For 12 long hours our bus wove its way on hairpin turns through the brown mountains of northern Ethiopia as we dashed to Aksum.
Aksum was once home to one of the most powerful kingdoms of the ancient world, the Aksumites. They were the first in the world to put the Christian cross on the coins used in the kingdom back in the fourth century. It is also the holiest city of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
This is in itself is a good reason to come here, but I must admit I had other reasons that were more related to my American movie culture than history. Legend has it that the sacred Ark of the Covenant rests in Aksum after it was stolen from King Solomon in Israel. The Ark of the Covenant is the most sacred artifact in Jewish history, and it also happens to be the centerpiece in one of the Indiana Jones movies.
After securing my items in my hotel room, I set off to find the solid granite stelae, the impressive stones that are some of the few remains of the ancient kingdom 1,600 years ago. These grand billboards from ancient times are a testament to a craftsmanship that outlived a powerful kingdom. Standing next to the tallest stelae that shoots 760 feet into the blue sky, I am left with a sense of awe as to how such a stone was created and erected.
A short walk from there I took a brief look at the huge Queen of Sheba bath that is carved straight down into the red stone. No one knows for sure if she ever took a bath there, but it makes a good story and is impressive just by the pure size of it. It is the end of the dry season, but you can easily see how deep the bath becomes when it fills up with rainwater. As locals filled water jugs for cooking and washing, someone said to me: “be careful these waters are cursed, someone dies here every year.”
The bath also serves a holy purpose. Once a year the ark is taken from its resting place and dipped into the water, turning it into holy water before thousands of people jump in, or so says a self-appointed guide standing next to me.
Now it was time to go find the location where the ark is kept. With the music of Indiana Jones circling through my head, I entered the compound, not before paying the 60 Bir fee ($6.50), of course. In the beginning I was taken by a guide through the two circular churches I was allowed to enter. The final stop of my tour; the church which houses the ark. A line from the movie pops into my head, “Indy, the ark isn't like anything you've gone after before.”
Only one living person is allowed to see the ark, a monk who spends most of his time inside the church doing who knows? My guide said to me: “you are very lucky, the only monk who is allowed to see the ark is outside.” I was shown a few artifacts, old crowns from past kings that really should be in a proper museum. The old monk smiled at me and asked that I not take his photo. I stuck my head through the black iron rod fence that separated us, and he blessed me on the head with the ancient Ethiopian cross he was holding. Close enough for me, I said to myself, a blessing by the monk who cares for the ark. I smiled the kind of smile that comes from the fulfillment of a dream, and quietly walked back home weaving my way around camels being pulled by young men as the music from Indiana Jones replayed in my mind one last time.