Reimagining the Meaning of the Aksumite Obelisk

Could the iconic design at the top of Aksum’s grand obelisks sym-bolize the rising and setting sun? Without any inscriptions or written records, the ideology of these stone monoliths remains a mystery; historians and archaeologists cannot even agree on the dates for these monuments that dominate the skyline in this historic city. The Aksumite Empire, epitomized by these mute symbols, is now blurred by time, but the precision, technology and artistry required to create the obelisks is undeniably apparent. So much has yet to be unearthed in Aksum.
I have been photographing obelisks in Aksum and Egypt along the Blue Nile migratory route — in daytime and at night using a telepho-to lens, an actual telescope, even a fisheye lens. I came to the ones in Egypt first: these needle-like structures have pyramidal tops that are believed to have been dressed with a reflecting alloy, making them beacons from afar. In the first century CE Roman author and natu-ralist Pliny the Elder wrote that obelisks glorify the divinity of the Sun. Did he know only the obelisks in Egypt described in his travel journals? Perhaps. But the ones in Aksum are physically similar: the differences being the decorations carved into the stone and their tops. It is the rounded design at the apex of the Aksumite obelisks that has intrigued me ever since I first laid eyes on them.I began to wonder if the ancients could have been captivated by the same thing I was seeing.

Because hieroglyphs on Egyptian obelisks advertised the triumphs of a king’s rule as well as glorified the constancy of the sun god, the time of their construction can be established. In Aksum the obelisks, less well understood, have been dated anywhere from around the 5th century BCE to early CE; without inscriptions from rulers, the dates are open to conjecture depending on which historian is referenced. Some of the Aksumite obelisks are intricately carved, not with hieroglyphs or Ge’ez characters, but with windows and doors, creating a towering façade of multiple stories — what British author and archaeologist Theodore Bent called “a many-storied castle.” In 1893 Bent wrote “In the case of the one standing [carved] monolith there are nine stories, topped with a semi-circular finish, on the front of which has been fastened a metal plaque, and behind there is still to be seen a representation of the solar disc.” Today bronze fragments of a most likely similar roundel, found in a pit under the Tomb of the Brick Arches, is on display at the Aksum Museum. Pieced together, the bronze fragments reveal a human face — perhaps a representation of the sun deity — surrounded by an indecipherable script.
In 2006, I walked through the field of stone monoliths with Aksum Ethiopian Antiquities’ late director Fisseha Zibelo; he informed me that hundreds of tombs have been identified underground, but very few have been excavated. At the base of each of the multi-storied ob-elisks are carved stone doors, one with a stone lock and bolt and an-other with a circular stone handle. These are false doors, perhaps a spirit entrance, similar to ones found in ancient tombs in Egypt. In Aksum, as well, there seems to be a connection between the doors and burial chambers; possibly the false door is an offering portal for a tomb below.
Intrigued by the size and shape of the Aksumite obelisks, I asked for permission to photograph them at night against the starry sky; Mr. Fisseha, who became a friend until his untimely death in 2009, gener-ously offered to bring me to the field of obelisks after hours. On an-other trip, he took me into the hills outside Aksum to where granite for the obelisks was quarried. After a relatively short, steep ascent, we came upon rocks with regular grooves and precise rectangular hol-lows — the markings of ancient quarry workers practicing the art of breaking stone with wooden dowels. Five quarries have been identi-fied on this hill and scattered about the hillsides are unfinished mon-uments: stone abandoned, only partially separated from the adjacent rock. Today treelike euphorbias, growing in the red earth, partially camouflage these unfinished sculptures.
After decades visiting and documenting the Aksumite obelisks, I started to imagine the sun circuiting above the rounded tops of the obelisks, rising on the east rim and setting on the western side. But the “representation of the solar disc” that Theordore Bent described, and the fragmented bronze roundel with a human face in the Aksum Museum, supplanted this idea in my consciousness; today I visualize a dazzling bronze disk glimmering from the top — a powerful image of reverence and respect. But I could not imagine the purpose of the deep c-shaped cutouts, on either side of the monument just below the rounded top; they didn’t seem to have a purpose other than de-sign. In time though, I began to envision this space as the horizon line.
On my last trip to Ethiopia, I made a point of observing sunrises and sunsets in the highlands. The setting sun, I noted, often meets a rib-bon of clouds and appears to break up right before it touches the horizon — and disappears. The clouds, biting into the solar disk, re-minded me of the cutouts on the obelisk. On my final morning in Aksum, I decided to climb the mountain behind the field of obelisks to photograph the rounded top of one of the obelisks, identified as Number 3, at sunrise.
Does the rounded top above the cutouts represent the moment after the sun clears the cloud cover at sunrise and the time right before it begins to break up at sunset? I began to wonder if the ancients could have been captivated by the same thing I was seeing. Could this be the reason for the monument’s unique design? It works for me, at least until archaeologists and linguists discover the key to the writing of ancient Aksum; and these mysterious but mute monu-ments once again reveal their origin and purpose and deliver messag-es from our ancestors.

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