Time seems frozen in Axum, where barefooted farmers till the soil with ox-drawn plows while dozens of worshipers in white robes pass by on camels.
Time seems to have stood still, frozen in some long-ago biblical age, with barefooted farmers tilling the soil with ox-drawn ploughs while dozens of worshippers in white robes pass by on camels.
The otherwise unassuming city of Axum in the high plateau of northern Ethiopia with its deep history exerts a magical fascination of religious mystery on both archaeologists and world travelers alike.
The worshippers are bound to a daily service at an Ethiopian Orthodox church. On the horizon, at the end of the long cobblestone road, two gigantic steles gradually rise into view, the crowning moment of what seems a journey back into time.
According to legend, it is here that one of the greatest treasures of the Abrahamic religions – the Ark of the Covenant, a receptacle containing the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses – has been kept for millennia.
The legend has it that Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon of Israel, brought the ark from Jerusalem to Axum.
“God chose this place. Axum is a holy city,” says the local deacon, Zemikael Brhane. The purported ark is stored in a small chapel, outside of which a solitary monk stands guard – a role that he will fulfill for the rest of his days.
The current officeholder is named Abba Gebre Meskel, 56. He has been living on the grounds of the small chapel for 30 years now.
“Some tourists will wait for hours just to get a glimpse of him,” says Ephrem Brhane, a history expert and travel guide. Since no one is allowed to enter the chapel, no one can actually directly see the purported ark, which in any case is covered by a sheet.
In Jewish scripture, the legendary Queen of Sheba or of the Sabaeans is mentioned as visiting Solomon in Jerusalem with gifts of spice, then returning to her own land.
In the Ethiopian retelling, she is named Makeda and is described as being beautiful and very wealthy. According to experts, her palace – or what remains of it – is located some 10 minutes’ drive outside the city.
The building’s foundations are still easily recognizable.
“Coins with the image of the queen and earthen objects were found here that indicate that the queen really did live here,” Brhane says.
The highlight of the excursion to Axum is the field of steles where important figures in the empire’s history are buried. To this day, no one knows just how the giant obelisks were brought to the place and set up.
The largest stele, 33.5 meters tall and weighing 520 tons, toppled over ages ago.
But the second-tallest stele has a fascinating history behind it.
In 1937, with Ethiopia under occupation by Italy, it was taken by ship to Rome on the orders of Dictator Benito Mussolini. He could not care less that the stele, covered in hieroglyphs, was Ethiopia’s national symbol.
For 65 years the obelisk had its place near the Circus Maximus in central Rome. In 2005, the stele – sawed into three massive pieces – was flown by Russian-built Antonov planes back to Axum.
Seeing the 30-metre-tall stele back on its original spot fills Ethiopians with pride. It stands as an immutable symbol of the rich history of this part of the Horn of Africa which more recently has been plagued by drought, starvation and conflict.