Chapter 9: Tomb Writer
Remhai Hotel, Aksum, Ethiopia…
The Remhai Hotel is by far the fanciest gaff we’ve stayed at yet. Which isn’t saying much. Let’s say it’s probably where Kofi Anan would stay if he was in Aksum. But not where your mom would stay if she was in Cincinnati. They are clearly trying their best to put on an upscale image, but there are hilarious misspellings that blow that thin veneer to pieces. Like the bathroom sign addressed to “Dear Our Guests” instructing us where to throw our “trashes”. The bar downstairs has “Glenvilt” and “Macall” scotches and room service can wash your “srockings”, “blousers” and “brawear”.
I’m also noticing how many Ethiopians, when speaking English, end their words with a hard ‘ed’. Like ‘finish-Ed’ instead of ‘finnisht’. It makes sense; that’s how it’s spelled. I’m not poking fun with much force because I’m sure whenever I try to speak in Ahmaric I’m providing lots of comic material.
But let’s talk about Aksum! Also spelled Axum. Not surprisingly, it was once part of the great Aksumite kingdom from the first millennium AD until around 700 AD. Ancient Greeks and Romans passed through this way and the area was a major player in seaborne trade between Africa and Asia. Dr. Nevin Chittick called it “the last of the great civilizations of Antiquity to be revealed to modern knowledge.” Which means that upwards of 98% of it’s marvelous temples, castles, tombs and artifacts are still hidden somewhere under the fields and buildings of modern day Axum. You’d think every time someone turned over a rock, they’d find something that would give Indiana Jones a hard on. This happened to a farmer who stumbled upon an inscribed stone tablet in his field in 1981. It was dated to the time of King Ezana (circa 330AD) and read ‘the person who should dare to move the tablet will meet an untimely death’. The stone still sits in the field exactly where he found it.
Jim and I thought a great place to check out the 2% of Aksum that had already been discovered would be at the Archeological Museum. Our approach roused a barefoot old man in a tattered suitcoat that was either gray or covered in dust. He shuffled up to us and slowly unlocked the front door with his tremorous hands. He pulled it open with a clear sense of pride, his hunched over form momentarily standing tall and ushering us in with a gracious sweep of his arm.
The museum was simply a couple rooms filled with cracked linoleum floors and dusty wood and glass display cases where all kinds of stone artifacts were laid out without much explanation. Larger pieces of inscribed stone and pottery sat on the floor along the walls. The oddest piece in the collection was a ceremonial sword made from the serrated nose of a sawfish. I can’t imagine how it first found itself so far from its watery home.
According to the Lonely Planet maps of Axum, the tombs of two 6th century kings (King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel) lay just a few kilometers out of town. We figured it would be hard to miss, so we started off in a general compass point direction. It led us down a deserted dirt road past Queen Sheba’s Bath. The guidebook listed this landmark as a major draw to Axum. It’s a huge water resivoir carved out of solid rock that measures 67m in diameter and 5m in depth. All we saw was a stagnant pool of algae-scum crusted broth that looked like a Swamp Thing had eaten another spoiled Swamp Thing and then taken a dump while swimming . This made it all the more shocking to see villagers drawing their drinking water from it. It would be like getting a salad in every sip. Either the Bath had been abandonded for a long while or the Queen had some serious body funk.
After half an hour of walking under the unflinching glare of ol’ Sol, we started thinking some of that water wouldn’t be so bad. We had past a few small farms and stone structures, but nothing that stood out as a landmark or monument of any sort. Surely nothing that said ‘Kings Tombs This Way’. We squinted in the heat at the surrounding hills in vain.
When the road just stopped at a large rock, we figured we had come too far and doubled back. We decided to ask a gentleman who bore a striking resemblence to Jimmy Walker if he knew where the tombs were. As we approached, he bolted upright and gestured us over to a locked door in a fence. Apparently we had walked right by our destination a few minutes earlier.
Sure enough, Jim and I now found ourselves staring down some remarkably preserved steps at a black rectangular portal into the netherworld. We turned to wait for the attendant, but he already retreated back to a little triangle of shade provided by the corner of a low stone wall.
I noticed a dead bat on the second step before my feet. Not a good omen. If a shrieking lich in a jeweled crown riding a sphinx had sprung from the opening in front of us, I would not have been as surprised as you may think.
The little flashlights we had brought along were a weak defense in holding back a dark that had held sway for over 1400 years. We could only see along the wall or floor in a foot wide circle a few feet in front of us. While our eyes fought to make out details, my nose took in the still dampness and my skin goosebumped at the cool caress of the lonely air.
I could make out a small opening in front of me. Rather than step through, I took a picture with my camera, closing my eyes against the harsh flash. The picture that came up on the screen showed three stone crypts. All of them wide open and very empty.
“Jim.” I hissed into the black. “Don’t wander off too far.”
“Only the penitent man shall pass.” he whispered back from somewhere in the gloom.
Thieves had long since plundered any treasure from here, but it was still impressive feeling the weight of the centuries set your heart pounding as you shuffled about the few rooms, exposing it a few feet at a time in your small globe of light.
I stepped through another circular opening on my right, feeling for footing on loose rocks underneath my feet. I swung my penlight upwards where a furry winged creature silently crossed the beam and then disappeared again.
That’s all I needed to have me back out of the room. As I turned, I noticed a long shadow slowly stretching down the steps, accompanied by a shuffling ‘thump-thump’ of footsteps.
Much to both our relief, it was the Jimmy Walker lookalike. He gladly showed us a few features in the tomb we had passed over in the dark. Including severalsmall crosses carved into the walls And a mysterious v-shape icon just above the floor. There was a bit of a language barrier, but he stomped on the tile next to the mark and it responsed with a hollow thud, indicating a hidden room underneath. We barely resisted the urge to ask him to pull it open, but our minds raced with what African royalty would have done with a hidden chamber so long ago. If he had left and I had a crowbar, I would have been tempted to find out.
We stepped back into daylight above ground, but didn’t step back to present day just yet. We stared across the farmlands and thatch-roofed villages praying at the feet of distant hills and tried to reconstruct the entombment. Our imaginations didn’t have to stretch far.
“Well, that’s not a bad start to the day.” said Jim as we began our stroll back to town. We had already collected our new entourage of children who went through the standard litany of asking for “Dollar? Sweet? Pen?” with an outstretched hand. When we declined, they settled for a smile and a “hello” and then silently fell in behind or bestride us, staring so intently they often stumbled over loose stones or dried gullies. It was annoying, but harmless and inescapable. And frankly, I’d probably do the same thing.
“Wanna go see the Ark of the Covenant?” I suggested.
“Nah.” He jokingly replied. “I might just go back and see if there’s anything on the TV at the hotel.”
[In our next episode…Is that an ancient stelae in your pants or are you just happy to see me?]