In the Land of Sheba: A Pilgrimage to Ethiopia

Advice From the Guardian of the Ark of the Covenant
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 16 2010 7:06 AM

In the Land of Sheba: A Pilgrimage to Ethiopia

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AXUM—In Greek, Ethiopia means "land of the burnt faces." This name predates A.D. 8, when Ovid recounts this myth in his Metamorphoses: Phaeton, Apollo the sun god's bastard son, confronts his father and takes the reins of his chariot. The sun's horses prove too strong for Phaeton. He loses control and burns the Ethiopians black.

Day 4: Axum

"Ovid on Climate Change"

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Bastard, the other boys teased him,
til Phaethon unleashed the steeds
of Armageddon. He couldn't hold
their reins. Driving the sun too close
to earth, the boy withered rivers,
torched Eucalyptus groves, until the hills
burst into flame, and the people's blood
boiled through the skin. Ethiopia,
land of burnt faces. In a boy's rage
for a name, the myth of race begins.

Myth abounds in Ethiopia. The greatest of all is that of the Ark of the Covenant—the biblical relic that Moses is said to have built to house the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. Many Ethiopians believe that the ark is currently resting in the northern kingdom of Axum. The wooden container, covered in gold and decorated with two winged cherubim facing each other, was also a weapon. According to the Bible (and to Indiana Jones), the box shot fire and possibly plague at those who gazed upon it. The legend of the ark's arrival in Ethiopia several thousand years ago, and of its safeguarding, is a tale more fabulous than anything Spielberg dreamed up. Before I came to this country, I found its fabled presence in Ethiopia too fantastic to take seriously. But on that first day at the hotel pool, I picked up The Sign and the Seal: The Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant, by Graham Hancock, an Africa hand and former Economist correspondent. As I read his careful and sometimes fanciful work, I began to wonder if I had dismissed Ethiopia's claims too easily.

Axum is a dusty, desertified town waiting patiently for archaeologists to dig into its underground tombs, which have lain undisturbed for thousands of years. Above ground, it's also fairly quiet. On this weekend in February, the main sites are nearly empty. I find my guide through the tourism bureau. He is also named Yonas, a 25-year-old cherub and university student.

King Ezana's stone. Click image to expand.
King Ezana's stone

He takes me to the basement of a wooden shack. The walls are so shoddy that chinks of striped light catch dust across the dirt floor. There's no other illumination on the 6-foot-high square stone in the shack's center. Each of its four sides is etched with characters—languages I don't recognize—carefully and urgently communicating a message no one can read anymore. This is King Ezana's stone, a nearly 2,000-year-old monument, which some farmers dug up while tilling the surrounding field in 1981. The stone issues the same proclamation in three different languages: Greek, a dead Arabian language called Sabaean, and ancient Ethiopian Ge'ez. Archaeologists have dated the stone to somewhere between 330 and 356. At the time, a king named Ezana ruled Axum and South Yemen. The stone tells the story of his Christian conversion and of his efforts to bring the Ark of the Covenant from another part of Ethiopia to Axum. The stone is no hoax; maybe the Ark was here for a while. In any case, this is a Rosetta stone, essentially, demanding that every passer-by—from Arabia, the Middle East, Africa, India, and China—pay tax by way of tribute to the king.

Standing next to me, Yonas knows much of what the stone says by heart. I've brought the blasted Flip camera. In true documentarian style, he steps forward when I push the red Record button, and recites, "I believe in Jesus, the son of God …" He looks like an angel with the light edging his face, and I think that if this old stone were anywhere else in the world, besides maybe neighboring Somalia, people would be lined up to see it.

Yet Judaism thrived in Ethiopia long before the other two Abrahamic faiths even existed. Its arrival, like that of the Ark of the Covenant, has to do with that union between King Solomon and the queen of Sheba, and with their son Menelik.

Both the Quran and the Bible tell a version of the virgin queen's story, her fascination with Solomon's single god, and her conversion. Ethiopian legend unfolds a little differently. Solomon falls in love with this queen, of course. He tricks her into sleeping with him by oversalting her food and essentially demanding sex in exchange for a glass of water. She bears him this son, Menelik, leaves Israel with 12,000 followers, and, unbeknownst to him, the Ark of the Covenant. It isn't until midway through his trek back to his mother's home in Ethiopia that Menelik discovered his companions, priests' sons, had stolen the ark from the Temple of Solomon. That, according to legend, is how the first Jews and the ark came to Ethiopia.

Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. Click image to expand.
Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion

As Hancock points out in The Sign and the Seal, the dates of this fabled journey can't possibly check out. Yet much of the story of the ark's arrival along with a band of early Jews from Jerusalem might. Travel between Jerusalem, Egypt, and Ethiopia took place thousands of years ago. This is just more proof that globalization is hardly a novel phenomenon. But whether the ark is—could possibly be—here now is hard to imagine. We go to St. Mary of Zion, the church where the ark supposedly rests. It is absolutely impossible to see the Ark. No one does. Even the Guardian Monk, the one man appointed to pray and fast and sleep and rest by the ark for the rest of his life, doesn't see it.

The Guardian Monk is the only link between the ark and the rest of the world, but he doesn't talk to outsiders. Nevertheless, I'd like to try to speak to him. Yonas supports the effort. He's pretty positive that we won't find the Guardian Monk, anyway.

From the shoddy wooden shack, we hop into a rusted-out microbus taxi and drive two miles to the church. The churchyard is shaded by a massive jacaranda tree's canopy. All over northern Ethiopia, most of its once-verdant landscape has been denuded for fuel. For much of the year, the hills and steppes look as if they've been blanched the color of straw. This is not the case with churchyards, however. Most are a green so dark they look like ponds from a distance. Because they are sacred ground, no one cuts down their trees. In turn, all manner of birds and small creatures live in these places.

From miles away, you can tell where a church is by its dark forest splotch against a dusty, fawn-colored backdrop of Africa's once-green hills. Closer, you can actually follow the cacophony of birds.

We march past the massive, concrete bunker that serves as the modern church. Built by Haile Selassie in 1953, the holy bunker boasts a chandelier, a gift from Queen Elizabeth II. I glance in dutifully, and on we go into a fenced-in courtyard, where two small gray buildings stand alongside a grassy hole. The hole marks the foundation of the ancient church that, the story goes, served as the ark's resting place until the Jewish warrior queen named Judith, an astonishing heroine, burned down the church on a raid during the 10th century. Six hundred years later, when Muslims and Christians began to fight, a Muslim warrior named Ahmed the Grayn (that is, Ahmed the Left-Handed) galloped into the Christian highlands from a lowland Muslim kingdom to the east called Harar.

In the Guardian Monk's courtyard, to be polite, I take the tour of Axum's musty relics, excluding the ark, of course. Animal skins line the glass cases. There are row after row of gold scepters and crowns. I see an emperor's hank of old hair and gold hairpins; a pair of golden slippers. I nod and ooh encouragingly, as if the guard showing me around cares what I think. I'm sure he doesn't.

I'm eager to move on to the next event: waylaying the ark's guardian. On the gray steps beyond a locked iron gate, I can see an aging, crooked man draped in a white cassock and a mustard-colored hat. Attendants surround him.

"You're in luck," young Yonas says. We must have caught the guardian out for a rare breath of air.

One downy-faced, black-robed attendant, with the look of a modern-day eunuch, or a choirboy, approaches the fence, smiling.

"She'd like to talk to the Guardian Monk," Yonas tells him in their shared language of Tigrayan.

"About what?" the choirboy asks, glancing at me.

"The ark, how the monk came here," Yonas says.

The fence through with the author spoke to the Guardian Monk. Click image to expand.
The fence through with the author spoke to the Guardian Monk

The choirboy leaves us at the fence and whispers in the old man's ear. The guardian turns his head to consider me. His eyes are pale blue, the color of the hotel pool, of that odd sky beyond the milking stool.

Slowly, he descends the stairs and approaches the fence. His name is Abba Gebre Maskal, which means servant, or slave, of the cross.

"What exactly do you want to know?" he asks. Yonas translates.

"What do you want me to tell people far away who don't believe the Ark of the Covenant is here?"

"I don't want you to tell them anything," he says. "If they don't believe it's here, let them be suspicious," he grumbles. That was a poor choice of questions, I realize.

