Passing Through History

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This blog entry about the events of Sunday, May 30, 2004 was originally posted on June 03, 2004.

DAY 225:  According to Hollywood folklore — i.e. Steven Spielberg’s 1981 Indiana Jones classic Raiders of the Lost Ark — the Ark of the Covenant was taken by an Egyptian pharoah to the city of Tanis and hidden in an underground temple known as the Well of the Souls, outside of Cairo, Egypt.  However, if you follow history as recorded by The Bible, the Ark was actually taken from Jerusalem to the city of Aksum by Abyssia’s (Ethiopia’s) first emperor Menelik I, the son of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba. 

Apparently, Hollywood was “digging in the wrong place.”

MY TOUR OF THE HISTORICAL ROUTE of Ethiopia would take me to the right place, the city of Aksum, 60 km. south of the Ethiopian/Eritrean border where armed conflict still exists today.

The day started in Lalibela at 6 a.m. when my teenage guide Adam took me to one last highlight of his hometown:  a church ceremony.  I had missed the regular Sunday morning services since I went on a trek to the Asheton Maryam monastery in the mountains, but Adam told me that that was okay because the ceremony we were about to see would be better for it was the Festival of St. George, a day of religious observance in Lalibela.

With our shoes off, we made our way through the crowd of holy men and women at the cross-shaped St. George church chanting and singing in Amharic as a slow and steady drum beat and bell chime came from a cave-like room across the way.  They bowed their head down and prayed for God’s blessing from a sacred cross.  I stood there in the crowd, the only faranji, and felt a bit awkward — but at the same time in awe that a completely different Christian ceremony surrounded me from the ones I had been brought up on.


AKSUM, CAPITAL OF A ZAGWA EMPIRE lasting 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. was once a great civilization that traded and co-existed with the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and Nubian.  As one local man put it, “Aksum was known all over the world, the way America is today.”

A taxi ride and 40-minute flight later, I found myself in the former glory of Aksum in a familiar predicament:  again I was stuck in another remote town without enough cash on me.  If I couldn’t use a credit card in Aksum, I would have been totally screwed; I would have come all that way to the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, only to have enough money to just stay and sit in the airport.

After collecting my baggage, I exited to the main airport hall and was approached by a group of pushing salesmen, each one with a sign representing
their respective hotel. 

“Africa Hotel!  We have private toilet and showers in the room.  Only 50 birr!”

“I have no cash.”

“We will take travelers check.”

“I don’t have those either.  I only have a credit card.”

Out of all the hotel signs, only one, the government-run Yeha Hotel took plastic.  The government hotels cost Western prices ($38 USD as opposed to $5-$10) but they were in upscale facilities.  Hearing that there was no chance of an ATM or a cash advance in Aksum, the luxury hotel was my only option.  Oh, poor me.

As fancy a place as the Yeha Hotel was, it was all in appearance.  For four times the prices of staying in a decent (cash-only) private hotel, I didn’t even get a TV in the room and the water supply wasn’t consistent.  However, the Yeha was home to a courteous staff and courteous people that helped me in my time of financial need.  while my airport transfer, accommodation and food could be put on my MasterCard, tours could not be — not even with the in-house NTO office. 

I explained to NTO and a group of workers my situation, how I had very limited cash — only enough for admission fees to the archaelogical sites and maybe one taxi fare — and had to charge everything else.

“You have money, but you don’t have money,” one guy said.  “It is a paradox.” 

Thanks buddy, I know that.

Luckily for me, the government-run taxi driver offered to drive me and a guide around on goodwill for the price I would have paid NTO anyway before I canceled.  I was to simply wire him the money from his bank’s branch office when I got back to Addis.  While most people in the world feel sorry for the poor people of Ethiopia, the tables had turned:  Ethiopians were now coming to my aid.  I knew there would be a reason why I was a part of Hands Across America in 1986 one day!  Not even financial woes would stop me from reaching the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.


WITH ONLY ONE AFTERNOON TO PASS THROUGH HISTORY with the archaeological sites of Aksum, my tour of goodwill started right away.  The driver Nugusse took me and guide Tedros to the first site, the ruins of the Palace of Queen of Sheba, which was excavated in 1960.  It was here that the story of the Ark began.

