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Thursday 5 Mar 2009
Aksum, Ethiopia

Aksum (continued ... part deux)

I wandered across the road from the stele field to try my hand at seeing the St Mary of Zion churches and the church reputedly containing the "lost" Ark of the Covenant.

It was getting late in the day (around 3-4pm) so I wasn't going to bother paying the fairly hefty 100 birr (about $10) to get into the church for the one hour it was left open! On hearing this, some local guards got irate that I wanted to take photos of the outside of the St Mary of Zion church and almost went after me with their sticks to shoo me off!

I decided to wander around the outside wall of the church compound (which contains about 4 churches, the oldest of which was built in 1665 on top of the location of Ethiopia's FIRST church (built in 4AD)). It was evident from the moment I arrived in this part of town that the churches were exceedingly sacred to Ethiopians as Orthodox Christians dressed in white robes prostrated themselves in front of the wall at regular intervals. This is, after all, where Christianity began in Ethiopia.

Ark of the Covenant lies...
Ark of the Covenant...

I eventually wandered around to the far side of the church compound and came across a gate entrance, between which stood a priest guarding it. An Israeli lady who had since accompanied me on this trek took it upon herself to ask the priest if this was the purported location of the church ("The Church of the Tablet") containing the Ark of the Covenant. The priest nodded.

Apparently only one priest is allowed access to the church containing the Ark, and this was evidently he. Only he knows if it's all a myth or if the greatest treasure of the Jews/Christians lies therein.

Women crying at the...

And so I wandered on, deeper into the old town of Aksum ... I first came across a remarkable scene of about 100 elderly ladies dressed in white robes huddled around the base of a huge roundabout in which a large oak tree was the centrepiece. As I got closer (and started taking photos of the situation) I could hear many of them crying out loud ... I wasn't sure if this was directed at me because I was taking photos, so I decided to holster the SLR and wander further, stepping over the roundabout. An elderly women shouted at me in Amharaic to clear off when I got up here... so, confused as I was to the goings-on, I marched off to the other side of the road where I saw several elderly men sitting observing the whole situation.

Old men at the funeral...
Old men at the funeral...

It quickly transpired that this was a funeral procession, and further down the street I could see 100s more people dressed in white lined up on the side of the road. I'm glad I moved off the roundabout as it quickly became the centrepiece of the whole procession as several hundred people crowded around it and a priest with a makeshift alter took position at the top beside the oak tree. Imagine how embarrassing it would have been had I decided to plonk myself there (bewildered expression n all) in front of the priest! I took one or two photos of the procession but it was a solemn occasion (and there were several stern eyes on me all the time) so I decided to hold back a bit.

Camel attention in Aksum...
Camel attention in Aksum...

Small girl in Aksum town

Walking around the old town afterward I came to really like Aksum. It's quite a laid back sort of place, and you don't constantly get harassed by people trying to sell you things; people just live their lives as normal and you get a glimpse into the everyday life of the people that live there.

Because of the great history in Aksum, there are countless souvenir shops selling ancient antiques that were dug up by farmers in the surrounding hills. I was amazed that such valuable antiquity was on sale rather than in a museum, but as one guide I met in Lalibela later said "Ethiopia is selling it's history". In Ethiopia, sometimes turning a quick buck is more valuable than maintaining the country's history.

Nevertheless, I was transfixed by some of the amazing things that were on sale in some of these shops. Everything from ancient hand-written Bibles, to Italian-army-issue World War 2 pistols, to countless ancient Christian crosses... all either dug up or sold on to the shops by various farmers or priests that were desperate for cash. Family heirlooms gone to the highest bidder.

I decided to purchase a beautiful little hand-written bible with sheep-skin pages and bound in leather which I haggled down to 250 birr (around 18 euro). It was around 40 years old and exquisitely-produced with beautiful little paintings on the inside pages and Ge'ez script in very neat hand-writing, the book being only 3x2 inches in size. It evidently belonged to a priest, and may have even been produced by the same. It was like having a minature version of the Lake Tana manuscripts!

Before I left the shop, though, the man asked me if I was inerested in coins. Now I'm not sure on the legality of selling these items as he produced a tiny matchstick box and carefully took out several tiny coins, rather than have them on display in one of the cabinets. One coin in particular took my interest ... a bronze coin with what looked like gold in the center, and very clear relief of the person's face. I was fascinated, and asked how old they were. "This one is from around 3AD .. pre-Christian Aksum", he said. I was gobsmacked! It was ANCIENT yet in fantastic condition. "Is that real gold plating as well?",I asked, "Of course!". I was mesmerised. Here in my hand was HISTORY .. a coin created before Christianity arrived on Ethiopian shores!

Here I was, haggling with a guy over a piece of REAL ancient treasure that would normally be found in a museum!

The price was understandably high though... 900 birr (about 80 euro)! He originally asked for 1,100 but wouldn't go any lower than 900 as he had paid 800 to the the farmer who originally found it.

Hmm... it was a lot of money, but then again, where else would I be able to purchase a Roman-era coin in such good condition? This was heirloom stuff right here, something to pass onto future generations .. I was in love with it.

I needed the night to think it over ... and asked the guy to open his shop up in the morn at 8am in case I came by before my flight left...

Heading back to my hotel, I bumped into another guy who also ran a shop... we got talking.. I expressed my interest in coins ... he then tells me about a SILVER coin from the same period that his grandfather found (!!) ... this would be even more valuable and rarer than the bronze one I checked out before ... I was intrigued ... and I said I'd pop into his place in the morning as well...

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Travel blog by peterforan

Day 3  ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

Day 3 ... Lookin forward to Uhuru peak, Kilimanjaro

With Toto's defining tune ringing in my head, I don khaki pants and venture full-throttle into Africa! Elephants, lions, huge mountains, men with spears intent on stabbing me (probably) and the "Cradle of Humanity" (tm)... 4 weeks ain't gonna be enough!

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Photo Album

  • Replica of...



    Replica of the silver coin I bought
  • The Rome Stele



    The Rome Stele
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    Rome Stele with St Mary of Zion church in background
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