by Graham Hancock

The Sign and the Seal

Palaces, catacombs and obelisks

Our work began the moment that we arrived. Waiting to greet us as we stepped down from the plane was an elderly Abyssinian gentleman wearing a slightly threadbare three-piece suit and a most splendid patriarchal beard. In quaint but excellent English, he introduced himself as Berhane Meskel Zelelew and explained that he had been contacted by radio from Addis Ababa and ordered to guide us and act as our interpreter. He was employed, he said, by the Ministry of Culture 'to keep an eye on the antiquities of Axum'. In this capacity he had helped the archaeologists from the British Institute in Eastern Africa whose excavations of some of the city's most interesting ruins had been interrupted by the revolution of 1974. (14) 'It's so nice to see other British people here after such a long time,' he exclaimed as we introduced ourselves.

We climbed into a vintage Land Rover with a lime-green paint job and two neat bullet holes in the front windscreen. 'Fortunately no one was killed,' Zelelew reassured us when we asked him about these. Laughing nervously as we drove away from the airfield, I then explained what we had come to do, listed the historic sites that we wanted to visit, and told him that I was particularly intrigued by Axum's claim to be the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

Do you believe that the Ark is here?' I asked.

'Yes. Certainly.'

'And where is it exactly?'

'It is deposited in a chapel near the centre of the city.'

'Is this chapel very old?'

Lost Cities Of Africa
"Makeda travelling by land to see the wisdom of Solomon"

'No. Its construction was ordered by our late Emperor... in 1965 I think. Before that the relic had rested for many hundreds of years within the Holy of Holies of the nearby church of Saint Mary of Zion...' Zelelew paused, then added: 'Haile Sellassie had a special interest in this matter, by the way... He was the two hundred and twenty-fifth direct-line descendant of Menelik, son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. It was Menelik who brought the Ark of the Covenant to our country...'

I was all for visiting the chapel at once, but Zelelew persuaded me that there was little point in hurrying: 'you will not be allowed anywhere near the Ark. Where it rests is holy ground. The monks and the citizens of Axum protect it and they would not hesitate to kill anyone who tried to break in. Just one man is allowed to enter and he is the monk responsible for guarding the Ark. We will try to meet him later today, but first let us go and see the Queen of Sheba's palace.'

After we had assented to this attractive proposition we turned on to a bumpy, potholed road that - had we been able to follow it all the way - would eventually have led us hundreds of miles south-west, through the gigantic peaks and valleys of the Simien mountains, to the city of Gondar near Lake Tana. In open country barely a mile from the centre of Axum, however, we stopped within sight of an extensively fortified military post which, Zelelew explained, marked the limit of the government controlled sector. He waved expressively at the nearby hills: 'Everything else TPLF, so we cannot go. It's a pity. There are so many interesting things to see . . . There, just around that corner in the road, are the granite quarries where all the stelae were cut. One still remains partially unexcavated from the rock. And there is a beautiful carving of a lioness. It is very ancient. It was put there before the coming of Christianity. But unfortunately we cannot reach it.' '
sign and the seal
"Makeda meets Solomon and presents him...

How far is it exactly?' I asked, tantalized.

'Very close, less than three kilometres. But the military will not let us past the checkpoint and if they did we would certainly be taken by the guerillas. Even here we should not stand around for too long. Your foreign faces will be noticed by the TPLF snipers. They might think you are Russians and decide to shoot at you...' He laughed: 'That would be highly undesirable, would it not? Come, follow me.'

He led the way into fields to the north of the road and we quickly began to stumble across the remains of what must, once, have been an imposing building. 'This was the Queen of Sheba's palace,' Zelelew announced proudly. 'According to our traditions her name was Makeda and Axum was her capital. I know that foreigners do not accept that she was an Ethiopian at all. Nevertheless no other country has a stronger claim than ours.'

I asked whether any archaeology had ever been done on the site to test the legends.

'Yes, in the late 1960s the Ethiopian Institute of Archaeology conducted some excavations here... I helped on the dig.'

'And what was discovered?'

Zelelew made a mournful face. 'The opinion was that the palace was not sufficiently old to have been the residence of the Queen of Sheba.'

What the archaeologists had unearthed, and what we now spent some time exploring, were the ruins of a great and well built edifice with finely mortared stone walls, deep foundations and an impressive drainage system. We saw a still-intact flagstone floor - which Zelelew claimed was a large throne room - and a number of stair-wells which hinted at the existence of at least one upper storey. There were also private bathing areas of sophisticated design and a well-preserved kitchen dominated by two brick ovens.

