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Thursday 5 Mar 2009
Aksum, Ethiopia

Aksum (continued)

Rome Stele with St Mary...
Rome Stele with...

My first stop on the tour of Aksum was the Northern Stelae field which is regarded as the main historical attraction for tourists in Aksum - the main attraction for Orthodox Ethiopians lies directly across the street from it: St Mary of Zion churches ... one of which purportedly contains the Ark of the Covenant!

The first thing that strikes you about the northern stelae field is it's size: it's tiny! About 50m2! For such a famous site, I was expecting something quite large and pronounced. Additionally there aren't actually that many stelae to be seen bar the 2 primary ones and a few 3 metre-high monoliths, plus one huge one that was on it's side (and which never actually stood up straight .. it smashed when they were trying to lift it back in 600AD and never moved it since!)

It actually was about the same size as the "Killing Fields" near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, which I also remember as being tiny, despite having been the stage for the killing of 1000s of Cambodians.

Underneath the Stelae...
Underneath the Stelae...

I negated getting a guide when I arrived on the scene as the area was so small, and it was easy enough to find my way around, including numerous underground catacombs that I happened to find. In fact, being the only tourist in the whole place, I felt rather more excited about wandering through the underground tombs (some of which still have unopened coffins!) by myself rather than with a guide.

Add to this the fact that I didn't have a torch, and so the only way I could light up the pitch-dark passageways was by using the strobe on my SLR camera's flash, only added to the atmosphere.

I swear I was sure a hand was about to reach up and grab me through the creaky ancient floorboards Surprised (apparently about 98% of the site is still as yet unexplored ... could be a lot of treasures still underfoot!)

The Rome Stele
The Rome Stele

The stelae, despite there being so few, are still remarkable pieces of work consisting of huge solid pieces of granite, a few of which have intricate carvings of windows and doors which make them look like mini sky-scrapers (well not quite so "mini" as the two largest stand 25m tall). Like the Egyptian obelisks, they typically stood to represent the power of the ruler at the time.

These, and the underground mausoleums were carved 1,800 years ago with basic tools.

The resturning stele...
The returning stele...

I was quite fortunate to be visiting Aksum at this stage as a few things had happened this and the previous year. For one, the best looking stele on the site, the "Rome" stele - which seemed as fresh and undamaged as if it were carved this year, has stood in Rome since Mussolini stole it back in the 1940s, and after many years was finally returned to Ethiopia last year (2001 on the Ethiopian calendar) and restored to its full grandeur! Lonely Planet mentions this stele as being broken into several pieces and lying on the side of the road at the time of writing. This event was evidently of great pride to the Ethiopian people as all over town there were remnants of the celebrations that must have taken place only a few months earlier at the unveiling of the restored stele in front of the entire African Union congregation. Even the photo of the poster on the right greets you as you are getting your bags in the airport!

(The second main stele, King Ezana's stele, wasn't in quite such good shape and was being supported by pylons plus had a fence around it so that you couldn't walk up to it (for fear of a crushed faranji no doubt))

Coffee ceremony
Coffee ceremony

Secondly, the decent museum beside the site had apparently opened only recently too. This museum gave you a great insight into various ceramics/coins/weapons found that belonged to the Aksumite kingdom, and even earlier. In particular I noted the small collection of silver and gold coins ... which would become of particular importance to me later on this day...

Finally some lovely...
Finally some lovely...

I also got to take in a traditional "Ethiopian Coffeee Ceremony" (tm) behind a pretty little presentation area of flowers strewn in front of the table with incense burning. The girl takes the fresh coffee beans and proceeds to ground them up with a pestle and mortar, meanwhile fanning some charcoal to boil the water. All the while incense fills the air. It's all really fun to watch, but I didn't realise it was going to take around 20 minutes to complete - and this on a day when I'm trying to cram everything in! It was worth it though, as eventually the water boiled and the girl plopped the coffee into a ceramic jar and added some other spices, then before pouring it into a cup, she stuffed the jar opening with horse hair (to act as a filter y'see). Some damn fine coffee I can tell ya ... EXCEEDINGLY strong (I was beginning to see strange colours in the sky after 2 cups!). The ceremony came at a price though: 10 birr per cup (about $1 - which is considered a lot for coffee in Ethiopia .. normally 3 birr will cover ya), but it's the experience that counts!

More beautiful...

I would have loved to...

At the rear of the museum, yet more handicrafts were on display where two women were creating baskets and table mats using traditional Ethiopian techniques (and some fantastically-coloured faranji styles... the traditional Ethiopian ones are more subtle).

They were pretty determined to sell something, and I would have loved to get some of the stuff if I only had room in my bag. Cheap too, despite the huge amount of work involved in creating them. I felt bad about taking photos of them and leaving so I gave them a few birr all the same.

(more in next post...)

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Day 3  ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

Day 3 ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro


With Toto's defining tune ringing in my head, I don khaki pants and venture full-throttle into Africa! Elephants, lions, huge mountains, men with spears intent on stabbing me (probably) and the "Cradle of Humanity" (tm)... 4 weeks ain't gonna be enough!

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Photo Album

  • Replica of...

    Aksum

    Ethiopia

    Replica of the silver coin I bought
  • The Rome Stele

    Aksum

    Ethiopia

    The Rome Stele
  • Rome Stele...

    Aksum

    Ethiopia

    Rome Stele with St Mary of Zion church in background
  • More stele

    Aksum

    Ethiopia

    More stele