Chapter 10

Ghost in a Maze

During the discussions on Tana Kirkos a comment that the priest had made to me just before he had got to his main point had aroused my curiosity. That comment – the implications of which I now wanted to investigate further in the library at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies – had been to do with the route that the Ark had followed on its journey to Ethiopia. After being stolen from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, the priest had said, it had first been carried into Egypt and from there had been brought to Lake Tana by way of the Nile and the Takazze rivers. Despite all the research that I had done during the previous few months, I realized that I had never given serious consideration to the question of Menelik’s itinerary. I therefore wanted to see what the Kebra Nagasthad to say on the matter. I also wanted to know if there was anything in it that specifically contradicted the priest’s assertion that the Ark had spent eight hundred years at Tana Kirkos before being taken to Axum.

The only relevant information that I could find in the great epic was contained in Chapter 84. There it was reported that Menelik and his travelling companions had brought the sacred relic to a place called Debra Makeda after their arrival in Ethiopia.1 To my surprise there was no mention of Axum whatsoever. ‘Debra Makeda’, wherever it might have been, was clearly and unambiguously highlighted as the Ark’s first home in Ethiopia. At a stroke this cleared up one of the more serious factual inconsistencies that had bothered me since 1983 – namely that the city of Axum had not been founded until about eight hundred years after the date of Menelik’s supposed journey.2 Several of my original informants had told me that Axum had been the final destination of that journey and that the Ark had been lodged there from the outset3 – which, of course, would have been historically impossible. Now, however, I could see that the Kebra Nagast made no such claim and said only that Menelik and his companions had brought the relic from Jerusalem to ‘Debra Makeda’. I knew that the word ‘debra’ meant ‘mountain’ and that ‘Makeda’ was the name given in Ethiopian tradition to the Queen of Sheba. ‘Debra Makeda’ therefore meant ‘Mount Makeda’ – the Queen of Sheba’s mountain.

In the Kebra Nagast’s brief description I saw nothing to suggest that this ‘Queen of Sheba’s Mountain’ might actually have been Tana Kirkos. By the same token, however, I could find nothing that ruled that possibility out. Seeking further clues I then referred to an authoritative geographical survey of Lake Tana carried out in the 1930s and learned that ‘Kirkos’ was a name that had been given to the island in relatively recent times (in honour of a Christian saint). ‘Before the conversion of Ethiopia to Christianity,’ the survey added, ‘Tana Kirkos was called Debra Sehel.4 The obvious question immediately formed itself in my mind: what, exactly, did Sehel mean?

To find out I consulted several of the scholars who were then studying in the library. They told me that it was a Ge’ez word rooted in the verb ‘to forgive’.

‘Would I be right’, I asked, ‘in assuming that a correct translation of the full name Debra Sehel would be something like “Mount of Forgiveness”?’

‘Yes,’ they replied. ‘That is correct.’

Now this was interesting. In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, as I remembered very well, the location of the Grail castle – and of the Grail Temple – was given as Munsalvaesche.5 There had been some debate over the exact interpretation of this wordMunsalvaesche; more than one Wolfram expert, however, had suggested that behind it lay ‘the biblical Mons Salvationis, Mount of Salvation’.6

There could be no doubt that the notions of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘salvation’ were linked – since in order to be ‘saved’, in the religious sense, one must first be ‘forgiven’. Moreover, as Psalm 130 puts it: ‘If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities … who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with thee … Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.7

‘Redemption’ is, of course, a close synonym for ‘salvation’.8 I therefore could not help but wonder whether Wolfram’s ‘Mount of Salvation’ might not in some way have been associated with Ethiopia’s ‘Mount of Forgiveness’ – now known as Tana Kirkos.

I was fully aware that speculation of this kind could only ever be tenuous and that it was a long jump indeed from Debra Sehel to Munsalvaesche. Nevertheless, after my many readings of Parzival, I could hardly forget that the mystical Grail Temple (‘smooth and rounded as though from a lathe’9) had stood on a lake – and quite possibly on an island on that lake.10 Nor did it seem entirely irrelevant that Ethiopian Orthodox churches and Falasha places of worship were traditionally circular in shape11 – as were the majority of Templar churches (including several still standing to this day such as the twelfth-century Temple Church off London’s Fleet Street). I therefore felt that there were certain correspondences in all of this which it might be unwise for me to ignore entirely (though it would be equally unwise to read too much into them).

