Home | News    Tuesday 26 April 2005

Vast necropolis discovered under Ethiopia’s Axum obelisk site

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ADDIS ABABA, April 26 (AFP) — A vast pre-Christian royal necropolis has been discovered under a 42-year-old parking lot near where Ethiopia’s famed Axum obelisk once stood, UN researchers said Tuesday.

"Underground chambers and arcades have been found in the vicinity of the original location of the obelisk," the UN Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) said in a statement.

It said a team of experts using advanced, non-intrusive geo-radar and electrotomographic equipment found "several vast funerary chambers under the sites parking ground which was built in 1963."

"The site is a royal necropolis used by several dynasties before the Christian era," UNESCO said, adding that the network stretches far beyond the perimeter of the present archaeological site.

The team was sent to Axum, a protected UN World Heritage Site in northern Ethiopia, last week to survey the area in preparation for the return from Italy of the massive obelisk, the third and final piece of which arrived on Monday.

The obelisk, a 160-tonne, 24-meter (78-foot), third-century BC granite funeral stele, was taken by fascist troops in 1937 as a trophy of conquest on the orders of then Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

It is to be re-erected on its orginal site by September or October and the discovery of the necropolis is expected to boost already high archaelogical interest in the Axum area, UNESCO said.

"It is likely that some of the tombs identified through underground imaging are intact," UNESCO chief Koichiro Matsuura said, calling for additional studies to be done and for the network to eventually be opened to the public.

"The opening of these new tombs to the public would represent, moreover, an additional asset for the site, which, by boosting cultural tourism, would contribute to the economic development of the country," he said.

Researchers have uncovered a number of tombs in Axum since the 1970s but some had been pillaged and only one such grave — the so-called "Tomb of the False Door" is now open to visitors, according to UNESCO.

Axum, which dates to 100 BC and was added to the UN’s World Heritage List in 1980, was the capital of the Axumite kingdom that flourished as a major trading center in from the fifth century BC to the 10th century AD.

At its height, the kingdom, ruled by kings who traced their lineage back to the time of David, Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, extended across areas of what are today Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

It adopted Christianity around 325 AD but gradually lost influence with the spread of Islam through the region and the last king was overthrown in the 12th century

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