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Axum Home of the Arc

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AXUM, the site of Ethiopia's most ancient city, is today a small town, ignorant of its glorious past. The 16th century Cathedral of St. Mary of Zion is built on the site of a much older church probably resembling that of Debre Damo, dating from the 4th century AD. Only a platform and the wide stone steps remain from the earlier structure. The Cathedral is the repository of the crowns of some of Ethiopias former emperors. According to church legend, it also houses the original Ark of the Covenant - thus making St. Marys the holiest sanctuary in Ethiopia.


Founded perhaps 500 years after the downfall of Yeha,  together with its Red Sea port, Adulis. which were abandoned suddenly - probably in the sixth century AD as the result of an invasion from Arabia, and, much more is known about the historic highland city of Axum. Protected by the mountains of northern Tigray, Axum survived and kept on having a big influence on the imaginations and spiritual lives of many Ethiopians.



A small and lowly town surrounded by dry hills, modern Axum does not easily shows the evidence of the splendors of its glorious past. Its drab breeze-block houses, roofed with corrugated iron, look little different from those of any other highland settlement and its people seem remarkable only for their impassive stoicism. Part buried, however, but also part exposed, the extensive traces of noble buildings with large stone foundations are found there side by side with the ruins of even more impressive structures: temples, fortresses, and rich palaces. Adding substance to ancient legends of fire-breathing monsters and testifying to the lost truths embedded in myths and fables, the bones of bygone eras protrude everywhere through the soil. Even today, long- buried hordes of gold, silver and bronze coins are exposed by heavy downpours of rain.

Axum, was a great commercial civilization trading with distant lands, among them Egypt, Arabia, Persia, India and Ceylon. To countries such as these the ancient Axumites exported gold, ivory, rhinoceros-horn, hippopotamus hide and slaves, and imported all kinds of textiles - cottons and silks, as well as knives, swords and drinking cups, metal for local manufacture into all sorts of objects, and numerous luxury goods, including gold and silver plate, military cloaks for the nobility, olive oil and lacquer ware.



Testimony to the importance of this trade is to be seen in the Axumite currency, in gold, silver and bronze, which was inscribed either in Greek or Ge,ez, and issued for several hundred years by over twenty different Axumite kings. Most of this fascinating money was struck in the city, but other coins were probably minted at Adulis, as well as in South Arabia, part of which in the sixth century was under Axumite control.

Today a replica or symbol of the Ark of the Covenant, known as the tabot, occupies pride of place in the holy of holies of every Ethiopian Orthodox Church. These replicas - which derive their sanctity from their relationship to the true and original Ark still believed by Ethiopians to be kept at Axum - are so important that no church is considered consecrated without one.


Ethiopia's claim to the lost Ark of the Covenant is a contentious one. Many do believe this priceless Old Testament treasure rests in Axum, exactly where the Ethiopians say it is. It seems likely, however, that the Ark arrived in Ethiopia in the late fifth century Bc, about 500 years after the time of Solomon, Sheba and Menelik, for completely different reasons from those set out in the national epic. There is some evidence that it was first installed on an island in Lake Tana where it remained for 800 years before finally being moved to Axum around the time of Ethiopia's conversion to Christianity in the fourth century AD.

The building where the Ark is said to lie is a small, unpretentious sanctuary built in 1965 on the orders of Haile Selassie. The chapel, fashioned out of blocks of gray granite, stands at the heart of Axums extensive monastic complex and is annexed to the seventeenth-century Cathedral of St Mary of Zion where the sacred relic previously rested. In line with a time-honored tradition, only one man is allowed to set eyes upon the Ark itself: an elderly, especially holy monk who is charged with its care and preservation. The present custodian, Abba Tesfa Mariam, inherited the honor - and the burden - of guarding the Ark from a long line of previous monks stretching back into the mists of history. When a custodian is dying, according to tradition he must nominate his own successor with his last words.


The Church of St Mary of Zion was built around 1635 by Emperor Fasilidas - undoubtedly one of Ethiopias greatest rulers. Still a place of active worship, it is notable for its crenellated, fortress-like walls. Its hushed interior, resplendent with many beautiful murals and paintings, evokes a mood of contemplation in an atmosphere of immense antiquity. This may have something to do with the fact that many of the stone blocks from which it is built predate the seventeenth century. They come from an extensive ruin that stands nearby. Only the ruins of its deeply entrenched foundations remain - all that is left of the original St Mary of Zion, built in the fourth century at the time of the conversion of the Axumite kingdom to Christianity. Twelve hundred years later, in the middle of the sixteenth century, it was razed by a fanatical Muslim invader, Ahmed Gragn - The Left Handed -. whose forces swept across the Horn of Africa from Harar in the east and, at one time, threatened the complete extinction of Ethiopian Christendom.

