Chapter 11

And David danced before the Ark …

On 18 and 19 January 1770 the Scottish adventurer James Bruce had quietly attended the Timkat ceremonials in Axum and, as outlined in Chapter 7, I believed that he had done so in order to get as close as possible to the Ark of the Covenant.

Exactly two hundred and twenty years later – on 18 and 19 January 1990 – I attended Timkat in the city of Gondar to the north of Lake Tana. Moreover, although I had not shared my true feelings with either Richard Pankhurst or with Shimelis Mazengia, I saw this trip as being of pivotal significance to my quest.

Immersed as I was in the great historical mystery that connected the Ark to Ethiopia, it had become clear to me that sooner or later, somehow or other, I was going to have to go back to Axum. I had resolved to try to make that hazardous visit in January 1991 – and to make it under the auspices of the rebels if necessary. I therefore saw Gondar as a crucial ‘dry run’: the closest point to Axum still in government hands, it was also, like Axum, a former capital of Ethiopia, an important historic site and a centre of religious learning. In such a setting, I reasoned, I might hope to prepare myself spiritually and psychologically for the real ordeal that lay ahead, to familiarize myself with aspects of the same arcane rituals that Bruce must have witnessed in 1770, to gather such intelligence as I could, and to quicken my commitment to the quest.

This, however, was not the only voice within me. Other, less steadfast thoughts also passed through my mind and I could see the possibility of a different outcome. If, for example, I were to discover anything at Gondar which cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of Ethiopia’s claim to be the last resting place of the Ark then might I not – with honour – abandon my plan to go to Axum in 1991?

This was a disturbing but oddly seductive notion to which I found myself increasingly attracted as the date of the Gondar trip approached. That trip itself was for a while in doubt – indeed it was not until 8 January 1990 that I finally received a telex from Shimelis confirming that the necessary permission had been obtained from the military authorities.

Riddles to solve

I knew that I could expect a central feature of the Timkat ceremonies to be the carrying in procession of the tabotat – the symbols or replicas of the Ark of the Covenant normally kept in the Holy of Holies of every Ethiopian church. Of course in Gondar I would not see the object which the Ethiopians claimed to be the Ark itself (since there was no suggestion that it had ever been lodged there). What I would see, however, was an event otherwise identical in character that was regarded as the supreme festival of the Ethiopian Orthodox calendar.

I had been aware for some time that Timkat meant ‘Epiphany’ – a holy day associated by the western church with the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.1 Epiphany, however, had an entirely different significance amongst eastern Christians, for whom it commemorated the Baptism of Christ.2 I had established that the Ethiopians were in complete agreement with the rest of the eastern church on this latter point, but that they diverged radically from the norm when it came to the specific rituals employed.3 In particular, their use of the tabot was unique to them, unparalleled in any other culture and unrecognized even by the Coptic Patriarchate in Alexandria4 (which had supplied Ethiopia with all its archbishops from the date of the conversion of the Axumite kingdom inAD 331 until autocephaly was achieved in 19595).

Against this background I felt that close observation of the Timkat rituals and of the role of the tabotat within them might help me to fathom what I had long since come to regard as the central paradox of Ethiopian Christianity – namely its infiltration, indeed domination, by a pre-Christian relic: the Ark of the Covenant.

This, however, was not my sole purpose in making the trip to Gondar. While there I also intended to talk to Falashas living in the environs of the city.

I had already mentioned this to Shimelis and he had not objected – for the simple reason that much had changed since my previous visit to the area in 1983. Then, driving north from Gondar into the Simien mountains, official policy had made it almost impossible to do any serious work amongst the black Jews: their villages had been effectively out of bounds and there had been no opportunity to observe their customs or to carry out proper interviews.

This repressive state of affairs had been swept away in November 1989 when, after a sixteen-year break, Addis Ababa and Jerusalem had restored diplomatic relations. At the heart of this agreement was a commitment on Ethiopia’s part to allow the Falashas –allthe Falashas – to emigrate to Israel. By then, anyway, there were few enough left – probably no more than 15,000.6 All the others had died during the famines of the mid-1980s or had already fled clandestinely to Israel via refugee camps in the Sudan (from which, during 1984/5 alone, the airlift known as ‘Operation Moses’ had taken more than 12,000 to safety7).

The net effect of all this, by January 1990, was that the number of Ethiopian Jews was dwindling fast. In the three months since the restoration of diplomatic relations some 3,000 of them had left the country. Many more had deserted their villages and flocked to Addis Ababa hoping for an early place on the planes out. Inexorable and unstoppable, this latter-day Exodus was gathering pace, and I could see that very soon not a single Falasha would be left in Ethiopia. Thereafter, of course, it would still be possible to interview them and research their folklore and traditions in the Promised Land. This, however, would almost certainly be the last year in which it would be possible to get any impression at all of their traditional life in its traditional surroundings.

I was determined not to miss this chance: the riddle of how there had ever come to be Jews – indigenous, black Jews – in the heart of Ethiopia was intimately connected to the enigma of the Holy Ark; solve one, I felt, and I would solve the other.

Neither were the Falashas the only ethnic group of interest to me in the Gondar area. In the week of research that I had done just prior to my departure from England I had turned up an intriguing reference to another people – a people known as the Qemant who were described as ‘Hebraeo-Pagans’ in the single anthropological paper written about them.8 Published in 1969 by an American scholar named Frederick Gamst, this obscure monograph observed that:

The Hebraism found among the Qemant is an ancient form unaffected by Hebraic religious change of the past two millennia. This Hebraism is dominant in the religion of the Falasha, neighbours of the Qemant … sometimes called ‘the black Jews of Ethiopia’.9

I had hitherto been completely unaware of the Qemant and was therefore intrigued by Gamst’s suggestion that their religion contained ancient ‘Hebraic’ elements. This, I felt, was a matter that obviously merited further investigation since it might help to shed light on the antiquity of Judaic influence in Ethiopia – and also on the pervasiveness of that influence.

The One God and the fetish tree

In his study of the Qemant Gamst had mentioned that he had been befriended by a religious leader who had helped him enormously with his field work in the 1960s. The name of this dignitary, I knew, was Muluna Marsha and his title was Wambar (a word meaning ‘High Priest’ in the Qemant language). In the short time available, it seemed to me that my best strategy would be to try to locate this man (whom Gamst had described as a mine of information) and to interview him about the religious beliefs of his people. I could not be sure, however, whether he would still be alive after so many years – or even whether I would be able to find any Qemant still adhering to the traditional Hebraeo-Pagan faith (since there had been less than five hundred of them in Gamst’s time10).

