22 January 2018

I leave green, fertile fields for dry, barren, rocky Tigray. If there is one thing this region has, it’s rocks: a plethora of rocks on top of rocks used for building and terracing. Oh, and an occasional camel.

Ethiopia’s Kebre Nagast (Book of Kings) recounts how Aksum was the city in which the Queen of Sheba resided as early as the 10th century B.C. It is written that the son of Sheba and King Solomon (Menelik) brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum where it remains in a sanctuary to this day. Famous long before the time of Jesus, Aksum was the capital of the Aksumite region, one of the oldest African empires, and acted as a strategic bridge between Africa and Asia for a thousand years.

After witnessing the festival of Timkat in Gondar, I am eager to visit Askum – its ancient buildings, stelae, baths, churches and, according to Ethiopians, the site of the true Ark of the Covenant. Because of the Ark’s presence, Aksum is considered the holiest city in Ethiopia.

Aksum (Axum) is a small northern city at the base of the Adwa Mountains, not far from the Red Sea, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Africa. At an elevation of almost 7,000 ft., it is hard to imagine that until the 10th century, Aksum was the naval and trading power of the region. The Kingdom of Aksum (becoming Ethiopia) had its own written language, and developed a distinctive architecture exemplified by giant obelisks or stelae, the oldest of which dates from 5000–2000 BCE. Around 356 CE, its ruler was converted to Christianity.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims Our Lady Mary of Zion houses the Ark of the Covenant which holds the Tablets of Law upon which the Ten Commandments are written. Traditions tell that Queen Sheba journeyed from Askum to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. She bore Solomon’s son, Menelik, who grew up in Ethiopia but traveled to Jerusalem as a young man. There he lived several years before returning to Aksum with the Ark. (No account describes gaining this treasure by asking, just Menelik’s “divine assistance.”)

Our Lady Mary of Zion and the Tablet Chapel

Our Lady Mary of Zion and the Tablet Chapel are sacred sites. Our Lady, rebuilt several times, served for centuries as the site for the emperors’ coronations. Next to Our Lady is the small Chapel of the Tablet paid for by Empress Menen (Selassie’s wife), which houses the Ark of the Covenant. Admittance is restricted to all but a virgin guardian monk who resides here for life, never to exit its gates. Entrance is even forbidden to the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, who attests that the Ark of the Covenant is there though never permitted to see it.

The Ark, a gold-covered wooden chest with lid as described in the Book of Exodus, is protected by “The Guardian,” who is the only person allowed into the chapel and who may set eyes upon it. The Guardian, resplendent in gold and yellow robes, stands at the iron fence talking with visitors and administering blessings. He must be at least 70-75 years old and has been behind these gates for over 40 years. The faithful bring him food and care for him.

Nearby is a small, dimly lit and dusty museum with ancient icons, robes, crowns, religious books and artifacts. These items are in desperate need of a decent home.

Old St. Mary’s Cathedral is another church sharing the same grounds. Only males are permitted entry. It has something to do with blaming women for the loss of the original church.

New Cathedral built by Emperor Selassie

Next to Our Lady is the modern New Cathedral, built in 1955 to fulfill a pledge by Emperor Selassie to Our Lady of Zion for the liberation of Ethiopia from Fascist occupation. This church I am allowed to enter. The interior is large and unobstructed with a large prayer space under a massive unadorned dome.

Of course, the story of the Ark is not without detractors. The Kebra Nagast is the accepted account of Ethiopia’s tradition. Yet, this book is seen as a document meant to legitimize the Solomonic dynasty, which continuously ruled the Ethiopian Empire from 1270 until its 225th king, Haile Selassie I. Some evidence has been presented that the Knights Templar may have captured and hidden the Ark of the Covenant, which makes for a good movie line but goes unproven. Many researchers believe the Ark was most likely destroyed by the Babylonians.

No one but the Guardian has ever seen the chest or its contents. When a new Guardian is named, what do you suppose is the first thing he does? In forty years, has he never taken a peak?

Painting depicting Menelik returning with the Ark

Who knows? Ethiopians aren’t offering proof. In 2009, the patriarch of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church said he would announce to the world the unveiling of the Ark of the Covenant. The next day, the patriarch announced he would not unveil the Ark after all. It is accepted by Ethiopians that Menelik “brought the ark of the covenant back to Aksum. It’s been in Ethiopia ever since.” Period!

