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Ethiopia – Keepers of the Lost Ark

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Text by David Adams
Photography by David Adams

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Ethiopia is the land of many faces. Its people are Christian Orthodox, Muslim and animist; the land varies from flat desert to high mountains and lakes; its chequered history goes back to the Queen of Sheba. Small wonder then that Ethiopia is also rumoured to be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant – a rumour which DAVID ADAMS pursues across the country. He walks the pilgrims’ road from Lalibela to Gonder, paddles across Lake Tana in a papyrus boat and, after a long journey across the remote wilderness, finally finds the truth behind the Lost Ark. It is not what he expected…

Ethiopia is a land-locked nation in the Horn of Africa. Once a mountain empire, it remained isolated from the rest of the world for over a thousand years. It is also the oldest nation in Africa, and the only one on the continent never to have been colonised – only the Italians occupied Ethiopia during WWII, leaving a legacy of Italian words in the vocabulary of northern Ethiopia and spaghetti on most Ethiopian menus, but no other western empire has succeeded in conquering this ancient land.

This is the land of the Queen of Sheba, whose pool in which she swam can still be seen in Axum, city of ancient obelisks; where God played chess with his angels on a chequered landscape in Tigray; where twelfth Century crusaders came seeking the Ark of the Covenant; where coffee rituals are as complex as the Japanese tea ceremony; and where incense-production is so widespread that Addis Ababa (meaning ‘new flower’ in Amharic) has to be the nicest smelling capital city in the world.

Ethiopia is full of surprises. Anyone who remembers the great famine of 1984, will imagine the entire country to be a large, merciless desert. But in fact only the east and south-east are like this: the Ogaden sprawls across this part of the country and is home to several rebel movements with links with neighbouring Somalia. But in the south-west Ethiopia becomes a land of vast lakes, joined together like a string of pearls, and a lush, green landscape.

And the northern province of Tigray – recently the scene of battles between the Ethiopian and Eritrean armies – is stunning, mountainous terrain, where sunrise covers the landscape with a red-orange glow. It is easy to fall in love with Ethiopia.

And it is here that I seek the origins of an ancient legend, an incredible story that begins with Moses and the Ten Commandments. A tale about an object so sacred, only the purest of Christians can behold it; so dangerous, it can destroy cities, spread plague and burn people alive; so coveted, that crusaders, popes, kings and even Indiana Jones have braved the dangers to seek it. Like them, I’m here to find the keepers of the lost Ark of the Covenant.

The time is Christmas – Ethiopian Christmas that is, on January 7th. Ethiopia is half Orthodox, half Muslim, and the Orthodox rituals here are many and impressive. Twelve days from now it will be Timkat – Ethiopian Epiphany – the day when the Ark of the Covenant will be paraded before its people. Pilgrims from all over Africa make the long journey to northern Ethiopia to witness this holy event; I will be joining them this year, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Ark.

The pilgrimage, much like Chaucher’s Canterbury Tales or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, is a very long walk during the days between Christmas and Timkat. The 200-mile route follows the road from Lalibela, city of eleven churches hewn from the rock, to Gonder, the Camelot of Africa. Both are ancient centres of the Christian Orthodox faith, and the pilgrimage is usually a very colourful affair.

I will also be walking back in time – quite literally. Ethiopia is eight years behind us since it follows the Julian, not the Gregorian, calendar. In fact, time runs differently here: the Ethiopians start their 24-hour cycles not at midnight but at 6AM – making the question “Do you have the time?” an opener for all sorts of confusion.

I start my journey in Lalibela, a town named after King Lalibela who built the eleven churches here in the 12th Century. The town’s name also means “the bees recognise his sovereignty” – according to legend, Lalibela’s mother gave birth to her royal son while surrounded by an enormous cloud of bees, symbolising the soldiers who would one day pay homage to their king.

But before I even see any evidence of Orthodox Christianity, I am in the middle of a medieval joust – Ethiopian style. On the plains outside Lalibela, a group of horse-back warriors have gathered for an honest-to-god joust – and you don’t want to mess with these guys. They look awesome: with enormous, black ostrich-feathered head-dresses, they look like maned lions – fierce, proud and distinctly regal. The warriors ride their horses with thunderous speed, brandishing spears and ululating in a way to put the fear of god into anyone who gets in their way. No wonder Ethiopia has never been colonised.