After my arrival in Gondar on Wednesday 17 January I discussed this worry with the officials who came to meet me at the airport and was told that there were a very few Qemant – now mostly elderly – who continued to adhere to the old religion. Feelers were then put out, radio messages were sent to Party cadres in remote areas, and, on Thursday the 18th, I got the good news that the Wambar was still alive. His home village, apparently, was inaccessible by road but it was thought possible that he might be persuaded to come to an intermediate point – Aykel, about two hours’ drive due west of Gondar. The journey, furthermore, would almost certainly be safe: in recent fighting the rebels had been pushed back and the western region into which we would be going was considered to be secure during daylight hours.

Timkat, which I shall describe later in this chapter, took up all of my attention for the rest of Thursday and all of Friday. Early in the afternoon of Saturday 20 January, however, I was finally able to set off for Aykel in the Toyota Landcruiser that the Party had put at my disposal. In addition to the driver, I was accompanied by Legesse Desta – the young and enthusiastic official who was acting as my interpreter – and by two dour soldiers armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles.

As we bumped along the rough, graded track through glowing fields and golden-brown hills I studied the Michelin map of the Horn of Africa that I now took everywhere with me. I was interested to note that our destination lay not far from the headwaters of the Atbara river which rose about fifty miles to the north-west of Lake Tana and flowed from there into the Sudan, where it was eventually joined by the Takazze before merging with the Nile just above the Fifth Cataract.

Because it passed so close to Tana Kirkos, and because it was specifically mentioned in the Kebra Nagast, the Takazze itself still looked to me like the strongest contender for the route of the Ark. Nevertheless it was clear from the map that travellers following the Atbara would also have arrived in this same general area. I considered the implications of this and then remarked in my journal:

The rivers are roads through the desert. In the case of Ethiopia all these ‘roads’ – whether the Takazze, the Atbara, or the Blue Nile – seem to lead to Lake Tana. The Falashas (and their relatives the ‘Hebraeo-Pagan’ Qemant) have always lived in precisely this area and are indigenous Ethiopians – natives of this country. Since their Judaism (or ‘Hebraism’ as Gamst prefers to call it) is a foreign element in their culture, it is logical to deduce that it must have been imported along the rivers.

As we drove into Aykel we were met by a group of local Party officials who told us that Wambar Muluna Marsha had arrived some time ago and was waiting for us. We were then taken to a large, circular hut with a high beehive-shaped roof and ushered into the cool semi-darkness within. Thin shafts of sunlight fell through gaps in the wattle-and-daub, highlighting motes of dust that hung suspended in the air. From the newly brushed earth floor there arose a loamy fragrance complicated by a faint note of sandalwood.

The Wambar, as I had expected, was an elderly man. He had evidently dressed up for this occasion since he was wearing a white turban, white ceremonial robes and a fine black cape. Seated on one of the several chairs that had been arranged inside the hut, he stood graciously as we came in and, after the necessary introductions had been made, shook my hand warmly.

Speaking through the interpreter he immediately asked: ‘Do you work with Mr Gamst?’

I had to admit that I did not. ‘But,’ I added, ‘I’ve read the book that he wrote about your people. That’s why I’m here. I’m very interested in learning about your religion.’

The Wambar smiled rather mournfully. As he did so I noticed that one tooth, disconcertingly long, grew down from the left side of his upper jaw and protruded tusk-like over his lower lip. ‘Our religion’, he said, ‘has become a thing of the past. Almost nobody practises it today. The Qemant are now Christians.’

‘But you yourself are not a Christian …?’

‘No. I am the Wambar. I still follow the old ways.’

‘And are there others like you?’

‘A few remain.’ That smile again. Then, slyly and somewhat paradoxically: ‘Even those who say they are Christians have not entirely abandoned their former beliefs. The sacred groves are still tended … The sacrifices are still made.’ A pause for thought, a shake of the old, grizzled head, a sigh: ‘But things are changing … Always there is change …’

‘You said “sacred groves”. What did you mean by that?’

‘Our worship, if it is conducted as it should be, takes place in the open air. And we prefer to make our devotions amongst trees. For this purpose we have set aside special groves called degegna.

I put several more questions on this subject and established that there were in fact two kinds of groves. Some – the degegna themselves – were used for annual ceremonies. They had first been planted in the distant past when the founder of the Qemant religion was shown the correct locations in his dreams. In addition there were other much smaller sacred sites – called qole – which often consisted of only a single tree where a particularly powerful spirit was believed to reside. These qole were normally situated in high places. As it happened there was one on the outskirts of Aykel which I could see if I liked.

I then asked the Wambar if he knew whether the Falashas also venerated sacred groves.

‘No,’ he replied, ‘they do not.’

‘Would you say that their religion is in any way similar to yours?’

A sage nod: ‘Yes. In many ways. We have much in common.’ Unprompted he then added: ‘The founder of the Qemant religion was called Anayer. He came here to Ethiopia so long ago. He came, after seven years of famine, from his own country, which was far away. As he travelled on the journey with his wife and children he met the founder of the Falasha religion, also travelling on the same journey with his wife and children. A marriage alliance was discussed between the two groups, but it did not succeed.’

‘Did Anayer and the founder of the Falasha religion come originally from the same country?’

‘Yes. But they were separate. They made no marriage alliance.’

‘Nevertheless, the country of their birth was the same?’

‘Yes.’

‘Do you know where it was?’

‘It was far … It was in the Middle East.’

‘Do you know the name of this country?’

‘It was the land of Canaan. Anayer was the grandson of Canaan who was the son of Ham, who was the son of Noah.’

I was intrigued by this genealogy and by the faded memory of an ancestral migration from the Middle East – a memory that also suggested a common locus for the origin of the Falasha and the Qemant religions. I could not get the Wambar to confirm whether the ‘Canaan’ that he had referred to was the Promised Land of the Bible. Indeed, despite his familiarity with names like Ham and Noah, he claimed never to have read the Bible. I believed him on this point but, at the same time, was in no doubt that there was a scriptural background to what he had just told me. Contained in his account, for example, were echoes of the great trek made by the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah who had fled Canaan and ‘journeyed, going on still toward the south’ because ‘there was famine in the land’.11 At the same time, like Egypt in the book of Genesis, the country that Anayer had come from had been afflicted by seven years of famine.12

‘Tell me more about your religion,’ I now asked the Wambar. ‘You mentioned spirits earlier – spirits living in trees. But what about God? Do you believe in one God, or many gods?’

‘We believe in one God. Only one God. But he is supported by angels.’