Meanwhile there was another and rather less tentative link to consider – that between Debra Sehel and Debra Makeda. As the former name of Tana Kirkos made clear, Ethiopian islands could acquire the prefix Debra (meaning ‘Mount’). And, indeed – rising steeply to a high peak that towered above the surface of the lake – Tana Kirkos had looked to me very much like a mountain when I had first set eyes on it. This certainly did not prove that the Kebra Nagast had been referring to Debra Sehel when it had spoken of the Ark being taken to the Queen of Sheba’s mountain. I reasoned, however, that it did at least elevate the island to the status of a candidate for that distinction.

With this established, I moved on to consider the question of the route that Menelik and his companions had followed on their journey. Previously I had always assumed that the travellers had gone by ship – from Solomon’s port of Eziongeber (modern Elat on the Gulf of Aqaba),12 and thence down the Red Sea to the Ethiopian coast. Now, as I pored over the copy of the Kebra Nagast provided to me by the librarian, I discovered that my earlier assumption had been quite wrong. Menelik’s long journey from Jerusalem had involved a substantial caravan and had been overland throughout.13

But what overland route had been followed? The description of the trek given in the Kebra Nagast had the dreamlike, miraculous and surreal quality of imaginative storytelling, in which recognizable place names and geographical features were not easy to find. Nevertheless there were some details that were both specific and important. After leaving Jerusalem the travellers had first made their way to Gaza (on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, where a city of that name still exists). From there, presumably following the well established trade route across the northern edge of the Sinai peninsula,14 they had crossed into Egypt where, not long afterwards, they had arrived at a great river: ‘Let us let down the wagons,’ they said at this point, ‘for we have come to the water of Ethiopia. This is the Takazze which floweth down from Ethiopia and watereth the valley of Egypt.’15 It was clear from the context that Menelik and his companions were still in ‘the valley of Egypt’ when they uttered these words – and probably not far south of the site of modern Cairo. The river beside which they had let down their wagons could therefore only have been the Nile. What was striking, however, was that they had immediately identified it with the Takazze – the same great Ethiopian tributary that the priest had mentioned to me on Tana Kirkos.

From the librarian I obtained an atlas and traced the Takazze’s course with my fingertip. I found that it rose in Abyssinia’s central highlands not far from the ancient town of Lalibela, took a winding path in a north-westerly direction through the Simien mountains, merged with the Atbara in the Sudan, and finally joined the Nile proper some hundreds of miles to the north of the modern city of Khartoum (which stands at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles).

Looking at the map I could immediately see two other things: first that the Nile – from an Ethiopian perspective – might easily have come to be regarded as an extension of the Takazze;16 secondly that it would have been entirely sensible for the caravan carrying the Ark of the Covenant to have followed the Nile and then the Takazze in order to reach Ethiopia. The alternative would have been to proceed much further southwards through the hostile deserts of the Sudan as far as the confluence of the two Niles and then to follow the Blue Nile into the highlands. However – since the latter river makes a wide curving detour to the south before turning north again towards Lake Tana – this would have required an unnecessarily lengthy expedition; the Takazze route, by contrast, was the best part of a thousand miles shorter.

The map made something else clear as well: a group of travellers following the Takazze to its headwaters would, near the end of their journey, have reached a point less than seventy miles from the eastern shore of Lake Tana. And Tana Kirkos lay not far off that same eastern shore. There was thus no mystery surrounding the tradition that the little island had been the first resting place of the Ark in Ethiopia: indeed, casting around for somewhere safe and close to install the sacred relic, Menelik and his companions could hardly have made a better choice.

Three men in a boat

The next morning when Richard Pankhurst and I travelled to Lake Zwai we were accompanied by an old friend of mine, Yohannes Berhanu, the General Manager of the state-owned National Tour Operation. The three of us met up just before 6 a.m. at the NTO offices, where Yohannes had thoughtfully provided a chauffeur-driven Toyota Landcruiser. Twenty minutes later we had left the slums and skyscrapers of Addis Ababa behind and were rumbling along the broad highway that led south through the town of Debra Zeit into the heart of the Great Rift Valley.

