) Side angle

For political and strategic reasons the provenance of the Axumite kingdom remains largely unexplored.  Tigray has its own separatist movement, the Ethiopian government would prefer everyone to think that the base Amharic population was the source of civilization within the country, and so on.

A typical parable of modern archeological debate.  At least no one has blown the obelisks to bits in order to get rid of an embarrassing ancient society.

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