By Paul Raffaele for Smithsonian.com
Tigrai Onlne - January 11, 2014
By chance, in the lobby of my hotel I met Alem Abbay, an Aksum native who was on vacation from Frostburg State University in Maryland, where he teaches African history. Abbay took me to a stone tablet about eight feet high and covered in inscriptions in three languages—Greek; Geez, the ancient language of Ethiopia; and Sabaean, from across the Red Sea in southern Yemen, the true birthplace, some scholars believe, of the Queen of Sheba.
"King Ezana erected this stone tablet early in the fourth century, while still a pagan ruler," Abbay told me. His finger traced the strange-looking alphabets carved into the rock 16 centuries ago. "Here, the king praises the god of war after a victory over a rebel people." But sometime in the following decade Ezana was converted to Christianity.
Abbay led me to another stone tablet covered with inscriptions in the same three languages. "By now King Ezana is thanking 'the Lord of Heaven' for success in a military expedition into nearby Sudan," he said. "We know he meant Jesus because archaeological digs have turned up coins during Ezana's reign that feature the Cross of Christ around this time." Before that, they bore the pagan symbols of the sun and moon.
Abbay and I made our way toward the office of the Neburq-ed, Aksum's high priest, who works out of a tin shed at a seminary close by the ark chapel. As the church administrator in Aksum, he would be able to tell us more about the guardian of the ark.
"We've had the guardian tradition from the beginning," the high priest told us. "He prays constantly by the ark, day and night, burning incense before it and paying tribute to God. Only he can see it; all others are forbidden to lay eyes on it or even go close to it." Over the centuries, a few Western travelers have claimed to have seen it; their descriptions are of tablets like those described in the Book of Exodus. But the Ethiopians say that is inconceivable—the visitors must have been shown fakes.
I asked how the guardian is chosen. "By Aksum's senior priests and the present guardian," he said. I told him I'd heard that in the mid-20th century a chosen guardian had run away, terrified, and had to be hauled back to Aksum. The Neburq-ed smiled, but did not answer. Instead, he pointed to a grassy slope studded with broken stone blocks—the remains of Zion Maryam cathedral, Ethiopia's oldest church, founded in the fourth century A.D. "It held the ark, but Arab invaders destroyed it," he said, adding that priests had hidden the ark from the invaders.
Now that I had come this far, I asked if we could meet the guardian of the ark. The Neburq-ed said no: "He is usually not accessible to ordinary people, just religious leaders."
The next day I tried again, led by a friendly priest to the gate of the ark chapel, which is about the size of a typical suburban house and surrounded by a high iron fence. "Wait here," he said, and he climbed the steps leading to the chapel entrance, where he called out softly to the guardian.
A few minutes later he scurried back, smiling. A few feet from where I stood, through the iron bars, a monk who looked to be in his late 50s peered around the chapel wall.
"It's the guardian," the priest whispered.
He wore an olive-colored robe, dark pillbox turban and sandals. He glanced warily at me with deep-set eyes. Through the bars he held out a wooden cross painted yellow, touching my forehead with it in a blessing and pausing as I kissed the top and bottom in the traditional way.
I asked his name.
"I'm the guardian of the ark," he said, with the priest translating. "I have no other name."
I told him I had come from the other side of the world to speak with him about the ark. "I can't tell you anything about it," he said. "No king or patriarch or bishop or ruler can ever see it, only me. This has been our tradition since Menelik brought the ark here more than 3,000 years ago."
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