Ethiopia: The Sacred City of Axum– The Supposed Site Of The Ark Of The Covenant

The sacred city of Axum is believed to be the site of the Ark of the Covenant. On a Sunday morning, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians make their way to church, clothed in white vestments called shamma
The sacred city of Axum is believed to be the site of the Ark of the Covenant. On a Sunday morning, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians make their way to church, clothed in white vestments called shamma

We didn’t think it at the time but it was a blessing in disguise that we had missed our connecting flight from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the sacred city of Axum in northern Ethiopia. Looking at it in hindsight, those unforeseen circumstances allowed us a little more time in Addis to enjoy Ethiopian coffee, injera and wot, and prompted us to re-calibrate our itinerary at the Kingdom of Aksum, the first Christian kingdom in the world and once the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia from 1st to 8th centuries AD. It therefore allowed us to witness this:

This was around 7:30 to 8 AM on a Sunday morning after mass at the Tsiom Mariam Church (Church of our Lady Mary of Zion), the largest round Orthodox church in Ethiopia, believed to have been built during the reign of Ezana, the first Christian emperor of Ethiopia, during the 4th century AD, and rebuilt several times since then, most recently opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1955. As we were driving towards, throngs of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians were starting to make their way back home. The sight is just mesmerizing, and we wouldn’t have seen this had we stuck to our original schedule of visiting on a Saturday! (What did they say again– everything happens for a reason, natch!)

The church is perhaps more popularly known as the supposed site of the Ark of the Covenant. According to tradition, “the Ark came to Ethiopia with Menelik I after he visited his father King Solomon, and only the guardian monk may view the Ark in accordance with the Biblical accounts of the dangers of doing so for non-Kohanim” (Jews that are not direct male descendants of the Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses). It is a tradition that has been passed down on to generations simply based on pure, absolute belief. Amazing.

On a Sunday morning, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians worship for three hours (although I’m told later on that some start as early as Saturday evening, totaling around 9 hours). We were so fortunate to have witnessed the latter part of the ceremony, which consisted of singing, chanting, and blessing. Ethiopians are some of the most religious people I have met– not merely by prayer and worship, but also by how they live their lives. When visiting,  it is imperative to bring a shawl (if you notice, they are all wearing white as this is what Jesus was wearing in the Bible– I only had a beige one but it was alright as long as head, arms and legs are covered for women; for men, pants are preferred and sleeved-shirts).  Don’t even think about any skimpy, skin-baring outfits– you’ll stick out like a sore thumb– and NOT in a good way.

Tsion Mariam Church (Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion) in Axum, Ethiopia- Cheryl Tiu
The beautiful Tsion Mariam Church or the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum is the largest round Orthodox church in Ethiopia. It is an important center of pilgrimage for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, especially during the main Festival of Zion Maryam on 30 November.
Insider Tsion Mariam Church (Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion) in Axum, Ethiopia- Cheryl Tiu
Women covered in white gauze-like clothing (shamma) saying their prayers inside the church

Cantillation is an integral part of worship in Ethiopia, where hymns are sung in different modes and rhythms. It was a blessing to have experienced such a beautiful tradition that was both hair-raising and somewhat soothing. Listen below:

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After service, we asked to be blessed by the priests. Here is Geiser Maclang brand architect Amor Maclang being blessed by a priest at Tsion Mariam Church
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Another priest blessing church-goers on their way out of service
Ethiopian Orthodox Christian and Roman Catholic Cheryl Tiu praying together inside Tsion Mariam Church (Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion) in Axum, Ethiopia
At the end of the day, we are all God’s children. An Orthodox Christian (man in white) and a Catholic (me) saying our prayers atTsion Mariam Church. This is exactly what Ethiopia is about, different faiths, especially Christians and Muslims, living and co-existing side by side in respect and harmony.
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Ethiopian Orthodox Christians continuing their prayers outside of the church
Ethiopian Orthodox Monk in Axum, Ethiopia- Cheryl Tiu
A rare shot of an Ethiopian Orthodox monk, scurrying off from Tsion Mariom Church. Notice the beautiful blue cobblestone path, and the combination of colors– this is one of my favorite photos that I took during this trip!
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A woman praying out to the Chapel of the Tablet (the one with blue windows), said to be the specific site at the Tsion Mariam Church of where the Ark of the Covenant is located

Axum is also known as the land of the fabled Queen of Sheba, who according to tradition, was a monarch of the ancient kingdom of Sheba, believed to be in Ethiopia or Yemen. According to the bible, the Queen of Sheba visited Solomon to test his wisdom. The structure at Dungur is believed to have been her palace.

