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A Journey of biblical proportions

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1 January 2008 by Pete Mathers

For as long as 5,000 years, stelae – stone obelisks – have been used in north-east Africa as tombstones and monuments to local rulers. In the Ethiopian province of Tigray, about 500 miles north of Addis Ababa, lies Aksum, a dusty and overgrown village where the tradition of erecting stelae reached a zenith between the 3rd and 6th centuries ad. Like Egypt’s pyramids, Aksum’s stelae served as giant billboards, announcing to the world the authority and power of the Aksumite rulers. By the 1st century ad, Greek merchants knew Aksum as the powerful capital of an empire that included much of southern Arabia and the gold-producing lowlands of the Sudanese Nile Valley.

For close to 1,000 years, Aksum dominated the vital seaborne trade between Africa and Asia, exchanging frankincense, rhino horn, apes and ivory for glassware, iron and Italian wine and olive oil. Yet before I arrived across the Simien Mountains – and to my shame as an amateur historian – I knew next to nothing about this once-great kingdom. I entered the Northern Stelae Field to the sounds of drumming and ethereal chanting. Behind me, in the gated compound of the St Mary of Zion Church, white-robed priests sang with joy and gusto in the shade of the lilac trees. Before me lay 120 stone stelae, spread out across slopes and tiered gardens, and ranging in size from one to 33 metres.

Each, explained Fitsum, my official Aksum guide, had been sculpted from a single piece of granite, dragged by elephants from a quarry 4km to the west. Strangely modern, they looked more like New York skyscrapers than 1,800-year-old obelisks, with mock-doors at their bases and small windows on each storey. In the centre of the field was a giant tower of scaffolding, beneath which stood a symbol of significant national pride. In 1937, during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, the broken remains of Aksum’s second-largest stele were shipped to Italy on the orders of Mussolini himself, and reassembled in a piazza in Rome.

After years of negotiations, the Rome Stele finally returned to Aksum in 2005, where it’s being re-erected on the site of its original construction.

More impressive still, though it lies like a broken soldier, was the 33m Giant Stele, which at 520 tonnes is the largest stone block man has ever attempted to erect. Comparing its unworked ‘root’ to the sleek, carved base, geometric windows and intricate walia ibex carved into the top, I got a clear idea of the precision, finesse and technical competence of the Aksumite masons.

Astonishingly, at least 95% of the site remains unexcavated, and despite what lies above, some of the greatest treasures remain hidden below ground. Though nothing as spectacular as an Ethiopian Tutankhamen has of yet been discovered, peering into the corners of a shadowy mausoleum and squeezing through passages that would make Lara Croft tremble, I couldn’t help but think that today might be the day.

Emerging from the tombs into the midday sun, Fitsum led me to an old rock reservoir. “What’s this?” I asked, still stunned by how an empire as big as Aksum’s had evaded my historical radar. “It’s the Queen of Sheba’s bath,” he said proudly. Wallop! Another nail in the coffin of my historical credentials. Sensing my surprise, Fitsum began the story of Ethiopia’s most famous legend.

Aksum, agrees many an Ethiopian, was the Queen of Sheba’s capital in the 10th century bc. According to the Kebra Negast (Ethiopia’s national epic), it was from Aksum that Sheba left to visit Israel’s King Solomon. Upon seeing her virginal beauty, Solomon immediately coveted the queen, but assured her he would take nothing from her so long as she took nothing from him.

But the crafty king invited Sheba to a banquet of spicy food, and left a glass of water by her bedside that night. Awaking in a thirst, she reached for a drink. Solomon demanded his side of the bargain, and Sheba returned pregnant with his child, the future King Menelik I. Still, she had her revenge years later when Menelik returned to Jerusalem and made off with the Ark of the Covenant, establishing a dynasty of Solomonic blood that was to rule Ethiopia for 3,000 years.

“So what happened to the Ark?” I asked Fitsum, as vultures circled in the sky above us. “It’s over there, by the Church of St Mary of Zion.”

At the end of Aksum’s only paved road, beside the latest incarnation of this holiest of churches – a Byzantine-domed edifice built by Haile Selassie in the 1960s – stood a small granite building surrounded by a rusting blue fence. An Aksumite cross crowned its flaking green copula and burgundy curtains had been drawn across its door. Inside, guarded by an especially holy monk, is said to lie the most sought-after Christian relic besides the Holy Grail itself.

“Any chance of a peek?” I enquired hopefully. “Not unless you want to burst into flames,” replied Fitsum, referring to the Old Testament fate of those who approached the Ark. Such is the nature of Ethiopia’s myths and histories. Like following King Arthur around Britain, evidence evaporates when viewed with historical scrutiny. Yet to any Ethiopian, Sheba and Solomon, Menelik and the Ark are as real as the coming of the rains. Religion is inseparable from day-to-day life, from the hermit-like deacon in a remote rock-hewn church to the farmers that continue to plough the land with oxen, unearthing crosses, coins and pendants that in any other country would be rushed to a guarded museum.

As we left the church compound, two boys in Wayne Rooney T-shirts closed in on either side. The first had a pre-Christian Aksumite coin in one hand, a necklace of beads collected from the Queen of Sheba’s Palace in the other. The second offered a 500-year-old Ge’ez Bible, its cover made of wood, its pages of goatskin. Families across the centuries had pawed over its hand-drawn calligraphy and bright illustrations of the saints and their miracles. Now a foreigner could own it for a handful of dollars.

Never before have I seen a town like Aksum. Camels plod by the remarkable stelae, bringing wood, wheat and barley to the Saturday market. Drinking coffee is a lengthy and blessed ceremony, in which newly washed beans are roasted in an iron pan then ground with a pestle and mortar. Table football is a national pastime, women wash their clothes in the Queen of Sheba’s bath, and men in as little as rags press their faces to the walls of the St Mary of Zion Church, looking to absorb its sanctity before returning to the fields to work.

For more information on this remarkable country, or to book your historical tour, call 020 7838 5968 or email [email protected].

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