Axum is a dusty little town in the north of Ethiopia , one of four stops along the country’s historic route, a route that is steeped in rich Orthodox Christian traditions in a land that was legendary to the Romans and the peoples of the Middle East . Today, Axum is still a place of legends.
Stone obelisks weighing several tons reaching anywhere from 10 to 60 feet into the majestic blue sky stood like ancient monks before us. The tallest of them all, nearly 100 feet long, lay broken in three parts on the grass. And the most ornate one sat cut up in three shipping crates; the Italian government decided to return it to Ethiopia where it rightfully belonged. The main field is no bigger than half a football field, but the presence it bestowed upon us was larger than life. How did they get them to stand up? How did they carve them?
It is believed that when masons were done chipping away at the patterns and designs, the obelisks were pulled into position by elephants. Once in the hole that served as the base, hundreds of men pulled the stones into place. But why did they construct them?
Tombstones. The obelisks are huge grave markers befitting of the men below, kings.
Axum is considered by some scholars to be one of the greatest empires of recorded history, up there with the Egyptians, Romans, and Persians. The kingdom of Axum controlled areas that today reach into Egypt , Saudi Arabia and the Holy Land . The Axumites traded along the Red Sea and into the Indian Ocean .
Walking up a hill on our way to see the remains of King Kaleb’s Palace, we paused briefly to see the Queen of Sheba’s Bath . Now a small reservoir where local women and girls wash their clothes and collect buckets of water for cooking, it was at one time the place where the fabled Queen cleaned up. Our guide pointed to the steps cut into the rock, “That is where the Queen of Sheba entered the pool.”
Surrounded by sheep, cattle, and the men and boy shepherds who guided the animals, I thought of home and how the rural scene before me was familiar despite the brown hillsides and African farmers around me. Kicking up dust as they went, the boys looked hardened by life, only 12 years into it.
We stopped at a small shack to the left of the road. Inside was a rock with scripture scribed on it. But it was not just any ol’ scribe. It was written in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia , Greek, and Hebrew. The connection between the highlands of Ethiopia and the outside world could be seen there on that rock sitting inside a little wooden house.
Twenty minutes later we were down inside King Kaleb’s tomb. Dark, home to bats, and quiet, we shined a headlamp on the walls. Tightly fitted together with pinpoint precision, literally, my wife was reminded of the old Inca walls of Cuzco , Peru . Big blocks of granite fit together like puzzle pieces, and yet few people have ever heard of the Axumites. An African Empire, Great Civilization of History, and we read nothing about it in our history books.
On the way back down the hill into town, we could see the top of St. Mary of Zion church shining in the bright afternoon sun. Inside the modern exterior walls are 7 chapels build on top of one another. It is believed that inside the 7th chapel is the Ark of the Covenant. All Ethiopian Orthodox believers know that the tablets held in Moses’ hands on Mt. Sinai are inside St Mary of Zion . The priest that watches over the chapel says he has gone as far as the 6th chapel. If he were to lay his eyes on the Ark , he would go blind.
Wouldn’t it be worth going blind if you could see the Ten Commandments? We could all walk blindly into God’s Kingdom. Don’t we do that now anyway?
Tired and thirsty, we walked back into the center of town and found a little café for a rest. Sharing out thoughts of the day and what we had learned, my wife and I wondered about how much of what we had been taught over the years was true. What do our history books not teach us? How accurate is our perception of history?
I don’t know, really.
But I do know that saying “All Hail the Axumites, great people of Africa and the World” feels right!
The historic route of Ethiopia includes Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and Bahar Dar. My wife and I were able to visit Lalibela and Gondar as well. Over the next two weeks, we will continue on the journey, stopping next in the holy mountain village of Lalibela, site of what some consider to be the 8th Wonder of the World—Lalibela’s 11 rock-hewn churches. The churches are mind-boggling in how they were constructed. I hope to have some photos for y’all to see included with the column.
After Lalibela, we’ll go to Gondar , home of 300 year old castles and a tiny church with an angelic ceiling.
And then we’ll head out east and travel to the Ogaden Desert of Ethiopia, a remote region of the Earth where my wife and I had our souls touched by followers of Islam in a place called Denan. We’ll finish up where camels by the thousands come to quench their thirsts.
(written 22 January 2006)