Patrick Richardson heads to Ethiopia in
search of the Ark of the Covenant
About 500 miles north of Addis
Ababa, in the province of Tigray, is the dusty overgrown village of
Aksum. And at the end of its only paved street, inside an arid
compound, is St Mary of Zion church, a Byzantine-looking domed
edifice built by Emperor Haile Selassie in the 1960s.
A man, seated under sequined claret
umbrellas on the steps outside, address-es the multitude. He wears a
pale yellow crown and is flanked by priests carrying outsized,
ornate gold crosses and dressed in gorgeous robes, in stark contrast
to the tattered pilgrims who listen intently in the shade of lilac
“It’s the bishop from Addis,”
whispers Haile, the local museum’s archeologist, who also doubles as
tour guide. “Today is St Mary Day and you’re lucky to see him.”
I hadn’t come to see him, however –
I was here to see what is reputedly housed nearby, in a small,
unpretentious granite building. Surrounded by an impenetrable fence,
the building has a flaking, green-tiled cupola crowned by a cross
and burgundy drapes hanging over the tantalisingly open front door,
where white-robed novices hover.
“You don’t really believe it’s
there?” I ask Haile sceptically.
“Of course!” he retorts
indignantly, convinced, like all Ethiopians, that what is stored in
that carefully guarded sanctuary is the Ark of the Covenant, the
container for the Tables of the Law, which God allegedly gave to
Moses on Mount Sinai.
“No chance of getting in, I
suppose?” I inquire, knowing full well that only the guardian inside
(an elderly and especially holy monk) is allowed to set eyes on it.
“Not unless you want to burst into
flames,” he says, referring to the Old Testament fate of those who
approached it too closely.
The Kebra Negast, the national
14th-century epic, confirms Aksum’s claim to the Ark. This maintains
not only that the Queen of Sheba was Ethiopian, but also that in
1000BC she visited Israel’s King Solomon. He immediately wanted to
make love to the enchanting virginal queen, but assured her he would
take nothing from her so long as she took nothing from him.
Nonetheless, after eating his
specially prepared spicy banquet, that night she drank a glass of
water that the crafty king had placed by her bedside. Solomon
demanded his side of the deal and Sheba returned home bearing his
child, the future King Menelik.
Still, she had her revenge; 20
years later, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem, before making
off with the Ark and establishing the dynasty that reigned for 3,000
years until Haile Selassie’s overthrow in 1974.
On the other side of the road is
Aksum’s remarkable Northern Stelae Field, containing 120 stone
obelisks erected in northeast Africa millenniums ago. The stelae
were used by local rulers as tombstones-cum-billboards to proclaim
their power. Sculpted from a single piece of granite, complete with
windows and doors, some resembled mini-skyscrapers.
The 100ft-high Great Stele, which,
at 500 tons, is the largest stone block humans have ever attempted
to erect, now lies broken on the ground after toppling over.
Haile leads me to the Queen of
Sheba’s bath, a 2,000-year-old rock reservoir where naked boys are
splashing and women are washing clothes. Beyond are paths that climb
a mile to a brown plateau and, overlooking Aksum, King Khalib’s
6th-century ruined palace, with its barely excavated underground
vaults and sarcophaguses.
“Va bene?” ragged children shout
from nearby thatched huts. “Those are the only Italian words young
people know these days,” explains Haile, as we explore the vaults.
Then he points proudly to distant rocky pinnacles. “But over there
was the battle of Adwa in 1896.” At this battle, Emperor Menelik II
inflicted the biggest defeat suffered by a colonial army in Africa
on the Italian invaders, saving Ethiopia from the Europeans until
the arrival of Mussolini.
Two days after I arrive in Aksum, I
hire a driver and decrepit 4WD Toyota and set off to spend the night
in remote Debre Damo, Ethiopia’s most famous monastery. The rutted
dirt road winds east through dreamy, mist-shrouded valleys to Adwa,
a little town at the foot of the peaks, where we buy coffee and
honey (the customary gift for the monks).
Thereafter the track zigzags
interminably upwards until it passes near Yeha. Ringed by protective
mountains, this village was the birthplace of the country’s earliest
civilisation, and its ruined Temple of the Moon, with its immense
red walls, originally built in the 3rd century, resembles forts
straight out of the Yemen.
Then the road crosses parched
plateaux dotted with camels until, 40 miles later, a rough track
branches off, descending to dried-up riverbeds and climbing steeply
to the foot of vertical crags.
“Debre Damo,” says the driver,
gesturing vaguely at the azure sky.
Dating back to Aksumite times, the
monastery is renowned for its impregnable position on a tiny,
9,000ft-high, flat-topped plateau. Access is only by leather rope,
which, after it has been tied round visitors’ waists, is then hauled
up a daunting 80ft-rock face by two of the 80 monks.
The 6th-century monastery,
forbidden to women, consists of Ethiopia’s oldest church, with an
outstanding collection of superbly illustrated manuscripts, and the
monks’ humble dwellings, which are almost indistinguishable from a
maze of boulder alleys.
I hurry over to the precipitous
western rim to catch the sensational scarlet sunset. Not far away, a
serious-looking, bearded young man wearing a monk’s black hat is
sitting on rocks, chanting prayers. He looks up, startled. “You:
where sleeping?” he asks, obviously a mind-reader – the visitors’
quarters are nowhere to be seen – before extending an invitation to
stay in his “house”.
From outside, it appears to be just
a pile of boulders, but inside it’s surprisingly cavernous, a dark
barn with a solitary candle throwing long shadows over earth floor
and walls. His English is basic but he’s keen to learn, and soon
he’s asking me to correct his exercises from his well-thumbed
beginners’ grammar book. We share my spare biscuits and the honey,
which he devours ravenously, until he leads the way up rickety steps
to a blackened inner sleeping quarter.
Here, by torchlight, he opens a
chest and lovingly digs out his prize, and almost sole, possession –
a handsome Bible written in Ge’ez, which he begins to read aloud,
only stopping occasionally to look up for encouragement. Riveted, I
sit, eyes half-closed, on the threadbare mattress. Aeons later,
seemingly, he closes the Bible and motions me to go with him
outside. There, everything is silent, and the sky’s littered with
galaxies, while forlorn plateaux below are bathed in ethereal white
by the moon.
At length, we return inside and he
bars the creaking door before retiring to his sanctum. Lying on top
of the carefully prepared spare “bed”, a wooden table covered with
moth-eaten cowhides, I can’t sleep – too moved by this generous
monk’s humble spirituality and overwhelmed, yet again, by the
grandeur of this tragic land.
Extracted from Patrick
Richardson’s Reports from Beyond, to be published by Ultima Thule
Press on Thursday at £25. Available at the Sunday Times Books First
price of £22.50 (inc p&p) on 0870 165 8585
Travel details: Ethiopia is
best tackled using a specialist tour operator. Rainbow Tours’s
11-day classic Ethiopia historical tour visits Bahir Dar, Gond-ar,
the Simien Mountains, Lalibela, Aksum and Addis Ababa, and costs
from £2,545pp, based on two sharing, including English-speaking
guides, transport, accommodation and return flights from London on
Ethiopian Airlines. Or try Explore Worldwide (0845 013 1537,
www.explore.co.uk), Bales Worldwide (0845 057 1819,
www.balesworld wide.com), or, for an overland trip, Dragoman