But I come in peace. In fact, I come as a pilgrim and Lalibela is the kick-off. I wear a white shawl to show respect to this oldest Christian nation, and carry a pilgrim’s staff to symbolise divine determination.

Here in Lalibela, the pilgrims attend a rally – a kind of boost to the system, with a fire and brimstone preacher addressing the enormous crowd that’s gathered here. “No coffee!” he shouts (which for Ethiopians, who love – I mean love – their coffee, is a real hardship). “No alcohol!” he booms – and in fact, no loud talk, excessive laughter or noisy parties are allowed; not exactly my idea of Christmas…

In Lalibela, one in five Christian males is a deacon or a priest – it’s the Vatican of the Christian Orthodox church in Africa. The clerics are all dressed in colourful robes and small crowns – in fact, exactly like the three wise men in the Nativity story. These rituals are 1500 years old, with roots in the days when Christianity was a radical Jewish sect. They call Lalibela the new Jerusalem.

The eleven churches for which Lalibela is famed were carved out of solid, volcanic rock in the 12th Century, stand for the most part below ground level and most are connected by a tunnel system. King Lalibela built these churches to wrest political pre-eminence away from Axum, the ancient city to the north, where the Queen of Sheba resided and where a large collection of obelisks point to a rich and colourful past.

Legend tells a different story. Apparently King Lalibela was murdered by his brother but, on arriving in heaven, was told he still had God’s work to do back on the mortal plain: the building of the 11 churches. So Lalibela, duly revived, got down to business, together with St. George – he of dragon-slaying fame – who is also patron saint of Ethiopia. Bizarre but true.

History also relates how the Ark of the Covenant is hidden deep in the tunnel system of Lalibela’s churches. Now, I’d always believed it was destroyed when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem in 586 BC, but here the story goes that Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the Ark to Ethiopia. All over this country, hundreds of churches claim to possess it – rumours started no doubt to throw persistent bloodhounds like me off the scent.

To guide me in the ways of Orthodox Christmas, I have Ishutu – a local from Lalibela who will be making the pilgrimage with me. Like so many Ethiopians I’ve met, he’s extremely polite, gracious, warm and elegant. In fact, he has invited quite a few complete strangers into his home just because it’s Christmas.

“Everybody does that for Christmas?” I ask him. “Sure,” he replies, “It’s the custom, it’s our culture.” He looks surprised at my even asking about it – don’t westerners have Christmas too..? In a country so desperately poor, the generosity of its people is all the more remarkable. I meet his wife Ababa and her cousin Tete. Tomorrow we will set off on the pilgrimage, and we’ll be visiting some of the most remote hiding places of the Ark.

On the first day of Christmas I reach – not a partridge in a pear tree – but Bethlehem. Ishutu and Ababa have brought their son Zed and their little daughter Jordanas, since this is a family outing too. And, with the donkey in tow, I catch myself wondering if there will be room at the inn…

The countryside is breathtaking here. The Simien mountains are wild, inhospitable and untamed – climbers love this place, and if you wanted to hide an object that was at the core of three of the world’s great religions, this would be a pretty good place to do it. The pilgrim’s trail takes us through some of the best farmland in the country.

Only about 12 percent of Ethiopia is suitable for arable farming. Which means that a population of 50 million Ethiopians depend on a few farmers to survive – and the Horn of Africa has been plagued by drought for several years now. March 2000 saw very high malnutrition rates in the drier south, and the chances are high the same could happen here.

The high mountainous terrain is beginning to take its toll on the smaller members of our group and I offer to carry little Jordanas. Why walk the length of the pilgrimage instead of riding on the back of a donkey? Because physical exertion and effort must be shown to achieve true redemption – taken very seriously here.

Once in Bethlehem, I make my way to the local priest – the Abba – to ask him about the Ark. I’d better not get on the wrong side of him, especially since I’ve come such a long way. Before we talk however, there is the formality of the coffee ceremony.

Coffee gets its name from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, the place where they say coffee beans were first discovered. Few conversations start without the initial coffee ritual. There are usually three rounds: the first being strong enough to wake the dead and get everyone psyched up for the talks ahead; the second is a bit milder just to keep everyone on an even keel; and the third is the mildest to allow for a calm resolution of the talks. The beans are ground on the spot, held above coffee leaves and incense as if for blessing and the whole business is taken very seriously indeed. Only truly civilised people are said to understand the significance of these formalities. I’m not sure if I’ve passed the test, but it’s a damn fine cup of coffee, to coin a phrase.

