I was sipping a multi-layered fresh shake, expertly made from layering smoothies of different coloured fruits, and sitting on the sidewalk of a café on the main street in Axum, Ethiopia. It was dry and cool.
The street was lined with trees, broad sidewalks and modern buildings. Axum has a population of more than 60,000, yet this small town, at 2,000m above sea level in the Ethiopian highlands, carries the mantle of the greatest state that most people have never heard of.
At its apogee, the Aksumite Empire stood as one of the great global powers, beside China, Persia and Rome. It spanned both sides of the Red Sea, covering territory now identified with Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
The empire is believed to be the first state outside Rome to mint coins, which have been found as far away as India. The tongue of the day, Ge’ez, was a Semitic language with links to the ancient Nabataean. Even today, Ge’ez is the liturgical vernacular of Ethiopia, although Amharic is the lingua franca of the country.
The Aksumite Empire flourished from trade between the Roman Empire, the Middle East and India. It existed from about the first century to the eighth.
It is believed to be the second sovereignty in the world after Armenia to adopt Christianity in the fourth century. Most of the population of Ethiopia today are adherents of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, although neighbouring countries, themselves once Christian, have embraced Islam.
Earlier, elsewhere in Ethiopia, I met several German seminarians who were studying Christianity in the country. They said the religion, introduced so early and isolated for so long, carries much of the tradition from Judaism and the Old Testament. Worshippers are robed in white when they attend church, fast several days a week and do not consume pork, among other practices.
The legacy of the once-great, long-vanished Aksumite Empire lives on in Axum today. Ethiopian emperors are crowned there, which is the holiest Christian city in the country.
On the short drive to the old part of the city, I came across a magnificent old tree with massive branches extending outwards like a huge umbrella. It was a fig tree, over 400 years old. There were people gathered on benches around the base of its massive trunk.
Muslims gather in the shade of the tree for prayers on Friday. It is an open-air market on Saturday. There is no mosque in Axum. This has led to some tensions with Muslims, who form a small portion of the population, agitating to build a mosque in the town, a movement strongly resisted by the majority Christian population.
The most striking emblem of the Aksumite Empire has become a symbol of Ethiopia, and it was just a short distance from where I was in the city. In a large open field, massive carved stone obelisks rose from the ground. Remarkably, these massive granite stelae date from the early days of the Aksumite Empire, from the first or second century, when the empire possessed the wealth and sophistication to marshal the resources and engineering know-how to construct them.
These were not crude, simple structures, but slender and worked to a remarkable extent, with embellishments on the sides, the most elaborate carved with false windows and doors in tiers. Just how remarkable became evident on closer examination, for these were carved from single massive blocks of granite from a quarry several kilometres away, transported to the final site and erected.
The stelae were erected over underground tombs, with the most elaborate ones being for royalty and smaller, less ornamented ones for nobility. A semi-circle at the top symbolised the sun or the moon, which were worshipped before the advent of Christianity.
Over time, many of the stelae collapsed due to natural events such as earthquakes or having bases too shallow to support their massive weight. The largest of them, called the Great Stela, measuring 33m in length and weighing over 500 tons, believed to be the most massive block of stone ever attempted to be erected by humans, had collapsed and broken into several pieces at the site.
The stelae called the Obelisk of Axum, measuring 25m high and weighing 170 tons, was the subject of a long-standing dispute between Ethiopia and Italy. It was removed as a trophy by the Italian Army in 1937 during the invaders’ occupation of the country and transported by sea and overland route in pieces to Italy, where it was reassembled and displayed in Rome.
Under a United Nations agreement, Italy agreed to return the obelisk. Considerable technical and logistical difficulties delayed that until 2005, when it was carefully cut into pieces and airlifted one by one to Axum. The airport runway had to be upgraded to accommodate the giant air transporter needed to carry the massive sections of stone. The long-missing stela was finally reassembled and erected in Axum in 2008, after an absence of seven decades.
Yet there resides an even greater mystery in Axum, one that is thousands of years old and of global significance.
In the 1981 movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, fictional archaeologist-adventurer Indiana Jones pursues the Ark of the Covenant, the wooden chest in which the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments were carried. In biblical accounts, the ark was kept in Solomon’s Temple, which was destroyed in the sixth century BC, after which it vanished from the biblical narrative.
Indiana Jones could have saved himself a lot of trouble if he had just asked any Ethiopian, who will relate with unblinking certainty that the ark, a relic of tremendous religious, historical and cultural significance, is in Axum.
According to Ethiopian records, the Queen of Sheba, who then ruled Ethiopia, visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and had a son with him. The boy, Menelik, grew up in Ethiopia, and when he came of age, travelled to Jerusalem to visit his father. He was warmly welcomed, and left for home accompanied by a retinue of the firstborn of Israel, who carried with them the Ark of the Covenant. This was some 3,000 years ago.
The story of the Queen of Sheba is known only from the Bible, but some historians debate her existence. Many historians place the mythic kingdom of Sheba as being in present-day Yemen, but Ethiopians believe she lived in the vicinity of Axum.
The ark is supposedly currently held in a small and nondescript chapel called the Chapel of the Tablet, built in the 1970s. The only person allowed to see it is a specially appointed guardian. It is a lifetime vocation, a tradition that dates back to when the ark first came to Ethiopia. No one else, not even the emperor or head of the church, is permitted to see the ark. It remains an enduring mystery.
Next to the Chapel of the Tablet is the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion, where the ark was originally held. Dating back to the fourth century, the church has been rebuilt several times since. Only men are allowed into the building because, it is said, it was destroyed in the 10th century by a Jewish queen who laid waste to Axum.
Within, the church was cool and dim, with thick walls and sturdy arches, a fresco of the Three Wise Men on a wall panel. Behind a thick curtain was a replica of the ark, the centrepiece of every Ethiopian church, held in the innermost sanctum, the Holy of Holies.
A new Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion was built in the 1960s. It was a large, round, marble-clad domed building that occupied a spacious, leafy compound. It was airy and bright inside, with rows of pews and a red-carpeted floor. Arches extended from the sides of the church.
Large coloured glass panels and windows encircling the dome overhead permitted light to flood into the interior. Set into one of the side arches was the curtained chamber where the replica of the ark was kept. I was shown a 400-year-old goatskin manuscript on which angels had African features.
The next morning, I witnessed a traditional group wedding at the same church. It was outdoors, on the tier of steps, covered with thick carpets, leading to the entrance. The newly-weds sat on chairs at the topmost step. They wore crowns on their heads and dark-red robes with embroidered gold thread. Attendants held tasselled umbrellas aloft.
It was morning. The sun had risen enough into the sky to bathe the stelae from the Aksumite Empire in the park a little distance away, in coppery light, beneath a clear blue sky in the crisp morning air.
This article first appeared on Oct 23, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.