I suppose if Valencia, Spain can claim to house the Holy Grail, Turin in Italy stores the Shroud of Jesus, Muhammad’s beard is in Istanbul, and Buddha’s tooth is in Kady Sri Lanka, I can accept Aksum protects the Ark of the Covenant. It all is based upon faith.

Across the street from Our Lady is the world famous Obelisk of Aksum. This 79 ft. granite “obelisk” is not the largest of the surrounding stelae, but it is the most famous because of its traveling history.

But first, much discussion occurs over the spelling, pronunciation and difference of stela from its cousin Mr. Obelisk. An obelisk is a tall, square, tapered stone monolith topped with a pyramidal point, like the Washington Monument. A stela (plural stelae) has no top pyramid. It is a stone or wooden slab, generally taller than it is wide. Primitive grave stelae were often used for funerary or commemorative purposes, and as ancient boundary or road markers. The surface of the stela may be inscribed, carved in relief, or painted.

Before Christianity came to Aksum, local pagans erected burial stelae, under which were tombs and a sacrificial altar. None of the Askum stelae have religious symbols as they predate Christianity in Ethiopia. The largest of the grave markers were for royals and were decorated with false four-holed windows and false doors, while lesser nobility would have smaller, less decorated stelae. No remains have been found, but household artifacts were found, similar to Egyptian burials. Stelae are located throughout Aksum.

Details on the obelisks are regarded as accurate representations of Aksumite architecture. Representative stone doors are carved at the feet of the stelae, some even carved with locks. While only a few large stelae stand, there are hundreds of smaller ones of three ft. or so. Over the centuries, many stelae collapsed, perhaps because of structural failure or as a result of earth tremors.

Obelisk of Aksum

Therefore, the Obelisk of Aksum is a stela, not an obelisk. It’s regarded as one of the finest examples of Aksumite engineering, standing 79’ high, 7′ wide at 170 tons. Carved on location and erected during the pre-Christian 4th century A.D. the granite stone was moved here in one piece from quarries within sight of town. Its Aksumite design imitated stories using carved windows and doors. This obelisk is considered to be 10 stories, one of carved doors and nine of windows; it is not topped by a pyramid. It is not the largest monument in Aksum. But it is the most famous.

In 1937, the Obelisk of Aksum was in pieces and lying on the ground. Mussolini ordered his soldiers to ship the obelisk to Rome. The monument was erected in Piazza di Porta Capena, near Rome’s Circo Massimo, to commemorate Italy’s occupation of Ethiopia and the birth of his “new Roman Empire.” It was unveiled to great pomp, as Mussolini was want to do, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the March on Rome when the Fascist came to power. (A bronze statue of the Lion of Judah, symbol of the Ethiopian monarchy, was also looted, to be displayed in front of Rome’s Termini Rail Station. This is the same statue that is now in Addis in front of the Addis rail station.)

After much to and fro, the first piece of the obelisk (it was too large and heavy to move in one piece) was returned home from Italy to Ethiopia in 2005. UNESCO assumed responsibility for its re-installation in Aksum. The Obelisk looks majestically at home.

The largest stela is 13 stories high, 108’ long, 12 ft. wide and weighs 520 tons. It is estimated this massive block of stone rested ten feet under ground but toppled while being erected. When it fell, the earth shook and cracks in the ceilings of the tombs underground can be seen. A third stela is 78’ high and over 8’ wide, weighing 160 tons and carved with 11 stories. Many more stones lay upon the ground than stand upright. There is also a fine museum on the grounds with artifacts of the Aksumite period.

Queen of Sheba’s Bath

Around the corner is Queen of Sheba’s Bath. It is an immense ancient pool of brown water fed by springs and used for gathering water for animals or washing. It is also the site for Timkat festivities. There is no indication Sheba ever swam here.

We also visited the tomb of Aksumite king Bazen or (Balthazar) of three wise men and frankincense fame. The tomb is cut into the rock and a shaft leads down several feet to what is thought to have been his tomb. It is locally known as his tomb but nothing has been proven. There is a large stela overhead. It does give the little kid an income as he provides a light for guides to descend into the tomb and chambers.

The Tombs of Kaleb, two Aksumite father and son kings, are of the 6th century. Almost all the ruins are a restoration to approximate the chapels and tombs. As is typical, the more archeologists dig the earlier the ruins found. The rock walls and partial buildings are beautiful. There is no shortage of rocks in the Tigray region.

But what really draws my attention is the ridge of mountains off to the east. These are the Adwa Mountains.