Queen of Sheba, the regent of Ethiopia journeyed to Jerusalem pay a visit to King Solomon.  As story has it, the two single people of royalty flirted with each other through windows across a garden, which led to a big first date.  The dinner was very spicy and the queen wanted some water, but the kind only gave her a little.  That night, the queen still wanted water and snuck into the king’s quarters where he kept a pitcher.  However, the rule was that he could have his way with anyone trying to steal his stuff.  Queen of Sheba got caught and he did have his way with her.  Nine months later, Menelik I was born back home in Aksum.  When he was old enough, he journeyed to Jerusalem to visit his father and, at his mother’s request, take the Ark of the Covenant for the Axumite empire.  King Solomon offered the Ark of St. Michael, but Menelik’s priests did the old switcheroo:  they swapped covers of the two arks so when the smuggled out the Ark of the Covevant it would at a glance look like it was still there in Jerusalem.  Before Solomon realized the wrong ark was in the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, Menelik & Co. had been long gone.


AFTER THE PALACE RUINS, Nugusse took Tedros and I to the former palace of King Kaleb of 500 A.D., excavated in 1906.  Wandering the underground fortress was something out of an adventure film; we explored the tunnels via torch light and in one room, the former treasure room, we were greeted by the flapping sounds of bats.  From there, we visited the reservoir where Queen of Sheba bathed and then the Stele Field, Aksum’s distinct postcard trademark.  Known as May Hedja, this royal cemetary was the site of many steles, or obelisks, the tallest one still standing at 23 m. high.  Underneath the steles were tombs unless, like the case of one stele, it had fallen over.

From the Tomb of King Romhey to the Tomb of King Basen and his royal family, we made our way to Ezana Park, named after the king whose story was engraved on a monolith in three languages:  Ge’ez, Sabean and Greek (the language of business back then).  For an archaelogical site, the park was pretty commercialized with little outdoor table cafes on its grounds.  On the loudspeaker nearby, I heard the Backstreet Boys — even Tedros was singing along:

”...Tell me why-y… I never want to hear you say… I want it that way…”


HAILA SILASSIE BERHE, a local archaeological expert who had aided most of the local excavations and worked with the National Geographic Society, led me away from the sounds of boy bands and around the Archaeological Museum, the latest stop on my tour.  A very knowledgeable guy, he led me around the small museum contained everything that had been excavated from Aksum thus far — tons of known things were still underground, just not dug up yet.  Haila explained that, as a “professional,” he knew that even some of Ethiopia’s history was recorded wrong in books.  For example, Lonely Planet says Ethiopia translates to “burned faces,” when in fact it means “power and peace.” 

Haila was excited that a seemingly young guy like me was taking notes of his informal lecture.  “We need young people to tell the real history of Ethiopia so people will know.”  The whole thing was inspiration and made me want to be an archaeologist right then and there.  And speaking of archaeology, next door to the museum was the big archaelogical Axumite finale:  the grounds of St. Mary of Zion Church, the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant. 

For those who don’t know (or never saw the Spielberg movie), The Ark of the Covenant is the chest that the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments in.  Yes, the actual Ten Commandments.  The original stone tablets that Moses brought down out of Mount Herub and smashed if you believe in that sort of thing.

Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday school?

Tedros passed me off to a church guide who led me passed the beggars to the two churches on site:  the new modern church, built by Emperor Haile Selassie in 1965 in the shape of a former religious crown of Gondar; and the old church built in the 17th century, also influenced by the stylings of Gondar.  Inside the older one were examples of the difference in pre-Byzantine and Byzantine depictions of the Virgin Mary:  the former had her in dark, Ethiopian-toned skin.

In between the two churches was a small green shrine building surrounded by a gate (picture above; sorry it’s blurry, but this was the best of a series of many shots coming from my ailing camera).  “The Ark is in there,” my guide told me.

“Can we see it?”

“No, no one is allowed.”

“What about the priests?”

“No, only one monk is allowed inside.”  This guardian monk, draped in yellow, made an appearance outside the building, but not outside the gate for he was sworn never to leave.

“Can I talk to the monk?” I pleaded.  Perhaps I could persuade him for a peek.

“No.  No tourist can talk or take pictures with the monk.”

“But look,” I pointed out the man talking to the monk through the gate.  “Someone’s talking to him.  Who’s that?  How come he can talk to the monk?”

“He is a deacon.”

“Oh.”

There was another person walking within the vicinity of the Ark, inside the gated perimeter.  “Wait, who’s that?  How come he gets to be inside?”

“That’s the servant of the monk,” the guide said.  He told me the servant was allowed in and out of the gate to help the monk and give him food.

“So how come he gets to be the servant?”  Perhaps I could go through the servant to sneek a peek.

“I don’t understand.”

“That guy in there.  How did he get to become the servant?”

“The monk choose him.”

“Oh, so you have to be picked.”  Looked like I was hitting a dead end, just like every other tourist wanting to see the famed Ark of the Covenant.  I gave it one more shot:  “So, there’s no way we can see The Ark?”

“No.”

