Friday, September 23, 2011

Break It Down

The word of the day is 'stele'. Pronounced like "steely". Don't worry, the Blogger spell-check doesn't recognize it either. A stele is a structure built out of some type of rock in order to mark or commemorate something, or to show off in some way, shape or form. Whatever showing off is done, is done through carving some sort of design into the rock. Think something that exists somewhere between a slab, an obelisk and a totem pole. (Though some stelae aren't very design-oriented; the Rosetta Stone is a stele.)

The closest we come in form and purpose in the United States is the Washington Monument, a marble obelisk topped with a small, 100-ounce pyramid of pure aluminum. (When it was built in 1884, aluminum had the reputation gold does today. An ounce of the stuff cost as much as one day's wages of the average worker building the monument. To use it as a capstone was to say 'Look, world. Look how disgustingly rich we are, that we can just stick a wad of aluminum up there like it's nothing.')

Whatever it's classified as, though, it's meant to invoke some sort of glory. Which is what stelae tended to do. Here's the thing about monuments of glory, though: they had damn well better be glorious.

Just ask the Aksumite Empire.

The city of Aksum, today, sits in what is now northern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Eritrea. In 300 CE (remember it's not AD anymore), this was a major trade route, as eastern Africa's vast resources funneled through Aksum into Egypt, Arabia, India and Europe. Being the focus point of a trade route, now, then and forever, means your town gets stupid rich. And in that time period in African history, being stupid rich was symbolized by building a stele that went close to the 'obelisk' part of the stele spectrum. And in Ethiopia, stelae were made of a single piece of rock, something that required more work and additional cost. It made for a degree-of-difficulty bonus, and that's before you factor in the sculpting and carving.

It went deeper than that, though. As told by It Looked Good On Paper by Bill Fawcett, Christianity was gaining ground in Ethiopia around 300 CE, and with Aksum a paganistic society, this was a threat. No society is exactly keen on being converted from anything to anything else, especially if the current leadership is of the faith that's playing defense. The stele would serve this purpose as well: through its size, it would pierce the sky, disperse storms, and drive away evil gods... gods such as the one from this "Christianity". And the bigger the stele, the better.

So they'd make the biggest stele anyone had ever seen.

The specifications were daunting. One single piece of nepheline syenite (it looks like granite), weighing about 500 tons, standing about 100 feet tall- taller than any obelisk anyone else had made- and beautifully carved down to the finest detail. Once it was completed, it was hauled from the quarry of its construction to a field four kilometers away, amongst other stelae, and stood upright.

On a foundation that was not prepared to support a 100-foot, 500-ton tower of rock.

Nobody's really positive how long it stood, but estimates go from a couple hours to a couple days. Some even think it didn't survive the process of standing it up. Whatever the elapsed time, before long the stele began to tilt, and then it fell. The sound of the crash must have been tremendous. Upon impact, the stele shattered into several pieces.

And there they'd stay. There they stay to this day. Nobody even had the heart to perform a cleanup operation. Whatever message of power and faith was trying to be sent was as destroyed as the stele that would now remind the world of the Aksumites' failure every time someone passed that way.

Aksum would benefit from the trade route for about 300 years beyond the crash. It takes more than a broken pile of rock to kill a trade route. But if your religious beliefs involve constructing giant towers of rock to show the power of your gods, and that rock fell in less time than it took to create it, well, it doesn't take much work to draw a conclusion from there. It was the last stele the Aksumites attempted. Christianity suddenly had a lot of spiritual free agents. And while the trade route stayed, the Aksumites were eventually driven away from their sphere of influence by Muslim forces around 700 CE.

Though the Aksumites didn't lose out entirely. After all, they showed their civilization as notable enough to where someone on the other side of the world is still talking about them 1,700 years later. The stele field was declared a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Some of the stelae in the field remain standing. Maybe they're helping.

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