ENDOWMENTS WITHIN 10 KM RADIUS FROM AKSUM IN VISITING SEQUENCE
Gobo Dura – gobo means mount – is the name of a hill located about 5km west of Aksum and is famous for its lioness carving and for its ancient quarries. The hill played a crucial role in the history of the city, since most of the spectacular Aksumite stele and stone monuments originate from this quarry. If one arrives via the Adwa-Shire Road, turn right at the water station to reach the site. This is an important quarry for the great stele of Aksum, where we found evidence of unfinished stele and some marks on how the people quarried and transported the huge ones to the present location. At Gobo Dura, it is possible to also enjoy watching birds, monkeys, vegetation, farming and generally the life of the rural society.
The Lioness of Gobo Dura
Half way up the hill, one of the massive stone blocks scattered on the southern slopes deserves special attention, for it bears a lioness’ outline realistically carved on its northwestern face even though no one exactly knows why the lioness was depicted there. But tradition says that it was carved in the 10th century AD by Anbesa Wedim, an Aksumite King, after the destruction of Aksum by Queen Yodit to protect the town from such destruction again.
Wushate Golo (The Interior of Pelvis)
The site, sometimes called Gaul Gobo Dura, is the next very important quarry site after Gobo Dura. It is found north of the latter and showcases man-made terracing for sliding stele down and how the people used to chisel out stelae from the big block of granite stone.
The Teri-lingual Text Inscription of King Ezana
This monument is located about 300 meters north of Mai Shum reservoir on Enno Littmann Street, i.e. the road leading from the town to the Tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel. The stone is inside a small house beside the road, to the left, and can be reached in a 5-minute walk from Mai Shum. Three local farmers, whose names are now written inside the house, found the stone at the beginning of the 1980s. Like the famous Ezana inscription visible in the Ezana Park, it is written in epigraphic South Arabian (western face, visible from the entrance), Greek (eastern face, behind the South Arabian Script), and unvocalised Geez (southern side). It dates back to the 4th century AD. The text is also very similar to that carved on the stone in the Ezana Park, and it celebrates the victory of King Ezana and his army against the Aksumite God of the War, Mahrem – the Greek Ares – whose cult was abandoned in favor of Christianity by king Ezana himself around 340 AD.
Tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel
The complex – about 2km north of Aksum – is one of the best existing examples of 6th century monumental Aksumite architecture. Kaleb, saint and king, also known as Ella Atsbeha, was the son of Tazena and the father of Gebre Meskel. Kaleb lived in the 6th century AD and became one of the most famous kings of Aksum due to his successful aggressive policy in foreign lands. In the first half of the 6th century he was able to consolidate the power of Aksum in the southeast, the coastal plains, and the highlands of Yemen. We know all this from Kaleb himself, through an inscription written in Ge’ez in South Arabian characters. Kaleb prays to the Lord ‘who has given me a strong kingdom through which I overcome my enemies and I press underfoot the head of my enemies’ and continues mentioning the territories and peoples under Aksumite power, including the Beja and Nuba, living on the Red Sea coast and in central areas of the present–day Sudan respectively. Kaleb refers to the Christian Lord as ‘strong’ and ‘valorous’ in battle’, definitions that would have well suited the Aksumite God of War, Maharem, whose cult was abandoned by King Ezana about two centuries earlier. Kaleb’s son, King Gebre Meskel – whose name means Servant of the Cross – reigned around the mid-6th century. He is credited by the Ethiopian tradition with having built the famous monastery of Debre Damo, founded by Abune Aregawi.
These two basically similar tombs are constructed side by side beneath a shared superstructure, which comprises a central raised courtyard reached from the west by a flight of six steps 12m wide. The tombs are approached by stepped edit, fully roofed and constructed of huge, carefully dressed granite blocks of irregular shape, each individually worked to fit its desired place. The northern Tomb of Kaleb comprises a longitudinal chamber from which three rooms open eastward. The southern Tomb of Gebre Meskel is more complex, comprising a longitudinal chamber and three rooms to the east. The central room comprises three sarcophagi. Two other rooms also extend westward on either side of the entrance stair. Look out for the carvings of crosses on the stone slabs!
Enda Abba Liqanos
The church is located at the top of Mount Likanos (2,339 meters above sea level), halfway between the Tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel and Enda Abba Pentaleon Monastery. It can be reached from the aforementioned tombs by heading eastward along the track that passes in front of the gate of the compound where the tombs are located. A signboard close to the gate indicates the way.
