Arid highlands said to hold ancient Ark of the Covenant
Published in the San Francisco Chronicle
The mind tends to wander when you're trying to catch a glimpse of the only man on Earth who's allowed to see the Ark of the Covenant, the shiny gold box said to hold the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
How do you get that job? Is there a security clearance? Does it come with medical and dental, or is your well-being pretty much overseen by the Almighty?
I couldn't help but think: Indiana Jones would have loved Axum.
Capital of sub-Saharan Africa's oldest empire, Axum is the epicenter of this mystical country's pious and austere brand of Orthodox Christianity; ground zero for the true believers who make pilgrimages to this ancient city set amid the soaring hills and deep chasms of Ethiopia's arid northern highlands. It also marks the final stop on the "historical route," a circuit through ancient and mysterious Christian kingdoms that have thrived here in what has been called Africa's Holy Land for more than 1,500 years.
Most intriguing, Axum might be the resting place of the not-so-lost Ark of the Covenant, one of the holiest relics of Christianity (and Hollywood). During my time in Ethiopia, it seemed like a moral imperative - a commandment, even - to seek out the mysterious Keeper of the Ark, the sole soul permitted to see it.
The hand, or rather, chisel of God seems to have been at work in the magnificent rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia's second holiest city, about 200 miles south of Axum.
Thought to have been built during the 12th and 13th centuries, these 11 monolithic masterpieces, casually and collectively referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World, have been a source of speculation and intrigue for centuries. Cut out of solid red volcanic rock - in a style similar to the carved buildings in Petra, Jordan - they are said by the faithful to have been etched by stonemasons by day, and by angels by night.
There was a profoundly spiritual aura in the chilly dawn as I explored Bete Medhane Alem, believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, and Bete Maryam, the oldest of Lalibela's churches.
Sanctity veritably seeped from the stone walls lined with elderly worshipers in white hand-woven cotton prayer shawls. As they prayed quietly, the feverish spark in their eyes testified to the ability to transcend through their unshakable faith unimaginable hardship and endurance in this war-ravaged land.
Inside, only the faint glow of candles penetrated the inky blackness, illuminating intricate religious murals hung on the walls. In the shadows, monks and worshipers softly chanted while a stern bishop presided, wearing a beard that would have made Moses proud.
As I absorbed this intensely devout scene that has not significantly changed in a thousand years, I suddenly felt acutely profane - a state that didn't bode well for my chances of coming face to face with the Keeper of the Ark upon reaching Axum.
While travelers cannot gaze upon the Ark itself, there are plenty of inspirational sites along Ethiopia's historical route. I visited the medieval city of Gondar - Africa's Camelot - to wander among its fairy-tale castles built by the great Emperor Fasilidas in the 17th century.
Along the way, I journeyed into the spectacular Simien Mountains to savor astonishing vistas punctuated by gorges, chasms, precipices and pinnacles. I explored the islands on Lake Tana, Ethiopia's immense inland sea and source of the Blue Nile. Centuries-old, straw-roofed monasteries on the islands guard the remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and some of the Ethiopian Church's greatest treasures, including replicas of the Tablets of Law, called Tabots, onto which the biblical Ten Commandments reputedly were inscribed.
The more I saw, the more I wanted to ask the Keeper of the Ark if it's all true. Whether the existence of this most holy of relics isn't just the ultimate example of religious wishful thinking. What about Prester John, the mythic Christian ruler of Ethiopia said to have descended directly from the Magi, who benevolently presided over a realm full of unimaginable riches and magical marvels like the Fountain of Youth? (His fantastical legend, which sprang from a mysterious letter that surfaced in medieval Europe, is said to have influenced the Portuguese to first set sail for Africa in search of its treasures.)
Once in Axum, in the Park of the Stelae, it was easy to attribute extraordinary feats to a higher power. The largest of the giant, elaborately carved obelisks stood an astounding 110 feet tall, making it the largest single piece of quarried stone erected in the ancient world. It collapsed upon completion more than a thousand years ago.
The only obelisk still upright, a granite needle soaring past 70 feet high, remains as a singular monument to Axum's glorious past - and, perhaps, divine architectural intervention or inspiration.
It seems unlikely that the film "Raiders of the Lost Ark" would have been seen by the holy men at Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.
The truth, however, might be stranger than the fiction.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the only one in the world that still claims to possess the Ark. The church holds that the Ark was stolen by traveling companions of Prince Menelik, the illegitimate son of the Queen of Sheba and Israel's King Solomon, when the founder of Ethiopia was returning home to Axum from visiting his father. (An archaeological site purporting to be the Queen of Sheba's palace lies on the outskirts of Axum.)
Many scholars dismiss the story as fiction, but as I waited for the Ark's illusive Keeper to appear, I wondered if there isn't some historical truth to it.
Clusters of white shrouded figures stood motionless and eerily silent under the trees in the church's compound like sepulchral sentinels, awaiting the procession of deacons and bishops to emerge from the church and encircle its sacred ground three times, as they have done every day for centuries.
As I approached the Ark's reputed resting place, I half expected the heavens to open and a lightning bolt to strike me down. At the very least, I might have been attacked, beaten and evicted by guardian deacons allegedly trained to kill all intruders.
At this point, I hoped - no, needed - to catch a rare glimpse of the Keeper of the Ark, the only mortal allowed to lay eyes upon it (not even the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is granted that privilege). Keepers are virgin monks chosen to protect this holiest of Christian relics for their entire lives. They remain confined to the sanctuary (some say with a chain), never setting foot outside the chapel grounds until they die.
As the afternoon light began to fade and the Keeper had not yet made an appearance, I reluctantly prepared to leave the compound. What naive presumption drove me to think that the one man on Earth entrusted with protecting the word of God would condescend to make an appearance just for me?
Just then, a bearded, almost spectral figure swathed in black glanced furtively from behind a chapel doorway protected from intruders by a spiked fence. It was the Keeper. We locked eyes - the virgin monk and the spiritual voyeur. I wondered if I should pursue him, risking life, limb (and perhaps even eternal damnation) to discover what lies behind that door? There must be something inside important enough for the Keeper and countless Keepers before him to sacrifice their freedom, and even their lives.
Before I could act, the Keeper retreated behind the chapel's heavy wooden door, closing it - as well as my fleeting opportunity to solve 3,000-year-old mysteries - behind him.
Ethiopian Airlines offers direct flights from Washington, D.C., to Addis Ababa several times a week. British Airways and KLM also offer direct flights from their European hubs.
Because of the long distances and the generally poor road conditions in northern Ethiopia, flying between the main historical route sites of Axum, Gondar, Bahir Dar (Lake Tana) and Lalibela is advised. Ethiopian Airlines has frequent daily connections.
The capital of Addis Ababa offers a range of accommodations from simple guesthouses to the posh Sheraton and Hilton. In the northern highlands, options are fewer. The Ghion chain of midrange government-run hotels are dated but comfortable.
Because of the relative lack of tourist infrastructure, an organized tour is a hassle-free and cost effective option on the historical route. Dinknesh Ethiopia Tours offers multi-day itineraries, including the historical route by air and by land. U.S.-based adventure tour operators offering Ethiopia itineraries include Africa Adventure Consultants and Wildland Adventures.