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

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Ethiopia pilgrimage - in search of the Ark of the Covenant

mountains and patchwork of fields
The legend of the Ark of the Covenant plays a hugely significant role in Ethiopian Christianity
So what is the Ark of theCovenant and why are we searching for it in Ethiopia?
It is the wooden chest which was built by the Children of Israel according to God's very precise instructions, to hold the two stone tablets brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai, inscribed with the Ten Commandments. When the Jews settled in Jerusalem, it was placed in the Temple from where it disappeared when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Where did it go? And is it in Ethiopia? The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claim so, that it was brought to Ethiopia by Menelik I with divine assistance and that it is kept in Axum, under tight guard in a treasury near the Church of our Lady of Zion. (Menelik I, the first Solomonic Emperor of Ethiopia, (around 950BC) is traditionally believed to be the son of King Solomon of ancient Israel and Makeda, ancient Queen of Sheba).
arriving in Mekele

After our day exploring Addis Ababa we are in bed early - some of us by 8pm - ready for the 4.30am wake up call and a full day ahead tomorrow - our flight to Mekele and the eagerly anticipated rock hewn churches of North East Tigrai.

along the road to Wukro Chirkos
stunning scenery
I set my smart phone and the hotel alarm clock - not content to rely solely on the hotel's own telephone call. I wake up with a jolt convinced I have enjoyed a good night's sleep - only to see it is only 11pm - and I sleep fitfully for the rest of the night. Others in the group describe a similar experience - body clock adjusting? Malaria tablets having weird side effects? Who knows? But somehow or other we are all in the coach by 5.20 am as required and on our way to the airport. Even at this early hour there are scores of people on the streets - walking - always walking - sometimes we wonder where they are all walking to?
I have found Addis Ababa troubling. It is a pulsing throbbing sea of humanity in all its rich tapestry, suffering and comfort in close juxtaposition, medium rise office and hotel blocks jostling for space with far simpler mud homes and shanty town slums, neon lit bars and cafes and hotels, dust roads and modern highways and a brand new metro - a city of huge contrasts - and throughout all of this a kind of tacit acceptance of each other, of each others' place in the scheme of things. There are a few stray dogs and we pass the City Refuge Church on the corner of a roundabout under a flyover - seemingly a garden shelter and sanctuary in the wider hustle and bustle.

I am so happy to be heading out of the city to the tranquility and beauty of the Ethiopian countryside and all that it has to offer.
Typical pastoral scene along the road from Mekele

There is a faint pall of pollution hanging over the high rise part of the city as the plane takes off, incongruous below the cloudless pale blue sky still faintly pink tinged at 7.15am. A mist covers the outskirts of the town, the fields beyond quite green after the recently finished rainy season. As we gain height the mountainous terrain casts deep shadows across the alleys far below. A dry river bed cuts deep between curious flat-topped hills, with multi coloured patchworks of fields on their plateaus. We are soon above 37,000 feet and for a short while a thick fluffy white cloud cover obscures the earth from view.
As we approach Mekele the terrain changes, the rocks below seem pinker, with signs of terracing and two large dams.

Wukro Chirkos sandstone rock hewn church
Soon we are landed, reunited with our luggage and setting off in our coach for the fairly long journey to our first destination of the day, Wukro Chirkos, just one of the 150 odd amazing churches literally hewn out of the sandstone rocks in this Tigrai area of Ethiopia. This one is probably one of the most accessible to the tourist - others can be quite challenging to reach. Amazingly these churches were only brought to the attention of the outside world in the early 1900s, and who knows how many are still to be discovered? They are distinctly less touristy than those we will visit later in the week in Lalibela, and it is probably for this reason that they still hold an aura of spirituality and mood that can be lost when the crowds arrive. 
inside the church

drum used in the religious ceremony

Oh how we can destroy those treasures simply by wanting to go and see them for ourselves! I am thankful that our McCabe group is small and we do not dominate our surroundings.   

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