On the 2 Mar 1896, just 12 miles to the east of Aksum, the Battle of Adwa played out between Italian military forces and Ethiopia’s people. It was a battle that would not only create long-held animosity but eventually bring the unprovoked and cruel takeover of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s forces in 1935.

The Kingdom of Italy thought to pull a fast one in 1894 by presenting Ethiopia with two versions of one treaty in order to gain undisputed influence over the country. Since Menelik’s coronation in 1889, the Italians had been supplying him with arms to defeat his regional Negus (tribal kings) rivals. The Italians had already colonized Eritrea to the east and hoped they could stoke up tribal rivalries, march over the border and overwhelm the natives. Deciding to apply a military solution to force Ethiopia to abide by the Italian version of the treaty, its army occupied Adwa in 1895.

Estimates number the Italian forces at 15,000 with 56 artillery pieces. Eritrian native troops, the Askaris, also joined battle. However, the Italian generals underestimated many, many things. Inadequate maps, old-model guns, poor communication equipment and inappropriate footgear for the rocky ground, along with the low morale of their soldiers were problems from the start. The generals also underestimated the Ethiopians.

Menelik II

Ethiopian troops were led by their tribal Negus who, this once, banded behind Emperor Menelik II. His forces were estimated between 73,000 and 120,000. Led by Menelik, Empress Taytu Betul (his wife) and several Negus and Ras (Amharic for general), these fighters knew these 6000’ mountains and gullies, moving with ease. Most of the army was composed of riflemen; however, there were also a significant number of cavalry and infantry armed with lances.

It was a resounding victory for Menelik’s forces. The Italians suffered great losses, some divisions completely annihilated. The survivors hurriedly retreated back into Eritrea. Ethiopian losses were less severe. Menelik’s army was intact as a fighting force and gained a great deal  of rifles and equipment from the fleeing Italians.

While the Italians were given honorable treatment because they had fought loyally for their King and Country, the Eritreans were regarded as traitors. The 800 captured askaris were treated mercilessly by the victors, having their right hands and left feet amputated.

After the Battle of Adwa, Italy signed the Treaty of Addis Ababa, recognizing Ethiopia as an independent state. However, though this battle may have ended Italia’s ambition to establish a colonial foothold, the vanquished were never to forget. In 1935, Mussolini’s troops, including the askaris, came back with tanks, flamethrowers, aerial bombardments and poison gas. They were to remain until Ethiopian rebels with British support threw the Italians out in 1941.

After lunch, we were invited into an Ethiopian home to participate in a coffee ceremony. Ethiopia claims coffee originated in Kaffa, from where coffee gets its name. In fact, people rave about Ethiopian coffee.

Ethiopians take their coffee ritual very seriously, preparing it on special occasions and Sunday mornings. The guest room is sparse, dark and smokey. Mama, at least 80, greets us at her door but her daughter makes the coffee. It is always the girls who prepare the coffee with competition amongst them as to who makes the best.

There is a small charcoal brazier and even smaller incense burner adding the strong oder of frankincense to the already smoke-filled room. Coffee beans are washed, placed in a small pan and slowly roasted over coals. Once roasted to perfection, the beans are pounded and ground. Pouring water into a special clay long-spouted pot, she boils it while continuously fanning the coals.

Our small cups await, displayed for guests. There is also a basket of popcorn and a special flat wheat bread. The husband comes in to crack the brittle bread and pass it and the popcorn around to the guest. The bread is dry and hard, the popcorn sweet. Each cup is rewashed.

When ready, she pours grounds into a cup, adds small amounts of water to mix, then pours it carefully back into the pot. She does this mixing and pouring repeatedly as the mixture gets thicker and thicker. It’s what looks to be a lot of coffee and little water. When the perfect consistency is reached, we are poured our espresso cup of coffee.

Though the coffee is better than expected, this is not something most westerners would tolerate. This ritual took over twenty minutes for four sips of coffee. Mr. Coffee on automatic is more my speed, but my crassness would not be tolerated in Ethiopia.

Farmer’s lucky find and income for life

Then there is the farmer working his field who dug up a funny rock that he couldn’t read. He and his two friends wisely notified authorities. It was discovered the stone dated to the 4th century and is inscribed in three languages: Greek, Sabean and Geez. King Ezana describes his victories over his enemies. The three farmers leased the site to the local authorities and have a guaranteed income for life. Rocks are rocks but some are better than others.

Tomorrow I fly to see the ultimate in rocks, the rock churches of Lalibela.


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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