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Old October 22nd, 2009, 09:47 PM   #1
ainttelling
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Aksumite Architecture

http://www.skypalace.org/africa/aksu...itecture.shtml

http://www.skypalace.org/

By Veronika Leonidovna Voronina

Translated from Russian.

Ethiopian architecture is one of the most monumental and unique in the world and dates back to the high antiquity. The first monuments of the human building activity – dolmens and menhirs – are widely spread all over Sidama.

Between 1000 and 400 BC the tribes from South Arabia (where Sabean and Minaean Kingdoms were prospering at those times) overflowed North-Eastern Africa bringing the stone-building skills (dry masonry and stone carving) with them. Having mixed with aboriginal Kushites (Tigre and Amhara), they formed an Ancient Ethiopian ethnos or so-called "Agazi people" (Ancient Greek used the name 'Ethiopians' for all Black Africans). The capital city of Axum situated on a vast plateau was connected with the port of Adulis (nowadays known as Zula).

Local totemic beliefs were replaced by Sabean culture and worshipping to the Gods of the Moon (Almakah) and the Sun (Dzat Badan). Ethiopians hallowed temples and altars to these Gods. One of these ancient temples ruins have been preserved in Yeha.

It was a simple rectangle building of 15.02 x 18.66 m that was a typical example of Sabean construction technique. The dry masonry is made of stone blocks, and the slabs of 22-28 cm high and up to 3.1 m long are laid on the outside and the inside of the building. In some places they are connected with header stones. When talking about Sabean constructions, one can say that if you fill them with water no drop will spill as the hewn block are fitted very close together. The roof rests upon four square in profile stone posts. The marianna parts fragments found, such as: a frieze with ribbed carving, a top wall slab with a tringle and a dowel, an incense altar. Round the temple, there are several smooth stone steles with rounded top, connected with the horizontal square slab where a sacrifice place was marked with a circular ridge. As well as in South Arabia, architectural details (such as friezes and altars) included a small figure or a head of a wild goat personifying the God Almakah.



[] - Sabean Temple

In the course of time, Sabean lands in Africa separated from the metropolis. An independent state of Axum dominated over the Red Sea area since the I-II'nd century AD and got control over Nubia and Arabia; their rulers got the title of the kings of Axum, Sab, Himyar and others, minted their own coins and carried on sea trade with faraway countries (Iran, India). The political power of Axum reached the peak in the IV'th century. A very unique independent culture has formed in the country by that time. A local Geze language and literature have developed.

In the building art Axumites left their Sabean teachers far behind. They erected palaces and temples, built dams and water reservoirs, constructed solid memorial steles and votive thrones of ashlar. And the steles with relief that copied a peculiar wall masonry technique – a kind of rostwerk where the stone rows are pierced with wooden ties through the length and breadth. The transversal ties rounded ends come out of the rough façade surface as huge nail heads. The building basements, supporting walls and water basin covering were made of ashlar in regular dry masonry.

The ancient capital city of Axum is nowadays a small town full of the past reminiscences. The ancient Axum borders have not been established yet. All the magnificent buildings have been destroyed and massive stone slabs, the stairs remains, column bases come out from underground here and there among modern constructions.

The foundations of five palaces with symmetrical plan have preserved in the South-Western part of the town. Spoken tradition can name three of them. The biggest palace was Takha Mariam with the area of 85 x 120 m that had inside yards and hundreds of halls. A huge stone statue was standing at the entrance. It was three times as big as a natural figure (a pedestal has preserved with the footprints). Two other palaces – Enda-Semon and Enda-Michael having the square plan didn't have the yard and were much smaller than the first one (Enda-Michael was about 30 x 30 m). The step wall profile sectioned with perches and pilaster-strips, tower-like pilaster sides, square of profiled columns outline are characteristic of Axum constructions. Multi-storied palaces were hardly inferior to Arabian Gudman as to its decorations luxury.



[] - 1) Takha Mariam Palace 2) Cross-Section of the Axumite Columns 3) Votive Thrones (a, b - in Axum, c - in Adulis)

The most wonderful things in Axum are one-piece stone steles spread over ancient necropolises of the city and its outskirts. Only some of them have preserved but not the highest ones. But even they strike our imagination. Steles group in three districts of the town. The most significant necropolis starts North from the sacred quarter of Dabtara and stretches chain-like to the North-East; another group, that is of less significance, is South-West from the town; the steles of the third small group are concentrated at the entrance leading to Adua. Ancient Egyptian obelisks are no match to the Axum steles.