The Wambar then went on to list these angels: Jakaranti, Kiberwa, Aderaiki, Kiddisti, Mezgani, Shemani, Anzatatera. Each, apparently, had his own distinctive place in the countryside. ‘When our religion was strong, all the Qement used to go to these places to pray to the angels to mediate with God on their behalf. Jakaranti was the most respected, then Mezgani and Anzatatera.’

‘And God?’ I asked. ‘The God of the Qemant. Does he have a name?’

‘Of course. His name is Yeadara.’

‘Where does he reside?’

‘He is everywhere.’

A single God then, and an omnipresent one. I was beginning, already, to see why Gamst had characterized these people as Hebraeo-Pagans. This impression, furthermore, was strengthened by almost everything else that the Wambar told me during our long discussion in the village of Aykel. I kept detailed notes of that discussion and, after my return to Addis Ababa, made a careful study of his answers – comparing them point by point with the Scriptures. Only when I had completed this exercise was I able to appreciate just how strong and how old the Judaic dimension of Qemant religion really was.

The Wambar had told me, for example, that the Qemant were forbidden to eat any animal that was not cloven-hoofed and that did not chew the cud. In addition, he had said, camels and pigs were regarded as unclean and were strictly forbidden. These restrictions accorded perfectly with those placed upon the Jews in the eleventh chapter of the Old Testament book of Leviticus.13

The Wambar had also said that amongst the Qemant even ‘clean’ animals could not be eaten if they had not been slaughtered properly. ‘Their throats must be cut until all the blood is gone,’ he had explained – adding that, for the same reason, it was forbidden to eat any animal that had died of natural causes. Both proscriptions, I discovered, were perfectly in line with Judaic law.14

Still on the subject of food, the Wambar had told me that the consumption of meat and dairy products at the same table was permitted by Qemant religion. He had added, however, that it was regarded as an abomination to eat the flesh of an animal that had been cooked in milk. I knew that orthodox Jews were forbidden to mix meat and dairy foods in the same meal. When I researched the background to this particular Kosher restriction, however, I learnt that it derived its authority from the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, both of which stated: ‘Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother’s milk.’15 This, more or less exactly, was the rule obeyed by the Qemant.

Another area of convergence concerned the Sabbath – which, like the Jews, the Qemant observed on Saturday. ‘It is forbidden to work on that day,’ the Wambar had told me. ‘It is forbidden to light fires on Saturday. And if a field should catch fire accidentally on the Sabbath then that is a field that we must no longer use.’16

These restrictions and others like them – all very much in accord with biblical law – made me more and more confident that a deep and truly ancient Judaic substratum did indeed underlie the religion of the Qemant. What finally convinced me that this was so, however, was the one practice that the Wambar had described to me which had not sounded Judaic at all – namely the veneration of ‘sacred groves’.

He had told me during our interview that there was a qole site on the outskirts of Aykel where I might see a tree believed to be the residence of a powerful spirit. I did go to look at this tree, which turned out to be a huge, spreading acacia. It stood to the west of the village on a spur of high ground, beyond which, across a hundred descending miles, the land sloped steeply away towards the Sudanese border. A soft afternoon breeze, laden with the fragrance of distant deserts, blew through the tawny canyons beneath me, circulated amongst the ravines and foothills, and soared on eagles’ wings across the first battlements of the escarpment.

Gnarled and massive, the acacia was so ancient that it would have been easy to believe that it had stood here for hundreds and perhaps even for thousands of years. Inside the walled enclosure that surrounded it, laid out upon the ground, were various offerings – a jar of oil, a heap of millet, small piles of roasted coffee beans, and a trussed chicken awaiting sacrifice. In their own way all these oblations contributed to the peculiar character of the place: numinous and eerie, by no means menacing but none the less distinctly strange.

What multiplied this other-worldly effect, however – and what made this Qemant qole site so different from any other place of worship I had ever come across in my travels – was the fact that every branch of the tree to a height of about six feet off the ground had been festooned with woven strips of vari-coloured cloth. Rustling in the wind, these waving pennants and ribbons seemed to whisper and murmur – almost as though they were seeking to impart a message. And I remember thinking that if I could only understand that message then many hidden things might be revealed. Superstitiously I touched the living wood, sensed its age, and returned to my companions who were awaiting me at the bottom of the hill.

Later, back in Addis – after I had looked into the other comparisons between Qemant religion and Old Testament Judaism – I ran a routine check in the Scriptures and in works of biblical archaeology to see if I could find any references to sacred trees. I did not expect that I would. Much to my surprise, however, I discovered that certain specially planted forest groves had been accorded a sacred character in the very earliest phases of the evolution of the Jewish faith. I was also able to confirm that these groves had been used as places of active worship. In the twenty-first chapter of the book of Genesis, for example, it was stated that: ‘Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God.’17

Reading more widely around the subject I established the following points with certainty: first, that the Hebrews had ‘borrowed’ the use of sacred groves from the Canaanites (who were the indigenous inhabitants of the Promised Land); second, that the groves were normally situated in high places (known as bamoth); and third, that they often contained sacrificial stone pillars of the kind that I had seen on Tana Kirkos and that – as I already knew – were called masseboth.18

Very little was understood about how the groves had been used, what they had looked like, what sort of ceremonies had gone on within them, or what kind of offerings had been made there. The reason for this ignorance was that the priestly elite of later biblical times had turned savagely against all such practices, cutting down and burning the sacred trees and overthrowing the masseboth.19

Since it was these same priests who had also been responsible for the compilation and editing of the Scriptures, it was hardly surprising that they had left us with no clear picture of the function and appearance of the groves. Moreover the single reference that did evoke some kind of image was regarded as a mystery by biblical scholars. This reference, in the second book of Kings, spoke of a place ‘where the women wove hangings for the grove.’20 As I read these words, the memory was still fresh in my mind of the strips of woven cloth that hung from every branch of the fetish tree on the outskirts of the village of Aykel. And it seemed to me then (as it seems to me now) that there was no mystery at all about the words in the book of Kings – but much that still cried out for explanation about the Qemant who, in the heart of Africa, had managed to acquire a Judaeo-Canaanite tradition as hoary with age as this one.

The whole issue, I felt sure, was intimately connected to the larger problem of the Falashas, the Qemant’s better-known neighbours.

