by Graham Hancock

The Sign and the Seal

Into Axum

We spent most of the next day on the telephone to Addis Ababa talking to the minister directly responsible for our project. It was touch and go, but his influence finally did get us seats on the flight that our Zambian friends had told us about. In the event, however, they were not to be our pilots; a fully Ethiopian crew was on board the DC3 for the short hop to Axum.

During the one-hour delay before our morning take-off from Asmara airport, and during the turbulent thirty-five-minute journey itself, I completed my background reading - reassuring myself in the process that the visit really was worthwhile.

The early historical references painted a picture of an important and cosmopolitan urban centre. In AD 64, for example, the anonymous author of a Greek trading manual known as the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea had referred to the Axumite ruler as being 'a prince superior to most and educated with a knowledge of Greek'.(9) Some hundreds of years later a certain Julian, ambassador of the Roman Emperor Justinian, described Axum in glowing terms as 'the greatest city of all Ethiopia'. The king, he added, was almost naked, wearing only a garment of linen embroidered with gold from his waist to his loins and straps set with pearls over his back and stomach. He wore golden bracelets on his arms, a golden collar around his neck, and on his head a linen turban - also embroidered with gold - from which hung four fillets on either side. When receiving the ambassador's credentials, this monarch apparently stood on a four-wheeled chariot drawn by four elephants; the body of the chariot was high and covered with gold plates. (10)

sign and the seal

"The story of the conversion of Ethiopia
is preserved in the writings of the
fourth-century Byzantine theologian
Rufinius - an authority highly
regarded by modern historians."
In the sixth century AD, a much-travelled Christian monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes, added further colour to the impression conveyed by Julian. After his visit to the city he reported that the 'four-towered palace of the King of Ethiopia' was adorned with 'four brazen figures' of a unicorn, as well as the skin of a rhinoceros 'stuffed with chaff'. He also saw several giraffes which had been caught 'by command of the King when young and tamed to make a show for his amusement'.' (11)

These images of barbaric splendour well befitted the capital of what had by that time become the most important power between the Roman Empire and Persia - a power that sent its merchant navies as far afield as Egypt, India, Ceylon and China and that had adopted Christianity as its state religion as early as the fourth century AD.

The story of the conversion of Ethiopia is preserved in the writings of the fourth-century Byzantine theologian Rufinius - an authority highly regarded by modern historians. Apparently a certain Meropius, a Christian merchant described by Rufinius as a 'philosopher of Tyre', once made a voyage to India, taking with him two Syrian boys whom he was educating in 'humane studies'. The elder was called Frumentius and the younger Aedesius. On their return journey through the Red Sea the ship was seized off the Ethiopian coast in an act of reprisal against the Eastern Roman Empire which had broken a treaty with the people of the area.

Meropius was killed in the fighting. The boys, however, survived and were taken to the Axumite King, Ella Amida, who promptly made Aedesius his cup- bearer and Frumentius - the more sagacious and prudent of the two - his treasurer and secretary. The boys were held in great honour and affection by the king who, however, died shortly afterwards leaving his widow and an infant son - Ezana - as his heir. Before his death, Ella Amida had given the two Syrians their freedom but now the widowed queen begged them, with tears in her eyes, to stay with her until her son came of age. She asked in particular for the help of Frumentius - for Aedesius, though loyal and honest at heart, was simple.

During the years that followed, the influence of Frumentius in the Axumite kingdom grew. He sought out such foreign traders who were Christians and urged them 'to establish conventicles in various places to which they might resort for prayer.' He also provided them with 'whatever was needed, supplying sites for buildings and in every way promoting the growth of the seed of Christianity in the country.'

At around the time that Ezana finally ascended the throne, Aedesius returned to Tyre. Frumentius for his part journeyed to Alexandria, in Egypt - then a great centre of Christianity - where he informed Patriarch Athanasius of the work so far accomplished for the faith in Ethiopia. The young man begged the ecclesiastical leader 'to look for some worthy man to send as bishop over the many Christians already congregated.' Athanasius, having carefully weighed and considered the words of Frumentius, declared in a council of priests: 'What other man shall we find in whom the spirit of God is as in thee who can accomplish these things?' He therefore 'consecrated him and bade him return in the Grace of God whence he came. (12)

sign and the seal
Frumentius accordingly went back to Axum as Ethiopia's first Christian bishop and there he continued his missionary endeavours - which were rewarded, in the year AD 331, by the conversion of the king himself. The surviving coins of Ezana's reign record the transition: the earlier ones bear crescent and disk images of the new and full moon; later examples are stamped uncompromisingly with the cross - amongst the earliest coins of any country to carry this Christian symbol.(13)

Important as the seed-bed of Ethiopian Christianity - and as the capital of the Ethiopian empire from the first until approximately the tenth century AD - Axum's interest in terms of our project was nevertheless much broader than this. Here, I read, we would come across many imposing pre-Christian ruins of great archaeological merit (including the remains of several immense palaces), and also - still well preserved - the monuments for which the city was best known: its ancient obelisks, some more than two thousand years old, attesting to a high level of advancement in art and architecture at a date far earlier than that of any other civilization in sub-Saharan Africa. Nor were such physical artefacts the only witnesses to Axum's unique stature. To my astonishment, the reference works I had with me reported that according to Ethiopian legends the Ark of the Covenant was kept here in a small chapel adjacent to an especially sacred church. The legends were connected to Ethiopia's claim to have been the realm of the biblical Queen of Sheba but were generally dismissed by historians as preposterous fictions.

Having only recently seen the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I was naturally intrigued by the possibility - however remote - that the most precious and mystical relic of Old Testament times, a relic believed to have been lost for almost three thousand years, might actually rest in the city I was about to visit. I therefore decided that I would not leave without learning more about this strange tradition and I looked down with renewed interest when the captain announced that Axum was directly beneath us.

The DC3'S descent to the narrow runway far below was unorthodox in the extreme - and quite alarming. Instead of the usual long, low and slow approach, the pilot brought the plane down very fast from a considerable altitude in a tight corkscrew pattern that kept us at all times directly above the town. This, one of the military men riding with us explained, was so as to minimize the time that we would be a target for snipers in the surrounding hills. I remembered what the Zambians had said about regularly getting hit by machine-gun fire when landing at Axum and prayed silently that this would not happen to us. It was an unpleasant feeling to be strapped into a flimsy seat in a narrow tube of metal hundreds of feet above the ground and to wonder whether, at any moment, bullets were going to start plunking through the cabin floor and walls.

Fortunately nothing so bad happened that morning and we touched down safely. I remember the red gravel of the strip, the dust that flew up as the wheels made contact, and the sight of large numbers of Ethiopian soldiers - all armed to the teeth and dressed in combat fatigues - staring at us intently as we taxied to a halt. I noticed other things as well: trenches had been dug on both sides of the runway and there were numerous pits, covered with camouflage netting, out of which protruded the barrels of heavy artillery pieces. I recall several armoured personnel carriers lined up near the tower and perhaps half-a-dozen Soviet tanks. Parked off to one side, on the apron, there were also two Mi-24 helicopter gunships with rocket pods visible beneath their stubby stabilizing fins.

From the beginning to the end of our visit, Axum never for a second shed the jittery and watchful atmosphere of a city under siege. We were permitted to stay only one night but we felt as though our time there was drawn-out, protracted, almost infinite.

Return to Ethiopia Index
Initiation: 1986 | A great mystery of the Bible | 1983: a country at war
Into Axum | Palaces, catacombs and obelisks | The sanctuary chapel


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