Smooth ornamented steles were of a great height. One type of steles attract our attention as they imitate a multi-storied tower: a door is placed deep at the foot of the construction, and the stories of windows framed with wooden bracings and layers of circles reproducing the traits of characteristic rostwerk masonry interchange above. A half-round final is marked with the emblem of the Moon; bronze symbolic ornaments were once placed here. There are about seven steles of this kind (all of them are in the first necropolis). But only one of them rises undamaged to its 23-meter height. Another one was taken to Rome and placed in front of Constantine Arch. The third one that is 12-storied and 37 meters high now lies here broken to pieces. Three more steles are in the same condition. And only two fragments have left from the seventh one. These monuments have rectangle profile (the basis of this giant stele is 2.35 x 3.84 m). There were erected on a stone pedestal with stairs and a sacrifice altar was placed at their foot. The main steles lift their head on broad terraces with their edge enforced with hewn limestone masonry.



[] - Axum, the Giant Stele

A pagan temple was once situated in the middle of the sacred ring that is now encircled by a fence at the foot of Biet Giorgis hill at the Eastern side of the town. The judges' thrones are standing in strict line inside the fence at the entrance and there are the king's and the bishop's thrones a little bit further. There are 15 thrones altogether. Made of limestone slabs, they are put on the pedestals with the stairs. Each of these monuments contained a list of this or that king's victories marked by the inscriptions carved in the stone. After the most important victories the kings dedicated a throne to the God. Some of them were covered testers on stone pillars. And the remains of dozens of other thrones can be found along Adua road to the South-East of the town.

In the 340s, long before Imperial Rome, Axum adopted Christianity for its official religion. Pagan temples were destroyed and churches were erected over them. Thus, the Church of Maria of Zion appeared inside Axum sacred fence. Nowadays it is a three-nave Basilica of the XVII'th century but originally it seemed to be five-nave. The cathedral rises up on an ancient platform; only the remains of flower pattern design carved in stone and zoomorphic water-tables were the only remains of the old building found. Stone lattices were set in the church windows (the remains of such lattice with the cross pattern has been preserved in the window of the Church of Abba Pantaleon near Axum):



A water tank is cut in the cliff at the North side of the town and the rainwater coming from the slopes got and stored there. This tank provided water for the town.

Monasteries appeared in hard-to-get places – on the islands of Lake Tan and on the sliffs.

The Monastery of Debra Damo is placed on a remote steep plateau where you can get only by a rope. It is due to that fact that this very interesting monument of Early Mediaeval times – the monastery church has survived. The construction is in the western part of the plateau with the monks' cells, Father Superior's dwelling, school and water tank cut in the cliff scattered all over it.

The church constructions make Debra Damo architecture akin to the ancient architecture of Axum. The walls with irregular masonry of hand-placed clay stone are reinforced every 50-60 cm from inside and outside with the longitudinal wooden baulks making a rotswerk masonry together with transverse bracing. The rounded bracing ends come out every half a meter. This detail got its literary name of "monkey's heads". The door and window frames also make a cage with the bracings completed with a narrower frame along the wall axis. The doors can turn round due to special mortice and tenon joints in the porch or a special beam behind the porch. A part of this simple construction – the rail with a very simple pattern (a scratch and a roller), canopies with dowels imitations, prominent bracing heads reminding enormous nails heads – they all make architecture plastic and expressive. The building corners are made of hewn slabs and the base made of natural stone is about 1.5 m deep and reaches the rock foundation.



[] - Debra Damo, Monastery Church

If we mentally remove the later parts built at the East and North of the building we can get a strictly planned building where you can clearly see a narthex, a three-nave hall with two rows of square-profile pillars and a rectangle altar room with two chapels on both sides is in the East. Such principle of dividing the altar room into three rectangle chambers is the same as in Christian churches of Sassanid Iran. A separate staircase in the western part led to the choir loft connected with the 2nd-floor rooms over the altar part. The twin front door is in line with the same middle nave door. On both sides of the entrance door there were the windows with small cut wooden twin arches separated by imposts. The altar room opens into the hall through a wooden horseshoe arch. The wooden hall pillars support the wooden architraves and a frieze separated into square cassettes with simple ornament patterns by the posts and cross-beams. Axum architecture didn't use any constructive arches or domes but they were imitated of wood; the middle nave ceiling connected with the wooden posts rests on the wooden arches. The ground roofing is inclined on two slopes.

