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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Land of Queen of Sheba Shows Much and Hides Much

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The Queen of Sheba's palace isn't what it used to be. Its roof is long gone. Its grand entrance is but a memory. Yet the 3,000-year-old ruins remain, sprawling over thin-grassed farm fields in Axum -- once the capital of a great world power and today a dusty Ethiopian town where cows and children, goats and donkeys roam free.

The Queen lived well. It is still possible to stride across her vast flagstone-floored throne room, just one of 50 excavated chambers. The sophisticated drainage system features fish-shaped granite gargoyles. Several brick ovens line the large kitchen, and multiple stairwells indicate that there were many more rooms above.

Here, according to Ethiopians, a great dynasty was born. And, as all great dynasties should, this one begins with a love story.

As they tell it, the Queen of Sheba left Ethiopia only once, to visit King Solomon in Jerusalem. Solomon, despite being married, became smitten with the beautiful queen, so much so that upon her return to Axum she gave birth to his son, Menelik.

Menelik I took the throne when his mother died, roughly 1,000 years before the birth of Christ, and began a line of Solomonic rulers that endured with only a brief interruption until Emperor Haile Selassie, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, was deposed 31 years ago.

Menelik I is also, according to the Ethiopian Orthodox church, responsible for that country's possessing the greatest relic of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It seems that the king went to visit his father and somehow brought back the original Ark of the Covenant, previously kept in the great temple in Jerusalem.

The Ark is believed to hold the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments that God handed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and it is now said to be kept in Axum's Church of St. Mary of Zion. Only one elderly monk guards this treasure, which no one else may see.

St. Mary of Zion is one of thousands of Christian churches that dot the Ethiopian landscape. Christianity came early to Axum, and soon after A.D. 300 this new faith became the country's official religion. It has evolved little over the years, and its vivid churches are unlike any found elsewhere in the world.

This town's greatest attractions, however, are not its churches, but its stelae -- towering obelisks piercing the bright blue sky, the largest nine stories tall and cut from a single piece of granite. An even taller one, the height of a 13-story building and weighing some 500 tons, lies on its side, broken.

It fell, according to a written account, in about A.D. 850.

Each stele has an altar for sacrificial offerings and a false door. No one knows exactly when or why they were built. Some say they were meant to house spirits.

Axum today shows much and hides much. Only about three percent of this once-vast city has been excavated. Kids routinely pull ancient coins from farm fields. It is a place rich with the feeling of unsolved mysteries.

In fact, mysteries and miracles abound all along Ethiopia's Historic Route, with each of the three remaining stops reflecting a different era in the county's rich life.

The 11 rock-hewn churches in the town of Lalibela have often been called the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Like the monoliths at Axum, they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And, according to legend, they were each carved out of a single piece of rock at record speed, "as angels worked on them during the night."

The churches, many carved in deep trenches with only their roofs exposed, others cut directly into the rocks of caves, are all connected by a labyrinthine series of tunnels, paths and steep steps.

Each has been used continuously since the beginning of the 13th century. Most are decorated with a Star of David, underscoring the church's close kinship with King Solomon. One displays a very old painting of a black Jesus.

It is a remarkable place, as priests and monks in brilliant brocade vestments carry on a religious life that has gone on here, hidden among the hills and caves, for nearly a thousand years.

If the rock churches of Lalibela impress with their stark simplicity, the 29 churches and monasteries scattered over the islands of Lake Tana, headwaters of the Blue Nile River, delight with their vivid paintings in primary colors.

Abba Hailemariam Genetu, head priest at Azwah Maryam -- a circular church with a grass roof, located on an isolated peninsula -- greets visitors.

"This church," he says, "dates back to the 14th century. It is younger than most."

Genetu, the handsome Abba, or Father, speaks a Semitic language related to Hebrew, doesn't eat pork and performs ritual circumcision. He, like all Ethiopian Orthodox, practices a Christianity that is older, closer to Judaism, and far more exotic -- complete with ritual dancing and drumming -- than you'll find anywhere in America.

His remote church was constructed to protect the faith but also to preserve Ethiopia's ancient religious treasures -- ornate silver and bronze crosses, prayer sticks that recall Moses' staff and centuries-old illuminated manuscripts.

The church walls are covered with paintings which, over time, also have become treasures. One shows the child Jesus zooming down a board from a second story window, while less sacred children, who have tried and failed, lie scattered around the ground. Others illustrate the Holy Trinity: three identical dark-skinned, white-haired, white-bearded men.

If the rock churches are marvels of construction, and the churches of Lake Tana delight with their vivid paintings, the castles of Gondar simply astonish. Getchu Eshetu, my guide throughout Ethiopia, calls this site "Africa's Camelot," and he does not overstate the case. This palace complex looks as though it has been airlifted from medieval Europe.

In fact, the castle construction was begun by Emperor Fasiladas in 1632, when he declared the town of Gondar to be Ethiopia's first official capital.

His brown basalt palace was assembled using mortar and boasts four domed towers and battlements.

A Yemeni merchant who visited in 1648 wrote that it was "one of the most marvelous of buildings" he had ever seen, mentioning rooms trimmed in ivory and jewels, courtiers in fine brocade and thrones embroidered in gold.

Succeeding rulers constructed their own palaces. The 18th-century Empress Mentewab built a lovely one, where it is said she hosted Scotsman James Bruce (for five years!) when he came through searching for the headwaters of the Nile.

Other Europeans were less kind to the castles. Mussolini's Italians, who occupied Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941, used them as barracks. The British found out and bombed the buildings. Restoration is a slow process in a poor country, yet much of the complex remains, a reminder of the days when Gondar ruled a great empire.

As travelers complete the historic circle, it becomes abundantly clear that this mountainous country in the Horn of Africa contains treasures that should be on every history buff's wish list. Someday they will be. But for now it's still possible -- and lovely -- to experience Ethiopia's great sites without being jostled by hordes of tourists.

Ethiopia has no ATMs. However it is possible to withdraw cash against a credit card in the bank in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa. Credit cards are not widely accepted, even in hotel gift shops. Take cash (bearing in mind that everything is quite inexpensive).

Tipping is ubiquitous, and it is best to accumulate birr, the local currency, in small denominations, as people in rural areas have trouble converting dollars into usable cash.

Post Gazette

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