Land of Roy­alty, Ru­ins, and An­gels

SLOW Magazine - - Must Go -

In the north­ern­most reaches of Ethiopia, in the high­lands of Tigray Prov­ince – a 1,000 km jour­ney north of the cap­i­tal city of Ad­dis Ababa, and an hour from the Eritrean bor­der – is the an­cient king­dom of Axum (or Ak­sum). This is the land of the Queen of Sheba and a lin­eage of 225 em­per­ors that be­gan with Mene­lik I – a son she shared with King Solomon of Is­rael – and ended when Haile Se­lassie was over­thrown in the 1974 coup d’état.

Not only is Axum be­lieved to be one of the old­est con­tin­u­ously in­hab­ited African cities, but it’s also one of the coun­try’s holi­est sites. Ethiopia be­came one of the first coun­tries to adopt Chris­tian­ity in the 4th cen­tury. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of devo­tees from around the world pil­grim­age here to see the Chapel of the Tablet, and yet no one has been in­side. It’s over­whelm­ingly hum­ble in ap­pear­ance when com­pared to the ad­ja­cent Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion with its golden cross-topped dome, stained glass win­dows, and vivid fres­coes. Yet the Chapel of the Tablet is heav­ily guarded 24 hours a day from all four cor­ners be­cause it is be­lieved to house the Ark of the Covenant.

The Bi­ble says that the Ark held the stone tablets with the Ten Com­mand­ments that God gave to Moses on Mount Si­nai. It dis­ap­peared, or was lost, per­haps even de­stroyed, as it’s never men­tioned again af­ter the Baby­lo­nian ex­ile. But Ethiopi­ans will proudly tell to you the story of how the Ark was brought from Jerusalem with Mene­lik I’s en­tourage nearly 3,000 years ago.

There’s one catch: No one has seen it since. No one be­sides “the keep­ers”– a celi­bate suc­ces­sion of soli­tary, anointed monks who never step foot out­side the chapel grounds and ful­fil this role for the rest of their days.

Ev­ery church in Ethiopia has repli­cas of the Ark’s tablets called Tabots. Ev­ery 19 Jan­uary, on the feast of the Epiphany called Timkat, they are pa­raded through the streets, wrapped in op­u­lent cloths, and trailed by pi­ous wor­ship­pers.

It’s then that thou­sands of wide-eyed hope­ful pil­grims gather in the pi­azza – a legacy of Italy’s oc­cu­pa­tion of Ethiopia in the 1930s – in front of the church, be­neath the gaze of the stone-carved obelisks, for a glance at its draped out­line that’s sur­rounded by guards.

We walk be­tween the obelisks that are carved with fake doors and win­dows, and are mark­ers for un­der­ground burial cham­bers. The largest of the four is 33 m long, weighs well over 160 tonnes, and dates back to the 4th cen­tury BC. It lies, bro­ken in five pieces, on the ground. Near its base we climb into the cav­ernous depths of an ex­ca­vated royal tomb to ex­plore this UNESCO World Heritage Site for in­sights into the an­cient

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa

© PressReader. All rights reserved.