Standing ramrod-straight while others are bending due to structural wear, weather, and many years, the giant obelisks of Ethiopia’s Axum (or Aksum), sitting 1,000 kilometres north of Addis Ababa, are landmarks of the country’s historical sites.
The obelisks of Axum are associated with King Ezana who introduced Christianity to Ethiopia in the fourth century.
Because of their size, artwork, years of existence, and technology, the four-sided granite monuments made of a single stone standing more than 20 metres high and weighing more than 100 tonnes are now a Unesco heritage site that attracts a stream of visitors from across the world.
The obelisks, the rock-chiselled churches of Lalibela, and the walled town of Harar “have always remained tourist magnets”, said Ethiopian Airlines in April when the country’s tourism figures showed the growth was the best across the world last year.
Ethiopia’s tourism circuits are divided into historical sites (the North), cultural travel (the South), and adventure.
Apart from Axum, other historical sites to the north of the country are Gondar (the city of 17th century castles), Bahir Dar, where the Blue Nile meets Lake Tana.
Ethiopia in 2018 reported the highest tourism growth across the world, registering a rise of 48.6 percent, earning $7.4 billion and supporting 2.2 million jobs in the country. This growth dwarfs the 3.9 percent world average and Africa’s 5.6 percent, said the World Travel & Tourism Council’s.
Among other rich histories, Axum holds a replica of the Ark of the Covenant while the Queen of Sheba also lived in the region. The ruins of the queen’s home are still visible after reconstruction.
At the Axum site were six or seven obelisks, according to varied accounts. Some may have collapsed due to structural weaknesses, tremors or military incursions in the 16th century. Indeed, at the Axum site, a number are propped up by steel bars and chains to keep them standing, but perhaps a warning that the site will one day remain a ruin with giant pieces on the ground.
One of the collapsed obelisks dwarfs people next to it and reveals intimidating cracks that emphasise the impact of the collapse. Beneath the pieces, squirrels have found hideouts, where they keep running to as tourists stream into the ground, some people screaming at the site of the animals.
How safe is this place with the animals? Is the place under 24-hour surveillance? A fusillade of questions by visitors to their guides.
The obelisk stones, some accounts claim, were moved from a forest four kilometres away to the present site using elephants.
Rashid Kaittany of ATS Travel in Kenya, says historical tours are a complex area that a few guides get right.
“Going to places of rich histories like Rome, you need professional guides who understand the subject,” says Kaittany.
“Some of the guides can be PhD holders, some dons, who give the best, but they are expensive,” he said, adding that Rome civilisation, for example, requires up to two weeks to cover well.
Although Ethiopia was not colonised, Italians invaded the country and carried away the 1700-year-old Obelisk of Axum in the 1930s to Rome on the orders of Benito Mussolini, reconstructed it there and erected it.
For more than seven decades, Ethiopia pushed for its return, the slow pace of things occasioned by many factors, including logistics like the runways of airports. It was returned in pieces, using jets at a total cost of $7 million (Sh700 million), a budget borne entirely by Italy, many reports show.
The monolith finally landed in Axum in 2008 and was re-erected at its original site to a tumultuous celebration in Axum and across Ethiopia.
A lot of myths define the existence of the monuments whose tips resemble that of pyramids.
Many civilisations borrowed the obelisks idea from Egypt where they were being used to commemorate major victories. One of the decorations on the obelisks is the shape of a cross, emphasising the northern Ethiopia’s love for crosses.
Says Abenezer Dereje, a tour guide: “There are Aksumite, Gondarian, and Lalibelan crosses.” Other artworks on the monuments are false doors and windows that run the entire 24 metres of the monument.
Indeed, the Axum heritage site teems with tourists and vendors, including children, selling the crosses and other artefacts, pushing the goods so hard to the chagrin of some tourists, who ask the merchandisers whether they go to school or only pursue the allure of money.
A girl selling crosses told this writer near the Blue Nile Falls: “I go to school in the morning, others go in the afternoon.”