Discounting the Koka reservoir, which is man-made, Lake Zwai is the northernmost of Ethiopia’s string of Rift Valley lakes. It has a surface area of some two hundred square miles and a maximum depth of about fifty feet. Oval in shape, it is studded with islands and has marshy shores overgrown with reeds that provide an ideal habitat for storks, pelicans, wild ducks, geese and fish eagles – as well as for great numbers of hippopotami.

Our destination, after the two-hour drive from Addis Ababa, was a jetty on the southern side of the lake. Here we had been told that the Ministry of Fisheries owned and operated a number of boats, one of which would surely be provided for us at minimal cost. Predictably, however, all the larger vessels had gone fishing. Only a single small motorboat was available – and there was no fuel for its outboard engine.

A lengthy palaver followed with the Ministry staff who explained that the motorboat wasn’t really big enough to take Richard, Yohannes and me as well as a pilot. Debra Zion, the island to which I had been told that the Ark had been brought for safekeeping in the tenth century, was distant: at least a three-hour journey in this humble craft. Furthermore, with no deck to shelter under, we would be grievously afflicted by the sun. Perhaps, therefore, we would care to come back tomorrow when more suitable transport could be arranged?

Yohannes vehemently declined this suggestion. Professor Pankhurst and Mr Hancock, he said, had important appointments in Addis Ababa tomorrow – appointments which could not under any circumstances be altered. We must, therefore, reach Debra Zion today.

More discussions followed and eventually we trooped along the jetty and sat experimentally in the tiny motorboat. Arranged around its sides we did more or less fit into it, although our combined weight forced it rather low in the water.

What to do? The Fisheries officials seemed dubious but at last agreed to let us have our way. The vessel was ours. They would provide a pilot. And there would be no charge. We, however, would have to arrange for the fuel ourselves. Perhaps we could send our driver into the nearest town with a jerrycan?

We did this. A vast and completely inexplicable delay then ensued. One hour passed. Then another. Growing impatient I stood at the end of the jetty and made the acquaintance of several marabou storks: huge, lugubrious, long-beaked, bald-headed birds obviously descended from pterodactyls. Finally our driver returned with the necessary fuel and – just after 11 a.m. – we started up the outboard motor and set off.

We puttered, very slowly, through the rippling waters, passing one densely wooded island, then another. The reed-fringed shoreline receded and then disappeared behind us, there was no sign of Debra Zion, the sun was now directly overhead, and the boat was leaking in a small but noticeable way.

At this point Yohannes Berhanu rather pointedly reminded us that the lake was full of hippopotami (which he described as ‘very aggressive and untrustworthy animals’). He was, I observed, wearing a life-jacket that he must somehow have acquired before our departure from the jetty. Meanwhile, Richard Pankhurst’s nose was turning an interesting shade of lobster pink. And I … well I was gritting my teeth and trying to ignore the implications of an increasingly full bladder. Where was that bloody island? And when exactly were we going to get there? I looked impatiently at my watch and was suddenly overtaken by a faint but definite sense of the ridiculous. I mean, Raiders of the Lost Ark was one thing but this, to be honest, was more like Three Men in a Boat.

The journey to Debra Zion did not take as long as we had been told it would; nevertheless it took quite long enough and I was the first on to dry land when we finally arrived. I dashed past the delegation of monks waiting to greet us, disappeared behind the nearest bush and emerged again some minutes later feeling very much better.

When I rejoined the others, who were deep in conversation with the welcoming committee, I noticed a number of papyrusreed boats lined up along the shore. They seemed identical in every respect to those I had seen on Lake Tana. I was on the point of asking about this when Yohannes interrupted my chain of thought by announcing excitedly: ‘Graham. There is something strange here. It seems that the mother-tongue of these people is Tigrigna.’

This was strange indeed. We were now in the southern part of the province of Shoa, an Amharic-speaking area. Tigrigna, on the other hand, was the language of the sacred city of Axum and of the province of Tigray – hundreds of miles to the north. I knew from direct experience that Ethiopia was a country in which regional distinctions, particularly linguistic distinctions, had very profound implications (profound enough, anyway, to lead to civil war). It was therefore most surprising to find that Amharic was not the first language of the monks of Debra Zion.