The building design is quite simple and clear, all the details are efficient and architecture on the whole is rather original. The most interesting thing in the church is its narthex wooden ceiling separated into carved cassettes with geometrical flower patterns, animal and bird images bearing heraldic characteristic features. In the carving images and themes, you can see the Coptic influence and ideas from ancient and old Eastern (especially Sassanid) cultures.

In spite of the later accomplishments and destruction of the altar part, a moldering church in Asmar reminds the Church of Debra Damo in its planning, size and design. But the hall pillars have circular profile (it is the only sample known in Axum architecture) and are situated in two rows of six so close to each other that the intercolumnation is only 1.5 diameter and the wooden drums stand for the capitals. The stucco upper part of the walls over the windows was painted with iconographic scenes and you can see the arch over the entrance hall with the remains of red-yellow painting of encircled animal figures. The wooden capitals of pilasters supporting the arch look like wide console tables with flower pattern carving that is close to some frieze panels of Debra Damo ceiling in its style.

These two architectural monuments can be referred to the VI-VII'th century style. A spoken story connects the Church of Debra Damo with the name of one of the last kings of Axum – Kaleba. The rocky churches appeared in late Axum that later on became famous of Lalibela. Two churches in Bilbala area are ascribed to the same Kaleba. Two more – yekka Michael and Adad Mariam – are to the South of Addis-Ababa.

The name of Kaleba is also mentioned when speaking about one of Axum ruins. In the western town outskirt you can see the remains of two Basilica temples standing on the platform with crypts and tomb-chests hidden under them. A symmetric and grand ensemble once was only the entrance part or a propylaeum of some enormous complex. These ruins are known by the name of Kaleba Tomb and Gabra Maskal among people.

After Kaleba died the decline of Axum started. Sassanid Khorsau gave a first shake reaving South Arabia. The planting of Islam, Arabic occupation of Egypt and Sudan were disastrous and brought about the internal decay of Axum. All the ways to India were blocked. Political and economic weakness of the state brought about its internal decay. The circumstances of destroying Axum palaces and temples that seemed to be built for ages are not clear yet. But even the remains of these constructions that once were so powerful and unique make us admire and bow to the original thinking and mastership of African architects.
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Old October 31st, 2013, 10:23 AM   #2
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Thanks ainttelling!!
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Old November 1st, 2013, 02:35 AM   #3
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Can't see the pictures :/ only Xs appear
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Old November 9th, 2013, 06:31 PM   #4
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Well I can't find so I'll post pictures of Axum today... the landmarks of Axum are its monolithic stelae (hawulti in the native Tigrinya) built in the first few centuries AD. The highlights of those are the three ornately carved stelae, although dozens of unornamented megaliths are scattered around the site.

image hosted on flickr


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Only one the grand stelae stands in its original place- the one with the supports. The other standing one had actually fallen in antiquity, and in 1936 been carted away to Italy by the Fascist occupiers where it stood re-uprighted for decades in front of the FAO headquarters. It was only returned to Ethiopia in 2007, and it stands there for the first time in centuries. The other fallen stelae, the Great Stelae, fell during its construction- its foundations were too shallow for its size and it toppled.
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Old November 9th, 2013, 06:33 PM   #5
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Here we have some of the earlier, more primitive megalithic stelae.

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Old November 9th, 2013, 06:44 PM   #6
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There are also a number of tombs scattered around the stelae field, most of whose interrants have been lost to history and are thus identified by their architectural features.

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This, for example, is the "tomb of the brick arches".

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This is the "tomb of the false door".
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Old November 9th, 2013, 07:03 PM   #7
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One of the largest excavated ruins of a palace in of Axum is the Dungur. It's commonly known as the "palace of the Queen of Sheba", but modern scholarship suggests its occupant was more modest- an important vassal, prehaps. There are signs of another palace underneath this impressive one, which is oriented at a slightly different angle. The top palace shows signs of recycling the blocks of previous builders, and there are strange rooms without doors. Some of which contain fat columns.

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We have a floor plan, drawn up by Dr. Nagizy Gebremedhin, an Eritrean architectural historian. He wrote a great history of Ethiopian architecture (Eritrea was part of Ethiopia at the time, as it has been for most of history).

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Old November 9th, 2013, 07:13 PM   #8
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Here's a drawing of Dungur:

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Old November 9th, 2013, 07:15 PM   #9
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A more likely imperial palace was Ta'akha Maryam, whose ruins were well mapped by a German archeological expedition but were tragically destroyed by the Fascist occupiers to make way for a road. However there are new excavations underway that hope to reveal more about the palace and aid in its reconstruction.



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Old November 10th, 2013, 01:09 PM   #10
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really interesting
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