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Front Page Preface Timket Gondar Axum Debre Damo Lalibela Lake Tana Epilogue
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The street of Axum.
In Ethiopia, no other town occupies a more important position and represents more glory in the history of the country than does Axum. Numerous kings and queens reigned here, including the legendary Queen of Sheba and King Ezana, who first introduce Christianity to the horn of Africa.

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A mural inside the old St Mary of Zion Church.
Despite that the power and prosperity of Axumite kingdom once rivaled those of Rome, Persia and China, Axum is rarely known by outsiders. Its geographic isolation keeps it from hordes of mass tourists. It remains as a little town, cozy, charming and pleasant, for a few keen travellers. There is no tour couch here, neither are there many annoying “hustlers” offering unwanted service. Only a few roadside souvenir shops quietly but perhaps desperately wait for a few adventurous visitors.

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A mural inside the old St Mary of Zion Church. The Emperor was so captivated by the music of St Yared that he unknowingly leaned his spear on Yared's foot. Unawared of the pain, St Yared sang on until he finished the song. St Yared was born in Axum in 525AD in a humble family. During his childhood Yared was a poor pupil struggling to understand the teaching of church. One day, he ran away from punishment. Crying and hungry, he came to rest under a tree. But he noticed an insect succeeded in climbing up the tree after six failures. The young Yared learnt the wisdom of God. He went back to school and became an outstanding student. Later he also developed a unique musical notation used by the church. The example of St Yared has become an inspiration of young priests who face enormous challenge in learning church scriptures.
The Axumites have hoped to bring prosperity through tourism. Modern hotels are being built, and hotel managers greet passengers in the airport every flight. I was taken to the new Remhai Hotel, which had a quality of service and an indemnity comparable to those in European tourist cities.

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The banyon tree at the city centre which traditionally attracts all social gatherings.
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The new town of Axum (2002) characterised by centrally devided avenues and modern buildings.
Axum is tiny, but not dusty. Its size makes it free from bustling mini-buses, taxis and garis (a kind of horse-drawn passenger carriage). Strolling down the centrally divided avenue, I could hardly imagine that it was once the place where a great civilisation thrived. Ninety-eight percent of the ancient Axum remains unexcavated. But the road soon turned north when it reached the big tree at the town’s old quarter. Within minutes I was greeted with the first sight of ancient Axum - the stelae field.

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The 24-metre King Ezana's stele is the third tallest in Axum. While the tallest Great Stele lies broken nearby, the second tallest, measuring 25 metres, is standing at Rome's Piazza di Porta as a result of Mussolini's direct order.
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Monoliths point heaven-ward in Axum's stelae park. For thousands of years, stelae have been used in East Africa as symbols of power and glory of the ruling class. But it was the Kingdom of Axum that brought the stelae making technology to its pinnacle. The height of these 2000-year-old stelea in Axum can range from merely one to more than thirty metres. Some are plain looking and others are finely carved with exceptional craftsmanship.
Amid the forest of mighty stelae, my imagination seemed to be evoked by the painting occupying the wall in the dinning hall of Remhai Hotel. Thousands of years ago, these monoliths, some weighted several hundred tons and measured tens of metres, were cracked from the granite quarry three miles away, hurled and erected by the sheer power of men and elephants as symbols of authority and glory of the rulers. But perhaps the emperor did over-estimate his slaves and animals. The largest stele toppled during its erection. Today, this 33-metre lying giant provides visitors a closer look at its extraordinary craftsmanship.

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A bird-eye view of Axum's stele park.
On the way to the hilltop, I stopped by the Bath of Queen of Sheba. The plain-looking rock-hewn reservoir has now become a swimming and laundry pool for local kids and women. I tried hard to put myself into the time-tunnel, and imagine how the Queen ruled an area so big that it extended from Ethiopia into modern-day Yemen. No one has left a portrait of the enigmatic Queen. I imagine she must be as beautiful as Sheherazade.

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The 33-metre, 517-ton Great Stele is the largest single block of stone that human tried to erect. Carved around 4th century AD, the stele is now believed to have never been stood. It might have toppled during it erection.
But there is no doubt about the Queen’s desire and pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. When she heard about the wisdom of King Solomon, she defied all the hardship and travelled to Jerusalem to learn from him. Whether her union with Solomon was a trick devised by the King himself, or a result of mutual admiration, or physical desire, their tale described in the Ethiopian Epic Kebra Negast is nevertheless beautiful.

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Amid the lush trees, the massive new St Mary of Zion Church and its bell tower dominating Axum's skyline. It was built by the last Emperor Haile Selassie as a pride of his Solomonic line.
From the hilltop café at the luxurious Yeha Hotel, I overlooked Axum’s skyline, which dominated by the large spherical dome of the St Mary of Zion Church. Apparently, Emperor Haile Selassie had never forgotten his Solomonic linkage. He initialised its construction in 1960s. Since then, the giant church and its bell tower have dwarfed the more historical old churches.

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Under the spherical dome of the new St Mary of Zion Church, a church keeper displaying a holy book commonly seen in all all Ethiopian churches depicting St George killing the serpent and virgin Mary.
Some twenty years after the Queen’s journey, her son Melenik had decide to travel to Jerusalem to see his father. During his three-year sojourn in Jerusalem, the young man was taught and imparted with books and knowledge. click to enlarge
Lemons ripe in the beautiful courtyard of the St Mary of Zion church compound, which consists of the spherical-dome new church (left), the rectangular old church exclusively for men built by Emperor Fasiladas in the 17th century and, most importantly, the small church housing the true Ark of the Covenant.
However, his heart was in Ethiopia, despite the King’s offer to be the ruler Israel after his death. Reluctantly, the King permitted him to leave, but not without ordering twelve thousand Israelis as his company. click to enlarge
The grand priest of the St Mary of Zion Church and the tiny 'museum' at the church compound displaying crowns of generations of emperors.
These Israelis were depressed to see themselves leaving the Holy Land of Jerusalem, and decided to take the Holy Ark of the Covenant with them. It was all too late when the King discovered the fact, only could he consoled by the Holy spirit that it was his own son who took the Holy Ark. On the other hand, the Queen of Sheba, Melenik and his company were overjoyed when convoy reached Axum.

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Visitors can take a peek outside an iron fence at the exterior of a small chapel, which appears to be humble compared with the new church in the St Mary of Zion Church compound. The chapel is believed to be the home of the real Ark of the Covenant - the holiest element and foundation of the Ethiopian orthodox church. The Atang, the monk who shoulders the task of guarding the Ark, will never leave the chapel until his death.
Today, the Holy Ark of Covenant sits quietly inside a modest chapel in the St Mary of Zion Church compound full of lush azalea and lemon trees. No one has the privilege even to take a glimpse of the Ark, except the life-long guardian who would never leave the chapel. However, as a male visitor, I did have the privilege seeing the crowns of generations of emperors, as well entering the old church to enjoy some of the finest murals in Ethiopia.

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A mural inside the old St Mary of Zion Church.
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A mural inside the old St Mary of Zion Church.
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One of the numerous murals inside the 17th-century old St Mary of Zion church depicting the nine Saints of Ethiopia. For generations, these Saints have served as bedrocks to the Ethiopian orthodox church for education and inspiration.
The three-day sojourn in Axum was like flipping through a three-thousand-page book of Ethiopian history in three minutes. Like other tourists, I stepped into the plane hastily for the next destination. However, everything I witnessed and learnt in this unpretentious little town will stay not only in my films but also deep in my memory.
Last Update: October 24 2009 01:46:48 -0500