Nor, as it turned out, did this peculiarity apply only to the monks. We quickly established that every inhabitant of the island, including the farmers and the fishermen, routinely conversed in a dialect of Tigrigna and only used Amharic (which many of them did not speak at all well) on the rare occasions when they were visited by government officials.

As we hiked up the winding path to the top of the hill where Debra Zion’s main church was sited I asked: ‘How come you all speak Tigrigna?’

‘Because our forefathers came from Tigray,’ the monks replied through the medium of Yohannes.

‘When did they come?’

‘It was around one thousand and thirty years ago.’

I did some quick mental arithmetic. One thousand and thirty years from 1989 gave a date of AD 959. The tenth century, I thought. The century in which Queen Gudit had overthrown the Solomonic dynasty and in which the Ark of the Covenant had supposedly been taken out of Axum and brought to Debra Zion for safekeeping. Without really having begun to interview anybody it was already beginning to look very much as though the tradition reported to me by Belai Gedai had some substance to it.

‘Why did they come?’ I asked next. ‘Get them to tell us the story of how and why they came here.’

Yohannes put this to the monks and then translated their answer: ‘You see, their forefathers came here with the tabot. It was in the time of Gudit. She attacked the Christians in Tigray. There was much fighting. They were escaping from her. And they came here with the tabot.

‘Which tabot?’

‘They say it was the tabot from the Church of Saint Mary of Zion in Axum.’

‘By that do they mean the original tabot that was brought by Menelik from Jerusalem to Ethiopia? The Ark of the Covenant in other words. Or do they have some other tabot in mind? I want to be absolutely clear on this point.’

Yohannes manfully plunged into this minefield of interpretation while we carried on walking up the steep hill. Much argument and debate followed before he finally commented: ‘I do not think they are very clear themselves. But they say that it is written … that it is all written in a book, kept here in the church, and that we should discuss the whole matter with their senior priest.’

Stolen history

Five minutes later we arrived at the church which, I was not entirely surprised to discover, was dedicated to Saint Mary of Zion. It was a plain and unpretentious wattle-and-daub building, whitewashed on the outside and surmounted by a simple cross. The view that it commanded from its position on the hilltop was, however, superb, giving us some idea of the extent of this large island. Behind us, from the direction we had come, the path wound back through fields dotted with the poor huts of peasant farmers. Ahead of us the land sloped steeply away to the lake’s edge through a forest of acacia trees and cactus.

The senior priest, Abba Gebra Christos, now presented himself. A small wiry man, probably in his late sixties, he wore a thin grey beard and a threadbare two-piece suit, around the shoulders of which he had draped a length of white cotton cloth in traditional highland fashion. His manner was welcoming and genial enough but there was also a foxy and calculating look about him that seemed to forebode imminent financial transactions.

I nervously fingered the greasy wad of birr that I had stuffed into my pocket before leaving Addis and resolved to pay only for high-quality information. Then, making as little song and dance as possible, I switched on my tape-recorder and asked my first question: did he know the story of how Menelik had abducted the Ark of the Covenant from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem?

Yes, Yohannes translated, of course he did.

And did he know what had happened next?

Menelik, the priest replied, had brought the Ark to Ethiopia where it remained to this day.

‘Is he sure’, I asked ‘that this was the original Ark of the Covenant, containing the Ten Commandments inscribed on the Tablets of Stone by the finger of God?’

Yohannes put the question and Abba Gebra Christos replied gravely: ‘Yes. I am sure.’

‘OK. Good. Now tell me … was this same original Ark ever brought here to Lake Zwai – to Debra Zion?’

‘Yes,’ said the priest, ‘at the time of Gudit the Ark was brought here from Axum.’

‘But why was it brought here?’ I asked. ‘I mean, why here? Why such a long way? Surely there must have been hundreds of secret places where it could have been hidden in Tigray?’

‘Listen … This Gudit … she was a devil. She burned many churches in Tigray. And in other regions of Ethiopia. It was a time of great fighting, great danger. Our forefathers were very much afraid that she would capture the Ark. So they brought it out of Axum and they carried it to Zwai where they knew that it would be safe. They travelled only by night, hiding by day in forests and in caves. They were very much afraid, I tell you! But in this way they evaded her soldiers and they brought the Ark to Zwai and to this island.’

‘Do you know how long it remained here?’

