Double Stela, Beta Gyorgis Quarry, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

Double Stela, Beta Gyorgis Quarry, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

The so-called “double stele,” which sources have identified as an incomplete two-topped stela. I somewhat wonder if it is not just the incomplete-quarrying that has led to this identification, but it is interesting to see two stelae quarried immediately adjacent to each other, in any case.

The Beta Gyorgis “House of (St.) George” Quarry is on the hill above Axum, but was significantly less-important than the Gobedra quarry 5km outside of town. The stela(e) show how the quarrying worked–grooves were cut out of the rock before being freed. Stelae were apparently unworked when they were translated into Axum, and carved in place–a sensible way to avoid wasting effort on something that breaks in transit.

I don’t claim any art to this photo–it was taken in middle off a very sunny day, and it shows!

Stela 4, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

Stela 4, North Stelae Field, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009 Stela 4 Head, Maryam Tsion Church Compound, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

Stela 4 has the best-preserved altar of any of the stelae, its altar depressions being well-preserved, as opposed to those of stela 3, which were used by local women as mortars. The head-piece, separated from the rest of the stela during its fall, now rests in the compound of the old St. Mary of Zion Church.

It has been suggested that the round representation on the head is a traditional ethiopian bread, but I am somewhat skeptical as to the importance and symbolism of bread in such a case, given what we know of Sabean religious customs, and wonder if it couldn’t be the sun or a traditional shield instead.

Dungur and the Gudit Stelae Field, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

Dungur and the Gudit Stelae Field, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

Dungur, locally known as “The Queen of Sheba’s Palace,” in front of the “Gudit” Stelae Field.

Dungur is the smallest of four major ‘palace’ structures discovered in Axum. Unfortunately, the largest, the 80 x 120 m Ta’akha Maryam structure, was obliterated when the Italian occupying forces decided that they didn’t want to re-route a road around it, and built it right through the centre of the remains. The Enda Mikael and Enda Semon structures are extensively built-over by locals. 

The Gudit Stelae Field is apparently lower-status graves than the other two stelae field. It maintains a lower-status even in the modern Axum–as you can see, the site is still being farmed. Only limited archaeological work has been done, with trenches dug in 1973-4 (Chittick) and 1995-6 (Phillipson).

More about both of these sites can be found in:

Phillipson, David W. (comp. and ed.). The Monuments of Aksum: an illusstrated account based on the work in A. D. 1906 of the Deutsch Aksum-Expedition by Enno Littmann, Daniel Orenker and Theodor von Lüpke (Berlin, 1913) translated by Rosalind Bedlow and including previously unpublished photographs from the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. Addis Ababa: A. A. U. Press and The British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1997.

for a glossier version of the same, see:

Phillipson, David W. Ancient Ethiopia: Aksum: its Antecedents and its Successors. London: British Museum, 1998.

Stela 3, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

Base, Stela 3, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

The base of Stela 3, showing the false door and the altar area, with holes for offerings (or perhaps supports for some kind of furniture?) and a series of holes thought to be for an African game. 

Stela 3, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

The top of Stela 3, showing the brace currently installed as part of a project to lay new concrete at the base of the stela (despite the stela not having shifted at all in the last 100 years, and being thought to have been erected at a slight angle). Stela 3 is the only ornate stela that has actually stood since its erection in Antiquity. 

Base Detail, Stela 3, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, May 2009

A detail of the offering holes (?) and the game boards (?) at the base of Stela 3.

Naptime, North Stelae Field, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

Naptime, North Stelae Field, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

A dog (one of the family that apparently lives in the Stelae Field) naps on top of the Nefas Machew ruin, with part of the Great Stela in the background.

Nefas Machew was a substantial tomb, with a huge single-slab roof, which collapsed when the Great Stela fell upon it, snapping the substantial supporting stones, which you can see scattered around where the dog is napping.

Stela 1, the “Great Stela,” Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

Stela 1, the 'Great Stela,' Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

The remaining pieces of the fallen megalith.

Detail, Stela 1, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

A detail of the carvings.

Crack, , Stela 1, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

a view showing a large crack in the stela; the door is the modern entrance to the Mausoleum.

Base, Stela 1, Axum, Tigray, Ethiopia, April 2009

The unworked stone of the base. Given the size of the stela, the centre of gravity would have been much to high to be stable. 


Stela 1, the ‘Grand Stela,’ is the largest and most ornate stela ever made. Its creation marked the apogee of stela-craft; its failed erection and consequent destruction signaled the decline and abandonment of the same. Conceived, like stelae 2 and 3, as an Axumite palace, complete with false doors and representations of wooden beams, it marked two tomb structures, ‘The Mausoleum,’ a complex with ten side-chambers, and the ‘East Tomb,’ currently un-excavated and thought to be unfinished.

Though the collapse shattered the top of the stela, obscuring measurement, it is estimated to have been 32.6m long and massed 517 tonnes. Of the original length, only 8.5%/2.9m was meant to be underground; the monument would have had a high centre of gravity and was almost certainly unstable. Due to its calculated instability and lack of base-plates (the final stage of construction), among other factors, it is thought to have fallen upon erection, falling upon the unfinished Nefas Machaw tomb, shattering the stela and collapsing the tomb after breaking its massive stone supports. No ambitious stelae seem to have been attempted after the failure of Stela 1 in the mid-4th century, which also sees King Ezana’s conversion of the Axumite Empire to Christianity in 330; whether or not there is a causal relationship is a matter of speculation, but the spectacular failure of the most colossal monument of the old order, no doubt in front of all the residents of the ancient capital, must have been a thoroughly jarring experience. Some have even suggested that the monument was deliberately sabotaged in order to hasten conversion, but there is no evidence for this, and, as stated above, the monument was already likely to be highly unstable. 

See Phillipson, David. Excavations in Aksum, Ethiopia: 1993-7. vol 1. London: The British Institute in East Africa 2000. pp. 157-224, 252-254.