Buna & Bread: An Ethiopian Adventure
Chapter 10: Starers at the Lost Ark
Remhai Hotel, Aksum, Ethiopia…
After leaving the kings’ tombs, Jim and I walked back to Aksum and entered the gates of the church of St. Mary of Zion. It’s actually two churches; the older one (built by Emperor Fasiladas in 1665) and the massive new church built by Haile Selassie three hundred years later.
There was no shortage of people offering their services as guides, so we grabbed one who seemed rather polite and we seemed to communicate with fairly clearly. He took us over to the round new church first, instructing us to remove our shoes as we stepped inside.
The interior was a single massive round room capped by a stained glass set dome that let in the late morning light. And also several pigeons. A fact you could see by watching them fly by. Or could step in if you weren’t watching your feet on the red-carpeted floor. Perhaps this was meant as a way to keep the faithful humble; their eyes cast down in wary respect. Only the penitent man shall pass without getting bird poo on his feet.
Our guide showed us several old hand-written bibles that were brought out wrapped in thick shrouds of cloth, their edges brown and worn brittle by centuries of use. One of them, he claimed, was 1,000 years old.
We left the church and crossed a small courtyard to the front of a small chapel with a little metal fence around it.
“This is the chapel where the Ark of the Covenant is kept.” said our guide with an air of nonchalance one usually uses when ordering a Happy Meal or explaining how a copier works.
Yes, he meant that Ark of the Covenant. The one holding the original stone tablets with the Ten Commandments that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. The one that melts the faces off Nazis.
Jim and I just stopped and stared. The one priest allowed to actually see the Ark slowly walked around the edge of the chapel, holding his white robes tightly around him. He glanced towards us briefly and disappeared inside behind billowing curtains.
I was trying to picture what the Ark looked like. I was sending out invisible spiritual tendrils of Christianity into the air around me seeing if I could pick up a shimmer of it’s power, a disturbance in the Force if you will.
Jim, an evangelical atheist, briefly looked like he felt his body temperature rising. And there was the thought of maybe, just maybe…
“All religious beliefs and all myths about magic powers aside, you have to admit that if they actually have the Ark in there…” I let the rest of my sentence trickle away through the spaces of the ellipsis.
“I know. I know.” whispered Jim, shaking his head slightly as if trying to fit in some new piece of possibility into his belief system.
Perhaps that’s why they call it faith. You don’t know anything for sure. You have to go with what feels right, what you believe. On faith. But when even respected, credible, sane researchers come to the conclusion that the Ark is likely here, well, you have to allow for that to be true. (For a good read on this very subject, check out The Sign and the Seal by the very respected, credible and sane Graham Hancock)
We pondered the great imponderables for several minutes more. We tried to stare through those walls. We listened for a dull hum. The only sound was a few insects in the trees and our guide chatting quietly with a priest, his hand resting atop the leveled column of the ruined old chapel.
Then I can guarantee we both briefly thought of bum rushing the chapel, hurdling the fence and sprinting behind those thin wispy curtains that separated us from…what? Myth? Legend? Immortality? Our skulls bursting into flame? Being forced to serve eternity ridding the world of evil in all its unearthly forms? Most likely forcing our embassy to make embarrassed apologies to spring us from the local clink. We moved on with mystery and all possibilities still possible in our heads.
Inside another chapel we were shown some amazing wall-sized tapestries that had stared from the walls for centuries. There was a rare image of a black Mary. (This is why I’m a cafeteria Christian. Jesus did not look like Toby Keith. He was Middle Eastern. Deal with it.) There were also homages to various saints including St. Haimanot who prayed for seven years standing on one leg until the other withered away and fell off. The lost limb was shown here with wings, making it’s way into heaven.
It got me thinking about some of the other Ethiopian saints I’d read about. Sure, there’s badasses like dragon-slayer and master brewer St. George or St. Michael who gave Satan a flying suplex right over heaven’s turnbuckle. But there’s also St. Kiddus who preached peace to wild animals in the desert and let a dying bird drink the water from his eye. Not surprisingly, he’s often pictured with a belt made of hemp. And Belai the Cannibal who ate some 72 people—including his family. He made it to heaven because he gave water to a begging leper. That’s quite a heavenly exchange rate. Plus, it’s not like he was going to tuck into leper meat. Ewwwww!
Our tour complete, we met up with Melissa and the girls at the hilltop Yeha (Yee-haw!) Hotel for lunch. Full of injera, we walked down the curling walk to visit Aksum’s other main attraction: the stelae park.
The girls ran far ahead, their little legs wobbling furiously to stay underneath them on the downward slope. When we caught up they were talking with a semi-circle of local kids about the same age. You could tell there was some shyness on both sides, but they were asking each other their names and just wanted to say ‘hello’. When 98% of the people you encounter in a day are asking you for birr, sweets or pens, your deflector shields tend to come up automatically. These kids were pint-sized ambassadors, shaking our hands with an “’Ow do you do, sir.? Welcome to Aksum. Have a great time.”
The Stelae Park is an amazing archeological site where over 120 stone monuments have been erected in a field no larger than about a thousand square meters. Erected is the appropriate word, since they all seem to be quite proudly phallic in design as if in tribute to King Viagra of the Hardon Dynasty.
Joking aside, it was hard (excuse me) not to be impressed with the sheer amount of man and beastpower and engineering know-how it took to carve, transport and erect some of these monuments.
Think about it. It’s sometime around the 4th century and you have to carve a single block of marble that’s 30m high, transport it 4km from the quarry and then stand the 500-ton sumnabitch up. How do you do it? Archeologists suggest rollers and winches mixed with a lot of time and hundreds of elephants. Some suggest the simplest solution is that the Ark of the Covenant was used. I can’t help but cast my eyes over a grove of trees a few blocks away where I can still see the Ethiopian cross atop the Ark’s chapel pointing it’s answer silently into the sky.
It’s hard to ignore the massiveness of the aptly named Great Stele. This 33m monster is believed to be the largest single block of stone humans have ever tried to erect. I say ‘try’ because the Great Stele is lying face-down in the field, crumpled into three massive pieces. Right where it fell some 1,600 years ago. It likely fell when being hauled upright and now not even elephants, the Ark or Secret Wars Hulk have attempted to right it.
Raindrops start to stain the white granite dark in blotches and we seek shelter under its toppled girth. I watch the girls’ hands reach up and rub the ancient stone and smile at two millennia shaking hands. I would like to think a village child once did the same thing and wondered how long this piece of stone would lie here.
Near the entrance of the park sits a trio of huge square crates under a makeshift metal canopy. This is the Rome Stele. So named because Mussolini had it shipped to Italy in 1937 during the Italian occupation. Billboards around Addis had proudly boasted of its re-rising ceremony slated for this year. But with funds and time running out, it didn’t look likely anytime soon. To think that thousands of years ago, this society found a way to carve, transport and stand it up in a single piece. And now we stand around scratching our heads about how to make it happen.
The rain lets up and the first ray of sunlight to emerge sets the top of St. Mary’s Church ablaze with possibility. Or is the glow coming from the inside out?
[In our next episode: Gobblers in Gonder]