Obelisk of Axum: History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Obelisk of Axum is one of the great works of art to come from early Africa. In this lesson, we're going to talk about this monument, as well as its historical significance.

What is the Obelisk of Axum?

In the heart of what is now Ethiopia, you may find jungles, rivers and quite possibly some monkeys. You could also encounter some major cities, bustling full of people. And of course, you might always stumble across a 79-foot-tall obelisk. That's a possibility because Ethiopia was once home to one of the world's greatest trade-based empires, called the Kingdom of Aksum. From roughly the 1st-8th centuries CE, Aksum controlled trade routes between the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Arabian Middle East. In their capital city, Axum, the Axumites grew incredibly wealthy and decided to show off some of that wealth by creating a series of monumental stone pillars technically called stelae. One of these has captured the world's attention for centuries and is generally simply referred to as the Obelisk of Axum.

The Obelisk of Axum
The Obelisk of Axum


Although not a technical obelisk, which is defined by a pyramidal top piece, the massive stele that demonstrated Axum's wealth and power is obviously impressive. The stele is around 79 feet tall, carved from a single, solid block of a weather-resistant stone similar to granite. This stone is believed to have come from a quarry several miles south of the city. The organization and resources needed to harvest the stone, transport it, carve it, and erect it demonstrate the high level of social organization of Axumite society, as well as the great power of their kings.

The Obelisk of Axum is intricately carved to represent a nine-story Axumite building. At the base are two false doors, carved to look like the wooden entryways into an Axumite home. The detail on these doors is incredible, even to the point of false locks being carved into them. The architectural illusion continues as we work up the monolith. Each 'story' of the building appears to have a frame, structural supports, and windows, all of which are only carved outlines. At the top is a rounded peak that once was enclosed in a metal frame. It was likely used to hold some sort of symbolic image or icon. Overall, this impressive structure gives the impression of a massive building, giving us a strong idea about what the architecture of Axum would have looked like.

The Obelisk of Axum was carved to represent a 9-story building
Obelisk of Axum


So, the Obelisk of Axum is cool, but why is it there? What leads someone to create this? Well, this isn't the only stele of Axum. There are others, all of which were created around the 4th century CE. The largest, which likely cracked and fell as it was being erected, was about 108 feet tall. At the time, Axum was really kicking off its ascension as one of the most powerful cities in the world, and the stelae were a great way to show off this power. Originally, it is believed that they were intended as markers for the elaborate tombs of the powerful Axumite kings, which are located nearby.

We don't know exactly who built the Obelisk of Axum itself, but it matches other stelae from this time period and may even have been influenced by the famous King Ezana, who converted the kingdom to Christianity in the mid-4th century. Either way, it shows some clear influences that indicate the width of Axum's influence. For one, the fact that this looks pretty similar to a true obelisk is not insignificant. Monumental stonework was not altogether common in this part of Africa, and the design was likely influenced by contact with either Egypt or Persia, or possibly both.

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