My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Monday, 21 December 2015

Axum - home of the Ark of the Covenant

South Stelae Field Axum
off to church - Axum
Axum - or Aksum - is at the very heart of Ethiopian history. Home to the Aksumite empire with a ruling dynasty allegedly descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba - spiritual home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and home, it is said, of the Ark of the Covenant  - kept closely guarded in the Chapel of the Tablet in the compound of Maryam Tsion (St Mary of Zion church - the Old Cathedral - site of Ethiopia's first church - built on site of a former pagan shrine- and access denied to women - see also below).
Axum is therefore a very old and a very holy city, not immediately apparent as we approached last night in the dark wanting only our hotel, a meal, a drink and a rest.
Street scene Axum
In the mausoleum South Stelae Field
Detail of Remhae's Obelisk
For a start it has the tallest stelae or obelisks dating back to the third and fourth centuries, made of sandstone out of single blocks and curiously carved. What were they for? Probably they marked royal graves. Unique multi storey tower constructions with realistic carved doors and windows could represent their royal palaces or their "symbolic stairway to heaven."? How on earth were they erected into position? Probably by elephants, it is usually thought nowadays. In the South Stelae Park we saw:
Remhai's obelisk - the largest at 33 metres - shattered into five blocks across the ground - some say as it was erected. In total it weighs 520 tonnes. Who knows what skeletons may lie beneath?! Note the carved windows and door at the base.
Tomb of the False Door
Ezana's Stele is 23 metres tall with nine storeys of windows with a door at the base.
Inside the new cathedral Axum
The Roman Stele was taken in bits to Rome in the Italian occupation and was returned back to Axum in 2005. It has to be supported by a very ugly contraption.
Then there was the Tomb of the False Door - where we see blocks held together with metal clamps - and can appreciate the advanced skills of the original engineers.
And the ten funerary chambers off each side of a dark corridor in the underground Mausoleum
Chapel of the Tablet
First we had been to the Mai Shum reservoir - Bath of the Queen of Sheba - a water storage cistern of unknown age - but probably dating back at least to the seventeenth century - used still as a main water supply for the city -
Women going down to collect water at the Bath of
the Queen of Sheba
Funerary chamber within the Mausoleum
and a free swimming pool for all the local children - but of especial significance at the celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany or Timquat - when the replica Arks of the Covenant from all the local churches are taken in procession to Abuna Aregawi church south of the reservoir. The day after, at the Baptism of Christ, the spring water nearby is sprinkled over the people. Some of these nearby springs are said to have healing properties and have been visited for this purpose by Christians and Muslims alike for a very long time.

Then there is the Ark of the Covenant itself said to be in the Chapel of the Tablet in the cathedral compound across the road from the stelae field. In the same compound are two cathedrals - women are not allowed in the first so we all visit the second more modern one, built in the 1960s by the emperor Haile Selassie who opened it jointly with HM Queen Elizabeth.

We also went in the small Museum in the church compound near the Chapel of the Tablet - we have to leave all belongings in lockers outside the door and really didn't have enough time to examine all the artefacts, including ancient crowns, crosses and other church relics. I could have stayed a little longer than the allocated half hour. But don't confuse this with the Axum Museum near the South Stelae Park which it would seem is a must visit to really fully explain the stelae, but sadly we had no time for it. I did however buy a superb book on Axum - published by Arada Books -A Comprehensive Guide to Aksum and Yeha which I would suggest is a must for anyone who wishes to really make the most of their visit to this incredibly important historical city.

Panoramic view inside the New Cathedral Axum
Scene of Axum from south stelae Field towards 
There are many more sites to visit in Aksum but time presses on and we have to catch our flight to Lalibela - the first turbo-prop I have flown in for many years. Every day brings new and even more amazing experiences - the rock hewn churches of Lalibela we are soon to see are incredible…

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