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.
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:
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.
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.”