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Ancient Steles: Africa and China

A great deal of what we learn about ancient cultures comes from the artworks and other forms of expression left behind. During a funeral, a stele was often erected to serve as commemoration. Constructed out of wood or stone, the names and titles of the deceased were typically placed onto the material. In this article, you will encounter a collection of steles hailing from around the world.

Axumite Stele , Africa

Sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of Aksum or Axum, the Axumite (or Aksumite) Empire served as a significant trading nation located in the northeastern part of Africa with its ancient capital situated in northern Ethiopia. It is here that historians believe the supposed Ark of the Covenant resides and the former home of the Queen of Sheba. Aksum is also referred to as the first key empire to convert to Christianity.

Much of the Aksumite past is captured in the stelae left behind by the culture, which used the stone towers as a way to identify graves or call attention to large buildings. The largest example of an Aksumite stele would have measured 33 meters tall if it had not fallen to the ground. The majority of stele mass was found above ground, but those in charge of building the ancient monuments used huge counterweights that they positioned under the ground. This stabilized the stone and helped keep them from toppling over. Oftentimes, the stones were engraved with different patterns or emblems associated with the rank of a king or noble.

Nestorian Stele , China

With a history that dates back to 781, the Nestorian Stele (also referred to as the Nestorian Stone, Monument or Tablet) belonged to the Tang Chinese Dynasty. The limestone block that measured 279 centimeters tall offered a glimpse into 150 years of history belonging to the early days of Christianity in China. Written in Chinese and Syriac (a dialect of Middle Aramaic), information found on the stele stated the existence of Christian communities in several cities in northern China.

The stele proves that the efforts of the Christian missionary named Alopen paid off in 635 when the Tang Emperor at the time gave his approval of the religion to the church. However, this piece of evidence remained buried until it was rediscovered in 1625. It was suspected that religious suppression caused the burial of the stele in 845.

The top of the tablet is decorated with a cross and highlights text that refers to Genesis, the cross, and the baptism. God is called ‘Veritable Majesty’ on the stele. A tribute to missionaries and benefactors of the church who arrived in China by 640 is also found on the stele. This is where we learn about the Alopen, who was the first missionary on record to have reached China.

Other features of the Nestorian Stele include descriptions of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and renunciation. Interestingly, Christ’s crucifixion or resurrection is not mentioned on the stele.