Day 8 - Visiting the Holy City of Axum, Ethiopia


Prior to this trip I had a deep appreciation for the culture of Africa. I knew that it was the birthplace of civilization and, in many ways the seat of culture and home of Christianity. After spending a week there I have discovered just how little I really knew. The Ethiopian people that we were blessed to meet are a people with a great faith and determination. They are resilient, hard working and dedicated. The children have hopes and dreams and will be the leaders of tomorrow's Ethiopia, Africa and the world. This is in no small part due to the hard work of NGOs operating in the country. We are honored to be associated with the best of them - World Vision, Vision Fund and World Vision Micro.

Today we have the opportunity to explore some of the incredibly rich history of Ethiopia. The remaining five members of our party (Karen, Brian, Laurie, Luke and I) board a small plane and head north to the city of Axum, a holy city that Christians have been making pilgrimages to for 1,800 years.

A Cross carved on a stone in the tomb of King Kaleb, Axum, Ethiopia

The city has a rich pre-Christian history as well and that is evident immediately at the first site we visit - the stelae fields. There are over 600 stelae (vertical stones or obelisks) but only about 60 are fully or partially visible. Most are buried awaiting future excavation. The largest stelae is over 25 meters tall and is an incredible site - it is so large that archeologists have theorized that it was never successfully erected but lays in ruins at the site potentially from a disastrous attempt at standing the stone up. What is hard to even fathom is that these giant obelisks are made of single stones quarried about 4 kilometers from where they now stand. A small percentage of these stones are elaborately carved but most are smooth.

The stelae field in Axum, Ethiopia

There is a burial chamber we visit below the large stelae where we experience the tomb of King Enzana. The chamber still houses the coffin which appears to be made of solid rock but as Tekla, our official guide, taps on it, we hear a resonant sound that leaves no doubt to the fact that it is hollow. The sarcophagus has never been opened because it is unique in the world. I don't know if it has ever been x-rayed - that is just one fact I will need to check on.

On the site there is another burial chamber that was, until recently a large field with football pitches on it. When the locals saw how the rain drained during rainy season they decided to excavate the area. German and Ethiopian archeologists discovered a new tomb with multiple chambers and an elaborate entrance. As we make our way into the tomb it is hard not to be in awe, and yet, at the same time, as a group we start to hum the theme song to Indiana Jones. We are so lucky to be able to experience these sites.

Brian enjoying fresh roasted and ground coffee at a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.

When we are finished we enjoy the traditional coffee ceremony complete with freshly roasted coffee beans on a brazier (yes, Karen, I know it is not a brassiere), pummeled into a fine ground consistency and steeped over the brazier's coals as we wait. The coffee is the best I have ever had - maybe it is because of the work and care that is evident in its preparation but I think it's just because it's great coffee. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and they have had thousands of years to perfect its preparation.

We head a few kilometers to the palace of the Queen of Sheba. The site is partially excavated but we are able to climb an observation deck to see the entire footprint. Behind the palace local shepherds march their flocks to be immunized by a government veterinarian. I don't have any trouble imagining that we are back 2800 years ago during the time of King Solomon.

As we walk through the ruins of the palace the floor is littered with pottery shards; holding these ancient broken pieces of pottery is overwhelming. We stand in the throne room, seven steps up and picture the populace coming to be granted an audience. We marvel at the plumbing that feeds the chambers ad well as the large bath room. It's hard to believe we are here. It's difficult to fathom the necessary engineering and architectural knowledge necessary

It's time for lunch so we head back to the hotel and have pizza (when in Ethiopia...). We are all tired from the early morning flight but excited to see more of the culture of the country that has has such an impact on our lives although we have never give it much thought. Our next stop is the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. It is a Eastern Orthodox Christian church said to be the dwelling place of the (THE) Ark of the Covenant. On the grounds there is a monastery, a small church, a museum and a new Church built in 1967 whose architecture is dissimilar to anything else we have seen in Ethiopia. Karen confused it for a mosque when we first saw the structure and that us understandable - there is not a straight line to be found.

