After a blissfully comfortable night in a real bed we set off to explore the Ancient capital of Ethiopia with Josh, an extremely knowledgeable local guide. (In fact, all our local guides in Ethiopia have been fantastic, their standard of education and detailed understanding of their subject matter almost embarrassing: a detailed account of pre-Christian trade in the Red Sea area will be broken off to identify the local bird life with a string of Latin names).

Fortunately Aksum is a small town and the main sites are clustered within an easily accessible radius for this was the capital of an Empire which stretched back to the 10th century BC. We began with a visit to the Northern Stelae Field, a mysterious looking collection of slender, monolithic structures, the tallest of which, Stelae number 2, stands twenty four meters. The larger ones are decorated in imitation of multi-storied buildings and resemble nothing else in the archaeological lexicon of the ancient world. However, stelae number 1 would have stood almost half as high again had it not toppled during or soon after elevation, probably due to under-excavated foundations and over-reaching ambition.

These standing stones conveniently marked out the locations of the imperial burial chambers for the convenience of grave robbers and little treasure has been left for the archaeologists, either here or at the great palace of Dungur, half a mile outside of the modern town. The Aksumite Empire, whose trading influence spread to the fullest extent of the known world by the 4th century AD began to decline with the introduction of Christianity, as the ideals of the monastic life and belief in a spiritual afterlife took over from the building of these great personal monuments. After all, some of the chambers required the cutting and placing of single roofing stones several meters across: how could that be achieved when your workmen had taken to fasting and laying down tools during the scores of saint’s days which filled the Orthodox calendar?

Compared to Egypt and Mesopotamia, the European archaeologists of the nineteenth century took little home from this region of Africa and so much of the excavation has been carried out without such an emphasis on academic plunder although the areas more recently uncovered are tantalisingly incomplete. It is estimated that less than 10% has been studied to date and as recently as 1988, King Ezana’s inscription, the “Ethiopian Rosetta stone”, a 2 meter stelae, inscribed in three languages: Ancient Greek, Ge’ez and Sabaean, was found by three farmers digging a drainage channel in their field.

The study continues sporadically with teams of International archaeologists carrying out projects while funding is available and then carefully re-covering their diggings for future generations. The story of Aksum is being pieced together from coins, from the contemporary written accounts of travellers from the Meditterranian, from the few remaining written accounts of the earliest monastic period and sometimes even from local legend. The “Ethiopian Tutankamun” is probably still waiting to be found.

Lest it seem as if the day was all work, we also managed a wonderful local midday meal (injera can grow on you in the right company) some souvenir shopping and a convivial coffee ceremony but those descriptions and that of the four churches of St Mary of Zion, believed by many to be the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, will just have to wait.

Categories: Africa

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