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The stone structure at Dungur is popularly known as Queen of Sheba’s Palace. According to the biblical narrative, she was a woman of great wealth, beauty, and power. and is believed to be from Ethiopia

And in most postcards, you will see Axum represented by giant granite stelae, also known as obelisks, where they are situated on the UNESCO Heritage Site of Axum Stelae Field. These are kind of like “markers” for the royal tombs underneath, kind of like “stairways to heaven for the kings of Axum.”

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Philippine Star Supreme editor and filmmaker Pepe Diokno and I on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Axum Stelae Field, known for the obelisks, dating from around 300-500 AD, predating Christianity in Ethiopia
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Look up! The tallest upright obelisk stands 82 feet in height
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My travel mates Amor Maclang, Ahmed Abdulhadi and Pepe Diokno and myself sitting by the largest obelisk, which measures 108 feet, which has fallen (believed to have occurred during its mounting). If it were still standing, it would be the tallest obelisk in the world. Legends maintain that it covers the grave of Queen of Sheba.
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Around the Axum Stelae Field are vendors selling souvenirs and religious items, some of which are absolutely stunning. They are quite pricey and you really have to negotiate, but at the end of the day, if you know you won’t find it anywhere else, then go for it. I bought a similar one from my mom, and in fact, it was so precious that airport security had to double check to make sure it wasn’t a historical artifact!
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I loved the paintings on the wooden artifacts as well.. I wanted to buy everything! They are so unique!
We also got to experience the Axum market, a local village market where fresh fruits, vegetables and spices are sold. It was such a precious site! Here I am trying to talk to a camel but he didn't want to talk to me :(
We also got to experience the Axum market, a local village market where fresh fruits, vegetables and spices are sold. It was such a precious site! Here I am trying to talk to a camel but he didn’t want to talk to me :(
Really colorful vegetables, fruits and spices for sale..
Really colorful vegetables, fruits and spices for sale. I highly encourage buying directly from the communities so the money goes directly to them!
First time to try cactus pear fruit and it's absolutely delicious, with a taste resembling that of fresh figs
First time to try cactus pear fruit and it’s absolutely delicious, with a taste resembling that of fresh figs
These kids of the vendors and farmers are so adorable! They were so kind, friendly and curious, definitely had to have a photo with them :) The heart of Ethiopia is really the people!
These kids of the vendors and farmers are so adorable! They were so kind, friendly and curious, definitely had to have a photo with them :) The heart of Ethiopia is really the people!
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Not so photogenic, but trust me, Ethiopian honey is extremely delicious. It has a different texture– not liquid as we know, but a rather a thick consistency with pollen and beeswax. You can buy them at the local market but more conveniently at the Axum airport for 200 birr (approximately PHP440) for a kilo, and they pack it for you to chuck in your luggage! Locals told me that they use it to spread on bread, or even as a substitute for sugar in their coffee.
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Bye, Axum! Now off to Lalibela.. around 45 minutes flight time!

Isn’t Axum just so beautiful and spiritual? Now how to get there.. Ethiopian Airlines flies directly from Manila to Addis Ababa on July 9, 2015. From there, Axum is a 1.5 hour flight away. 

Read about my visit to the pilgrimage city of Lalibela, also known as the “new Jerusalem.

Stay tuned for posts on the capital city of Addis Ababa!

2 Comments

  1. Do you have estimates how much the travel to ethiopia costs. Is it expensive? is it possible to visit these places alone?

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