Axum is ancient ruins, immense history and is home of the Church of Mary Zion, where the supposed Ark of the Covenant is kept.
It’s said that it was presented as a gift to Queen Sheba when she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem (which resulted in her seeding him a son, Menakil, who would later rule Ethiopia through the Solomon dynasty, claimed to be broken after Halile Salasie’s assassination in 1974. He was supposedly the 237th emperor from Solomon’s lineage).
Thing is, the ark is kept under lock and key and never shown to anyone par a handful of scholars. So whether it actually exists is a question to be asked. Israel has asked for the ark to be returned to Jerusalem but the Ethiopian government has refused.
After all, it’s quite the cash-cow for the country.
As soon as I collected my gear after being dropped off from my hitch, I was approached by ‘tour guides’. Everybody wanted to find me a hotel and take me around the sites.
“Its fine,” I grinned. “Let me sort myself out.” I went off in search of the tourist information centre. I figured I could leave my packs there and go off exploring. I hiked down the road in the shade of the tree-lined street and found the centre locked.
I was directed to a hotel that had a private tourist centre so I made my way there passing a giant of a tree where some women were selling baskets and coffee. I was harassed by some small kids asking for money when Peter came to my rescue.
We had a chat and he suggested I put my packs in the Ark Hotel. “I sometimes work for them,” he explained. “I can take you around if you want. I have nothing to do.”
Joined by my new friend, I learned that Peter was 17, still in high school aspiring to study civil engineering next year. “All of Ethiopia is under construction,” he explained. “I want to be part of that.”
This kid was switched on and agreed to my philosophy of moneyless ways, seeing people not for their colour or religion or nationality.
“Which hotel are you staying at?” he asked.
“I don’t really do hotels,” I said. “I like staying with locals. It’s the only way to get a real feel for a place.”
He blinked and then said, “Then you can stay with me.”
I stopped and stared at him. What a guy. Axum was producing some good energy and Peter was the force behind it. I dropped my bags at the Ark Hotel and the kid lead me around the historical sites. The Mary of Tsion Church was in a large compound but they were charging money to get in.
Religion and money shouldn’t mix is my reckoning so I was shown the Stelae field opposite.
Stelaes are large, phallic-shaped pillars, like obelisk, that mark the graves of royalty. The largest being that of the king. The pillars were carved from granite stone and, according to the paintings in the museum, were lugged from the excavation site by elephants to the point where they were erected by hundreds of men pulling on ropes.
The stelaes weighed in at 75 tonnes. Many years ago, one had crashed onto Nefas Mewecha, the largest megalithic (or dolman) tomb in the world, destroying the 350 tonne cover. The stelae broke into three large pieces and is one of the more famous sites of Axum.
We hiked up to burial tombs of King Kaleb and climbed the rock that overlooked the swimming pool, Mai Koho, meaning, Water from the Top, believed to be holy water. Due to the dry season, it was low but, “I like to swim in it in summer, when the rains fill it up,” Peter said.
At the peak of the rock a white cross was erected.
From there we hiked down to the daro (piazza), where the giant sycamore tree shaded everybody. Peter’s sister had a coffee and basket stall. I drank a cup and we headed off to ride some push bikes out of town to another site, that of King Kaleb’s palace.
Lunch was Njera with shiro, salad, tumtumo and spinach. We had a juice and headed off to where Peter was renting a room with his sister in a compound, about a five minute walk from Axum’s centre.
Dropping my stuff and showering in the bucket-shower method, I rested until his sister showed up to cook dinner. While she cooked I introduced Ol’ Red to the neighbours and played for the next two hours. After dinner I headed off to meet Peter and his friends for a night of dancing at the local club, Zebra.
We started at the juice bar, Kuda, and then headed off. The club was dark, seedy with loud, standard mainstream beats. I had a water and Peter and I tore up the dancefloor. His friends showed up but two hours in and my left knee was indicating that I needed to retire. Peter’s older brother drove a bajaj (tuk-tuk) and so I got a free ride home.
The next morning I headed out with Ol’ Red and sat with a group of Peter’s friends. I played them some songs and when I finished my rendition of Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry, some kid asked if I could play Justin Beiber.
“Fuck off,” I growled. “No one plays that shit on Ol’ Red.” I patted the body of my guitar. “It’s OK, baby. They don’t know any better. That’s why we’re here.”
“Can you play Michael Bolton?” someone else threw at me. I blinked at the kid.
“Tell me your kidding, mate,” I sat perplexed. “Do you really think that I look like the kind of guy that would play Michael Bolton? Why don’t you just ask if I can play One Direction.”
“Get outta ‘ere! Let me introduce you to some real music,” and I ripped into Johnny Cash’s, Folsom Prison Blues that got everybody dancing.
After a couple of hours bantering and jamming I headed back home to rest and eat some lunch. Playing guitar in 30 degrees heat is exhausting. I took a power nap as it suddenly began to rain.
Dawit, the driver who had brought me to Axum, hadn’t answered my call the previous night but after Peter came by, we managed to catch up with him. He dropped us at the internet café where I introduced Peter to the wonderful world of Couch-surfing and him open a profile.
When the clouds subsided, we headed up the street with Ol’ Red, catching up with mates. I sat and played for another few hours. Njera appeared on our table and after I ate Peter said, “My sister is going to come over and cook you some dinner. She’ll call when it’s ready.”
Now he tells me. Njera has a habit of stuffing you up completely. Yet it seems Ethiopians can just consume and consume it. And I thought I ate a lot.
After an hour, his sister called up and we headed home. I was served a dish of rice and shiro. I strummed some tunes while she made the last preparations and then I said my ‘see ya later’ to Peter.
“I’m going to miss you, bro,” he said as we hugged.
“It’s been amazing, brother,” I grinned.
The hardest part of travelling and being constantly on the move is the part when you leave. I’ve come across some incredibly amazing people and I’ll never forget the kindness, the openness and attention I’m given when I’m hosted by people I’ve never met before.
It just shows that at the end of the day that’s all we are – people. No black man, no white man. Just hu-man.
The night ended with a traditional coffee ceremony which meant three servings of the brew. Except that Peter’s sister decided that three servings meant three jugs and I ended up having about six cups before laying my head to wake. So I played the guitar until she had to go. We hugged and although her English wasn’t as fluent as Peter’s, I tapped my chest to indicate the love and appreciation I have for her hospitality.
Being wired awake I lay in bed reading George Orwell’s accounts of his time in the Spanish Civil War, Hommage to Catalonia.
It knocked me out cold.