Across the road, in a field facing the palace, we then inspected a number of rough-hewn granite stelae, some standing more than fifteen feet high, some fallen and broken. Most were undecorated but one, the largest, was carved with four horizontal bands, each band topped by a row of circles in relief - like protruding beam ends in a building made of wood and stone. This crude obelisk Zelelew told us, was thought by the townspeople to mark the grave of the Queen of Sheba. No excavation work had been carried out beneath it, however, and the field was now entirely given over to farmers who grew crops for the Axum garrison. Even as we talked we saw two peasant boys approach with an ox, which they harnessed to a wooden plough. Oblivious to the history that lay all around them, and apparently indifferent to our presence as well, they began to till the soil.

After we had finished taking pictures and notes we drove back into the centre of the city and then out again to the north-east to another palace complex, this one on a hill-top with commanding views of the whole area. Square in plan, the structure measured about two hundred feet on each side. The walls, which had long since crumbled, showed signs of having originally been projected at the corners to form four towers - possibly the very towers which, in the sixth century, the monk Cosmas had described as being adorned with brass unicorns.

Lost Cities Of Africa
"Menelik travelling by sea with the Holy Ark of the Covenant"

Beneath the fortress Zelelew then led us down steep stone stairways into a number of underground galleries and chambers which were roofed and walled with massive dressed granite blocks that fitted precisely against one another without any mortar in the joints. Local tradition, he said, identified this cool dark warren as the treasury used by Emperor Kaleb (AD 514-542) and also by his son Gebre-Maskal. With the aid of a flashlight we saw the empty stone coffers which lay within coffers believed to have once contained great riches in gold and pearls.(15) Further rooms, as yet unexcavated, extended into the hillside from there, blocked off behind thick granite walls.

Eventually we left the hill-top fortress and made our way down into the centre of Axum on a gravel road. Near the bottom of the gradient, to our left, we paused to photograph a large, open deep-water reservoir dug down into the red granite of the hillside and approached by means of rough-hewn stairways. Known as the Mai Shum, it seemed to us very old - an impression that Zelelew confirmed when he remarked that it was originally the Queen of Sheba's pleasure bath: 'At least so our people believe. Since the beginning of Christian times it has been used for baptismal ceremonies to celebrate the Holy Epiphany, which we call Timkat. And of course the peasants still come here every day to draw their water.' As though to confirm this last observation he pointed to a group of women carefully descending the time-worn steps bearing gourds on their heads.

By now, without any of us really noticing how the time had passed, it was already well past the middle of the afternoon. Zelelew urged us to hurry, pointing out that we were scheduled to fly back to Asmara at first light the next day and that we still had much to see.

Our next destination was close by, the so-called 'Park of the Stelae' - certainly the focal point of Axum's archaeological interest. Here we examined and photographed a remarkable series of giant obelisks carved from slabs of solid granite. The most massive of these, a tumbled fractured ruin, was believed to have fallen to the ground more than a thousand years previously. In its heyday, though, it had stood one hundred and ten feet tall and must have dominated the entire area. I remembered from the reading I had done on the flight that its weight was estimated to exceed five hundred tons. It was thought to be the largest single piece of stone ever successfully quarried and erected in the ancient world.

Lost Cities Of Africa
"Menelik arrives at Axum with the Holy Ark of the Convenant"

This fallen stele was painstakingly hewn to mimic a high, slender building of thirteen storeys - each storey complete with elaborate representations of windows and other details, and demarcated from the next by a row of symbolic beam-ends. At the base could be discerned a false door complete with a knocker and lock, all perfectly carved in stone.

Another fallen - but much smaller and unbroken - obelisk, Zelelew told us, had been stolen during the Italian occupation of 1935-41, transported with enormous difficulty to Rome by Mussolini, and re-erected near the Arch of Constantine. Since it, too, was elaborately carved - and therefore of great artistic value - the Ethiopian government was campaigning for its return. In the meantime, however, it was fortunate that a third decorated monolith still remained in situ in the stelae park.

With a flourish our guide now pointed to this towering stone needle, more than seventy feet high and topped with a curved headpiece shaped like a half- moon. We strolled over to examine it properly and found that, like its huge neighbour, it had been carved to resemble a conventional built-up structure - in this case a nine-storey building in the fashion of a tower-house. Once again, the main decoration on the front elevation was provided by the semblance of windows and of beams of timber supposedly inserted horizontally into the walls. The intervals between each of the floors were defined by rows of symbolic log-ends, and the house-like appearance was further enhanced by the presence of a false door.

Several other stelae of varying sizes were ranged around this refined monument - all of them clearly the products of an advanced, well organized and prosperous culture. Nowhere else in sub-Saharan Africa had anything even remotely similar been built and, for this reason, Axum was a mystery - its antecedents unknown, the sources of its inspiration unremembered.

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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