Aswan and Meroe

Despite the strong Judaic flavour of their religion, no one has ever claimed that the Qemant are in fact Jews: there is too much that is pagan and animist about them to have allowed that to happen. The position, however, is quite different for the Falashas. They have been widely regarded as true Jews since the early nineteenth century – though they were not formally recognized as such by the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem until 1973. Two years later the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi followed suit, opening the way for the Israeli Ministry of the Interior to declare that the Falashas were entitled to automatic citizenship of Israel under the terms of the Law of Return.21

Ironically the main reason that rabbinical recognition was so long delayed was the pronouncedly Old Testament character of Falasha religion which did not in any way incorporate or refer to the Talmud (the authoritative body of Jewish law and lore accumulated between 200 BC and AD 50022). This made the Falashas seem quite alien to many Israeli and other Jews; it was later accepted, however, that ignorance of Talmudic precepts was simply a function of the fact that the Ethiopian arm of the faith must have been cut off from the evolving body of world Judaism at some extremely early date. This same isolation also explained the Falashas’ continuing adherence to practices that had long been forbidden by the rabbis, notably animal sacrifice (see Chapter 6).

The important point – which weighed heavily when official recognition was finally granted in the 1970s – was that the social and religious behaviour of the Falashas did clearly and unambiguously conform to the teachings of the Torah (Old Testament). Moreover,within the Torah, as one would expect of pre-Talmudic Jews whose religious beliefs were genuinely ancient, they showed the greatest respect for the Pentateuch (i.e. the five books believed by the orthodox to have been written by Moses himself, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).23

This ‘fundamentalism’ within Falasha religion was typified by their strict observance of the food restrictions enumerated in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and by their refusal to eat any animal – ‘clean’ or not – that had been slaughtered by a Gentile. It was also recognized that they paid meticulous attention to the Mosaic laws of cleanliness and purity. Special huts, for example, were set aside for those members of the community considered to be temporarily in states of ritual impurity – such as menstruating women, who were segregated for seven days in line with a Levitical edict.24

Falasha circumcision ceremonies (gezrat) were equally traditional, taking place on the eighth day after the birth of a male child, exactly as stipulated in the Pentateuch.25 Likewise their Sabbath procedures were rigorously orthodox with all fires being extinguished before sunset on Friday, and on the Sabbath itself no work of any kind being done, no water being drawn, no fire being lit, no coffee being boiled, and only the consumption of cold food and drink being permissible.

I was aware of all this when, during my stay in Gondar in January 1990, I visited several Falasha settlements. My objective was to make contact with religious leaders, to whom I wanted to put certain specific questions. Because of the mass migration of Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel this was no easy task: many homesteads were completely deserted, stripped of their goods and chattels, their doors left unbarred, and their inhabitants gone. Nevertheless, in the countryside some twenty miles from Gondar I did find one village that still seemed to be functioning. Called Anbober, it straggled across a steep slope in rolling mountainous terrain and was populated almost entirely by women and children, the majority of the menfolk having already left for Israel.

Falashas have neither synagogues nor rabbis; instead their places of worship are called mesgid and their religious officials kahenat (singular kahen, meaning ‘priest’). With my interpreter Legesse Desta, I now walked up through the village followed by a rapidly growing crowd of mischievous children. We were making for the mesgid – identifiable by the Star of David on its roof – where I hoped very much that I might find the kahen in residence.

On this occasion I was not disappointed: inside the humble building, at a roughly made wooden table, a lean, elderly man sat studying a copy of the Torah (which was beautifully written in Ge’ez on cured sheepskin leaves). Legesse began by explaining why we had come and then asked the priest if he would mind answering some questions from me. After a lengthy debate he gave his assent to this and introduced himself as Solomon Alemu. He was, he said, seventy-eight years old. He had been the kahen of Anbober for almost thirty years.

We spent the next couple of hours going through numerous aspects of Falasha belief and ritual. All Solomon’s answers confirmed the pure Old Testament character of the religion and were very much in line with what I had already learned from my research. In this context I pressed him particularly hard on the issue of blood sacrifice, trying to establish why his people continued with this practice when Jews everywhere else had abandoned it two thousand years previously. ‘We believe’, he replied with great conviction, ‘that God in his throne observes these ceremonies and is pleased.’

Perhaps Solomon knew, perhaps he did not, how close this simple statement was to a verse in the book of Leviticus which described offerings made by fire as being ‘of a sweet savour to the Lord’.26 Certainly, he seemed a wise and well read man. When I complimented him on his scholarship, however, his response – with no trace of false modesty – was to insist that he understood far less about the Judaic traditions of the Falashas than his father had done. And he added that his father, in his turn, had understood less than his grandfather – who had also been kahen of Anbober. ‘We are forgetting our own past,’ he said sadly. ‘Day by day we forget our history.’

Taking my cue from this I asked Solomon if he knew for how many centuries there had been Jewish people in Ethiopia.

‘We came here’, he replied, ‘long ago … long before the Christians. The Christians are recent compared with us.’

He then proceeded to tell me the familiar story of the Queen of Sheba, Menelik and the bringing of the Ark. In this way, he said, the Jewish faith had arrived in Ethiopia.

I asked casually: ‘Do you have any idea what route Menelik and his companions used when they made their journey?’

Though it might have surprised me once I now accepted his answer to this last question with perfect complacency: ‘According to our traditions they travelled from Jerusalem through Egypt and Sudan.’

Almost bored, I prompted: ‘Presumably they would have followed the river Nile for much of the journey?’

The kahen nodded: ‘Yes. That is what our traditions say.’ He then added two details that were completely new to me: ‘On the way,’ he said, ‘they rested at Aswan and Meroe.’

Aswan, I knew, was in Upper Egypt (near the site of the modern high dam of the same name), and in Pharaonic times had been important as a source of the granite used in the construction of the Pyramids. Meroe, the ancient capital of Nubia, had been located much further to the south, in what is now the Republic of the Sudan.

Intrigued, I pushed Solomon for more details of the Falasha traditions concerning these places. He insisted, however, that the little that he had already said was the sum of his knowledge about them. ‘I heard their names’, he sighed, ‘in stories told to me by my grandfather. He was a wise man … but he is gone … Soon we will all be gone.’

Ceremony of the Ark

Everything that I learned during my stay in Gondar reinforced my view that it had been to precisely this region of Ethiopia that the Jewish faith had first been brought in antiquity. The Falashas were Jewish through and through, and this was their homeland. Their near neighbours the Qemant also showed convincing signs of an archaic and deeply ingrained Judaic influence.

