There’s an old joke in Kerala that, when Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut, he claimed the land in the name of the Catholic Church. The locals said “Fine, but why don’t you talk to the parish priest in the Marthoma Church first, and see what he thinks?”
Ethiopians would understand, because there’s possibly no other nation outside of Palestine that can claim to have embraced Christianity earlier. Ethiopia was Christian when Rome was still pagan and Saint Thomas was eating his first kappa, meen curry and beef fry.
Ethiopia’s links with the Holy Land are even older, though. And, that’s why I’m the middle of a throng of white-clad worshippers in Axum, less than 300 kilometres from the Red Sea, looking at a small granite chapel.
Axum is pretty basic – two main roads, a halfway decent bar, a couple of restaurants, tiny guesthouses and swanky Chinese-built hotels. Not too many foreigners visit. Yet, Axum is Ethiopia’s holiest city, which almost every Ethiopian has worshipped at least once. Where every king was anointed before being crowned.
It’s also where, the Ethiopians say, the Ark of the Covenant resides.
Yes, there are the stelae, towering 4th century funeral markers, with a network of tombs below. There are monasteries atop rugged mountains, beautifully frescoed and boasting ancient manuscripts and icons. There are ruins of what the locals say are the Queen of Sheba’s palace and swimming pool. Nearby Adwa is where the Ethiopians routed Mussolini’s Italian army. But, Axum, Ethiopians claim, it is the home of the most cherished relic of both Christianity and Judaism.
The Queen of Sheba, they say, was a lady who knew her mind. Traveling to Jerusalem, she told King Solomon that all she had no intention of being his servile queen and that all she wanted was his seed. As a result, all Ethiopian kings thereafter, right up to Haile Selassie, claimed to be a direct descendant of Solomon. The first, her son Menelik I, decided that he had to meet his father and traveled to Jerusalem. On the way back, local legend goes, he decided that the Ark was too unprotected and, for safety, spirited it out of Palestine, leaving a replica in place.
At the end of my second day in Axum comes the grand finale – the Chapel of the Tablet, next to the modern-day Church of St. Mary of Zion. It turns into an underwhelming one. The actual (or, supposed) resting place of the Ark is a small granite building, with plaster flaking off its dome. I’d love to have a peek but, unfortunately, no one is allowed inside – Ethiopian or foreigner, the President included. Only one monk looks after the Ark. Appointed for life, he can never leave the premises and covers his head to avoid being photographed. Two younger monks are his only connect to the outside world, but they’re restricted to the compound. Most un-Indiana Jones it is, but it only serves to remind me, again, of Africa’s ancient history. Dark Continent, this is certainly not.