Stelae of Axum

In addition to being a possible location of the Ark of the Covenant, the city of Axum in Ethiopia is famed for its giant granite stelae (sometimes called obelisks).

The obelisks, properly termed "steles" or the native "hawilt/hawilti" (as they do not end in a pyramid), were carved and erected (with many other stelae) in the town of Axum (in modern-day Ethiopia), probably during the 4th century A.D. by subjects of the Kingdom of Axum, an ancient Ethiopian civilization. Erection of stelae in Axum was a very old practice (today is still possible to see primitive roughly carved stelae near more elaborated "obelisks"), probably borrowed from the kushitic kingdom of Meroe. Their function is supposed to be that of "markers" for underground burial chambers. The largest of the grave markers were for royal burial chambers and were decorated with multi-story false windows and false doors, while nobility would have smaller, less decorated ones. While there are only a few large ones standing, there are hundreds of smaller ones in various "stelae fields". The last stele erected in Axum was, likely, the so-called King Ezana's Stele, in 4 century A.D.

Christianity was adopted by the royal family in Axum in the 4th century AD, and by the population at large in the 5th century, which means these stelae date from a fascinating period of religious change. Monolithic monuments continued to be erected after the arrival of Christianity, and several with Christian inscriptions can be found.

The largest obelisk (108 feet long) has fallen and lies shattered across the ground, allowing a close-up inspection of the carvings. If it were still standing, it would be the tallest obelisk in the world. It may have fallen as soon as it was erected, representing the visible results of a trial-and-error in creating giant upright stele. According to legend, it covers the grave of the Queen of Sheba.

The tallest upright obelisk, which stands 82 feet in height, and second largest of the steles was looted by Mussolini's troops in 1937 during his occupation of Ethiopia, and stood for decades in the Piazza di Porta Capenamin in Rome, near the Arch of Constantine.

The 160-ton monument was finally returned from Italy to Axum in April 2005. It was shipped in an extra-large plane in three separate pieces, at the cost of €6 million (almost $8 million). The transportation company who carried out the task said it was the largest and heaviest structure ever transported by air.