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Quest for the Lost Ark, Part II

In spite of poverty and warfare, what makes Ethiopia an ideal travel destination?

December 28, 2006

In spite of poverty and warfare, what makes Ethiopia an ideal travel destination?

Back on the Italian road, the next stop is Axum. On the way there, you will journey into the heart of the Simien mountains where children are herding sheep and goats amongst 14,700 foot mountain peaks.

With any luck, you will also see baboons, Walia Ibex and pilgrims making there way to monasteries in the area. At the top of one very high peak, I met three very old ladies dressed in yellow robes with walking canes, making a 60-mile pilgrimage to St. Mary's church.

Old friends, they chattered away, unconcerned by the distance or the stones at their bare feet. Although they readily accepted my offer of a ride, they would only take it to the halfway point because they did not want to arrive at their destination too early.

While Axum was once an important cosmopolitan center, today it is a dusty little town, with camels traversing the main road as barefoot children play soccer on unpaved side streets.

You can still catch glimpses of Axum's former glory, however, at Stele Park, where there are numerous giant obelisks painstakingly carved in intricate patterns from slabs of solid granite.

In their architectural sophistication, the steles are reminiscent of those from ancient Egypt and Greece. Similarly, in the town center, there is another little park with a stone dating back to 330 AD, when King Ezana was converted to Christianity by Syrian monks.

The stone, which records his military victories and conversion to Christianity, is written in three languages — Sabaean, Ge'ez and Greek. Sabaean is a pre-Christian dialect, while Ge'ez is the 2,500 year-old language of Ethiopian priests, and Greek was the commercial language of that time.

Ethiopian Christians say that the Ark of the Covenant resides in Axum in a vault near the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, where only the head priest of the church is allowed to view it.

As I could not see the Ark, I do not know for sure if it is there. No other country claims to have the Ark, however, and there is no alternative theory to its whereabouts except that it simply disappeared.

Ethiopians also claim that the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian who lived in Axum. To prove it, they will show you the remains of her palace and a bath dug out of red granite on a hillside that is still used to this day as a public source for water.

I also don't know whether the remains of the castle really belonged to the Queen of Sheba — or even if she was Ethiopian. Some scholars believe, for example, that she came from Yemen.

However, this is not really an alternative explanation, given that 2,500 years ago Axum was one of the principal cities in the kingdom of Saba that was centered in Yemen.

Whatever the case may be, standing by the remains of what was once a castle — and still is a bath on rocky terrain very similar to that around Jerusalem — made me wonder about the ties between Axum and Jerusalem during the days of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Lalibela is the final stop on the historic trail. Visiting its eleven rock-hewn churches underscored for me the mystery around Ethiopia's past. The churches are carved out of monolithic slabs of soft red volcanic stone to create free standing buildings with intricate pillars outside and beautifully carved rooms inside.

Each church has an alcove facing toward the east in the direction of Jerusalem and the river dividing them into two sections was named the Jordan River by King Lalibela who made the town his capital in the 12th century, after having spent most of his life in Jerusalem.

The largest church, Bet Medhane Alem, measures almost 80 by 110 feet and is three stories high. It is said to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world. To this day, nobody knows how it was built. My Ethiopian guide told me with all sincerity that it is the work of angels, guided by King Lalibela.

Was the Queen of Sheba really an Ethiopian monarch? Did she, as the Ethiopians say, journey to Israel and return with a son, Menelik, by the Jewish king, Solomon? Most important, did Menelik go back to Jerusalem as a young man and return with the Ark of the Covenant?

And, is there a connection between the Ethiopian Jews and the ancient Judaic civilization of the Ark of the Covenant? While these are unanswered questions to most of the world, they are historical facts to Ethiopians.

A trip along the historic trail may not answer these questions for you, but you will return safely home wanting to know more.

I know that when I set up my nativity scene this Christmas, I will wonder if the figurine of the black wise man bearing gifts of frankincense and myrrh for the baby Jesus is actually a depiction of an Ethiopian from Axum.

Editor’s note: Part one of Susan Braden’s account of Ethiopia’s historic route is here. A gallery of photos taken during her July 2006 visit to Ethiopia is here.