Nor was this influence limited to the Falashas and the Qemant. On the contrary, in Gondar and throughout Ethiopia, supposedly ‘Orthodox’ Christians displayed many customs and beliefs that were unmistakably Jewish in origin. Just like the Falashas, as I already knew, they circumcised their sons on the eighth day after birth, a date commanded by the book of Leviticus – a date that, amongst all the peoples of the world, was now observed only by Jews and by Ethiopians.27 Likewise (in a remarkable instance of the phenomenon known as religious syncretism) the Jewish Sabbath was still being respected in the twentieth century by millions of Abyssinian Christians – not instead of the Sunday Sabbath adhered to by their co-religionists elsewhere but in addition to it.28

There were other holidays which, although superficially Christian, were also clearly Judaic in origin. I had learned, for example, that the Ethiopian New Year feast (Enkutatsh) corresponded closely to the Jewish New Year (Rosh Ha-shanah). Both were held in September and both were followed a few weeks later by a second festival (known as Maskal in Ethiopia and Yom Kippur in Israel). In both cultures, furthermore, this second festival was connected to the New Year by a period of expiation and atonement.29

Ethiopian Christians also strictly obeyed many of the Pentateuchal laws of cleanliness and purity. No man, for example, would consider going to church after having had sexual intercourse with his wife, nor would he have intercourse prior to having contact with any consecrated thing, nor would he have intercourse during days of fasting, nor would he have intercourse with any menstruating woman.30 None of these restrictions were called for by Christian lore; all of them, however, were demanded in the Pentateuch (notably in the books of Exodus and Leviticus31).

In a similar fashion Ethiopian Christians also observed the Old Testament food laws, scrupulously avoiding the flesh of ‘unclean’ birds and mammals (pork being particularly abhorred) and even attending to the minutiae such as the ‘sinew which shrank’ referred to in Chapter 32 of the book of Genesis.32 This same sinew, I was able to establish, was shunned by all Abyssinian Christians and was known in Ge’ez as ‘the forbidden muscle’.33

Another intriguing link that I had turned up while researching this subject was that Ethiopian clerical vestments seemed to be modelled upon the special garments worn by the priests of ancient Israel34 – the k’enat (belt) corresponding to the High Priest’s girdle;35the k’oba (skull-cap) corresponding to the mitre;36 and the askema (scapular), with its twelve crosses in four rows of three, corresponding to the priestly breast-plate (which, as Chapter 28 of the book of Exodus makes clear, was adorned with twelve precious stones also arranged in four rows of three.37

All in all, therefore, I found it difficult to disagree with Archbishop David Matthew who, in 1947, had described ‘the whole cast of religious expression in Ethiopia as antique and ceremonial and imbued with an undercurrent of Judaic practice.’38 It was not until I participated in the Christian Timkat celebrations on 18 and 19 January 1990, however, that the real pervasiveness and power of this undercurrent was finally brought home to me.

The preparations for Timkat were already well advanced when, in the mid-afternoon of Thursday 18 January, I slipped through a wildly excited crowd, up a flight of steps and on to the exterior walkway of the church of Medhane Alem (literally ‘Saviour of the World’). Situated in the oldest part of Gondar, this was a large, circular building laid out in the traditional fashion – somewhat like an archery target if viewed from above – with a series of concentric ambulatories surrounding the Holy of Holies (mak’das).

This distinctively Ethiopian pattern, as I already knew, was repeated in a slightly different manner in rectangular and octagonal as well as in round churches, and had been recognized by scholars as being based ‘on the threefold division of the Hebrew Temple’.39According to Edward Ullendorff, the first Professor of Ethiopian Studies at the University of London:

The outside ambulatory of the three concentric parts of the Abyssinian church is called k’ene mahlet, i.e. the place where hymns are sung, [and] corresponds to the ulam of Solomon’s Temple. The next chamber is the k’eddest, where communion is administered to the people; and the innermost part is the mak’das where the tabot rests and to which only priests have access … This division into three chambers applies to all Abyssinian churches, even to the smallest of them. It is thus clear that the form of the Hebrew sanctuary was preferred by Abyssinians to the basilica type which was accepted by early Christians elsewhere.40

Professor Ullendorff declined to speculate as to precisely why the Abyssinians should have favoured a pre-Christian model for their Christian churches. As I stepped into the first ambulatory of Medhane Alem, however, it seemed to me that the answer was obvious: the Syrian evangelist Frumentius, who was responsible for the conversion of the Axumite kingdom and who was appointed as Ethiopia’s first archbishop by the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria in AD 331, must deliberately have adapted the institutions of the new faith to the pre-existing Judaic traditions of the country.41 Furthermore, as Ullendorff did admit:

It is clear that these and other traditions, in particular that of the Ark of the Covenant at Axum, must have been an integral part of the Abyssinian national heritage long before the introduction of Christianity in the fourth century; for it would be inconceivable that a people recently converted from paganism to Christianity (not by a Christian Jew but by the Syrian missionary Frumentius) should thereafter have begun to boast of Jewish descent and to insist on Israelite connections, customs and institutions.42

Walking in stockinged feet – since it is considered sacrilege to wear shoes inside any Ethiopian church – I made a circuit of the k’ene mahlet studying the faded paintings of saints and holy men that adorned its walls: here was Saint George, mounted on his white charger, slaying the dragon; there was God Almighty, ‘the Ancient of Days’, surrounded by the ‘living creatures’ described by the Prophet Ezekiel; here was John baptizing Christ in the Jordan; there the Kings and Shepherds at the Manger; and over there Moses receiving the Tables of the Law from the hand of God on Mount Sinai.

Standing lost in contemplation before a portrayal of the Queen of Sheba’s journey to Jerusalem, I became aware of the slow, deep throb of a kebero – the large oval drum, made of cowskin stretched over a wooden frame, that features in so much of the music of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. To this barbaric sound was now added a chorus of voices chanting a Ge’ez hymn, and then the mystic jingle of sistra.

My curiosity aroused, I proceeded round the ambulatory and, at last, near the doorway that led inwards to the k’eddest, I came across a group of priests and deacons gathered about the drummer, who was seated cross-legged on the floor hunched over his kebero.

This was a strange and archaic scene: nothing about it belonged to the modern world and, as I watched, I felt myself transported backwards through time, riding the eerie waveforms of the music – which seemed to me to belong neither to Africa nor to Christianity but to some other place and to some infinitely older faith. Dressed in their traditional white robes and black shoulder-capes, leaning on tall prayer sticks, the deacons swayed and chanted, swayed and chanted, absorbed in the primal cadence of the dance. Each held in his hand a silver sistrum which, in the silent interstices between the drum-beats, he raised and then let fall, producing a clear and melodious tintinnabulation.

