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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Monumental Stelae of Aksum (3rd–4th Century)

In an expansive field on Aksum’s northern edge stand the ancient city’s most renowned surviving monuments, a group of memorial obelisks, or stelae, erected between the third and fourth centuries A.D. Although other Aksumite stelae fields such as the Gudit field are known, none possess the great variety of form and scale present here, ranging from relatively rough-hewn stone blocks of three feet in length to a now fallen tour de force intended to tower 97 feet high. The stelae were carved mainly from solid blocks of nepheline syenite, a weather-resistant rock similar in appearance to granite, and are believed to have come from the quarries of Wuchate Golo several miles to the west of Aksum. After being cut from the rock walls there, they would have been dragged by organized manpower to the site of their installation, where finer carving awaited a few of the stelae. The impetus for this organizational effort appears to have been commemorative: there are many burials in this area and elaborate tombs are situated near the foremost group of the largest stelae. The wide variation in size and carving sophistication is most likely due to the varying degrees of social status and wealth of the deceased. Although the identities of the persons who sponsored them are not known, the tallest stelae probably commemorated royalty while smaller works were most likely commissioned by local elite.

Of the seven tallest stelae, originally forming a group, five lay in ruins across the field. These stelae are significant not only for their great stature but also their extraordinary design, as they have been carved to represent buildings of up to 13 stories in height. Although actual Aksumite buildings probably never exceeded a maximum of three stories, many details on the obelisks are regarded as accurate representations of the architecture of the time. Representative stone doors carved at the feet of the stelae simulate wood ones, some even incised with locks. Further up the monoliths, false four-holed windows have been hewn into the rock. Timber, once widely used for structural support in Aksumite buildings, is recalled by the false square beam-ends that project as if serving a functional purpose through the stelae “walls.” Some of these architectural illusions also appear on the nearby rock tombs, notably those that have come to be known as the “Mausoleum” and the “Tomb of the False Door.” The stelae terminate in rounded peaks marked with fixing holes that once held nails, possibly intended to fasten symbolic icons. Some of the stelae also possess stone base plates depicting a two-handled Greek wine cup known as a kylix (1989.281.62). Although it is well known that Greek cultural influences through trade were important at Aksum, where money was minted and inscriptions written in Greek, the significance of these plates has yet to be determined.

Raised during the late fourth century, this group of seven stelae was erected around the same time that Aksum’s court adopted Christianity, a time of tremendous change in Aksumite culture. One scholar has suggested that the apparent failure to erect the largest stelae, which evidently cracked and fell as it was being installed, may have accelerated adoption of the new religion. Whether or not this is the case, these stelae were the last of such a scale to have been dedicated to Aksum.