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Saturday, February 5, 2011

Legend Has It

If you’re Ethiopian you most likely believe that: the Nile River originates in Ethiopia (the White Nile actually originates in Lake Victoria running through Uganda and Kenya first), that Mt. Kilimanjaro is in Kenya (it is in Tanzania) and that Moses’ stone tablets inscribed with God's law rest in a church somewhere in Axum, a little town in northern Ethiopia not far from the Eritrean border (check out Gram Hancock’s The Sign and the Seal if you interested in the plausibility of this claim). Ethiopian's also abide by the belief that if you want to hide something, you make many, many replicas of it and guard them fervently. So word on the street is that the true Ark of the Covenant lives somewhere in the Tsion Maryam Church, guarded around the clock by a monk who has devoted his life to keep the ark safe through constant prayer. It is believed that if the monk were to falter in his devotion, the ark would come under threat. He is the only person alive who has seen the Ark. 

We rolled into Axum 2 days before Timkat, the celebration and reenactment of the Ark’s arrival in Axum. Cool. We were told that one of the replicas would be carried through town toward the old reservoir known as Queen of Sheba’s Bath where it would spend the night before returning to Tsion Maryam Church. The precession of pilgrims and townspeople, priests and deacons, camera wielding tourists and the Chinese video crew was quite a sight.

Later that evening we met up with our Israeli friends and word on the street is that the Israelis want it back. So we told them where we last saw the Ark and they headed that way. It is Ethiopia and it would be totally possible for them to have (at some point) mistaken the fake ark for the real one, so who knows. When we picked up the Israelis the next day, their packs were quite heavy. We tossed them into the back of the car and headed south to visit the churches of Tigray together. We didn’t say anything about weight of their packs and they kept quiet about their evening escapades. It seemed like an auspicious start to our adventure into Tigray.

As a country Ethiopia is steeped in myth and Ethiopians are fantastic story tellers. For any given question you can always expect an answer, rarely will it be the same answer and it is not uncommon for the same person to give you different answers on different days; answers can often vary wildly, and when asking about dates, responses can vary by a thousand years or more! The cool part is that no one really knows how old most of the churches actually are. Some sources will date a particular church to the 4th century, while others believe it represents 12th century architecture; complicated by renovations, additions and the inclusion of plaster and frescos at random many of these churches have continued to evolve throughout time as an amalgam of periods rather than belonging to just one era. 

There are over 350 known rock-hewn and cave built churches throughout Ethiopia, many of them over 1,000 years old, and nearly all of them are still in use today. So a 6th century church that has been used throughout the decades as a sacred place of worship is bound to come across a designer or two who just can’t help but dood it up a bit. This is Africa and African's love bling. A few of the churches are believed to have been built before Christ as pagan temples, later converted into Christian churches. If you’re a historian the ambiguity might drive you nuts, if you’re Ethiopian your certainty is fact, if you’re a curious observer the mystery only adds to the mystique.

For photos of Axum and Timkat click here

For photos of the Tigrian Chruches and our escapades with the Israelis click here

Sending love out to you,

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