9 – Keepers of the Lost Ark

9 – Keepers of the Lost Ark

Ethiopian legend states that the Queen of Sheba originates from Aksum. They say she went to Jerusalem to listen to King Solomon’s teachings. Apparently, she didn’t just listen to his teachings, as on her return, she discovered she was pregnant with King Solomon’s son (Menelik). The story goes that when Menelik was twenty, he travelled to Jerusalem to meet his father. On his way back, he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Aksum, where Ethiopians believe it remains today. (FYI: the Ark of the Covenant is a gold-covered wooden chest containing the two stone tablets of the Ten Commandments).

A depiction of Queen Sheba and King Solomon meeting

Now you know how important Aksum is for Ethiopians, back to our travels…

To get to Aksum we had to take a bajaj back to Hawzien and from there we took three minibuses (changing at Adigrat and then Adwa – for those who want all the details!) The mountain road offered beautiful views of the surrounding valleys. We are not yet bored of these gorgeous landscapes. Several times on the journey, a child collected money from passengers in a small plastic bag. He didn’t seem to ask us for money, so we sat back and watched, waiting to see what would happen next. We wondered if he was collecting tips. Soon it was made clear: at a bend in the road, the boy threw the plastic bag out the window where a priest was stood, waiting. This happened three times on our journey!

The bags were clearly filled enough as the journey ran smoothly, and we arrived in Aksum towards the end of the day. For dinner we went to a traditional Ethiopian restaurant and ate injera (obviously!) There was a stage on which Ethiopian performers danced and sang to traditional songs from different regions of the country. The dancing was very fast-paced and entertaining to watch. Every now and again, a man would go on stage to slip some money into the shirt or dress of his favourite performer. We were expecting the place to be crawling with tourists but were pleasantly surprised to see the crowd was local. We counted two other white people. One of them, a French guy, happened to be sat next to us.

Antika restaurant with live performance

We chatted with him a bit and he informed us that we could go see the Mehelela ceremony. It’s super early in the morning but worth it apparently. The ceremony involves a replica Ark being paraded through the streets to request forgiveness from God. It is held during the first seven days of every month. We had already heard about it, though as it was the sixteenth of September, we thought we had missed it. Silly us, we had forgotten the Ethiopians follow their own calendar! Oops. We decided we would check it out, so set our alarms to half past four (GMT+3) i.e. 10:30 Ethiopian time.

At crazy o’clock the next morning, after a brief hesitation in bed (were we really going to get up ?!), we walked to the ceremony, guided by a speaker blaring a call to prayer. In the middle of a cluster of churches was a vast open pebbled square with a tree in the middle. The crowd patiently gathered here, waiting for the ceremony to commence. Draped over everyone’s head and shoulders was a large white veil. Emerging from each veil was a hand, holding a candle. (We didn’t have the veils, but we did have the candles!) At five o’clock a parade of priests exited a church gate.  One of the priests held a large wooden box with gold decoration above his head. On top of the box lay a dark shawl with gold embroidery. This was the Ark of the Covenant (well, a replica, as the “real one” is not accessible to us mere mortals). Surrounding priests, in full regalia, held richly decorated umbrellas over their heads and over the Ark. In the middle of the square, the parade entered a small round enclosure lit up like a Christmas tree. A short service was held here before everyone left the square in a grand procession, singing as they walked the streets of Aksum. We started to follow the group. It was only when we noticed all the voices around us were very low that we saw men and women were divided. We walked between the two groups, not far from the Ark. We remained silent, soaking up the atmosphere around us. We were touched to be able to share this thoughtful and emotional moment with people from a completely different cultural background to us. It was moving to think that despite us expressing our beliefs in different ways, we still share the same faith. We continued following the procession for a few more minutes before returning to the hotel to sleep.

The Mehelela Ceremony
The singing procession through the streets

A few hours later we ventured out a second time, returning to the cluster of churches: the Old Saint Mary of Zion cathedral (exclusively for men), the Chapel of the Tablet (which is believed to hold the Ark of the Covenant – exclusively for the guardian of the Ark) and the New Saint Mary of Zion Church (for men and women). The first two are small old buildings, the third is a large modern church. We stayed in this area for ages, watching people come pray or kiss the stones. We felt so at peace there. All was silent except for the chirping of birds in nearby trees.

The park and entrance to the cluster of churches

Next, we went to see one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites; Aksum’s enormous granite obelisks. These exquisitely carved monolithic sky scrapers are around one thousand seven hundred years old. They reflect the wealth and power of the ancient Aksumite Empire (which controlled the strait between Africa and Asia for hundreds of years).

The UNESCO listed obelisks

These unique masterpieces were made in a quarry four kilometres away, then brought to the centre of Aksum. Some weigh as much as five hundred and twenty tons! One of them lays on the ground, broken in several pieces. Archaeologists believe it fell when it was being erected. Shame – as it would have been the tallest in the world (thirty-three metres high). The tallest one standing on this site is twenty-four metres high. The record for the tallest in the world still goes to Egypt – pity.

The broken obelisk which could have been the tallest!

After visiting these historical sites, we went to the local market to stock up on supplies for the next stage of our trip (the Simien mountains). The stall keepers had weighing scales which helped us calculate the quantity and price of their products (well, that and negotiation). We came away with loo-roll, oranges, carrots, onions, rice, peanut butter, tins of tomatoes, tuna and pineapple.

We then returned to the hotel. Another early night for us, as we had an early start the next day. On the road again…

3 Replies to “9 – Keepers of the Lost Ark”

  1. This reads like some imaginary travelogue!! Incredible what you have both experienced already!! Knocks Ten Tors into a cocked hat I think!! Thank you for sharing xxxx

  2. Wow 😮 fascinating. Love hearing about a culture and Ceremonies that I never expected or even knew about. Lxxx

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