Axum Rock City & the Tigray Towns

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This is the second in a series of three photo essays on the vernacular natural building styles of Ethiopia. The first, Hararchitecture, focuses on mainly clay binder houses in the East. This, the second, Axum Rock City & the Tigray Towns, focuses on mainly stone aggregate houses in the North. The third, Bamboolean Huts, focuses on mainly wood fibre houses in the South.

Strictly speaking, the first few images in the slideshow, those of the ancient stone stellae of Axum and the underground crypt of Remhai, are certainly not vernacular, or of the people. They required the coordinated and specialized work of thousands of manual labourers. But they clearly establish a regional pattern of construction in which both mortared and unmortared rocks are the basic building blocks.

You'll easily notice that one of the massive monoliths is in ruins on the ground; archaeologists believe that it's been that way from the start, that it fell over while it was being erected. What may not be so obvious from the photos is that the largest one that's still standing is slightly tilted to one side. For years, scientists were worried that it was on the verge of collapsing. But recent studies have concluded that its been that way from the start, that it was purposefully put into the ground at an angle.

It has been purported that these gigantic structures were built by a succession of monarchs, each one as a tribute to himself and his supposed greatness. The only reason that the biggest one still standing is smaller than the one in pieces on the ground, even though it was built by a later king, who would have wanted to outdo his predecessor, is that he didn't want to make the same mistake, and spend his days watching his legacy lie in ruins on the ground, they say.

Naturally, I have another theory. Why would a king underwrite the construction of a stone likeness of a ten-storey skyscraper to scale, then have it solidly inserted into the earth at an odd angle? I say that these stellae were not meant to demonstrate power, but its opposite. They were supposed to be a lesson to future generations, a symbol that the bigger they are, the harder they fall -- sort of like some Abyssinian Tower of Babelonian living proverb. Bigger isn't better; you'll either get it twisted, or fall under your own weight.

Maybe some third-wave anarchist anthropologists can settle that argument. My priority is to experience and document the rock-work done by regular people for regular people in the Tigray Region. Here, trees are in short supply, but rocks are plentiful, so they are used whenever possible. Wood is utilized sparingly, as lintels, and for roofing material. Tigray rockmasons are exceptionally skilled; note the rocks houses circular and square, two and three storeys high.

Mud is used to plater the inside of these houses. This allows for the customization that we are familiar with from cob houses ancient and modern: organic shapes and niches. Bull horns are embedded into the walls, to be used as hooks. And again, large logs are used to support heavy earthen staircases used to reach the upper levels of the homes. As always, boundaries such as doors and windows are thickened with colourful border treatments.

This photo essay does not adequately document the full range of roofing options that I observed in Tigray. In small towns, the most common roof was an ever-so-slightly round one, in which a border of rock bricks held several inches of earth and grasses in place. This slideshow also does a poor job of documenting the sheer natural beauty of Tigray. Think Arizona at its prettiest -- the whole province is an entire series of Grand Canyons, and the architecture reflects that. Enjoy.

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