"How did you come to be the ark's guardian?"

"At first I resisted," he says. "It's so difficult. You are expected to fast constantly, pray all night, prepare holy water, advise people, and talk to them, bless them all day." Hmm, so perhaps it wasn't so difficult to speak to him after all.

Two years earlier, the Guardian Monk had been an Ethiopian Orthodox priest in a nearby church.

"Right next to the queen of Sheba's baths," he says. When the community's elders came to tell him he'd been selected to be the next guardian, he refused them. So they followed him to his house and wouldn't leave until he took the job. The Guardian Monk is growing restless, eyeing the chapel door behind him, looking for an escape.

"Have you seen the ark?"

"I don't see it. We don't talk about this," he says, his blue eyes growing vague, as if a cloud is passing behind them through his mind's high stratosphere. The interview is ending.

"Do you have any advice for me?"

His eyes sharpen immediately. With this question, I have surprised both of us. But there's something about this man that makes me ask.

"Two things keep you from God," he says. "Suspicion and being desperate."

"What does he mean by that?" I ask Yonas to press the monk for another translation beyond this Ethiopian Orthodox koan.

The Guardian Monk goes on, "Suspicion means you think there's another way to escape this mess besides God. Suspicion is Lot's wife."

Lot's wife was turned to salt for looking backward, for lack of trust.

I grimace to show my incomprehension.



He goes on, "Being desperate means believing in God but not that He will forgive you, like Judas. Judas believed in God, but not that God would forgive him after he betrayed Jesus."

"He means despair?" I ask Yonas.

"Exactly, yes. He means despair."

"Have a little faith," the monk says. "Don't despair. Even if you've done a lot of bad things in your life, God will forgive you."

I will muse on those bad things later. For now, I ask through the fence if he's afraid that anyone will try to take the ark away from his people. I ask if they are afraid of Muslims here, and he laughs.

"No. The ark will only leave us if we don't pray. That would be our fault. No one can take it from us. We are like government employees. If we do our jobs, God will be happy. If we don't, God will give our jobs to someone else." He laughs again at his own joke.

"Let them bring their Quran, and we'll bring the Bible. There's no man alive on Earth good enough to judge between them. We must be open-minded. Our weapon is our prayer in Ethiopia. A soldier has an automatic rifle. I have this." He holds up a wooden hand cross. A blue-and-gold sleeve covers its handle and his hand. "Nothing can be done without God's will," he says. "You and I wouldn't be able to meet."

Quieted by this strange encounter, Yonas and I cross the road to an ancient graveyard of towering shards of stone. This stelae field is known as Africa's Stonehenge. Some of its leaning obelisks are nearly 100 feet high, and they are carved like apartment buildings; they depict many stories of shuttered windows. There are so many mysteries here. Did the people here build in that manner? Were the stories a symbolic way to reach heaven?

No one knows. Archaeologists have excavated only a small fraction of this legendary city. Why? Because this is Africa, Yonas tells me, and the guides only know a limited amount of the significance of various palace ruins and ancient, pre-Roman baths. Later, as we visit the nearby rubble of a 50-room palace rumored to have belonged to the queen of Sheba (it almost certainly didn't). Yonas yells out to a friend in Tigrayan, "It's a holiday, and you're not drunk yet?" That boy's mother makes great beer, he tells me.

Here in sleepy Axum, the guides call out to each other in their language of Tigrayan so that the tourists don't understand that the guides are making fun of each other—or the tourists they're cheerfully leading around like rueful ducklings. When we pass another of his colleagues, a man wearing a cartoonish sombrero and leading some sunburned folk in shorts through the ruins, Yonas tells me that this guy is no longer an official tourist guide. He lost his license after he was caught one too many times making up stories, like how archaeologists had discovered the queen of Sheba's arm.

"For tips," Yonas says.

The next morning at 4:30, Yonas comes to fetch me. We are going to a festival at which a model of the ark, called a tabot, is carried around town by thousands of singing pilgrims who hold white candles. In the darkness, we pass the field of towering stones and walk toward a river of candles.

Eliza Griswold, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is a poet and author of New York Times best-seller The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches From the Fault Line Between Islam and Christianity.

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