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Of Obelisks and Empire Volume 62 Number 3, May/June 2009
By Mark Rose
Photographs by Chester Higgins, Jr.

Royal monuments and ancient accounts recall the lost glory of an African kingdom


The kingdom of Aksum, centered in what is now northern Ethiopia, was a world power in the first millennium A.D. At the empire's height, monolithic obelisks were raised to mark the burials of rulers and nobility. One, at more than 100 feet and about 550 tons, fell and shattered as it was being erected in the fourth century. (Photo: Chester Higgins)

In the first century A.D., an unknown merchant recorded details of the Red Sea trade, and mentioned Adulis, the harbor of "the city of the people called Aksumites" to which "all the ivory is brought from the country beyond the Nile." The ruler of Aksum, he wrote, was Zoskales, who was "miserly in his ways and always striving for more, but otherwise upright, and acquainted with Greek literature." Just two centuries later, the philosopher Mani (ca. A.D. 210-276) included Aksum as one of the four great empires, along with Rome, Persia, and Sileos (possibly China). And in 274, envoys from Aksum took part in the triumphal procession staged by the emperor Aurelian when he paraded the captured Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, fettered with gold chains, through Rome.


Taken by Mussolini in 1937, the Aksum Obelisk was returned, in three pieces, in 2005. Last year, it was re-erected in its original position in a joint UNESCO, Italian, and Ethiopian project. (Photo: Chester Higgins)

Today, Aksum is a dusty, regional market town of about 50,000 in northern Ethiopia. If people have heard of it, perhaps it is on account of another queen: the Biblical Sheba. According to the Kebra Nagast (Book of the Glory of the Kings), an early-14th-century compilation that chronicles Ethiopia's rulers, Solomon and Sheba had a son, Menelik, who brought the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Aksum. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains that the Ark is still kept within the precinct walls of the Church of Tsion (Mary of Zion) in Aksum.

But there is more to Aksum than legends of Sheba and the Ark. In 1980, it was added to UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites because of the vestiges of its past, scattered throughout and around the town: ancient cemeteries with royal tombs, villa-like residential complexes, inscriptions, and monolithic stelae and obelisks.


Known as "The Mausoleum," this multi-chambered tomb of the early fourth century A.D. was associated with the largest of Aksum's obelisks. The tomb was investigated in the 1990s, but looters had ransacked it in antiquity. (Photo: Chester Higgins)

Dominating the royal and elite cemetery of Mai Hejja (Stele Park), near the Church of Tsion, are three colossal obelisks. Numbered by archaeologists simply as Stelae 1-3, they were intended to form a single alignment, but only one remained standing into modern times. That one (Stele 3), about 75 feet tall and traditionally associated with King Ezana, was likely the first of the three to be erected. It was followed by Stele 2, which was slightly larger. Both of these, however, were dwarfed by Stele 1, a behemoth at about 108 feet and some 550 tons. Despite having successfully quarried this monolith and transported it about 2.5 miles to the site, erecting it proved too great a challenge for the Aksumite architects and engineers. At some point in the process, the stele toppled, crashing to the ground and breaking in pieces, which still lie there. Stele 2 fell as well, but perhaps only in the seventh century, when the city of Aksum had been abandoned.

Known simply as the Aksum Obelisk, Stele 2 was re-erected on its original location last year. Taken to Rome as a war trophy by Mussolini's forces in 1937, it was returned to Ethiopia in 2005, flown to Aksum in three sections weighing up to 57.5 tons, and then trucked to the site. After years of studies--determining how to proceed in terms of both engineering and archaeology--a steel tower and crane were set up for the reinstallation. In August, the steel tower was dismantled and scaffolding erected around the stele to permit restoration work on its surfaces. At the end of 2008, the scaffolding was removed, ending the stele's 50-year exile.

Mark Rose is AIA online editorial director. Chester Higgins, Jr., is a photojournalist living in Brooklyn, New York. His most recent book is Echo of the Spirit: A Photographer's Journey. For more of his work, see