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Published: September 5th 2013
Dawn on St Mary's Day - Axum, Ethiopia
The replica Ark of the Covenant sits in the enclosure on the left.
Tales from aeons past seep from every corner of Axum. More than 2000 years ago, the former capital of the Axumite kingdom exerted its military, trade and cultural powers for more than a millennium. Legend states that the king who bore Frankincense (Gaspar) to Jesus after his birth hailed from Axum. The famed Queen of Sheba is also believed to have come from this ancient city. However, Axum’s biggest claim is its possession of the famous Ark of the Covenant that housed the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments.
So appropriately donning my worn and faded Indiana Jones hat, I engaged in my own version of Raiders of the Lost Ark
and sought the resting place of one of history’s most important relics. Many deride Axum as having little to hold the visitor’s attention for more than a couple of days, but there is a difference between seeing a town and experiencing a town, and for those who choose to experience Axum, the rewards are bountiful.
My week long exploration of Axum commenced with the usual sights, with the most iconic being the giant stelae now in various states of preservation, many stand unassisted, some are supported by
large frames, whilst others now collapsed have long grasses encroaching on their former grandeur. Nearby were the tombs of King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel, and the latter had a finery of construction that would rival the best tombs in Egypt.
The prime attraction is the St Mary of Zion church complex, and for the rather princely sum of 200 birr one could access one of the world’s most important religious sites. The new church sports a capacious dome interior with brightly coloured frescoes adorning the wall, with a brilliantly coloured 800 year old bible inscribed on animal skin on display. The practices of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church are fascinating to observe. Worshipers must remove their shoes when entering a church, women must cover their heads, and all pray in a manner more reminiscent of Islam than of Western Christianity. Calls to prayer are sometimes issues from a tower, much like a Muezzin
and Ethiopian Christians fast during periods of the year like their Islamic counterparts. The link between Orthodox Christianity and Islam is far more noticeable than with Western Christianity that radically changed traditional practices once the faith was embedded in Europe.
An adjacent museum included some
ostentatiously ornate religious icons from Yohannes IV, but of more interest were the three buildings that lay beyond. The male-only monastery was closed for renovations, as evidenced by the bamboo scaffolding that surrounded it. A few metres away was a non-descript edifice surrounded by an iron fence, and within these humble walls supposedly lays the Ark of the Covenant. The only person allowed to sight the Ark is the guardian, who I witnessed wandering the enclosure with his long robes and orange headwear. The position of guardian is a role until death, and they are never allowed to leave this enclosure – thus permanently tied in body and spirit to the relic they protect.
It was not possible to meet the guardian as no faranji
(foreigners) are allowed to approach the chapel precinct due to a tourist attempting to climb the fence several years ago. Thus the disrespectful action of one idiot impacts on all who follow. The chapel housing the Ark is deteriorating and a tarpaulin covers the roof to prevent water damage to the Ark inside. Thankfully, a new and larger chapel is nearing completion, and in the near future, the Ark and its guardian will move
to their new home.
Though the previously mentioned attractions are Axum’s most commonly visited sites, there were other options that reaped greater rewards. The Saturday market is a bustling affair, and there was nary another tourist as I wandered through sellers of spices, clothing, and homewares. The area was populated with camels who carry goods to and from the market, and since Ethiopian camels have the most beautiful camel faces I have seen, there was plenty to admire.
The cobbled and coloured back streets of Axum almost never see foreigners, and instead of children around popular attractions asking for money, my interaction with youngsters here was confined to boisterous laughter and incessant “hello, hello, hello!” It was never long before the number of cute children following me grew so large that it resembled a scene from the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
Whilst ambling, I befriended an English teacher at the Glorious Language & Computer Centre, and he invited me to address his English conversation class. I abandoned my dinner plans to talk and answer questions from the teenage students in a cramped and hot classroom for the entire forty-five minute lesson. The students were initially reticent to
Storms over Axum in Ethiopia
The view from the balcony of my hotel room.
participate, and only a few would enquire about Australia or my thoughts on Ethiopia. However, as time progressed and they became comfortable with my smiling face, more students, even the usually reticent girls, raised their hand to contribute.
But the most significant experience was my participation at St Mary’s Day (St Mariam according to the Ethiopians) celebrations. She is the most revered Christian figure behind Jesus in Ethiopia, and any day dedicated to her is an important and highly anticipated affair. The worship involved a midnight to midday prayer session that included a procession of a replica Ark of the Covenant prior to dawn.
Awakening before 4am, I rubbed my heavy eyes, and donning a light white shawl purchased in the market the previous day, I journeyed along benighted streets to arrive at the St Mary’s of Zion church thronging with similarly clad parishioners. Loudspeakers pronounced prayers of the proceedings to those assembled and it gave a sense of gravitas to this scene on a chilly morn. People unable to enter the crowded church would instead pray against its walls or in the gardened enclosure. In the darkness, I weaved my way through the crowd and headed to
the site of the Ark, where a few dozen male worshippers attended to rituals involving praying and chanting.
With dawn still an hour away, a sudden flurry of activity heralded the emergence of the replica Ark draped in an embroidered maroon cloth that was carried aloft by a priest. With protective white parasols escorting him, they proceeded to a large area where many hundreds of mostly female parishioners were waiting in an enormous circle. Lit by the glow of amber street lights and candles, prayers were offered and received in what seemed an intricate and detailed ceremony. I positioned myself on a concrete platform underneath an enormous tree, and received a few curious looks from the locals for I was the only foreigner in attendance.
After approximately 30 minutes, the ceremony concluded and the procession through the streets of Axum commenced. The white clad figures glided into the evening as they followed a cluster of parasols under which sat the replica Ark. Once all had departed, a silence and stillness now hung above the previously busy scene, thus enabling a period of quiet reflection and contemplation before I hurried to join the procession. Once amongst their midst, I
could espy some parishioners peeling off into their homes whilst far more joined the faithful on this journey, so the crowd grew in size the further we progressed until the procession numbered more than a thousand. Some sections of streets were devoid of lighting and at these times the only illumination was the flickering of candles that shone their lambent light on the flowing white robes and diaphanous scarves.
The most enduring and endearing memory was the singing that embraced and nurtured me. It was as if a chorus of angels had descended to earth and graced mortals with their divine presence. The voices were so beautiful, so gentle, and so reverential that my eyes welled with tears. The volume would at times subside to nearly a whisper, before rising to a level of exuberant worship. It was as if some higher being had touched the congregation with a love as universal as the distant stars that faintly sparkled through the clouds far above our heads.
The procession arrived again at its starting point and prayers continued until the fuscous sky had been subsumed by the feeble light of dawn. Throughout the morning, I was unable to understand
the words being uttered and the practices being performed, but this was an experience that transcended language, culture and faith. I came to Axum seeking the Ark of the Covenant, but departed with a far greater prize.
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