Adventures in Ethiopia – Axum and the Ark of the Covenant

Posted by Szerdi Nagy on 19 December 2013

Our adventure in Ethiopia continued (see part 1 and 2 here) through to the ancient and mysterious town of Axum which claims to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and follows further north to the burial place of the wife of the Prophet Mohammed. We left the Simien Mountains for a scenic six-hour drive through to the ancient town of Axum.

Yet again we were met by the infectious excitement that Ethiopian children have when they see someone they can practice their English on. One of the things that impressed us most was the high level of education in even the smallest kids who could all speak at least Amharic and either English or Italian. As we were to unexpectedly stop numerous times this day we were able to have many conversations with interested children who wanted to know more about South Africa, Nelson Mandela and the Soccer World Cup.

Our six-hour scenic drive through the countryside from the Simien Mountains to Axum ended up taking us close to 14 hours and included not one, but FIVE flat tyres, road works where entire cliffs were literally collapsed before our eyes and so much dust that by the time we arrived in Axum our hair was as white as a pensioners!

This was the start of the ancient stelae which are estimated to date back nearly 3 000 years. Unlike other world heritage sites which are protected and where access is limited, we found people farming and grazing their animals between these ancient monuments.

These rocky piles are believed to be the remnants of the palace of the mythical queen of Sheba. Whether or not she truly existed, the people who ruled this part of the world some 2500 years ago were so powerful that they controlled Yemen, Saudi Arabia and parts of Egypt and Sudan.

All the houses here are completely made out of rock and as this is a desert region, the familiar sight of donkeys was replaced by the awkward lumbering of camels. It was VERY strange to see camels casually wandering down the streets!

Above are the remnants of the church of St Mary, believed to be the original resting place of the Ark of the Covenant before it was destroyed by a band of marauding Jews under the rule of a warrior queen, Queen Yodit.

Below is the rather unimpressive modern concrete church where the Ark now lives. No one is allowed to approach the church other than the monks who guard it. The Ark is supposed to have supernatural powers that can cause people other than its guardian to spontaneously combust!

The remains of the coronation area where are all the Kings and Emperors of Ethiopia were crowned, except the last emperor, Hailie Selassie as he had the pesky issue following him around of having murdered his predecessor….

Only men are allowed to enter the ‘new’ church of St Mary so while Andy and our guide went exploring in it I had to sit outside and do some people watching and make sure my dangerous ladyness didnt affect the church in anyway.

One of about ten unexplored tombs in this area and while some of them are partially open and excavated, there remain many which have NEVER been explored by Archaeologists!

This particular stellae field is the largest and contains more than 75 stellae of various sizes including three enormous ones that are intricately carved, the largest of which lies broken in pieces. The erection of some of the bigger stellae is attributed to the use of the Ark of the covenant…

Semha was an amazing 10 year old girl we met during our time in Axum. One of the things that impressed us most in Ethiopia was the high level of education the kids receive there, their exceptional general knowledge and how everyone is bi, if not trilingual! Semha took us around a bit and we learnt that despite her mom being  a street vendor, she has great ambitions of becoming a doctor. We exchanged email addresses with her and bought her an Amharic-Tigraian-English dictionary.

Exploring some of the partially uncovered tombs that are dotted around the city.

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