July 18, 2008

Axum, Ethiopia

Axum is much more of a small city than Lalibela, with proper store fronts and bustling commuters. The mountains here are a lot smaller, and peppered with dark, green trees.

This is a major military base, so soldiers live in and around the airport, sleeping in barracks (essentially tiny, corrugated-iron structures, no taller than me). The fields here are 2 to 5 times larger than in Lalibela, and the majority of houses are made from neatly stacked, roughly cut stones.

We visit a museum, that is built next to the long forgotten ruins of the earliest church in Africa. It is overgrown by tall sweet grass, though stone foundations peak from underneath it. Overlooking the ruins is the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion that, our guide reverently tells us, holds the Ark of the Covenant. An American woman scoffs at the comment, stating the most people believe the Ark to be complete fiction. According to our guide, the uppermost floor of the mosque is off-limits to everyone, save for a priest that guards the Ark day and night. The priest will stay there for the rest of his natural life, and will be replaced by another priest at the time of his death. The current guardian of the covenant has been there for 15 years. We also see a bible that is more than 1,000 years old, written on animal skin and containing bright, full-page illustration. People finger it, to feel its age, and I wince as they contribute to the decaying of these museum pieces.

A few things I learn about Axum:

-The Ark of the Covenant has an interesting, complex story. From Wikipedia:
The Ark of the Covenant is described in the Bible as a sacred container, wherein rested the Tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. According to the Biblical account, the Ark was built at the command of God, in accord with Moses' prophetic vision on Mount Sinai. The Bible describes the Ark as made of shittah-tree wood (acacia), known to the Egyptians as the Tree of Life and an important plant in traditional medicine. It was a cubit and a half broad and high, and two and a half cubits long. The Ark was covered all over with the purest gold.

Guesses of the ultimate fate of the Ark include the intentional concealing of the Ark under the Temple Mount; the removal of the Ark from Jerusalem in advance of the Babylonians (this variant usually ends up with the Ark in Ethiopia); the removal of the Ark by the Ethiopian prince Menelik I; removal by Jewish priests during the reign of Manasseh of Judah, possibly taken to the Jewish Temple at Elephantine in Egypt; the miraculous removal of the Ark by divine intervention; and even the destruction of the original ornate Ark under King Josiah's reforms and replacement with a simple wooden box, easily lost when the Temple fell.

-There are three famous obelisks in Axium, that are about 1700 years old. When the Italian invaded the country, they decided to claim one of the three obelisk as their own in 1937, and shipped in back to Italy, to be erected in the middle of Rome. Following years of intense public pressure, Italy returned the Obelisk in 1997, in three parts to accommodate for its shipment back to Axum. The city has now built scaffolding to re-erect the structure. It’s a very weird story, with a happy ending… When we went to see if, there was some crazy scaffolding, but then project of putting them back together again had not started.

That night, we eat in an authentic Ethiopian restaurant (finally!). The local staff seems to think that I would rather eat European food, so I always have to insist on going to eat local food at least once on every trip. We have fasting and non-fasting foods, and stuff ourselves silly. After dinner, we take part in a beautiful coffee ceremony.

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