Ethiopia’s biblical past and the Ark of the Covenant

Ethiopia is a land of biblical associations and fairy-tale castles
Ethiopia is a land of biblical associations and fairy-tale castles

By Michael Kaye, BBC

From Solomon and the Queen of Sheba to today’s Christian rituals of Epiphany, Ethiopia has a rich and colourful history.

As I climbed the path to the complex containing the Menelik II Mausoleum in Addis Ababa, I remembered the warning against taking photographs.

I had spotted a picturesque, cylindrical haystack. A soldier nursing a firearm sat in front of it.

I waited until I was sure the soldier could not see me, then took a picture of the hay.

A shout. An old woman pointed at me. The soldier hurried towards me.

I fumbled with the camera to show the picture of hay. Only when the picture had been deleted, was I allowed to proceed.

In the grounds of the mausoleum, bewilderingly, I was encouraged to take pictures.

I wondered just what had been secreted beneath the hay.

At the doors of the mausoleum church, I slipped off my shoes. The custom of leaving the dust of the world outside holy places may predate Islam and Christianity.

‘Historical circuit’

King Solomon was famous for the wisdom of his judgements
King Solomon was famous for the wisdom of his judgements

Ethiopians trace the history of their former imperial family to Solomon, the much-married King of Israel.

Ten centuries before the modern era, Queen Makeda travelled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and entered into a close relationship with Solomon.

The result was King Menelik I.

Queen Makeda is more familiar to the world as the Queen of Sheba.

At Bahir Dar, the first stop on the so-called “historical circuit” (followed by many visitors), I crossed Ethiopia’s largest lake.

Lake Tana is bordered by monasteries and, even more importantly, is the source of the Blue Nile.

It seems that there is a long-standing dispute with Egypt about Ethiopian usage of the Blue Nile waters.

A hike to the Tissisat Falls the next day showed why.

A hydro-electric project has reduced the flow of the once awe-inspiring falls to a fraction of its earlier volume..

Ethiopia is big – bigger than Kenya and Somalia combined. Internal flights are almost a necessity.

It was clear that officials were not simply going through the motions of security checks at the airports. Ethiopia has enemies.

My principal destination was in the mainly-Christian north.

Gonder, the 17th Century capital of Ethiopia, contains fairy-tale castles decorating a vast royal enclosure.

Gonder is the place to see the Timkat celebrations. Timkat, or Epiphany, commemorates the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan.

Ark of the Covenant

Everybody in Gonder was wearing white, including me.

We took up our vigil in a square in the heart of Gonder known as Piazza, a memory of the four-year occupation of the country by Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s.

Suddenly a small group of young men ran into Piazza, waving long staves and chanting.

More groups appeared. Then a carriage drawn by white horses.

From below, a brightly painted construction appeared in the midst of a jubilant horde of men and women.

Was this what we had been waiting for?

 Replica of the Ark of the Covenant
Every Orthodox church in Ethiopia has a replica of the Ark of the Covenant

According to local tradition, when Menelik I returned to Ethiopia he brought a coffer containing the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses.

The coffer was known as the Ark of the Covenant.

The original Ark is said to be in a church in Axum, north of Gonder, but every Orthodox church in Ethiopia has a replica of the original Ark, known as a tabot.

I had been told to look for a cluster of brightly coloured umbrellas in the heart of the procession. Yes, there were the umbrellas.

Beneath them, priests – their faces partly concealed by curtains – carried the sacred tabots on their heads.

By now the noise of chants, sistrums and brass horns was deafening.

Before I could take evasive action, I was being swept down the hill by the joyful crowd.

‘Red Terror’

Back at the hotel, I got into conversation with some locals.

I was not surprised to be asked my views on Ethiopia. I was surprised when an attack was launched on British journalists for exaggerating the extent of the 1984 famine.

“Famine occurs somewhere in Ethiopia all the time. But not everywhere at the same time.

“Thanks to foreign reporters, people now think of Ethiopia as the place that has permanent famine.”

The speaker paused. “I would rather be dead than thought of as a beggar.”

On my last day in Ethiopia, I visited the Red Terror museum in Addis.

Here members of the Derg – the communist military group which ran the country from 1974 until 1987 – are shown committing atrocity after atrocity.

One of the men in Gonder had told me how he remembered hearing gunshots in the streets at night as neighbours were assassinated.

Depressed, I left the museum and crossed Meskal Square, the stage for the Derg’s triumphal parades.

Beside the railings on the pavement lay the inert body of a man.

Was he dead? Injured? Or just drugged? Where to get help?

I looked around me. There was the tourist office. I hurried inside. I explained.

The receptionist gave me a faint smile.

“Don’t worry. He’s just having a sleep. That is very common here. He will soon get up and walk back home.”