RELIGIOUS HERITAGES IN VISITING SEQUENCE
Saint Yared: The Father of the liturgy in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Needless to say, Aksumite civilization had other aspects besides architectural tokens of power. Culturally, the Aksumite Empire was vibrant. One of Aksum’s greatest cultural contributions was Saint Yared’s seamless musical system. Yared’s hymns were so moving that even ‘… the King and Queen and the Bishops and priests and the King’s nobles ran to the church and they spent the day by listening to him.’ For Yared, church music was ‘of a divine, not human origin.’ He also combined spiritual singing with dancing known locally as Shibsheba. No other church in the world combines dancing with chanting. Typically, Ethiopian Orthodox priests sing and dance use instruments such as the Kabaro (drum) and Tsanatsil (sistra) wearing their snow–white ceremonial dresses embroidered with the national tri–colour. The sights and sounds of the Shibsheba are believed to be the greatest accomplishment of the 6th century in Ethiopia.
A short distance to the east of the Daero Ella fig tree, in the middle of the road to the Stelae Park, is a small walled enclosure in which are set two Aksumite pillars, possibly from thrones similar to those in the Cathedral precinct. They are known as the Pillars of Yared and are used at festivals and other occasions when the Ark of the Covenant is carried in procession around the outside of the cathedral precinct.
The Ark of the Covenant of God
To the north of the old church of Tsion Maryam is a separate chapel housing the most sacred endowment of the Ethiopian people, the Ark of the Covenant. The legend that recounts the story of the Ark, containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai, is told in the Kebre Nagast, a text that unifies the origins of the Aksumite monarchy with the New Testament.
Ever since its disappearance from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the Ark is kept in Aksum. Tradition has it that Solomon and Sheba fell in love with each other. As a result, Menelik I was born, heralding the beginning of the Solomonic Dynasty in Ethiopia. When he had become an adult, Menelik I, impatient to see his father, went to Jerusalem, where he was accorded a royal reception. Despite Solomon’s entreaty to persuade his son to stay in his kingdom, the Ethiopian prince declined to accept his father’s offer and, instead, chose to return to his beloved Aksum.
Most significant to Ethiopians is the journey back to his homeland. As was the custom or perhaps royal protocol then in Israel, any journey of a king’s son included the sons of the chief priests of Jerusalem. Accordingly, the Ethiopian prince was accompanied by Zadok’s son, Azarias - who actually stole the original Ark of the Covenant of God from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. After a long and arduous journey through Egypt and the Sudan across the Sahara Desert, the holy object arrived in Aksum, where it is safely kept ever since. The possession of this sacred object makes Aksum the holiest city of our universe.
As is known, the Ark contains the stone tablets in which God inscribed the Ten Commandments. As described in the Bible, Moses received detailed instructions from the Almighty regarding the size, design, construction and content of the Ark. Hence, the Ark is referred to in Ethiopia as Tselate Muse (Mose’s Ark).
For many historians, the mysterious disappearance of the original Ark of the Covenant of God from Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem has remained inexplicable, if not enigmatic. Such a murky historical cleavage has driven the entire world into a historical wilderness. No other single ecclesiastical object has ever attracted so much interest and triggered so much debate in modern history. Often, the unconventional debate has been between Western scholars and ordinary Ethiopians, who remained stubborn advocates of their history. Although no other country in the world has claimed ownership of the sacred relic, it took Ethiopians millennia to convince the enlightened world that they are the God-chosen guardians of the one-of-a-kind relic. In recent times, apparently, the world has reluctantly recognized Aksum’s persistent and unequivocal claim as the final resting place of the ‘lost’ Ark of the Covenant of God.
Of course, one side of the issue has to do with proof. But the flip side of it is faith. And in Aksum, faith overrides all other considerations. As the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Pawlos, proclaimed, “…faith does not go well with scientific proof. We don’t doubt it, that it is here, in our place. We don’t have to prove it to anyone. You want to believe, it’s your privilege. If you don’t want to believe, it’s your own privilege again… It is here and we believe it.” (Munro Hay 2005:39).
After the birth of Christ, it did not take Aksumites long to embrace Christianity. As a state religion, Christianity was adopted in the fourth century AD well before several European realms. Christianity found its footings when Frumentius – the Syrian boy who later become Ethiopia’s first bishop – converted King Ezana of Ethiopia to Christendom. Soon Aksumites constructed the original church dedicated to St. Mary of Zion, the first in sub-Saharan Africa and perhaps one of the earliest and most revered churches in the world. Aksum then became an oasis of Christianity in a region dominated by pagans. After its destruction in the 16th century by Ahmed Gragn, two cathedrals were built in the 17th and 20th centuries on each side of the ruins of the old. Aksum is now graced by these two cathedrals as well as by the nearby Chapel that houses the Ark. Depicting the architectural style of its time, the older church is adorned wall to wall by magnificent murals. Built in 1965 by Emperor Haile Selassie and inaugurated in the presence of Queen Elizabeth of England, the new cathedral is a dome-shaped edifice of modern architectural vibrancy. Most venerated of all places of worship in the country, St. Mary of Aksum serves as the fountain of Christians from far and near who beg for mercy and redemption.
