Stele 3: The ever erect Stele
This was the largest standing Aksumite stele for centuries, until Stele 2 broke the record upon being reinstalled on 31 July 2008. This stunning monolith has a total height of 23.5 meters – of which 20.57m are above ground and approximately 3m below – and a base cross–section of 2.65m by 1.18m. The Western travelers who had the chance to admire it in the past have spread its fame over the world, making it the most spectacular symbol of the city. The Portuguese Father Francisco Alvarez described it in 1520 as ‘very straight and well worked, made with arcades below, as far as a head made like a half moon’. In fact nowadays the stele leans to the north and to the east, a problem that was already evident in the 19th century.
The English traveler and artist Henry Salt was particularly impressed when he saw it, to such an extent that when he visited the site for the second time in 1810, he so thoroughly admired this ‘highly wrought and very magnificent work of art’ that he concluded it in comparison with many Egyptian, Greek and Roman structures to be ‘the most admirable and perfect monument of its kind’. This impressive monolith was originally lined up with Stelae 1 and 2, and faces southwards as the former was planned to do and the latter does once more. Of similarly beautiful design, it has 10 stories represented on three of its sides, of which only the southern one has longitudinal rectangular recess and false door with a lock finely carved on it. The northern side of the head shows a circular pattern – possibly representing a shield – which James Bruce described in 1770 as ‘exceedingly well carved in the Greek taste’. The southern part of the head has an inset surface where – as Francisco Alvarez highlights in 1520 – ‘there appear in it five nails which do not show more on account of the rust; and they are like fives of dice in compasses’. It is likely that the semi-circle would have had metallic decorations, possibly representing the sun’s rays. There is also a sacrificial altar at the base that has four round holes that seem to have been used to catch blood during ritual scarifies. According to the holy book of Ethiopian literature, the Kebre Negest, it was erected at the end of 400BC, but scholar Dr. Phillipson argues that it is to be dated not before the end of third century AD.
The Tomb of the Brick Arches
This was used as a tomb for the Aksumite elite with some eighteen stone steps leading to the entrance built by a shoe shaped arch made of brick. This tomb has great archaeological significance, as it contained large quantities of archaeological material, ranging from human remains, complete and broken pots, fragmented glass vessels, metalwork, and finely carved ivory and bronze scarp up to even a circular plaque with Ethiopic inscriptions, most of them now displayed in the museum.
The Tomb of False Door
Located at the west end of the stelae Park, this subterranean funerary complex is named after the false door carved over the access stairway in a style very similar to that of stele 1 and 2. The lintel of the door lies among the stones of the courtyards. The structure possibly dates back to the late 4th or early 5th century AD and bears many resemblances with Nefas Mawcha. It is built of regularly cut stone blocks, sometimes held together by metal clamps. The tomb of the False Door, however, is the only place at Aksum where such a clamp can be seen in its original place, i.e. at ground level just behind the massive slab to the left of the stairway, heading downwards. The burial monument consists of two chambers and a separate corridor, both recently provided with electric light. The chamber accessed by the stairway located under the false door is the larger of the two and measures about 5m by 2.5m. To the northern side of that room opens the burial chambers – approximately 4m by 2.3m – where the single stone sarcophagus can be seen. Each chamber is amazingly sandwiched between two huge stone slabs, the bottom of which is single. The corridor that surrounds the chambers to the west, north and east was originally connected through a flight of steps to the left of the main stairway, which was closed off in the remote past. It is now accessible by means of a ladder through an opening in the eastern wall of the central chamber. The tomb was robbed in the past of all the precious goods it presumably contained.
A museum, newly constructed with the help of the World-Bank-financed Ethiopian Cultural Heritages Project, now displays artifacts collected through archeological excavations in and around Aksum. It also portrays pre-historic and historic scenes related to the Aksumite Empire in paintings done by local painters. The museum is found on the compound of the stelae field.