By far the oldest church in Africa south of the Sahara, the first St Marys - as it is still referred to in Axum - was described some years before its destruction by the Portuguese friar Francisco Alvarez: In this town Axum, we found a noble church; it is very large, and has five naves of a good width and of a great length, vaulted above, and all the vaults are covered up, and the ceiling and sides are all painted; it also has a choir after our fashion. This church has a very large circuit, paved with flagstones, like gravestones, and it has also a large enclosure, and is surrounded by another large enclosure like the wall of a large town or city

From Alvarez account, it is apparent that the first St Mary of Zion church was a great five-aisled basilica. Aspects of its design are thought to have been borrowed from earlier, pre- Christian places of worship in Axum. In turn, these were later incorporated into the nearby cliff top monastery of Debra Damo - built in the sixth century and still standing. Experts believe St Marys also served as the model for Beta Medhane Alem - the most extensive and ambitious of the twelfth- century monoliths in far-off Lalibela. They also believe it inspired another of the spectacular rock-hewn churches of that area - Beta Ghenetta Mariam - which stands in mountainous countryside some kilometers from Lalibela. In such fashion, despite the ravages of both time and man, do themes and patterns repeat themselves endlessly in Ethiopia. Perennial meanings are frequently disguised behind changing facades but nothing, it seems, is ever entirely lost.


Most enduring of all is the manner in which devout aspirations are embodied in architecture - buildings and monuments which transform into mystic and occult symbols for prayer. This tradition has an ancient pedigree in the Ethiopian highlands that began before the Christian era. Many of the oldest relics of Axum suggest an idolatrous veneration of celestial deities. The most notable, carved from single pieces of solid granite, take the form of towering obelisks. Several are more than 500 tones in weight and stand twenty meters high. The tallest - now a tumbled, fractured ruin - once reared more than thirty-three meters into the sky.

They seem less like prayers of stone and more like lightning-rods to heaven. The purpose of these prodigious monolithic stelae may have been to draw down power from the firmament in a ritual undoubtedly accompanied by occasional sacrifices. Most of the obelisks have altars at their bases, all aligned towards the rising sun. Four deep holes in the center of one were presumably to collect blood from the sacrifices. Another smaller altar is dominated by a raised platform out of which has been chiseled a vessel resembling a chalice - again, no doubt, to receive the blood of the slaughtered victim. Channels have been cut at two of the platforms four corners to enable the blood to drain into the lower level, where three more vessels have been engraved. There is a complete series of smaller holes all round with two more channels at the corners to allow life's crimson ebb to flow to the ground.

The tallest stele still standing is just over twenty-three meters tall. Like many other monolithic Ethiopian works, of whatever era, it is carved to resemble a conventional building - in this case a nine-story tower-house. The main decoration on the front is the depiction of windows and timber-beams. The space between each level is depicted by rows of symbolic log-ends. The house-like illusion is enhanced by the presence of a false door just above the altar at the bottom of the monument. Another feature - echoed, incidentally, in the alternately recessed and projecting courses of Beta Ammanuel at Lalibela - is a shallow central alcove which rises from the base to the summit.

The motifs on the face are carried through on either side. The rear is completely plain, however, but for one circle in relief near the apex. At its center is a representation of four spheres grouped together, with a fifth sphere touching the groups outer edge. The top of the stele is carved into a semi- circular form, symbolizing the heavens. Scholars believe a metal plate with an image of the sun, engraved inside a crescent moon, was affixed to the front of this.

Of the fifty or so stelae in and around Axum, some are obviously early prototypes - crudely worked slabs of granite similar to Stonehenge in south-west England. One group of these undecorated prehistoric monuments stands on the Gondar road, about a kilometer outside Axum, close to the remains of a massive building with finely-mortared stone walls, deep foundations and an impressive throne room - said to be the Queen of Sheba,s palace. Elsewhere there are stelae that seem to belong to an intermediate period: one about five meters high, for example, which is divided into story's by four bands overlaid with symbolic rows of beam-ends.

The British archaeologist Theodore Bent observed in 1893 after a visit to Axum that: We seem to have before us a highly perfected form of stone worship, associated with sacrifices to the sun and a Hording us a complete series, from the early rude monument to the exquisitely decorated monolith, leading up in architectural symbolism to the home of the great God above.

Another fallen Axum stele, almost nine meters long, bears a relief carving near its apex with a capital formed of two leaves supporting a square within a square surmounted by a triangle. This may be the earliest-ever representation of the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopian art. It would have been carved onto the stele after the Ark was brought to Axum in the fourth century AD.

Yet another of Axums famous obelisks, the second largest, can be seen in Rome, where it was taken in 1937 on the personal orders of Benito Mussolini. It has thus far not been returned, despite many Ethiopian requests for its restitution.

The last few centuries of the pre-Christian era in Axum were most probably characterized by a rich mix of exotic Judaic and indigenous pagan traditions. The former was brought by immigrants from South Arabia where Hebraic-Jewish admixtures had long been part of the civilization while the latter drew its continuing power from deep within the Ethiopian hinterland. This mix may have been influenced by Roman and Greek cults such as Mithraism which made sacrifices to the sun god.

The Axumites were certainly in close contact with Greek culture for a long time. Around the fourth century AD the anonymous author of The Periplus of the Erythrean Sea described the ruler of Axum as a prince superior to most and educated with a knowledge of Greek. Third-century coins found at Axum, bearing pagan crescent-and-disc symbols identical to those atop some of the stelae, are inscribed in Greek. Similarly, a more extensive Greek inscription, from the early fourth century, still legible, has been found carved into a pillar of stone set up at Axum on the order of King Ezana to commemorate his victory over rebellious tribes. It touches Greek theology by giving thanks to Ares, -who is my father-. Other sides of the stone are inscribed in Sabaean and Ge,ez.

Axum is for all of this a place worth to be visited during the Historical tour or in combination with one of our other tours


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