We visit the museum first - the monastery and then building that is assumed to Ark are off limits. The museum doesn't allow photography but that is the only concession to what would be considered modern conservation practice. While many priceless artifacts are housed in wooden and glass cabinets, including cloaks worn by royalty and bishops, gold and silver crowns encrusted with precious stones and diamonds (over 2 dozen) and books that are 800 - 1,000 years old, the sun streams into the room. Time and the elements are not being kind. On display, covered in a prayer blanket is a bible that is over a thousand years old. It is hand printed on sheep's hide and contains the most exquisite drawings of the crucifixion, the Holy Trinity and other scenes from the bible. Our guide turns the pages with care to show us but we cringe. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience this and we are enraptured, yet we know that this holy relic should be cared for before it is destroyed.

A page from a 300 year old bible used daily in prayer services at St. Mary Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia

As we take our shoes off and make our way into the church I am amazed at the bright colors of the biblical scenes (and some scenes that are post-biblical such as St. George and the dragon) that adorn the walls. Artwork from the 18th century leans against the wall, draped by muslin curtains. The church's custodians pull the coverings back for us to expose magnificent and complex scenes from the bible and church history. Hanging from the ceiling is a large, almost gaudy chandelier that was a gift from Queen Elizabeth II when she attended the dedication of the church. At the back of the church is a small podium with a bible that is a copy of the 1,000 year old version in the museum. This book is a mere three hundred years old. It is used every day and is the main book used in the eight and a half hour services that start at midnight and go until 8:30am for a full week every four weeks. Once the service starts no one enters and no one leaves. Concessions are made for the elderly but the entire service is done standing up. Special long sticks that resemble canes are used to lean on and a few techniques are demonstrated for us.

We leave the church and pass the baths of the Queen of Sheba, the reservoir that supplies water to the village. The original steps to the water are visible and it is overwhelming to think that this legendary historical figure climbed, or was carried, up and down those steps. Today a group of young men bath in the water while other residents, mostly young boys and girls carry their ubiquitous yellow water containers down to the water's edge to fill. Each 5 gallon container weighs approximately 50 pounds.

The Enzana Stone (A

We make our way to our final destination, the tomb of King Kaleb but stop off on our way to visit a stelae discovered in the last few years by three farmers plowing their field. There is a corrugated steel building that has been erected around the stone that is covered in writing in three different languages. The stone is about 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide. We are dumbfounded.

Heading to King Kaleb's tomb, school children run alongside our vehicle up the rocky hill, waving and trying to get our attention. Even though they are the lucky ones in school, they do not miss the opportunity to ask for money, or a pen. Once at the tomb, we are told yet another remarkable story - just 5 months ago a vehicle containing tourists drove and parked about 30 feet from where we are parked. Their car caved in a previously undiscovered shaft. A team of French archeologists have covered the site for future excavation. I look at the structure and I am not confident that they have stopped any potential looting. With the poverty levels in then area, it would be remarkable if there was none taking place.

Our Indiana Jones moment

Entering the full site, we descend the stairs into the first tomb site that Kaleb had built but it was never used. A second tomb with three empty sarcophagi that were never used are incredible interesting. The tomb's side chambers were filled with gold and silver and were discovered unlooted. They have been transported to the national museum. There is a third tomb but I didn't follow the story close enough.

One of the most remarkable things we notice is how tightly these stones are fitted together. Single slabs easily measuring 20 feet by 15 feet are used as ceilings. Intricately pieced together stones are used for the walls. Having watched a fair amount of programming on the Alien Channel, I mean the Discovery Channel, I have heard them utter the phrase "these stones are pieced together so finely that you couldn't slip a piece of paper between them". They usually show a small sampling of stonework and it's easy to think that they are only showing the viewers the sections that match their message. In Axum, every stone wall in the tombs that we see is built without mortar of any kind and each wall is practically seamless. Even the carvings on the walls of the tombs, while simple, are incredible. The crosses are raised and not carved into the stone signifying to me that the placement of the symbols was in no way random.

I will need to do some additional reading and I am positive that I will be making some adjustments to the historical accounts contained in this post!

Tomorrow's post will conclude my travel journal, I appreciate your taking the journey along with me.

One person pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth.

Proverbs 13:7 (NIV)

Do Good, EthiopiaBob Ferretti