Perhaps it was best that I didn’t get to see the Ark of the Covenant; maybe if I did, my face would have melted off like the Nazis’ at the end of the Indiana Jones movie for gazing upon it.  Or perhaps even, what some may considered to be a fate worse than that, I’d be subjected to more Backstreet Boys.






Next entry: My Life in Airports

Previous entry: Where Am I From?




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Comments for “Passing Through History”

  • WHEW!  There you go; the end of my Ethiopian adventures…  Now I have to go catch up on how I got to Egypt and my first days in Cairo.

    Again, please excuse spelling/grammar errors as I rushed through these!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  11:49 AM


  • DELETED SCENE:  While walking the streets of Aksum, the usual street boy vendors followed me around with chotchskies to buy.

    “Look, Axumite coins.  Statues of the steles.  I’ll give you a good price.”

    “Sorry, I have no money.”

    “Then how are you here?”

    “I have a credit card.  If you could take credit cards, then we could talk.”

    “Ha ha, credit card.  You must be special Japanese.”

    “I’m not Japanese,” I said, closing the taxi door.


    Of course at one point in my trip I’ll just start telling people I’m Japanese or Chinese-Japanese, just so I can quote the Lucy Liu line from Kill Bill: 

    “The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is - I collect your fucking head. Just like this fucker here. Now, if any of you sons of bitches got anything else to say, NOW’S THE FUCKING TIME!”

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  12:01 PM


  • hmmm, I wonder though if its really there at all?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  04:39 PM


  • SIM:  Like the answer to “How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?”

    The world may never know.

    In retrospect, I should have gotten closer enough to the guardian monk to slip him some really strong tej… then maybe we’d be in business!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  05:59 PM


  • Man! i wish i was Pilipino in Ethiopia to say i’m Chinese American JUST to use that Lucy Lui line too! you can use ALL the good lines!

    BTW, pretty cool story about the lost ark… who knew!

    i think there are 42 licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop wink

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  06:30 PM


  • NIKKIJ:  Sing along:  “How many roads must a man walk down… before you can [ask him how many licks it takes to get the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop!]”

    42 roads.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  06:41 PM


  • CHRISTY:  Did you count the hiddle Raiders references in this one?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  06:59 PM


  • Oops, i meant “hidden”...

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/03  at  07:02 PM


  • you’re just shortround in the wrong indy jones movie…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/04  at  12:57 AM


  • Oh yeah baby. That was awesome! Queen of Sheba, Ark of the Covenant, and Indiana Jones references. Your trip is amazing!  I saw a documentary about this resting place for the Ark. I can’t believe you went.

    I’m surprised though, no childish remarks about short staffs anywhere. No bad dates. You’re slipping, pal. Perhaps all those holy sites are rubbing off on you. Despite the holy boners from the other day.

    I’m SUPER Jealous, and I haven’t even gotten to the Cairo entries yet…..

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  06:24 AM


  • CHRISTY:  I am the monarch of the sea, I am the ruler of the coop….

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/06  at  01:00 PM


  • Truck! What truck?

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/07  at  12:45 AM


  • That resevoir is amazing - it’s just carved out of stone, right? It looks like someone laid cement for days, but I know that’s not the case. Wow - you’ve gotten to know so much!

    Even though you were taking notes to tell the real history of Ethiopia, he wouldn’t let you in? Bummer…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/08  at  05:56 PM


  • Hey Erik-

    Being Japanese ain’t bad nowadays, especially in Tanzania.  We just got a bulletin from the US Embassy in Dar about a man who pointed a gun at two Brits and demanded to know if they were Americans or not.  He wouldn’t leave them alone until he was convinced that they were Brits. (Not sure how they convinced him).  As usual, the police is “investigating” the incidence, which means absolutely nothing.  So hey, it ain’t so bad to be Japanese.  But at times the ethnoschizophrenia kicks in.  I’m not sure if I’m Chinese , Japanese, or Korean anymore. 
    Tony

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/17  at  01:30 PM


  • TONY:  Yeah, I can’t wait until I reach southeast Asia so I can confuse the hell out of all the TOURISTS instead of the locals…

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/18  at  01:56 AM


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This blog post is one of over 500 travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip 2004: Sixteen Months Around The World (Or Until Money Runs Out, Whichever Comes First)," originally hosted by BootsnAll.com. It chronicled a trip around the world from October 2003 to March 2005, which encompassed travel through thirty-seven countries in North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It was this blog that "started it all," where Erik evolved and honed his style of travel blogging — it starts to come into focus around the time he arrives in Africa.

Praised and recommended by USA Today, RickSteves.com, and readers of BootsnAll and Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree, The Global Trip blog was selected by the editors of PC Magazine for the "Top 100 Sites You Didn't Know You Couldn't Live Without" (in the travel category) in 2005.


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My Life in Airports

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Where Am I From?




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