Axum, the new Zion?

November 26th, 2008 | by addis portal |

“All people come from God, but the Ethiopians more than most.” – a Geez scholar at Addis Ababa University, “I Didn’t Do It For You.”

According to Ethiopia’s founding myth found in the book which gave the Ethiopian emperor’s their mandate to rule, the Kebra Negast, “Glory of the Kings,” the Axumite kingdom was a kingdom blessed by God itself. The Kebra Negast has been described as “drawing on the Old and New Testaments, the Apocrypha, Talmud and Koran, weaving in Ethiopian legends handed down by word of mouth… an exotic composite story… The tale of royal date rape, a radical rewrite of the Bible that substituted Ethiopia for Israel as God’s Chosen People.”

In short summary, the founding myth is in essence the story of the Queen of Sheba, known as Makeda who ruled over Ethiopia as a beautiful pagan monarch and her journey to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon of Israel. Already enjoying the company of 400 queens and 600 concubines, Solomon is known over as a real lover of women but the two still fall under each others’ spells; in the process Solomon converts Queen Sheba to Judaism. One thing leads to another, and one night the King invites Sheba into his bed to lay beside him. Anxious that she will be taken advantage of, he reassures her that he will not take her by force as long as she takes nothing of his by force in return. The scene is set in a lushly draped bedroom as Sheba is fed meats that will make her thirsty and drinks laced in vinegar and peppers. It comes as no surprise that halfway through the night Sheba grabs water from Solomon’s table (by force) and some jiggy-jiggy ensues as promised.

Their little tryst results in Sheba’s pregnancy, and on her journey back to Ethiopia she gives birth to Menelik, the great founding leader whom Ethiopia’s long line of emperors will descend from. When Menelik comes of age he makes a trip to Jerusalem to meet his father, yet returns to Ethiopia even though Solomon offers him the throne of Israel. Before leaving Jerusalem though, Menelik steals into Jerusalem’s Temple and takes the Ark of the Covenant, the holy vessel containing the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. Solomon realizes, livid, all too late but in the end is unable to reclaim the Ark. To this day, Ethiopians, with their deep-rooted sense of cultural superiority, see the transfer of the Ark symbolic of the transfer of God’s favor from Israel to Ethiopia, ruled by a lineage of emperors of blood traceable back to Adam himself. Axum had become the new Zion.

Axum is our second stop along Ethiopia’s northern historical circuit. There is no doubt of its historical significance and a rightful visit, having housed an ancient empire lasting 1,000 years rivaling those of Rome, Persia, and China. The Axumite empire in its hey-day stretched over Yemen and Saudi Arabia, from Sudan to Somalia, and Eritrea and Djibouti, dating as far back according to scholars as 600 BC. The description of Axum in the LP though made it sound still just that fascinating with its “jaw-dropping” stelae, Abyssinia’s answer to Egypt’s pyramids, which I suppose it is in a way except not, as we found the heavily emphasized stelae, if historically unmissable, to be somewhat underwhelming.

Wait, did I say “we” up there? With me being equally underwhelmed is Jos, a Dutch guy who reminds me of a rougher version of Kristian, who I met while wandering around one of Gondar’s small castles, bonding over being mutually unimpressed with the Royal Enclosure a few days ago. Jos stands around 6’2″ tall and has wavy dirty blond hair that is long enough to stand another 8″ itself. A soccer player hailing from the Netherlands, he has a fanatical penchant for quoting from Friends and an even bigger one for quoting from Wedding Crashers. The altitude of north Ethiopia, well above 2,500 meters, hilariously causes approximately 1.5 bloody noses for him a day – but this doesn’t stop him from going all out in his pursuit of killing any living insect invading our room at night, resulting in broken bed frames and cracked toilet seats. Although he talks with an unmistakable accent from which I guessed off the bat his Dutch background, he constantly strives to prove his mastery of the English language and heavily overuses “I reckon..,” a phrase which he knows really annoys me.

Jos is doing the exact same three-month trip as myself only backwards: Ethiopia to South Africa, and he is only four days into the journey. As he has just started traveling, he still has the fresh spark of excitement at everything foreign, even the annoying bits, which makes me smile. He originally planned to head to Lalibela to the east, but after a bit of an introduction in Gondar instead decides to hitch with me the next morning to Axum, in essence a 5-day detour for him. As we have the same rough idea for an itinerary, you guys may need to acquaint yourself with him well as I think he’ll be around for a few posts. All good with me, I could do worse than travel the next two weeks through Ethiopia accompanied by a rather tasty Dutchman.

We spend the day wandering around the stelae fields together and through some of the ancient ruins which I’m sure religious scholars find absolutely thrilling. After learning of the tale of the Queen of Sheba, I am no longer as surprised at the numerous Stars of David engraved on the sides of the churches seen or the other small suggestions at Israel’s influence in this African country. We even see the church of St. Mary of Zion, which supposedly houses the actual Ark of the Covenant, but it seems as if viewing it is off-limits to the public as it is heavily guarded by lock and key by an official guardian. Dodgy? Maybe.

Our visit to Axum certainly gives a deeper sense of understanding of that glimmer of special pride I sensed in Ethiopia even in my first days in Addis. Ethiopians see their nation as “a Christian outpost in a sea of Islam and pagan belief,” making it different from the rest of black Africa. The lighter skin and fairer features of Ethiopians are proof of their Semitic link back to Biblical lands. Ethiopia has never been colonized. Ethiopia even once housed the greatest empire to see Africa. Ethiopia knows this, and is in no rush to associate itself from the rest of negro Africa, tainted by “humiliations of both the slave trade and colonialism.” Although nobody really knows if the Queen of Sheba actually existed, her love affair with Solomon is mentioned in the Old Testament. Tourists today are still told by guides the ancient tale and whisper of the Ark’s existence within the walls before them, as Ethiopia’s 500,000 clergymen redistribute their justification of Ethiopia’s superiority to the masses.

“A popular tale captures this superiority: In creating man, it was said, God the baker had put three trays of dough in the oven. The whites were removed too early, the blacks too late, but with the Ethiopians, God got the timing just right.

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