Axum (also spelled Aksum) is one of Ethiopia’s great historical places. The city in the northern region of Tigrai was the seat of the Aksumite Empire, which stretched from the Nile to Yemen and lasted for several centuries. Its leaders dominated the lucrative sea trade between Africa and points in Asia. The Aksumite Empire was extremely powerful and prominent but suffered the eventual decline common to all empires towards the end of the first millennium A.D.
In the intervening hundreds of years, Axum lost its importance to the chosen capitals of new Ethiopian kingdoms and its current population is around 50,000. However, archaeological findings that reflect Axum’s glory have brought renewed interest to the city and it is one of the highlights of Ethiopia’s northern historical route. Axum gained recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 and the city has sought to restore and to preserve its legacy as a crucial component of Ethiopia’s cultural history.
Axum’s north stelae (obelisk) field is one of the highlights of a visit. The grounds host a collection of obelisks that range from unadorned and lichen-covered pieces that are two meters in height to the 33 meter King Remhai’s Stele. This tallest stele likely fell when it was originally erected and lays in pieces on the ground. The sides of this stele are intricately designed and you can walk underneath parts of King Remhai’s Stele (I did so at a quick pace).
Two other stelae of note are the Rome Stele and King Ezana’s Stele. The Rome Stele bears the name of Italy’s capital because the Italian occupiers shipped it home as a trophy. It was only returned to Axum in 2005 and was re-erected three years later. The Rome Stele bears carvings of windows and doors and was the most aesthetically pleasing of those in the field. Unfortunately, King Ezana’s Stele has been supported by trellises for quite some time and, as a result, is not very photogenic.
In addition to the stelae in this part of Axum, the field also bears several tombs. I was the only one walking around, which gave them an eerie and ancient feel. Grave robbers plundered the royal spoils of the tombs centuries before archaeologists had the opportunity to preserve them.
Smaller obelisks are scattered among the more grand creations, with another grouping located nearby some trees. The museum at the north stelae field was closed for renovations when I visited, so hopefully it will be open again soon for travelers to enjoy.
While there is no shortage of “guides” offering their services in town and around the historical sites of Axum, a quick reading of the guidebooks will provide the information you need to appreciate and enjoy the north stelae field. Standing alone or wandering by oneself among these beautiful pieces is actually much preferable. Doing so allows you to transport yourself to the most glorious days of Axum, when its potent leaders inspired the construction of such beautiful and massive monuments with their achievements.