The archaeological site was declared a world heritage site in 1980, and has been in the news recently for the return of the Aksum Obelisk, a 1700 years old stele, weighing 160 tons and standing 24.6 meters high that was stolen by Benito Mussolini during his Ethiopian campaign and carried away to Italy. It remained in Italy from 1937 to April 2005.
The return of this Royal Stele came about as a result of a bilateral agreement signed between the governments of Ethiopia and Italy on 18 November 2004 in accordance with UNESCO's 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
Ethiopia had been asking for the Obelisk to be returned since 1956 and had already signed two prior agreements with Italy in that year and again in 1997 about this matter.
Forming a National Committee in preparation for the grand home-coming of this national treasure, the Ethiopians modernized their airport and the bridges that led to the archaeological site. It was decided that the Obelisk be cut up in three parts to facilitate its transportation.
UNESCO sent a team of archaeologists, funded jointly by Ethiopia and Italy, to install the Obelisk in its original position. Erected between the 3rd and 4th Centuries and toppled sometime between the 10th and 16th Centuries, the Obelisk had left a gaping 6-10m hole in the Central Field.
The Aksum archaeological site is made up of three parts―the central field, the northern site, and the gudit stelae field. The whole area has some 176 stelae and the ruins of the Nefas Mawcha temple.
During their survey―using sophisticated underground imaging technology, geo-radar and electrotomographic prospection, the archaeologists, much to their surprise, stumbled upon some previously undetected discoveries―many vast funerary underground chambers and arcades. The information gathered is currently being processed at the La Sapienza University in Rome.
Previously discovered tombs were found pillaged to a large extent. The treasures were salvaged from them are displayed at the archaeological museums of Aksum and Addis Ababa. Owing to their general condition, none of these tombs―except the Tomb of the False Door are open to the public.
The newly found tombs are likely to be intact and if these can be opened to the public, it would mean a lot more of much-needed revenue for the Ethiopian Government. Their contents too will surely provide us with a better understanding of the Ancient Kingdoms of Ethiopia.
The Kingdom of Aksum, situated in the Tigrai Region close to the North-Eastern Border of Ethiopia and described by the contemporary Persian Philosopher Mani as 'The World's Third Kingdom', was once the most powerful reigning state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia.
The location of Aksum, together with the might of its Nubian rulers, had everything to do with its greatness. It is situated on plateau that is 7200 feet above sea-level and the area is rich in gold and salt deposits and very close to the Red Sea Coast. This enabled Aksum to participate actively in the vigorous trade that was carried out in Ancient times.
Through the port of Audulis on the Red Sea Coast, Aksum traded in Agricultural Produce, Gold, Salt, Ivory, Furs, Live Exotic Animals like Elephants, Lions, and Rhinoceroses, Precious Stones like Carnelian and Agate, Diorite and Granite, and Slaves with the Roman Empire, the Egyptian Kingdom, the kingdoms of India and the East.
In return they received cotton, linen, perfume, jewelry, glass, wine, and skilled labor for the various oproje in the form of trained architects, engineers, accountants, and priests. It was a very profitable enterprise and a win-win situation for everyone involved.
One of the greatest rulers of Aksum was Ezana. He came into power sometime in the 4th Century AD and, inspired by the Romans and the Egyptians, converted both himself and the entire population of Aksum to Christianity.
It was Ezana that expanded the Kingdom of Aksum to include parts of Asia and Africa, and, to commemorate the good fortune of Aksum and leave a lasting testament to his greatness, constructed much of the monumental architecture that we find in Aksum.
Aside from the Stele that Benito Stole, Ezana's Monuments included 100 Obelisks, one of which towered to 98 ft and weighed 517 tons. According to legend, Aksum also became the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant containing the remnants of the 10 commandments of Moses.
Taking direction from Ezana and the other competent rulers that followed him, Aksum became a highly cosmopolitan place with a well-educated, vibrant population and maintained strong trade links with the cultures of the time, trading for over 500 years with the Islamic Fatimid Dynasty that replaced the Pharoahs in Egypt and with the Byzantine Roman Empire.
Aksum fell from glory sometime in the 6th Century AD, with the demise of both the Fatimid and the Byzantine Empires and a general weakening of government that rendered it incapable of withstanding waves of Arab invaders.