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The North Stelae Field of Axum, Ethiopia

Stelae Obelisk Ethiopia Axum Aksum

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.

North Stelae Axum Aksum Ethiopia

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).

King Remhai Stele Axum Aksum

King Remhai Stele Axum Aksum Close

Obelisks Stelae Axum Aksum

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.

Rome Stele Axum Aksum

Rome Stele Axum Aksum Detail

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.

Tomb in Axum Aksum

Second Tomb in Axum Aksum

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.

Smaller stelae field Axum Aksum

Smaller stelae field Axum Aksum Ethiopia

View of north stelae field Axum Aksum Ethiopia

Axum Aksum Museum closed

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.

{ 47 comments… add one }
  • Jempi July 3, 2014, 6:18 pm

    This is such a great site…love the history behind all this. I wasn’t familiar with Axum. It is indeed very photogenic. I like these kind of posts a lot Dave.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:48 pm

      Thanks, Jempi! I really like exploring the history of sites like Axum.

  • Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans July 3, 2014, 6:40 pm

    I wonder why efforts haven’t been made to restore King Remhai’s Stele – lack of resources, perhaps? Such interesting history – thanks for sharing.

    • Dave July 4, 2014, 10:40 am

      Hi Dana – It might just be the size. They are some massive pieces of stone and historians think that King Remhai’s Stele fell as it was being erected or shortly thereafter. So maybe gravity just doesn’t agree. Thanks for stopping by!

  • Bianca @itsallbee July 3, 2014, 7:23 pm

    Such amazing history. Real shame that they haven’t had the proper restoration to this richly historic land. I am even more keen to visit Ethiopia soon.

    Bathing Beauties on Butler’s Wharf

    • Dave July 4, 2014, 10:41 am

      They’re certainly working on it! It will be nice once the trellises are gone. Thanks for stopping by, Bianca.

  • Kelsey July 4, 2014, 7:11 am

    One again, great pics and wonderful information. I love the patterned detail (as opposed to the not-so-fancy slick designs we so often see in Turkey or Italy).

    • Dave July 4, 2014, 10:43 am

      Thank you, Kelsey! The patterns are very interesting to see in person. The Rome Stele was my favorite of the group.

  • Biniam July 4, 2014, 11:31 am

    Civilization can turn to ashes and stones. Prosperity can change to poverty. May the restoration be in over all the activities, God be with us.

    From Aksum

  • Lauren July 4, 2014, 2:29 pm

    What amazing history! I admit that I don’t know too much about this site, but now I do thanks to you! Great pics!

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:48 pm

      Thanks, Lauren – glad you enjoyed it!

  • SJ @ Chasing the Donkey July 6, 2014, 9:01 pm

    I knew nothing of Axum, so thanks a huge bunch for sharing this great place with us. I like your idea and reasoning to not get a guide too. Thanks a bunch for joining us for #SundayTraveler once again this week.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:50 pm

      The utility of a guide varies from site to site in Ethiopia – they are quite knowledgeable in Gondar.

  • Michael Huxley July 7, 2014, 8:37 am

    As a major history geek I loved it here! (Especially since when I went I had the place pretty much to myself!) Great write up, and I completely agree that for anyone going there, you don’t need any of the guides that will take you round, just read up a little on the history yourself and go on your own terms (much easier and cheaper).

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:52 pm

      Glad to see you enjoyed Axum, Mike. Like you, I had the place more or less to myself and that always makes for a special time.

  • The Wandering Wanderluster July 7, 2014, 9:42 am

    I have known about Axum for quite awhile now. I used to sell tours to Ethiopia and had hoped to bag a spot on one but I wasn’t that lucky! Your posts really inspire me to go and visit. From past experience working in travel its an African country that gets left out a lot and lack the hype many other countries get but its a fascinating country!

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:53 pm

      Hope you can make it soon, Samantha – so much history and beautiful country to explore.

  • noel July 7, 2014, 4:18 pm

    How wonderful these restorations are happening, loved the tour and history of the place. Thanks for sharing this amazing site today

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:57 pm

      Hopefully everything will keep pace and continue improving. Thanks for stopping by, Noel!

