Aksum was a wealthy African trading empire from the first through the eighth centuries. A hub between the Hellenic, Arabic, and African worlds, it encompassed the northeastern highland regions of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, and extended as far east as Southern Arabia during its height. Prospering from a luxury-goods trade based out of the port of Adulis, the empire developed urban centers characterized by monumental architecture. Today, the former imperial capital at Aksum contains some of the best-preserved examples of Aksumite-style architecture, including stelae from the third and fourth centuries, and obelisks, royal tombs, and palaces dating from the sixth and seventh centuries.
While little is known about Aksum’s early history, its power was renowned abroad. The emperor Ezana converted to Christianity around 330 A.D., making Aksum into one of the earliest Christian states. The transformation was marked by the replacement of Aksumite coins bearing the polytheistic crescent and disk with those bearing crosses. With the exception of Egypt and Meroë, Aksum was the only ancient African state with written records. Inscriptions were frequently multilingual, testifying to the cosmopolitan nature of Aksumite communications. One such example is the so-called Ezana Stone, whose Greek, Ge’ez, and Sabaean inscriptions recount the ruler’s military prowess and thank the pre-Christian god of war. Coins were equally multicultural: gold coins were minted with Greek mottos for international use, and brass coins were struck with Ge’ez inscriptions for local use. An indigenous Semitic language, Ge’ez later became the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
The Aksumite capital was a ceremonial and residential center encircled by suburbs and minor cemeteries. The palaces of Enda Mikael, Ta‘akha Maryam, Dungur, and Enda Sem‘on, all built before the seventh century, anchored the western residential area. Typical of northern Ethiopian built structures, they were composed of mud- or lime-plastered stone walls interspersed with dressed beams. Square or rectangular in form, the monumental structures stood on high-stepped granite podia with paved floors. Small buildings and courtyards surrounded a central pavilion, whose columned rooms were decorated with paintings. The mass of the walls were divided by string courses and modulated by alternating salients and redresses. Further punctuating the walls were granite doors and windows, or “Aksumite frieze” windows constructed with square projecting cross beams. Still other openings were framed with rounded cross beams, nicknamed “monkey heads.” Lower-class stone and mud dwellings topped with thatched roofs dotted the slopes around these palaces.
To the east of the town, a ceremonial approach led to the religious center and royal necropolis, which included towering granite stelae. Dated indirectly to the third and fourth centuries, the stelae were likely built by both pre-Christian and Christian kings. Nearly 120 are located in the Stelae Park adjacent to the Maj Hejja torrent, while an additional 600 rough-hewn stelae lie to the west at the Gudit Field, a non-elite necropolis of the second to fourth century. During the 1906 Deutsche-Aksum archaeological expedition, the stelae near Maj Hejja were numbered according to size; in the 1960s, they were divided into northern and southern sections. The southern group is distinguished by the size and complexity of its stelae and by the four major tombs contained within its bounds. Unique in the complex are the fourth-century Tomb of the Brick Arches, where a staircase descends into multiple stone-walled rooms adorned with horseshoe-shaped brick arches, and the fourth- or fifty-century Tomb of the False Door, where a lifesized carved door stood above stone slabs concealing the tomb entry. Underneath Stela 1 is the massive slab roof of the third-century Nefas Mawcha tomb, which was legendarily dropped by the Devil when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to Aksum. The contents of the tombs—glass, jewelry, ivory, coins, sculpture, and pottery—confirm the presence of imported goods mentioned in historical sources, like the first-century Periplus of the Erythraean Sea. A Late Imperial Roman blown glass bottle (X.21.190) in the shape of a bunch of grapes in the Museum’s collection is similar to one found in Aksum. Now broken, the translucent, mold-made goblet with raised bosses was likely imported in the pre-Christian era. Local artists reshaped broken imported objects or raw glass into inlays for mosaic panels, such as those found in the Tomb of the Brick Arches.
Stelae 1–3 were arranged as an ensemble, though only the third remained continuously standing. At 32 meters and over 550 tons, Stela 1 was the largest obelisk constructed in the ancient world. In the northern group, stelae of lesser quality and height are arranged in another royal burial place. These stelae are primarily unadorned, with the exceptions of Stela 7, whose front and rear bear a houselike motif, and Stelae 4–6. Measuring between 15 and 32 meters, Stelae 1–6 are carved representations of Aksumite buildings. Perhaps symbolic houses, each incorporates false doors, windows, and salients and redresses. Because of their representations of timber beams, these stelae were likely carved later than the plain examples. While palaces never exceeded two stories, the stelae exaggerate their height. The apex of each stela has a distinctive semi-circular top with a concave base, which formerly held bronze or gilded plaques secured by metal nails.