With no hesitation at all Abba Gebra Christos replied: ‘After seventy-two years it was returned back to Axum.’

Now, I thought, was the right time to pop the sixty-four thousand dollar question: ‘Has there been any other occasion’, I asked tentatively, ‘when the Ark has been brought here again for safekeeping? Perhaps recently?’

Again there was no hesitation: ‘Never.’

‘So as far as you know it is still in Axum?’

‘Yes.’

‘Even now – with all the fighting going on in Tigray?’

He shrugged: ‘I believe so. But that is only my opinion. To find out truly you must ask those in Axum.’

Another thought now occurred to me: ‘When we were walking up here,’ I said, ‘some of the monks told us that you have an ancient book in which is written the history of how the Ark came to Debra Zion in Gudit’s time. Is that correct? Do you have such a book?’

As Yohannes translated this question, the wizened features of Abba Gebra Christos formed themselves into the expression of one who has just tasted something unexpectedly sour. He responded readily enough, however: ‘Yes, there is a book.’

‘Can we see it?’

A momentary hesitation, then: ‘Yes … But the part concerning the Ark is no longer there.’

‘I’m sorry. I don’t follow. What do you mean exactly?’

‘About twenty years ago a certain man came and cut some pages from the book and took those pages away with him. They were the pages in which the story of the Ark was told.’

‘This man. Was he a foreigner? Or was he an Ethiopian?’

‘Well, he was an Ethiopian. But since that time we have not been able to track him down.’

As I considered the implications of this last answer I could not help but reflect on the bizarre and convoluted nature of the enterprise that I was now involved in. Was the matter of the unknown man who had cut an unknown number of pages from an unknown book something that should concern me? Or was it an irrelevance? Was I picking up the traces of someone else’s quest for the Ark of the Covenant? Or was I dealing simply with a local manuscript hunter who twenty years ago had made a fast buck on the antiquities market with the sale of a few illuminated folios?

I suspected that I might never know. Pursuing the Ark through Ethiopia was turning out to be far more daunting and difficult than I had ever imagined. Indeed it was something like pursuing a ghost through a maze. Avenues that seemed promising and open from one perspective turned out, on closer examination, to be impassable dead ends; by contrast apparent dead ends had more than once transformed themselves into paths to understanding.

I sighed, refocussed my mind on the immediate issue, and told Abba Gebra Christos that even if the most important pages were missing, I would still very much like to see the book that he had mentioned. Perhaps he would allow us to photograph it?

This suggestion produced a flurry of nervous objections. No, the old priest said, he could not possibly let us do that. Photographs were out of the question unless specific written permission were given by the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Addis Ababa. Did we by any chance have such permission?

No, we did not.

Then, regretfully, we could not photograph the book. We could, however, see it if that was what we wanted.

I indicated that we would be grateful even for that small mercy. Abba Gebra Christos nodded sagely, led us inside his church and walked over to a cupboard near the back of the humble building. A tremendous pantomime ensued as he searched in all his pockets for the necessary key – which, after some moments, he confessed that he could not find.

A young deacon was then summoned and sent off somewhere. Ten minutes later, panting and out of breath, the boy returned clutching a bundle of at least twenty keys. One after another these were tried in the lock and eventually – to my considerable surprise – the door was opened. The cupboard, however, was almost bare and the one book that it contained proved to be an early twentieth-century work donated to the church by Princess Zauditu, the daughter of Emperor Menelik II.

At this point Abba Gebra Christos suddenly remembered an important fact: the manuscript we wanted to see was not in the church after all. A few weeks ago he himself had taken it to the repository, which was in a separate building some distance away. If we would like to accompany him he would show it to us there.

I looked at my watch, decided there was just enough time before we had to leave the island, and gave my assent to this plan. A lengthy hike followed and we eventually arrived at a rather decrepit stone-built two-storey house. The priest ushered us grandly into a dank and musty rear room, around the walls of which were arranged dozens of wooden chests and garishly painted tin trunks. After a moment of indecision he advanced towards one of these trunks and threw back its lid revealing a pile of books within. He lifted out the topmost of these – a weighty tome with pages made of cured sheepskin – and passed it over to me.