The chanting was antiphonal in form, with phrases uttered by one group of singers being given their response by others, a dialogue in which verses and choruses were passed back and forth amongst the participants allowing the hymn to build to its ponderous crescendo. This same system, I knew, had been an established part of the Jewish liturgy in Old Testament times.43

As I was reflecting on this coincidence a fragrant cloud of incense billowed from the open door of the k’eddest. Edging forward I looked inside and saw a swirling figure wrapped in robes of green embroidered with golden threads, a figure out of a dream, half sorcerer, half priest, who whirled and turned with drooping eyes.

Gathered round him were other men, similarly attired, each holding a smoking censer suspended in a fine net of silver chain. I strained my eyes to look beyond these figures through the fumes and darkness and could just make out, at the very centre of thek’eddest, the curtained entrance to the Holy of Holies. I knew that beyond that heavy veil, venerated and mysterious, guarded by superstition, concealed and secret within its sanctuary, lay the tabot – the symbol of the Ark of the Covenant. And I was reminded that in ancient Israel the High Priest could not approach the Ark unless he had first burnt sufficient quantities of incense to cover it completely with smoke.44 The thick fumes were thought necessary to protect his life – necessary to ensure, as the book of Leviticus rather chillingly put it, ‘that he die not.’45

I stepped across the threshold into the k’eddest to get a closer look at what was going on there but was almost immediately waved back into the outer ambulatory. At the same time the song of the deacons ceased, the drum-beats stilled and, for a moment, absolute silence fell.

I could sense an intangible atmosphere of imminence, as though a huge charge of lightning were building up within a thundercloud. A general stirring and movement then ensued, with people scurrying in all directions. At the same time a smiling priest took my arm lightly but firmly, and guided me out of the k’eddest, through the k’ene mahlet, to the main door of the church where I stood blinking in the brilliant afternoon sunlight, amazed at the rapid change of mood that seemed to have overtaken the proceedings.

The crowd, big enough when I had arrived, had now swelled into a huge multitude that completely filled the extensive compound in which Medhane Alem was situated and that also spilled out on to the road as far as I could see. Men and women, small children, the very elderly, lame people, obviously sick and dying people, laughing, happy, healthy people – half of Ethiopia seemed to be here. Many clutched musical instruments of one kind or another: cymbals and trumpets, flutes and fiddles, lyres and biblical harps.

Moments after my own exit from the church, a group of richly robed priests appeared. These were the same men whom I had last seen amidst the incense cloud before the drawn veil of the Holy of Holies, but now one of them – slender and bearded with fine, delicate features and smouldering eyes – bore on his head the tabot wrapped in costly brocades of red and gold.

At once the crowd erupted into a frenzy of shouts and stamping feet and, from the women, shrill ululations – a rousing, tremulous vibration that, I knew, had been connected by more than one scholar to ‘certain musical utterances in ancient Hebrew worship (Hebrew hallel, Ethiopic ellel) … the mode of exultation is to repeat the sound ellel many times, saying ellellellellellell, etc.… The proper meaning of “Halleluyah” will probably be “sing hallel or ellel unto Jehovah.” ’46

After standing at the doorway of the church for some minutes while the agitation of the crowd grew, the priests now wheeled and turned, making a complete circuit of the exterior walkway before descending the flight of steps to ground level. The instant that their feet touched the earth, the multitude parted before them – creating a pathway through which they might pass – and the shouts and ululations, the blowing of trumpets, the whistle of flutes, the strumming of lyres, and the jingle of the tambourines built up to a pitch that deafened the ear and filled the mind with wonder.

I followed as closely as I dared behind the group of priests, drawn along in their turbulent wake. And though the people were gathered in their hundreds on either side of me, though many were intoxicated either by millet beer or by the tumult, though I was repeatedly jostled, and though more than once I was almost knocked off my feet, I did not for a second feel threatened or alarmed.

Sometimes funnelled through narrow alleyways, sometimes spreading out across patches of open land, sometimes stopping inexplicably, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always bursting with music and song, we progressed through the ancient city. And all the time I struggled to keep my eyes fixed on the red and gold wrappings of the tabot, which was now far ahead of me. For a while, as a new horde of revellers joined us from a side street, I completely lost sight of the sacred object. Then standing on tiptoe, craning my neck, I found it and hurried forward. Determined not to be separated from it again I scrambled up a grassy bank, put on a burst of speed, overtook a massed block of two or three hundred people, skidded past the priests, and lumbered back down on to the road perhaps twenty yards in front of them.

Here I found the reason for the curious stop-start, halting, lurching motion of the multitude. In the space ahead of the tabot several impromptu troupes of dancers had formed themselves – some of mixed sex, some all male, some all female, some dressed in everyday working clothes, some in church vestments. At the centre of each of these groups was a drummer, his kebero slung around his neck, beating out an ancient and savage rhythm, whirling, jumping, turning and shouting while those around him exploded with energy, leaping and gyrating, clapping their hands, beating tambourines and cymbals, pouring with sweat as they capered and reeled.

Now, urged on by trumpet blasts and by shouts, by the thrum of a ten-stringed begegna47 and the haunting tones of a shepherd’s flute, a young man dressed in traditional robes of white cotton performed a wild solo dance while the priests stood in their place stopping the eager crowd behind them and bearing the sacred tabot aloft. Beautiful in his lithe vigour, splendid in his ferocious energy, the youth seemed entranced. With all eyes upon him he circled the pulsing kebero, pirouetting and swaying, shoulders jerking, head bobbing, lost in his own inner rhythms, praising God with every limb, with every ounce of his strength, with every particle of his being. And I thought … this was what it must have been like, three thousand years ago at the gates of Jerusalem when

David and all the house of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet [and] played before the Lord on all manner of instruments made of fir wood, even on harps, and on psalteries, and on timbrels, and on cornets, and on cymbals … and David danced before the Lord with all his might … leaping and dancing before the Lord.48

In mid-stride, without any warning, the youth collapsed and sank to the ground in a dead faint. He was picked up by several of the spectators, carried to the roadside and made comfortable. Then the crowd surged forward again much as before, with new dancers constantly taking the place of those who were exhausted.

Soon afterwards a transition occurred. After tumbling and charging down a last narrow street the crowd debouched into a huge open square. And into this same square, from three other directions, I could see three other processions also approaching – each of which was similar in size to our own, each of which was centred upon a tabot borne up by a group of priests, and each of which seemed inspired by the same transcendent spirit.