  • Tracie Howe July 7, 2014, 4:56 pm

    Sounds and looks like an intriguing place to visit! There is something about obelisks. They always seem so mysterious to me.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:58 pm

      There is a bit of an otherwordly feel about it – certainly takes you back a bit.

  • Calli July 7, 2014, 7:15 pm

    Wow, very cool Dave! For some reason when I think Africa I don’t think of historical sites – blame my desire to go on safari one day. A very intriguing read :)

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 12:58 pm

      You can do it all in East Africa! Some of the best game drives in the world and Ethiopia’s unique cultural heritage.

  • Arianwen July 7, 2014, 10:22 pm

    As with a lot of the commenters, I hadn’t heard of Axum either! Thanks for sharing :)

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:05 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, Arianwen!

  • Christina July 8, 2014, 9:02 am

    This sand and light blue colored lizard on the cracked King Remhai’s Stele is beautiful. Interesting place.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:09 pm

      It really blends into the stone nicely. I didn’t notice it until the moment before I snapped the photo.

  • Brianna July 8, 2014, 5:24 pm

    What an interesting site, I especially like the geometric carvings in some of the stellae. Do you know how old these are?

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:09 pm

      Some of them are over 1000 years old – pretty incredible!

  • Rachel@safari254 July 9, 2014, 6:29 am

    Ethiopia has such a rich history, it one place I plan to visit extensively.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:10 pm

      Hope you can make it soon Rachael, it’s a very special place.

  • Bob R July 9, 2014, 11:17 am

    Happy to read that the one taken by Romans has been returned by Italy. I realize that repatriation of cultural heritage isn’t a simple issue, but I do hope that recent trends –and the debates associated with them– continue.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:13 pm

      Yes, the cultural history trends have been improving and I’m interested to see how much the return of such objects increases in the coming years.

  • Adelina // PackMeTo July 9, 2014, 4:14 pm

    How fascinating! You don’t hear too much about the ancient civilizations that pop up in this part of the world. Too bad the graves have been plundered. It would have been interesting to see what was inside of them. The Rome Stele is indeed very photogenic.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:14 pm

      We’re just left to imagine the riches stored in those tombs. I’m sure they were very impressive when originally discovered.

  • frankaboutcroatia July 10, 2014, 4:30 am

    Great post like always, Dave! Another interesting site in Ethiopia, I wouldn’t know about if it wasn’t for your blog. Axum seems like a great site to visit. Thanks for sharing!

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:15 pm

      Thanks! I still have a long list of places to cover here. Lots of bus rides and historical sites on deck :)

  • Marie-Carmen July 11, 2014, 2:28 pm

    I’ve got to admit I really don’t know enough about Ethiopia and a site like this makes me want to visit.
    I love old stones and those clearly are! And the carving are beautiful and seem so precise!

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:18 pm

      The carvings were certainly made by some very skilled people. Advanced for their time would be an understatement.

  • antonette - we12travel July 11, 2014, 5:40 pm

    Somehow I never thought about things like these when Ethiopia came to mind… great story!

  • Marie-France (a.k.a. BigTravelNut) July 12, 2014, 3:37 am

    Interesting. I had never heard of this site. Ethiopia is on my list of places to visit. I read once that it is the only African country that was never colonized. True?

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:19 pm

      That is correct, Marie-France. Italy occupied Ethiopia from 1936-41, but the country was never colonized. Thanks for your visit.

  • Raphael Alexander Zoren July 12, 2014, 10:42 pm

    Amazing photos! I love your African articles, I always learn something new!

  • Margherita @The Crowded Planet July 13, 2014, 11:56 am

    hey Dave! Your posts are giving me a serious case of Ethiopian wanderlust… I remember reading the story of the Rome stelae and the debate concerning whether it should be given back or not. I’m glad it was, and I’d love to see it in its original location.

    • Dave July 14, 2014, 1:20 pm

      The Rome Stele looks to be in its rightful place among the other obelisks – they form such an impressive group together.

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