Roadtrip Day 8: Aksum, home of the Arc of the Covenant and Africa’s largest obelisks

Thursday 11th January 2018

We are woken up by prayers sometime between 3 and 4 am. This is not a happy start to the day. When we do roll out of bed again around 7 we discover that there is no water in our USD $106 a night suite. So Mike heads down to the reception and after some waiting there is a small trickle out of the taps.

We have decided not to get a guide in Axum, it is nowadays just a country town and the key sights are in plain view. However, in hindsight, that may not have been the best of ideas. We first walk around town to find the tourist office, which takes a bit of effort. I mentioned in a previous blog that there are limited signposts, that includes tourist information offices etc. One admission ticket covers all the main sights.

We then head to the small park where the famous 4th century AD stone of King Ezana is, the Ethiopian equivalent of the Rosetta stone. It has inscriptions in Sabaean, Ge’ez and Greek. After looking around for a while in the small dusty park area, we finally manage to rouse a napping guard. When asking him for directions, he produces a key, and unlocks a small shed. We slip him a couple of Birr and have a good look at this 2 meter tall marvel. It is in excellent condition.

According to the guidebooks there is supposed to be an archeological museum here, but we can’t find it. It may well be still under construction, who knows!

We then head to the source of our morning wake up calls, the Maryam of Zion church. This is a pretty garish modern building, but the point of interest is a small chapel behind the church. Men can come a bit closer than women, but nobody is allowed close or inside the building, except for one specially chosen guard. This chapel is said to contain the Arc of the Covenant. Yes, the one that Indiana Jones was looking for, the original from the Bible. You can’t get closer to it, you may burst into fire.

The legend goes that the Queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian Queen who went to visit king Solomon. She got pregnant with his child, returned to Ethiopia and gave birth to a boy, the future king Menelik. When the king was young, he went back to Israel to get to know his father. He then left Jerusalem, taking with him the Arc of the Covenant and a large number of the Jewish first born sons and priests. Via Egypt, they travelled up the Nile, back to Ethiopia. Haile Selassie himself, the last Ethiopian emperor, claimed to be a direct descendant from King Menelik and hence Solomon.

The Falashi, the Ethiopian orthodox jewish people, are descendents from this group of immigrant. If you want to read more, check out the book “The Sign and The Seal” by Graham Hancock.

There is a small museum next to the site, with a range of robes and crowns from various kings. Some amazing historical items are kept in what is effectively a shop display cabinet in a shed. It makes it very accessible to all of us, but also vulnerable to deterioration.

One of the priests in the church allows us to look at the hand drawn pictures in the old bibles for a couple of Birr. Again, amazing to see, but it is scary to think how easily these amazing pieces could be lost forever.

Just opposite the Church of Maryan of Zion is the other famous site of Aksum, the Stellae, or Obelisks.

Aksum is one of the most important and spectacular ancient sites in Africa. It once was the capital of the Aksumite kingdom. This civilisation started to rise as early as 400 BC, dominating the sea trade between Asia and Africa until the 9th Century AD.

One of the interesting remainders of this kingdom are the Stellae. Large obelisks, meant to display the cities’ wealth and power, carved from a single piece of granite. There are over a hundred here, ranging in height from 1 to 33 metres. They are pretty impressive to walk around, realising that these have been in place for close to 2000 years. You can just walk between them, no fences, no tourists.

The largest of them, the Great Stele, is 33 m tall. It is believed to be the largest single block of stone that humans have ever attempted to erect, and overshadows even the Egyptian obelisks. Scholars theorise that it fell during its erection in the 4th century, and shattered as it hit the stones over one of the tombs underneath it.

Mike and Frank relax under one of the big trees next to the Stellea, while Lina and I have a look around the tombs underneath the stelae and the small museum on site.

Children drive their bicycles around the entrance to the Stellae, and we hear the usual requests for cash, pens etc. One smart little chap however is practicing a new line “give me lots of money”… cheeky little monkey!

Travel details and tips:

Accomodation: Yeha hotel, Aksum

Tip 1: Be prepared to do a lot of searching and asking if you don’t have a guide. Some places are doable without a guide, however, it is customary to employ a local (who then takes kick backs etc). The lonely planet doesn’t get you very far in places like this!

Tip 2: Most of Ethiopia is at about 2000 metres of elevation, and hence malaria is not a big issue in this part of the world. You are more likely to pick up a cold or diarrhoea. It is wise to stick to bottled water.

Australia, and a number of other countries, do require you to have a yellow fever vaccination certificate and be able to show that when you return back from your trip.

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