The church also served as a venue of secular activities. The location known as Tsef Tsef was a site where royal judgments were passed, mediations were arranged and even protests were held. It was also a site of imperial function, where Ethiopia’s powerful king of kings bowed, seeking blessing from the clergy and legitimacy from the polity. Several past Ethiopian emperors had to temporarily abandon their thrones and desert their capital cities so as to hold elaborate coronation ceremonies in St. Mary of Zion – the mother of all churches!
The church of St. Mary at Aksum is not just a site of Christian worship. It is also a site for private contemplation, group mediation or conflict resolution, public gatherings and royal judgments. Most important of all other events that had taken place here is the coronation of the Ethiopian kings.
The coronation ceremony in Aksum is the stuff for Hollywood movies. Meticulously planned and extravagantly arranged, the epic royal function makes the crowned king feel symbolically placed at the center of the universe. In essence, it is a colorful religious ritual designed to legitimize a secular undertaking. Before being crowned as the king of kings of Ethiopia, any would-be emperor had to endure an avalanche of arrogant questions, asked by ordinary women in a manner of interrogation. One writer described the beautiful coronation ceremony as follows:
“As the king approached the cathedral, the priests, singing the chants composed by the legendary sixth-century musician Yared, declared ‘May you be blessed, O king of Israel’. The ‘daughters of Zion’ (the young women of Aksum) gathered in two rows on their side of the pathway near one of the Aksumite inscriptions to the east of the cathedral. The women stood to the left and right of the road holding a cord, with two older women holding swords. As the king’s horse approached, the women questioned arrogantly, ‘who are you, and of what tribe and family?’ The king answered, ‘I am the Son of Solomon, the son Ibn Hakim (Menelik)…’ He then used his sword to cut the cord, while the older women declaimed, ‘Truly, you are the king of Zion, the son of David, the son of Solomon.’ Then the king was seated on the coronation throne, spread with precious clothes for the occasion, the throne was called ‘the throne of David’. During the ceremonies the king also took on a new name, the throne name…”
King Zera Yakob in 15th century, King Sertse Dingle in the 16th century, Emperor Susnyos in the 17th century and Emperor Yohannes IV in the 19th century all are cases in point. Aksum saw its last coronation in 1930 when Emperor Haile Selassie became the king of kings of Ethiopia.
The Church of Arbaetu Ensessa
At the south-western border of Maryam Tsion’s outer compound is the church of Arbaetu Ensessa – the Four Animals of the Apocalypse, also popularly known as the women’s church. The site is marked by the presence of a beautiful bell tower to the left of the main entrance. The church is rectangular in plan and has the same east-west orientation as the old and new cathedrals. It was built during the beginning of the 1960s in an effort to “modernise” the pre-existent old circular church. The latter was built, according to tradition, by a nephew of Emperor Fasiledes, Adiam Seged Eyassu. Remnants of ancient architecture are still preserved in the church, whose name features already in the Book of Aksum and which archaeologists include in the list of the monuments belonging to Aksumite culture (ca. 150BC – 700AD). Part of the ancient podium still exists, as well as the approximately 7m long 6-step stairway on the western side, opposite the main gate. Following the Ethiopian tradition of the religious architecture, the church interior is divided into three concentric sections. Access to the outer one is through the door on the northern side of the building, near the north-western corner. The first section runs all around the Keddest, which contains the Mekdes, the sancta sanctorum accessible only to priests. The sections are decorated with paintings on canvas and on the walls, most of them made in recent years. They include the image of St. George killing the dragon, the Virgin with Child, and an angel vertically set on the wall beside the door leading to the central section; Abraham and Isaac, on the central and right metal window panels above the door on the western wall of the central section; the Nine Saints, on the ceiling of the central section; the damned burning in hell, expressively painted on the central side of the central section’s southern wall; and the interesting scenes recently painted on the southern wall of the outer section. Beneath the sanctuary and not accessible to visitors are two Aksumite shaft tombs. A number of Aksumite carved stones are preserved in the churchyard.
Enda Eyesus Church
Enda Eyesus Church is situated in the Stelae field. It is separated from the field by stone walls. The church is known for its murals. It is decorated wall to wall by paintings depicting several subjects. St. Mary and Child, the apostles, saints, among other things, adorn the external walls of the church. The churchyard is also a site of several stelae, some of which are decorated. One decorated stele, the top of which is full-moon shaped, is the prominent structure in the churchyard of Enda Eyesus.