I ask the Abba if his church in Bethlehem, which was built in the 3rd Century AD, has ever housed the Ark of the Covenant. He pauses and says, “There is the Ark, yes.” I’m not getting very far. So I ask him if the genuine Ark, the one taken from Jerusalem, is now in Lalibela. “There is the Ark here in the church, because every church has its own Ark.” Ah. I ask again: “But surely the Ark can’t be in a hundred places at once? Are you speaking literally or metaphorically?” He replies, “Both.”

To appease me, the Abba offers to show me the church itself. It’s small, with low beams and doorways and there are frescos covering the walls. It is also one of only four stone and wood churches found in Ethiopia, apparently a synthesis of Byzantine architecture and early Christian design, combined with the ancient Ethiopian style of Axum. Once inside, wall-hangings block my view of rooms deeper in the complex. This is also as far as Abba will go: since he has recently eaten and made love to his wife, he is temporarily impure and cannot enter the consecrated part of the church. We stop at the wall-hanging.

But beyond the curtain, I catch a glimpse of an eye watching me. As I step towards it to peer through, I am warned not to get too close – even for a sceptic like me it would be wise to obey. These people believe that behind these curtains there’s an object that was touched by God and Moses himself. And if I were to go in there and touch it, flames would shoot straight up my nostrils and I’d be burned alive. I move back, in case I’m zapped by the Ark…

The next day, having wondered all night whether my pilgrimage is now sort of pointless, I decide that since every church has its own Ark there’s no reason for me to stop my quest. Besides, I’ve been looking forward to taking a shower under the thundering waters of the Nile…

We head out of Bethlehem and make towards the Blue Nile and the Tis Isat Falls. There are still 120 miles of hard slog ahead of us, and we’re approaching the Falls. In the distance, a strange white mist obscures the view – explaining the Falls’ name which means “the smoke of fire”. The Blue Nile plunges 150 feet into a chasm here and it’s also the first time that Ishutu and his family have seen so much water in one place. To them, this is tantamount to a miracle; the deafening, quaking roar of God. Time for a shower.

They call the Nile the River of Life – the Blue Nile provides 80 percent of the water for the Nile proper. If these falls ever stopped, millions would starve a thousand miles downstream from here. Wars have been fought in the Horn of Africa over the water supply from the Nile – after all, if you control the source, you can pretty much control those who depend on its downstream waters. I stand on a slippery outcrop facing the falls and just spread my arms – my grinning face and entire body is covered with a fine water mist. It’s like standing in a gentle hurricane. Very invigorating, although I suspect Ishutu and little Jordanas think I’ve lost my mind.

Two days later, we reach Lake Tana. While Ishutu and his family go ahead on foot, I make a detour to follow up a new lead on the Ark. I’m told that when the Ark was brought to Ethiopia it came up past this spot. They tell me there’s an island on the lake where the Ark is supposed to have been kept for 800 years – and some say it’s still there.

Which means I need a boat of some description and the best way to get one around here is to have one made: a papyrus canoe. These water-worthy craft have been made here for 3000 years and methods haven’t changed much. I’ve seen similar canoes on the Tigris, the Caspian Sea and the Andean lakes of South America. These canoes are called tanquas and are generally used for fishing and personal transport – the story here is that the basket of rushes in which baby Moses was floated down the Nile was a mini-tanqua. So now you know. But I need a big one to carry my weight and get me – intact and preferably dry – to the island in the lake.

The finished tanqua looks more like a long, woven cigar which I have to straddle while pedalling with one oar, kayak-style. I head out onto the vast Lake Tana – 3600 km² of water, from which the source proper of the Blue Nile flows and which is, for that reason, the most important stretch of inland water in the Horn of Africa. It is deserted, and all I can see is water and sky; the only sounds are the waterfowl. It seems eerie yet serene. The tanqua, thankfully, proves buoyant and stable, although the pedalling is a real workout.

Lake Tana is 60 times the size of Manhattan, has more water than all of Britain’s inland waterways and lakes put together and is 2000 metres above sea level. There are 34 islands in this lake, and 20 of them have monasteries on them – I may be hard put to find the right one. The island I’m seeking is Tana Kirkos and of course it would have to be the most remote island in the lake.