Richard Pankhurst and Yohannes crowded round as I opened the volume. They immediately confirmed that it was written in Ge’ez. Moreover it was undoubtedly very old: ‘From the style of the illuminations, and from the binding, I would guess thirteenth century,’ volunteered Richard. ‘It’s certainly not later than the fourteenth century. There’s no doubt that it’s an early work. Probably very valuable.’

Eagerly we began to turn the pages. At no point, however, was there any indication that anything had been removed. As far as we could tell the manuscript was intact. We pointed this out to Abba Gebra Christos, who had been standing silently watching us, and asked him whether he was absolutely certain that this was the book he had talked to us about.

As it turned out, it was not. Apologetically the old priest then rummaged in a number of other boxes around the room, passing us a series of ancient manuscripts.

‘It’s quite amazing,’ Richard commented at one point. ‘So many old books. A real treasure trove. And they’re just lying here in complete disarray. They could get damp. They could get stolen. Anything could happen to them. I wish we could move the whole lot of them to the Institute.’

The last volume we looked at was a wood-bound and beautifully illuminated copy of the Ethiopian Book of Saints. It too was intact. When we had finished going through it Richard nudged me in the ribs: ‘I think,’ he said, ‘that we’re not getting anywhere here.’

I nodded: ‘I think you’re right. And it’s really late. We’d better go or we’ll end up having to cross the whole lake in the dark.’

Before leaving, however, I asked Yohannes to make a final attempt to get some sense out of the priest. Was the book that told the story of the Ark really here or not?

Certainly it was here, Abba Gebra Christos insisted. Of course it was here. The only problem was that he was no longer certain in which box he had placed it. If we would care to wait – just a little longer – he was sure that he could locate it …

This was an offer that I felt safe in declining. It seemed to me that the old man was being deliberately evasive – and if that were the case then presumably it meant that he was hiding something. But what? Not, I thought, the Ark itself. Perhaps not even the notorious book. But something, definitely.

Puzzled and a little piqued I led the way back to the motorboat. We said our farewells. Then, with at least an hour of sunlight still left in the sky, we headed out onto the still waters of Lake Zwai.

I wrote in my notebook:

I don’t believe there is any purpose in spending further time investigating Debra Zion. After interviewing the monks and the senior priest I feel quite certain that the importance of the island lies solely in the strength of its ancient traditions concerning the Ark of the Covenant. Broadly speaking these traditions seem to confirm what Belai Gedai told me in one of our telephone conversations – namely that the Ark was brought to Debra Zion in the tenth century to keep it safe from Gudit, that it stayed here for about seventy years, and that it was then returned to Axum.

The fact that the mother-tongue of all the islanders is Tigrigna rather than Amharic is strong ‘social’ evidence in support of the oral history I was given – because the only logical explanation for such an ethnographic peculiarity is that there was indeed a movement of population from the Axum area to Debra Zion in the distant past. Something as momentous as the need to bring the Ark to safety could certainly account for a migration of this sort. Moreover, if the relic did stay here for as long a period as seventy years before being taken back to Axum, then it’s quite easy to see why some of the descendants of the original migrants would have wanted to stay on the island, which would have been the only home they knew. It’s also to be expected that they would have maintained a folk memory of the glorious events in which their forefathers were involved.

That folk memory is what I’ve spent most of the afternoon listening to. In the process some intriguing local mysteries surfaced. At no point, however, did I get any sense at all that the Ark might actually be here now. On the contrary, I feel confident in saying that it isn’t here – and, furthermore, that it hasn’t been here for the best part of a thousand years.

Since the same goes for the islands of Lake Tana as well it’s becoming transparently obvious that Axum is still the most probable place for the relic to be. In other words, like it or not, I’m going to have to go to Axum. The best time to do that would be in January during Timkat, which is the one occasion when I might be able to get close to the Ark without having to gain access to the sanctuary chapel. And Timkat 1770 was when Bruce was there – presumably for the same reason.

I closed my notebook and looked up at Richard and Yohannes. ‘Do you think there’s any possibility,’ I asked, ‘that the government will have captured Axum by January? I’d really like to get there in time to attend the next Timkat.

Yohannes said nothing. Richard made a face: ‘A nice idea. But you might as well plan to fly to the moon.’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘it was just a thought.’

