Land of Royalty, Ruins, and Angels
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