The stelae were quarried at Wuchate Golo, to the west of the city. Wood wedges swollen with water split the rock from the earth, while pick-type tools created fine details. Though the exact details of the transportation and construction of the stelae are unknown, it is likely that wood rollers and rope pulleys were used. Once on site, the stelae were placed into walled foundation pits, which were then filled with rubble and large rocks. Finally, they were enclosed at the base by a pair of massive, notched slabs, which held the monuments upright. Small basinlike indentations and stairs on the remaining base plates suggest their ritual use. While many of the smaller stelae tumbled over time, the colossal Stelae 1 and 2 were broken because of human action. Previously, it was believed that the height and weight of Stela 1 caused it to collapse during construction. However, recent analysis shows that the structure did not fail but was intentionally toppled as the empire declined in the late sixth century. By contrast, Stela 2 was accidentally destroyed: treasure seekers looting the subterranean tomb under the monument disrupted its foundational structure, sending the stela smashing to the ground. Two cathedrals dedicated to Mary now occupy the ceremonial area once linked to the stelae field.
Many churches were built in Christian Aksum, including the famed Cathedral of Our Lady Mary of Zion (Enda Maryam Seyon). Following imperial convention, it was a rectangular, oriented basilica with apses, five barrel-vaulted aisles, seven chapels, and many altars. Destroyed during the sixteenth century, it was replaced in the mid-seventeenth by a crenellated Gondarine-style structure. Like its predecessor, the church is set upon a stepped podium. In 1965, the historic cathedral was joined by the new Enda Maryam Seyon. The massive concrete domed structure was commissioned by Emperor Haile Selassie to permit mixed gender worship. Veneration of Saint Mary increased in Ethiopia in the fifteenth century, prompting a surge in the popularity of portable icons bearing her image. The depiction of Mary wearing a blue mantle while carrying the Christ Child in her left arm was standardized during the Gondarine period, as seen in an early eighteenth-century example in the Museum’s collection (1997.81.1).
Facing the historic church is a cluster of thirteen granite thrones aligned in two rows. Attributed to the twelve judges of Aksum, or to Christian missionaries and rulers, they were later used in coronation ceremonies. The square thrones have indented channels that formerly held pillared canopies, back rests, and inscribed panels. A fourteenth throne with intact corner pillars stands apart from the group, while additional thrones are scattered throughout the city.
Mounting political and economic problems caused the Aksumite empire’s decline between 1,000 and 1,300 years ago. Despite the empire’s eventual fall, Aksum remained the coronation site of Ethiopian kings through the mid-nineteenth century, and its architecture influenced later construction. Nowhere is this more evident than in Lalibela, where a complex of medieval rock-hewn churches incorporate Aksumite forms and ornaments. The basilica church of Biete Medhani Alem (“Church of the Redeemer”) is believed to follow the original form of the Enda Maryam Seyon in Aksum. Other churches in the Lalibela complex incorporate stela-shaped or “Aksumite frieze” window openings, while Biete Amanuel resembles Aksumite palaces. Like the stelae themselves, it is a monumental sculptural interpretation of a built form of architecture. While most Aksumite churches have since been destroyed or replaced, Aksumite built churches remain at sites in the Tigray Plateau, including the Debre Damo monastery (founded ca. 6th century) and Yemrehana Krestos (ca. 12th century).
In 1980, the city of Aksum’s ancient architectural heritage was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, encouraging study and restoration of the site. UNESCO facilitated the recent return of Stela 2, which was taken to Rome in 1937 during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. After numerous political and war-related delays, the obelisk was returned to Aksum in 2005, and reassembled on its original location in 2008. Today, Aksum is a regional university town with a population of about 56,000. While still renowned for its stelae, the town is perhaps best known today for its association with the Ark of the Covenant. Ethiopian tradition says that the Ark was brought to Ethiopia from Jerusalem by Menelik I, son of Makeda (the Queen of Sheba) and King Solomon. The ark is still kept in the Chapel of the Tablet in the compound of Aksum Cathedral, where a yellow-clad monk and his two youthful attendants guard it.