After reluctantly saying goodbye to Lalibela we made our way to Axum. The marathon journey took us a full day and a half to complete along winding switchback mountain roads. Once we finally arrived, Mark was relieved to lie down on a bed and recover from a stomach bug he picked up, while I ventured out with the others to see the sights.
I’m not much of a history buff to begin with, let alone Ethiopian history, so this was another place not on my radar. Axum, Axumite: these words sounded somewhat familiar. I probably read about Axumite kingdoms on a museum plaque once upon a time, not really registering their significance. Once again, I can thank my travels for enlightenment. This ancient kingdom was a truly significant civilizations for almost a thousand years, from around 200BC to 8th century AD, before outside religions took hold of Ethiopia. The Axumite were traders, thriving on the Red Sea. The city of Axum was the centre of their kingdom.
Today, Axum is an archaeologist’s dream. There are numerous sites yet to be excavated and documented. The Enzra transcription was discovered by a farmer, which, similar to the Rosetta stone, translates three different ancient scripts. Pretty much all that remains nowadays of the old city are the funerary fields and tombs where the kings and noblemen were buried. We visited a few of these funerary fields, or stelae fields. There are something like 66 stelae in and around Axum. A stelae (obelisk) is basically a glorified tomb marker. Some are small, no more than 5 feet hight, and unmarked, while others are up to 60 feet tall with ornate doors and windows carved into them. They were quarried from local granite and likely erected with elephant power. The kings were buried beneath the larger, more ornate stelae with their treasure and their servants, who coincidentally died at the same time as the king. The number of false window levels carved into the stelae above indicates the number of chambers lying beneath. A tall 10-story stelae means that the king was buried with 9 of his servants, each with their own chamber. We went inside a few of the chambers — spooky.
In addition to these ancient archaeological sites, Axum is also significant because it is home to The Lost Ark. After the fall of the Axumite kingdom, Christianity took over as the predominant religion: Orthodox Christianity, to be precise. Ethiopians believe that the Ark of the Covenant was brought over to Axum by Menelik, son of Queen Sheba and Solomon. It is now locked up inside a chapel. No one is allowed to visit it or enter the chapel except for one or two very important caretakers. Security is fairly ‘laxed considering the magnitude of what’s kept inside, but there is also some skepticism about whether there’s anything in the chapel or not, since only the caretakers are allowed to view it. I snapped a photo of the chapel from afar because women are not allowed to even enter the compound.
Our guide told us that the reason women are not allowed to enter many of the churches is that when Jesus rose from the dead, the first person he saw was Mary Magdalene. He told her to spread the message of God and of his resurrection. And therefore women should not enter churches. Am I missing something here? Does this make sense to anyone else?