Like four rivers meeting, the separate processions now converged and mixed. The priest carrying the tabot from the church of Medhane Alem – whom I had followed faithfully thus far – stood in line with other priests carrying the tabotat from three of the other principal churches of Gondar. Behind this first sacred rank were more priests and deacons. And behind them again were the assembled congregations, forming an army that could not have been less than ten thousand strong.

Almost as soon as the processions had joined we were on the move again, welling forth out of the square and down a steep, broad highway with the tabotat ahead of us. Now and then children would be pushed close to me and would shyly take my hands, walk with me for a while and then release me … An old woman approached and addressed me at length in Amharic, smiling toothlessly … Two teenage girls, giggling and nervous, touched my blond hair with fascinated curiosity and then rushed off … And in this fashion, entirely caught up in the gaiety and power of the occasion, I allowed myself to be swept along, oblivious to the passing hours of the afternoon.

Then, quite suddenly, an imposing walled compound set amidst grassy woods appeared around a bend in the track like an image out of a legend. At some distance behind the surrounding ramparts, I thought that I could just make out the turrets of a great castle – turrets high and ‘marvellously embattled’. Not for the first time in my travels in Ethiopia I was hauntingly reminded of the wondrous Grail sanctuary described by Wolfram von Eschenbach – of the ‘impregnable stronghold’ with its ‘clusters of towers and numerous palaces’ that had stood at the edge of a mysterious lake in the realm of Munsalvaesche.49

At the centre of the enclosure wall was a narrow arched gateway through which those ahead of me in the procession now began to stream – and towards which I felt myself irresistibly drawn. Indeed there was a tremendous force and compulsion in this human flow, as though we were being sucked helter-skelter into a vortex.

As I was impelled beneath the arch, jostled and crushed by the scrum of eager bodies, I was shoved momentarily against rough stone and my wristwatch was knocked off; almost immediately, however, some unknown person behind me managed to retrieve it from the ground and pressed it back into my hand. Before I could thank or even identify my benefactor I burst through the bottleneck and arrived, slightly dazed, on the wide and open lawns within the compound. In the same second the enormous constriction and compression was relieved and I experienced a delicious sense of freedom …

The compound was rectangular in shape and covered an area as large as four city blocks. Set in the midst of this great grassy space was a second walled enclosure about one-third of the size of the first – which in turn contained the tall, turreted castle that I had glimpsed earlier and, to the rear and sides of this structure, a man-made lake half filled with water. The castle itself had been built by Emperor Fasilidas in the seventeenth century and appeared to be accessible only by way of a narrow stone bridge that passed over a deep moat and that led directly to a massive wooden doorway set into the front of the building.

The crowd, I noticed, was still pouring through the narrow archway that I had negotiated a few moments before, and people milled about apparently aimlessly, greeting one another with boisterous and high-spirited bonhomie. Off to my right, directly in front of the castle, a large group of priests and deacons had gathered and I could see that they now carried a total of seven tabotat. I therefore surmised that processions from three other Gondarene churches must at some point en route have joined with the original four that had converged in the city’s main square earlier in the afternoon.

The priests bearing the wrapped tabotat on their heads stood in line, shoulder-to-shoulder. Directly behind them were many more priests who held up brightly coloured ceremonial umbrellas that were fringed at the edges and decorated with crosses, stars, suns, crescent moons and other curious devices. Five metres to the left were two further rows of priests, facing each other, carrying long prayer sticks and silver sistra. And between these latter two rows sat a drummer hunched over his kebero.

As I edged closer to get a better view, the facing rows of priests began a slow swaying dance before the tabotat – a dance acted out to the same mesmerizing rhythm and to the same antiphonal chanting that I had heard earlier in the church of Medhane Alem. A few moments later the dance broke up as suddenly as it had begun, the dancers dispersed and the priests bearing the seven tabotat proceeded majestically on to the stone bridge that led over the moat and into the castle. They paused there for a moment, caught in a warm ray of light from the descending sun, and the women in the crowd gave vent to more wild ululations. Then, on oiled hinges, the heavy wooden door of the fortress swung silently open – affording me a transient glimpse of the shadowy interior – and thetabotatwere carried inside.

Gradually, almost gently, the assembled thousands began to settle down around the gardens. Some had brought blankets, others cotton shemmas (shawls) and thicker woollen gebbis (cloaks). All, however, had the look of people who were going to be here for the duration of the Timkat holiday, and all seemed at peace with themselves – calm now after the effort and exultation of the processions and prepared for the vigil ahead.

By 9 p.m. numerous camp fires had been lit. Around the flickering flames people wrapped in shemmas and blankets huddled and murmured secretively – their words, in the old Semitic language of Ethiopia, turning to chill mist as they spoke.

Braced and exhilarated by the cold Afro-Alpine air, I sat down on the grass, reclined, pillowed my head on my hands and gazed upwards, delighting in the clouds of stars that had ascended the sky. My thoughts drifted for a while, then focussed on the sound of water gushing steadily into the lake somewhere quite close to where I sat. At almost the same moment, from within the old castle, a soft cadenced chanting and drumming rose up – an eldritch, heart-stopping resonance that was at first so faint and so muted that I could barely make it out.

I stood and moved closer to the bridge over the moat. It was not my intention to cross it (I did not think that I would be permitted to do so); rather I hoped merely to find a vantage point from which I might hear the archaic music more clearly. Inexplicably, however, I felt many hands pushing me forward – pushing me firmly but gently – and soon I found myself on the bridge. There a child led me to the towering door, opened it and indicated with a smile that I should proceed within.

Rather timidly I crossed the threshold into a large, square, high-ceilinged, incense-fragrant room illuminated by dozens of candles mounted in niches in the rough stone walls. A wintry current insinuated itself under the door that I had now closed behind me and on all sides cold draughts pushed through chinks and gaps in the masonry, causing the little flames to gutter and dim.

In this ghostly half-light I could make out the robed and hooded figures of perhaps fifty people standing in ranks two-deep and forming an almost complete circle that was broken only by the doorway in which I stood. Though it was difficult to be certain it seemed to me that all these folk were men and that most of them were either priests or deacons, for they held prayer sticks and sistra and were chanting a Ge’ez psalm so poignant and so evocative that it caused the hairs at the nape of my neck to prickle and stand erect. Directly in front of me, on flagstones strewn with freshly cut grass, sat a drummer wrapped in a white shemma, striking the stretched skin of a kebero with a quiet but insistent beat.

Now, without any break in tempo, several members of the choir beckoned to me and I felt myself pulled into their circle, warmed in, made a part of it all. A sistrum was pushed into my right hand, a prayer stick into my left and the chant continued, with the singers swaying very gently and very slowly from side to side.