It was after dark when we finally moored the motorboat at the Ministry of Fisheries jetty, and almost 10 p.m. by the time we reached the sprawling outskirts of Addis Ababa. We instructed our driver to head for Yohannes’s office in the centre of town where we had parked our cars that morning (there were still two hours left before curfew and our plan was to grab a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant). As we climbed down out of the Landcruiser, however, we heard a prolonged burst of automatic rifle fire which seemed to come from an apartment block just across the road. Seconds later there were two short answering bursts from a different weapon. Then a profound silence fell.

‘What on earth was that all about?’ I asked.

‘Probably nothing serious,’ Richard offered. ‘There have been a few isolated incidents since the attempted coup … shootings here and there. But nothing major.’

‘Nevertheless,’ said Yohannes gravely, ‘I think that it would be wise for us to abandon dinner. Let us all go to our homes.’

An ethnographic fingerprint

Back at the Hilton I slept soundly and awoke before seven the next morning – Friday 24 November. I then took a turn in the pool, had breakfast and telephoned the office of Shimelis Mazengia. The Politburo member had asked Richard and me to report back to him after completing our trips to Lake Tana and Lake Zwai. His secretary now told me that she had been expecting my call and gave us an appointment for three o’clock that same afternoon.

Satisfied with this arrangement, and determined to bring up the question of Timkat and Axum despite Richard’s pessimism, I left the hotel and drove round to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies.

My research on Wednesday the 22nd had established the plausibility of the Nile/Takazze route mentioned in the Kebra Nagast and also by the priest on Tana Kirkos.17 What I wanted to do now was to test out a hypothesis that had subsequently taken rough shape in my mind. It seemed to me that if Menelik and the first-born sons of the elders of Israel had indeed brought the Ark to Tana Kirkos by following the Takazze river, then this would have had implications for the distribution of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia. If there was some truth to the legend, I reasoned, then the traditional epicentre of the Falasha population should lie between the Takazze and Lake Tana – since it would have been in precisely this area that Menelik would first have begun to convert the local population to Judaism. If the legends were false, however, then I might expect to find that the bulk of the Falashas lived elsewhere – most likely much further north and close to the Red Sea (since academic orthodoxy had it that their forefathers had been converted by Jewish immigrants from the Yemen).

I turned first to James Bruce, whose early work on the Falashas had already impressed me so much. In Volume III of his Travels I knew that the Scottish author had devoted a chapter to what might loosely be termed the ‘social geography’ of eighteenth-century Ethiopia. Though I did not remember the contents of this chapter very clearly I hoped that it would have something to say about the location of the principal Falasha settlements at that time.

I was not disappointed. Bruce’s survey began in the north of Ethiopia – at the Red Sea port of Massawa – and worked inland from there. Several ethnic groups were covered but no mention was made of the Falashas in either Eritrea or Tigray. ‘After passing the Takazze’, however, the country stretching to the south and west as far as Lake Tana was described as being:

in great part possessed by Jews, and there [the] king and queen of that nation and, as they say, of the house of Judah, maintain still their ancient sovereignty and religion from very early times.18

Writing in the nineteenth century (about eighty years after Bruce) the German missionary Martin Flad had recorded a similar distribution of population, noting that the Falashas lived in a total of fourteen provinces – all of which lay ‘west of the Takazze’.19

The modern sources that I next reviewed painted the same picture. The vast majority of Ethiopia’s Jews inhabited the territory to the west and south of the Takazze river: this was their traditional homeland and their occupation of it was ancient beyond memory.20One particularly detailed and authoritative study included a map in which the entire area of Falasha settlement was shaded – a long but relatively narrow strip extending south-west from the Takazze through the Simien mountains and the city of Gondar and then going on, without any interruption, to encompass the whole of Lake Tana.21

It would have been difficult to find more telling support for my hypothesis that this – with the unique impetus provided by the presence of the Ark on Tana Kirkos – had been precisely the area in which the conversion of native Abyssinians to Old Testament Judaism had been concentrated. On the basis of my own research (see Chapter 6) I had anyway begun to doubt the merits of the academic theory which held that the Jewish faith had first been imported into the far north of Ethiopia from the Yemen at some point after AD 70. Hitherto my dissatisfaction with such notions had stemmed mainly from their failure to explain the extremely archaic nature of Falasha beliefs and rituals (again, see Chapter 6). Now the ethnographic evidence made the case against the ‘Yemeni connection’ look even stronger: on the map, the area in which the Falashas lived stood out like a tell-tale fingerprint confirming that the religion of Solomon could only have entered Ethiopia from the west – through Egypt and the Sudan along the ancient and well-travelled trade routes provided by the Nile and Takazze rivers.22

The virtue of patience

At three sharp, Richard and I kept our appointment with Shimelis Mazengia. The Politburo member first of all wanted to hear how our trips to Lake Tana and to Lake Zwai had gone. Had we been successful? Had we found anything out?

