Raiders of the Lost Axum

So here I am on my fourth night in Ethiopia, and the first in the town of Axum. Sorry I haven’t written for a few days. If you want to introduce some chaos into your travel plans in Africa, I suggest the following:

1. Leave Momabasa, Kenya for a connecting flight through Nairobi to Ehtiopia on the day Kenya airways resolves a three-day old strike.

2. Amidst the total chaos in the Nairobi airport with lines out the door, be lucky to get your (much delayed) flight, and have no time to do anything else at the airport.

3. Upon 2 AM arrival in Addis Ababa, Ehtiopia, find the one open foreign exchange window refuse to change your Kenya Shillings for Ethiopian Birr.

4. Proceed directly via a 7 AM flight to Lalibela, Ethiopia, a small town where nobody exchanges any currency except US$, and no bank will take any form of debit or credit card. You have plenty of money for the next few days, becuase the guidebooks warned you to make sure you had cash as nothing else was accessible, but you can’t use any of it.

That being said, the people I met in Lalibela are the nicest people I have met anywhere. The manager at my hotel, the Lal Hotel, said to just charge everything to my room and pay their head office when I got back to Addis Ababa in a few days. And then a very nice gentlemen at the Ehtiopian Airlines office, not wanting me to backtrack to Addis just to be able to change money, loaned me some money to be able to go on here to Axum after Lalibela. My saviors!

The town was just as beautiful as the people. It’s the rainy season, so everything is verdant green, and the whole small town is laid out up and down hills. The centerpiece, and the reason I was there, was a series of 12th and 13th century rock-hewn churches that were meant to create a “New Jerusalem” in Ethiopia and continue to be a pilgrimmage site to this day. Simply stunning to see, and to feel the power of people chanting and praying in carved out stone that has been visited continually for over 900 years.

And today I was on to Axum, which was the site of a major civilization that traded far and wide from about 400 BC to 900 AD. They left huge craved stellae (think, big stone obelisk) which I visited today. They also converted around 300 AD to Christianity, becoming the second oldest Christian nation in the world. The big pilgrammage site here is Saint Mary of Zion, built around 1600 by medieval Ethiopian emperors on the foundations of an older church dating to around 600 AD. There’s also a small chapel on the grounds that’s said to house the Ark of the Covenant.

Yes, that’s right, the Ark of the Covenant. Legend has it that it was brought to Ethiopia by the Queen of Sheba’s son by King Solomon. The Ehtiopian Emperors, right down to Haille Selaisse, continued to claim descent from Solomon. Only the head priest can enter the holy of holies hwere it’s kept, but I did my best to soak up sacred emananations from a distance without bursting in to flame.

Tomorrow I’m hoping to visit the even older ruins of a civilzation at a site near here called Yeha, and then one more day here after that before heading back to Addis Ababa for the finale of my Africa excursion. I hope to write more tomorrow!

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