Enda Abba Likanos was one of the Nine Saints. While most of the Nine Saints had to spread out to other parts of Tigrai and northern Ethiopia, Abune Likanos, along with Abune Pentaleon, was favored by King Kaleb to stay near Aksum as they were the King’s confidants. He established his monastery north of Aksum, not very far from the tomb of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel. The site is believed to also be an Aksumite quarry. Little is known about Abba Likanos’ life except that he spent twenty-five years in the monastery. The current church on top of the monastery hill was built in the 20th century.
Enda Abba Pentalewon
This ancient site is located at the top of a steep 40m rock pinnacle approximately 5km east of the old city center. To get there from downtown, take the Aksum-Adwa road and at the end of the city, look for a signboard to the left which indicates the track. Alternatively, follow the track that brought you to Abba Likanos, past the Tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel.
Enda Abba Pentaleon is of special historical interest because it is one of the few Pre-Aksumite sites found in Aksum. On the peak, the ruins a Sabaean temple can be found, which was dedicated or re-dedicated to Mahrem, the God of War (Ares in Greece) as a thanksgiving offering for a victory over the Himyarites. This dedication is part of a fragmentary Greek inscription found in the old church and it is most likely the earliest Greek inscription found in Aksum to date. It says: ‘ (…) in this space (..) and he order (?) to the repaired (…) it and the other side of the sea (…) unconquerable (god) of the Aksum (…) the first and only (?) in the distant (and) big (…) infantry (…) I have dedicated (…) to unconquered Ares of the Aksumites.’
Part of this ancient structure was subsequently incorporated into the church of Abba Pentaleon, named for one of the Nine Saints who came to Ethiopian in the 5th century to restore the pure faith. According to Ethiopian tradition he built a small cell by himself on the top of the hill and stood on his feet 45 years uninterruptedly. Before starting his military campaigns, king Kaleb used to seek comfort and blessing from the saint, who supposedly and miraculously participated in the battle against the Himyarites and caused the death of 5,050 warriors. The old church consisted of an east-west oriented building with a rectangular plan of about 13.5m by 6.9m, located at the center of a circular platform almost entirely surrounded by a stone wall.
Pentaleon was the adviser to king Kaleb, who joined the monastery after he abdicated in favor of his son Gebre Meskel roughly Ad 550. Another plausible local tradition claims that saint Yared, contemporary of Gebre Meskel who invented the notation of Ethiopian ecclesiastical music and compiled the Mezgaba Dugwa (Treasury of Hymns), spent much of his life at Pentaleon. Women may enter the monastery compound and look at the various holy crosses and books. The inside of the church is accessible to men only. Look out for a particularly fine 15th century illuminated manuscript of the Gospels.
The interesting Sabaean site of Hawelti is located about 10km from Aksum, at the top of the small hill to the left of the unpaved road linking the Adwa–Shire Road with Mahbere Degwe. The junction with the Adwa–Shire Road is just past the eastern end of the city of Aksum.
As the name says – hawelti translates as stele – the site is characterized by the presence of monoliths, quadrangular in cross – sectional and made of white, calcareous rock. The stele surrounded two similar buildings, rectangular in plan, of which regrettably nothing is left today but their hollows in the ground. This was an ancient Pre-Aksumite sanctuary of the god Almaqah. According to the French archaeologists who excavated the site in 1959, the external walls of the twin buildings had a low bench on which a larger number of votive pottery statues were found. They represented mostly animals, particularly oxen, but also sitting women and models of houses. Small pottery oxen are still found by the people living in the area and can be seen at the National Museum in Addis Ababa, which has on display two fascinating figurines of stylised sitting women. What made this site famous, however, was the finding of three extraordinary artefacts near the place where the building stood. They date back to the 6th-4th century BC. The first is the amazing white rock throne, 1.4m high, standing on bull’s hoof feet and with its external sides beautifully carved in bas-reliefs representing human beings. Carved on one side is the male name Rafash. A band with an ibex pattern decorates the front of the throne. The throne is on display at National Museum in Addis Ababa.
About 1.5km southeast of Hawelti, on the same side of the Aksum–Mahber Degwe Road is the village of Melazo. It can be reached on foot after first crossing the Mai Agazen stream, which is dry or quite low during most of the year. In the Sabaean period, Melazo must have been a site famous for its important sanctuaries dedicated to Almaqah. In the 1950s, archaeologists found one shrine to the south of the village and another near the north-eastern edge of the hill. They excavated a votive altar and two incense burners, possibly dating back to 6th – 4th centuries BC, all on display at the National Museum in Addis Ababa.