I replied that our discoveries on Tana Kirkos island – and the strange, archaic traditions that had been reported to us there – had had a profound effect on my thinking. I was now almost certain that this was the region to which the Ark of the Covenant had first been brought before being taken to Axum.

‘So you really believe that we have the Ark?’ Shimelis asked with a smile.

‘I’m increasingly confident of that. The evidence is building up …’ I hesitated, then turned his question back on him: ‘What do you think?’

‘I think there is something very special in the sanctuary at Axum. Not necessarily the Ark, mind you, but something very special. It is an ancient tradition. It cannot completely be ignored.’

I asked whether his government had ever made a determined effort to find out whether the sacred – and immensely valuable – relic was really there or not. The Workers’ Party of Ethiopia were Marxists, after all, and so presumably were not hampered by reactionary superstitions. It was only quite recently that they’d lost Axum to the TPLF. Prior to that, hadn’t they ever thought of taking a look?

‘We never for a moment considered it,’ Shimelis replied. ‘Never for a single moment … If we had tried to do something like that I think we would have had’ – he smiled ironically – ‘a revolution on our hands. Our people are very traditional, as you know, and there would have been an explosion if any government official had ever involved himself in such a matter.’

‘Do you think the TPLF have the same attitude?’ I asked. ‘Now that they control Axum, I mean.’

The Politburo member shrugged: ‘That is not for me to say. But they are not renowned for their religious sensitivities …’

I was a little hesitant about putting my next question, but did so anyway: ‘I’m sorry if this sounds impertinent,’ I said, ‘but I’ve got to ask. Is there any chance at all that your side is going to win the city back in the immediate future?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m going to have to go there myself. In fact I’d like to get there for the next Timkat celebrations.’

‘You mean this coming January?’

I nodded my head.

‘Impossible,’ said Shimelis flatly. ‘Besides, why be in such a hurry? If you are right, then the Ark has already been in our country for three millennia. In another year, two at the most, we will recapture Axum and when we do I think I can promise that you will be the first foreigner into the city. So be patient. You will get your chance.’

I had to admit that this was sound advice. In a country like Ethiopia patience was almost always a virtue. I was not prepared to wait two years, however. I therefore silently resolved to aim for Axum not in January 1990, but in January 1991. The confidence that Shimelis had shown had impressed me and I hoped very much that the sacred city would be back in government hands by then. Meanwhile, however – just as a precaution – I thought that I might also try to open up some dialogue with the TPLF. I had hitherto avoided the rebels but it now seemed to me that it might be in my interests to make some preliminary overtures in their direction.

I looked across the table at Shimelis. ‘You’re right of course,’ I said. ‘But would you mind if I asked you another favour?’

With an eloquent hand gesture, the Politburo member indicated that I should go ahead.

‘I’d still like to attend a Timkat ceremony,’ I continued, ‘and since Axum is obviously out of the question I was wondering whether I might be able to go to Gondar this January instead.’

Beside me Richard coughed politely. The city that I had just named was reportedly besieged by rebel forces and there had been rumours that it might fall any day.

‘Why Gondar?’ Shimelis asked.

‘Because it’s in the Lake Tana area – which, as I said, I’ve identified as being closely associated with the early history of the Ark in this country. And because I understand that many Falashas still live in and around Gondar. I remember passing through Jewish villages just north of the city way back in 1983, but I didn’t have a chance to carry out any proper interviews at that time. So what I’d like to do, if it’s OK with you, is kill two birds with one stone. I’d like to attend Timkat in Gondar. And while I’m there I’d like to carry out some research amongst the Falashas.’

‘It may be possible,’ replied Shimelis. ‘It depends on the military situation, but it may be possible. I shall look into it and let you know.’

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!