In Axum, I come face to face with a last glory of Ethiopian Christianity: the Ark of the Covenant. OK, not the Ark itself, because I have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, and have no desire to see my face collapse like a melted waxwork.
You will recall that the Ark was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and was a weapon of mass destruction against hostile tribes as the Israelites wandered in the desert. Ethiopians believe a small, inconspicuous building here now holds it, while every church in the country holds a replica, although why is a story for a long evening of coffee drinking. No one can see inside except its attendant, a priest who never leaves and whose earthly needs are attended to by a small group of boys, one of whom will take his place when he dies.
Meantime, he prays inside, coming out once in a while to pace the equally small garden, being careful to avoid the cameras of inquisitive outsiders such as myself. I stare at the square, dome-topped, concrete church for a while, but feel or hear no hum of power, merely the noise of traffic as the white Toyota Hiluxes of the aid agencies bustle past. More impressive are the town’s stellae, the largest around 100 feet high and weighing 520 tons, and one of which stood in the middle of Rome until returned in 2005. No-one knows what they are for – grave markers is the most likely explanation – but the carvings of doors and windows on their sides conjure up incongruous thoughts of skyscrapers.
However, I find myself drawn to the “Queen of Sheba’s Bath”, a step-sided reservoir that is setting for Old Testament scenes. Women in bright robes and white headscarves squat to draw containers of water, which they load onto the shoulders of their bareheaded daughters. Meanwhile, the young boys plunge into the water, screaming with delight, as old men sit around quietly chatting, perhaps remembering the time they too did the same. That the women’s containers are of bright yellow plastic, rather than goatskin, seems the only concession to the modern world. Truly, history lives on in the heart of Ethiopia.
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