By now my arms feel like jelly, but I finally arrive on my waterlogged bundle of reeds. The only sign of life on the small islet are vultures, peering down like gargoyles from a medieval church. But I’m ashore again. I pull my tanqua on land behind me, and stand up to survey the surroundings. The silence is oppressive. Then I see something that confirms the presence of ancient people: stones that were once used as a sacrificial altar. Animal sacrifice was only practised by the early Christian Church in Ethiopia – which means that this monastery has been here a very long time. Long enough to hide an object last seen 2000 years ago? Perhaps.

And then I see them: the keepers of the Lost Ark. A group of monks come out to meet me, pretty relaxed about seeing me here despite my rather unorthodox method of arrival. I ask them about the Ark, but in retrospect I think perhaps my question was a little too abrupt: the monks start talking to each other in Amharic, ignoring me completely. Finally a deacon translates: “982 years before Jesus Christ was born…” Does that mean that in the 10th Century BC the Ark was brought here? I ask, hardly daring to believe my pilgrimage may be at an end, if the Ark is here right now.

“There were many trying to steal the Ark,” says the deacon. “Because of that, we had to hide it by putting it under divine protection.” I ask eagerly if the Ark is here on the island. “Yes, it’s still here, hidden,” says the deacon. But where exactly, they won’t tell me. Well, fair enough really…

So basically all the other Arks in Ethiopia are fakes used to fool thieves. The real Ark is right here on Tana Kirkos and no, they don’t have to prove it to me. So near and yet so far away. After a bit more fruitless questioning, I get the feeling they want me to leave now. Not wishing to outstay my welcome, I leave behind yet another home of the one true Ark and head back to my little canoe, puzzled but elated. I’m not dealing with reality here, but with a legend – and I’m no longer sure if ‘reality’ matters very much.

Meanwhile the twelfth day of Christmas is fast approaching and it’s time I re-joined Ishutu on the road to Gonder. Here we will celebrate Timkat, Ethiopian Epiphany. And after so many days on the road, this former Ethiopian capital comes as an intoxicating relief.

An early European explorer dubbed Gonder ‘the Camelot of Africa’, and to this day remains the finest architectural example of Ethiopia at the full height and might of its medieval power. Its Fasilidas castle is not only enormous, reigning supreme over the city, it would also look quite at home in Scotland, Poland or Morocco. Gonder reached the zenith of its power in the 16th Century, with the imperial dynasty ruling the land from here.

Gonder is also home to the most famous church in Africa: the Dabra Brihan Selassie, built in the 16th Century and famous for its many frescos. Ishutu and his family make a bee-line for the church to pray at the fresco central to Timkat: it depicts the three wise men who showed the baby Jesus to the world. The pilgrims are still flocking to Gonder in their thousands, in time for Timkat.

Timkat is a ceremony held all over the country, with large processions, clerics wearing robes and crowns, carrying parasols and spitting water at the crowds in blessing. It’s the biggest feast in the Orthodox calendar and for the pilgrims it is, after their physical exertions, the nadir of their journey. Me, I’m looking forward to catching a glimpse of the Ark.

The noisy procession, accompanied by much singing and drumming, makes its way from the church, and on each of the priests’ heads rests a stone tablet – the tablets on which God is supposed to have written the Ten Commandments before giving them to Moses. But as with the Ark, there seem to be rather a lot of tablets. Then I’m told each tablet comes from a different church in Gonder. Each is believed to have the power of the Ark, which is why they’re covered in cloth – if anyone sees them, they will be instantly consumed by fire.

All over Ethiopia at that very moment, tablets are being paraded in front of enormous crowds and finally I start to understand the significance of it all. This isn’t about the reality of separating the ‘real’ Ark from ‘fake’ diversions – this is about faith. After all, you don’t ask God – or Allah, or Jahweh, or whoever – to prove his existence, so why ask the same of the Ark? It’s the faith that matters. It was faith that brought Ishutu and thousands like him from Lalibela to Gonder; faith that keeps the legends alive.

So if you come to Ethiopia at Timkat, don’t expect to find the one, true Ark – you will however find the Covenant, that agreement between God and humanity which is everywhere in ceremonies like this all over Ethiopia. And while it is fact and logic that makes the Western world tick, here in Ethiopia – which lives in a different year, keeping different time – myth becomes fact through the perception of reality. Indiana Jones would not have been satisfied with anything less than an actual box, but I’m quite content: I have, after all, found the true spirit of Ethiopia.