Keepers of the Lost Ark?

Trip Start Dec 25, 2008
Trip End Mar 28, 2009

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Monday, March 30, 2009

After spending two nights in Gonder, we made our way to Aksum, a town in the far North of Ethiopia, very close to the Eritrean border. In addition to being the purported resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, according to Ethiopians and some others (brought back from Jerusalem by Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon), it's home to palace ruins, royal underground tombs, colorful local legends, and numerous impressive stelae - ancient memorial obelisks that were erected in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. Aksum was once the capital of an extensive empire, which dominated trade between Africa and Asia.

We were only spending one night in Aksum, so as soon as we arrived, we had a quick lunch and then prepared to see the town's sites during the afternoon. After visiting the tombs of King Kaleb and King Gebre Meskel, we went to the tiny shack that houses King Ezana's inscription - a monument dating to between 330 and 350 AD, often compared to the Rosetta Stone, which documents in three languages King Ezana's conversion to Christianity and his military conquests. The stone sits in a shack in the location in which it was originally found by a farmer in 1981, so as to avoid the curse inscribed on the stone, which warns of an untimely death for anyone who moves it. We then visited the "Queen of Sheba's bath" according to local legend - though the massive, incredibly old pool is far too young to have actually been used by the Queen, it's still used by locals to collect water and for Timkat celebrations - in addition to Dungur Palace (also known as "Queen of Sheba's palace"), which also post-dates the 10th century BC Queen by hundreds of years.

Continuing on our whirlwind tour of Aksum (good thing all of the sites are in fairly close proximity), we then went to St. Mary of Zion Church, conveniently located across from the Northern Stelae field. Though we couldn't access the old church (men only) which is located adjacent to the small building which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant (only one monk has access to its specific location and is charged with the duty of guarding it until his death), we were lucky to witness a beautiful Lenten procession taking place around the new church. After a tour of the new one-room museum located at the church, which houses a number of crowns, robes and other Ethiopian royal paraphernalia, we were treated to a viewing of an ancient bible, which we were told we were extremely lucky to see since it will supposedly soon never be seen again by the public, as priests are currently in the process of creating a copy for viewing. (Strangely, the priest in the museum asked us for a pen - something we were used to being asked for by tons of children, but surprised to be asked of by the clergy.) We finished up the day with a trip to the Northern Stelae field, which contains over 120 massive stelae (many amazingly well-preserved), including the Rome Stelae, which spent many years in Italy following Mussolini's orders to erect it in Rome, and was only recently re-erected in Aksum.

Our flight to Lalibela was the next morning . . . Rebels that we are, we decided to ignore the strong recommendation of Ethiopian Airlines for once and got to the airport less than two full hours before our flight - after all, we thought, why do we really need to arrive so early at an airport (more like an airstrip), which only sees a couple of tiny, domestic flights per day?? Of course, as soon as we pulled up to the airport, an Airlines representative ran over to our car in a frenzy, accompanied by two guys who feverishly pulled our bags out of the car. He shouted - "Are you Donna and Lydia?!?! We've been waiting for you and wondering where you were! We've been calling all the hotels to find you!!! The plane is coming, the plane is coming!!!" We thought this was hilarious on a few fronts - first, for the fact that Ethiopian Airlines had tracked every person on the flight and knew exactly who we were; second, for the fact that they were looking all over town for us and COULD look all over town, since there are only a few lodging options; and, third, for the fact that the plane was actually arriving (and apparently going to leave) over an hour early - I knew Ethiopian Airlines was good, but I guess sometimes they're TOO good and efficient. We were repeatedly told through the hurried check-in process that we're lucky we weren't even two minutes later, or we would've missed the plane. So, Ethiopia Lesson #4: Heed Ethiopian Airlines' advice - always get to the airport two hours early, no matter how small the flight or the airport. The experience, which Lydia and I found completely hysterical, also bolstered our image of Ethiopia being able to track us and most other tourists throughout the country (we saw no other American tourists while in the North, and only one other group of three women traveling independently). We pictured someone with push pins and a map, charting our progress throughout the country: "Ok, that American girl and Japanese girl (everyone thought Lydia was Japanese) are leaving Bahir Dar and we've now spotted them in Gonder - we think they're going to Aksum next - stay posted . . .").
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