Monday, August 1, 2016

Axum, Ethiopia: A time machine to the 4th century

St Mary of Zion Church, Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant
resides according to Ethiopian Orthodox Christians
The history and culture of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is all encompassing for the visitor to northern Ethiopia. Lalibela and Gondar rightfully occupy prominent positions in any tour of the country. However, Axum holds special significance as a holy site for Ethiopian Christians - a bit like Rome for Roman Catholics or Mecca for Muslims - as the resting place of the original Ark of the Covenant.

The Ark conjures up images of mystic and mystery, from the Knights of Templar to Indiana Jones. But for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, the Ark holds a sacred place at the center of their faith (each church has a replica located in the inner sanctum called the Holy of Holies) and there’s no debate as to the original Ark’s location - it resides inside the humble church of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum, looked after by a handful of monks, only one of whom (the "guardian monk) is even allowed to see the Ark itself.

But several times a month, the monks of Saint Mary of Zion bring out a replica of the Ark for a pre-dawn procession through the ancient streets of Axum. Faithful pilgrims dressed in white robes, carrying flickering candles and singing traditional hymns follow the Arc through the ancient streets of Axum.

The experience is like stepping back in time and if not for the street lights, it's like being transported back in time to the 330 AD at the dawn of Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

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