Aksum

The ruins of the ancient city of Aksum are found close to Ethiopia’s northern border. They mark the location of the heart of ancient Ethiopia, when the Kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. The massive ruins, dating from between the 1st and the 13th century A.D., include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and the ruins of ancient castles. Long after its political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned in Aksum.

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief Synthesis

Situated in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, Aksum symbolizes the wealth and importance of the civilization of the ancient Aksumite kingdom, which lasted from the 1st to the 8th centuries AD. The kingdom was at the crossroads of the three continents: Africa, Arabia and the Greco-Roman World, and was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. In command of the ivory trade with Sudan, its fleets controlled the Red Sea trade through the port of Adulis and the inland routes of north eastern Africa.

Aksum
Aksum

The ruins of the ancient Aksumite Civilization covered a wide area in the Tigray Plateau. The most impressive monuments are the monolithic obelisks, royal tombs and the palace ruins dating to the 6th and 7th centuries AD.

Several stelae survive in the town of Aksum dating between the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. The largest standing obelisk rises to a height of over 23 meters and is exquisitely carved to represent a nine-storey building of the Aksumites. It stands at the entrance of the main stelae area. The largest obelisk of some 33 meters long lies where it fell, perhaps during the process of erection. It is possibly the largest monolithic stele that ancient human beings ever attempted to erect.

A series of inscription on stone tablets have proved to be of immense importance to historians of the ancient world. Some of them include trilingual text in Greek, Sabaean and Ge’ez (Classical Ethiopian), inscribed by King Ezana in the 4th century AD.

The introduction of Christianity in the 4th century AD resulted in the building of churches, such as Saint Mary of Zion, rebuilt in the Gondarian period, in the 17th century AD, which is believed to hold the Ark of the Covenant.

Criterion (i): The exquisitely carved monolithic stelae dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries AD are unique masterpieces of human creative genius.

Criterion (iv): The urban ensemble of obelisks, royal tombs and churches constitute a major development in the cultural domain reflecting the wealth and power of the Aksumite Civilization of the first millennium AD.

Integrity

The boundaries of the property, which encompass the entire area of ancient Aksum town, need to be adequately delineated and approved by the Committee.

One obelisk, removed from the site and taken to Rome as a war trophy during the Italian occupation, was returned to Aksum in 2005 and re-erected in in 2008.

Furthermore, at the time of inscription, it was noted that small, modern houses were built over most of the site, obscuring the majority of the underground Aksumite structures. Some of them still remain covered by modern houses. In 2011, the construction of a new museum began in the main Stelae Field and, unless amended, the height of the museum will have a highly negative visual impact on the property. Flooding has also become a major problem in the 4th century AD Tomb of the Brick Arches and other monuments.

For the reasons mentioned above, the integrity of the property remains vulnerable.

Authenticity

The authenticity of the obelisks, tombs and other monuments remain intact, although they are vulnerable due to lack of conservation. However, the authenticity of the whole property in terms of its ability to convey the scope and extent of ancient Aksum and its value is still vulnerable to lack of documentation, delineation and lack of planning controls. The monuments need to be related to the overall city plan, in spatial terms.

Protection and Management Requirements

The city of Aksum was put under the jurisdiction and protection of the National Antiquities Authority in 1958. No special legal framework is provided to protect the Obelisks of Aksum, except the general law, Proclamation No. 209/2000, which also established the institution in charge, the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage (ARCCH).

The property is managed at three levels – the site; the region; and the Federal administration. ARCCH prepared a proclamation that mapped and identified the precise area to be protected with local site authorities. It is reviewing the components and may wish to suggest changes to the number and/or size of the property.

The boundary and the property’s management plan are not yet established. There is a need to submit an up-dated map of the property to clearly indicate the boundary, to produce and submit a management plan and to delineate and submit a buffer zone. There is also a need for adequate legal protection to be put in place.

Long Description

The ruins of the ancient city of Aksum are located close to Ethiopia’s northern border. They mark the location of the heart of ancient Ethiopia, when the Kingdom of Aksum was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia. The massive ruins, dating from between the 1st and 13th centuries, include monolithic obelisks, giant stelae, royal tombs and the ruins of ancient castles. Long after its political decline in the 10th century, Ethiopian emperors continued to be crowned in Aksum.

Beginning around the 2nd millennium BCE and continuing until the 4th century CE there was immigration into the Ethiopian region. The immigrants came mostly from a region of western Yemen associated with the Sabean culture. Conditions in their homelands were most probably so harsh that the only means of escape was by a direct route across the Red Sea into Eritrea. By the 4th century, Aksum was already at its peak in land sovereignty, which included most of southern Yemen.

The city of Aksum emerged several centuries before the birth of Christ, as the capital of a state that traded with ancient Greece, Egypt and Asia. With its fleets sailing as far afield as Ceylon, Aksum later became the most important power between the Roman Empire and Persia, and for a while controlled parts of South Arabia. Aksum, whose name first appears in the 1st century AD in the Periplus of the Eritrean Sea, is considered to be the heart of ancient Ethiopia. Indeed, the kingdom which held sway over this area at this time took its name from the city. The ruins of the site spread over a large area and are composed of tall, obelisk-like stelae of imposing height, an enormous table of stone, vestiges of columns and royal tombs inscribed with Aksumite legends and traditions. In the western sector of the city there are also the ruins of three castles from the 1st century AD.

The earliest records and legends suggest that it was from Aksum that Makeda, the fabled Queen of Sheba, journeyed to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. A son was born to the queen from her union with Solomon. This son, Menelik I, grew up in Ethiopia but travelled to Jerusalem as a young man, where he spent several years before returning to his own country with the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, according to Ethiopian belief, has remained in Aksum ever since (in an annex to the Church of St Mary of Zion).

In addition to the old St Mary of Zion church, there are many other remains in Aksum dating back to pre- and early Christian times. Among these, a series of inscriptions on stone tablets have proved to be of immense importance to historians of the ancient world. They include a trilingual text in Greek, Sabaean (the language of South Arabia) and Ge’ez (classical Ethiopian), ordered by King Ezana in the 4th century AD, along with the 3,000-year-old stelae and obelisks. The standing obelisk rises to a height of over 23 m and is exquisitely carved to represent a nine-storey building in the fashion of the ‘tower-houses’ of southern Arabia.

Aksum inherited a culture highly influenced by southern Arabia. The Aksumites’ language, Ge’ez, was a modified version of the southern Arabian rudiments, with admixtures of Greek and perhaps Cushitic tongues already present in the region. Their architectural art was inherited from southern Arabian art; some Aksumite artwork contained combinations of Middle Eastern deities.

From its capital on the Tigray Plateau, Aksum was in command of the ivory trade with Sudan. It also dominated the trade route leading south and the port of Adulis on the Gulf of Zola. Its success depended on resourceful techniques, the production of coins, steady migrations of Graeco-Roman merchants and ships landing at the port of Adulis. In exchange for Aksum’s goods, traders offered many kinds of cloth, jewellery and metals, especially steel for weapons.

At its peak, Aksum controlled territories as far as southern Egypt, east to the Gulf of Aden, south to the Omo River, and west to the Cushite Kingdom of Meroë. The South Arabian kingdom of the Himyarites was also under the control of Aksum. Unlike the nobility, the people used salt and iron bars as money and barter remained their main source of commerce.

Source: UNESCO/CLT/WHC

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