Involuntarily I felt my own body beginning to acquaint itself with the rhythm. Watching the others, shedding all self-consciousness, I raised and let fall my sistrum between the drum beats, and as I did so the little metal disks in the ancient instrument produced a tuneless, rattling jingle. This oddly compelling sound, I knew, was older by far than the Temple of Solomon, was older even than the Pyramids – for sistra just like these had first been used in pre-dynastic Egypt50 and had passed from there, by way of the priestly guilds of Pharaonic times, into the liturgy of Israel.

How strange this solemn ceremony was, and stranger still that I should have been allowed to participate in it, here in the heart of the Ethiopian highlands at the edge of a sacred lake. With a shiver of excitement I realized that there was nothing in the scene unfolding around me – absolutely nothing at all – that belonged to the twentieth century AD. I might just as easily have been a witness to the arcane rituals of the tenth century BC when the Ark of God was placed by Solomon in the ‘thick darkness’ of the Holy of Holies and when the priests,

Being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar [making] one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord; and when they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of musick, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good; for his mercy endureth for ever.51

Was it not in just this fashion that the priests of Ethiopia – in whose midst I stood – now also praised the Lord? And was it not with just such fervour and conviction that they thanked Him for His mercy and blessed His ineffable name, singing:

Rise Yahweh God, come to your resting place,

You and the Ark of your power.

Your priests, Yahweh God, are vested in salvation,

Your faithful rejoice in prosperity.52

The night passed with a dreamlike sense of real and impossible things randomly mixed up together. There were moments when I hallucinated that the Ark itself was concealed somewhere within the old castle. In my heart, however, I also knew that I had not yet come to the end of my journey, that the Ark was not here in Gondar, and that I still had miles and months to go before I could even hope to approach it. For the present I would have to content myself with the tabotat that reposed somewhere within the castle – with the seven cloth-wrapped bundles that the alchemy of blind faith had effortlessly transformed in the past twenty-four hours into objects of immense symbolic weight.

Before dawn the priests ushered me out of the castle and back over the narrow bridge. As light gradually began to infuse the sky I then spent an hour or so exploring the great compound. If there had been ten thousand people there the evening before there were hardly fewer now. Some walked and talked in twos and threes, others stood around in large huddled groups, others still warmed themselves by the pale flames of the fading fires. And I thought that I could detect again the same mood of expectancy, the same sense of eager and restless anticipation, that had preceded the bringing out of the tabot at the church of Medhane Alem the previous afternoon.

I made a complete circuit of the inner compound that surrounded the castle and the lake. Reaching the far side of the complex I then climbed the enclosure wall and looked down at a scene both beautiful and bizarre. Below me an earthen embankment perhaps five feet wide ran all the way around the still and shining waters, and on this embankment – on every square inch of it – people stood watchfully, waiting for something to happen, their shimmering reflections picked out by the risen sun.

A balcony projected at the rear of the castle and now, on to this balcony, out of a cloud of incense, stepped a group of priests dressed in splendid robes of green and red. Loud ululations arose from the crowd and a short ceremony ensued which (I learned later) served to bless and consecrate the waters. Then, with amazing suddenness – and apparently oblivious to the morning chill – people began to hurl themselves into the lake. Some leapt in fully clothed, some completely undressed. Here a young woman with ripe breasts thrust her naked baby beneath the surface and brought him up again, coughing and spluttering, in a shower of droplets. There, with movements that were brittle and precise, an old man, lean and wizened, crooked and infirm, waded in up to his chest. Here a group of teenage boys swam and sported. There a middle-aged matron, stripped to the waist, lashed her back and shoulders with a dampened branch … Meanwhile, from the main compound in front of the castle, a roar of excitement could be heard as others in their thousands came to join the throng, to splash and dive, to plunge and frolic.

I climbed down from my vantage point on the wall and rushed round to the front of the compound. Amidst all this distraction what I wanted to do was to get back inside the castle. The tabotat had not been in the place where I had spent most of the night singing and chanting, dancing and swaying – so where were they? And what would happen next?

Unnoticed by the near-hysterical crowd, I crossed the bridge over the moat, pushed open the door and stepped inside; as I did so I observed that the floor of the great room was still strewn with grass and that its walls were blackened with candle smoke. It was now perhaps 7 a.m. and bright sunlight streamed in, startling a group of deacons who had gathered there. Opposite me there was a curtain drawn across an arch which I had not seen during the night, and now through this curtain a priest appeared. He regarded me quizzically, then smiled and seemed to offer a welcome.

I walked up to him and signalled that I would like to pass through beyond the veil. At this, however, he shook his head vehemently. ‘No,’ he whispered in English. ‘No. Impossible. Tabot inside.’ Then he withdrew again behind the curtain, beyond which I thought that I could just make out faint stirrings and footfalls.

I called out, hoping to attract the attention of someone in authority, but got no response. Then – crassly – I put my hand on the curtain and made to open it. At this three of the deacons standing in the room behind me leapt on me, grabbed me by the arms and wrestled me to the floor where I received several severe bruises.

I cursed and struggled, not thinking clearly, aware only that I was dazed and shocked: just a few hours earlier I had been made to feel so much at home here; now I was being beaten up. With some difficulty I shook my assailants off and pulled myself to my feet. This action, however, was misinterpreted as the prelude to another attempt on the curtain and I was pummelled and buffeted while several more deacons blocked my way. ‘Cannot go in there,’ one of them warned, indicating the room beyond the veil. ‘Only priests to go inside.’ He wagged his finger at me and added: ‘You are very bad man.’

I was then unceremoniously bundled out of the castle door and deposited roughly on the narrow bridge in front of several thousand frowning people – and I thought: if I get into this much trouble just for trying to enter a room where some tabotat are kept, then what on earth is going to happen to me in Axum when I try to see the Ark itself?

I crossed the bridge, picked my way through the crowd and stood on a patch of clear ground, shaking slightly because of the adrenalin that was pumping through my bloodstream. Taking stock I could see that many people were still in the lake, and I could hear splashes and shouts. The majority, however, were now out of the water and assembled on the broad lawns in front of the castle, leaning forward avidly, craning their necks, excited and yet oddly silent.

Then seven fully robed priests appeared at the castle door with wrapped tabotat balanced on their heads. Slowly and deliberately they stepped out on to the bridge and made their way across, followed by yet more priests holding up ceremonial umbrellas. At the same moment the crowd gave vent to a huge collective sigh, an ardent gasp of awe and devotion that was soon enhanced by the familiar high-pitched ululations of the women and by an urgent, distracted jostling as people scrambled backwards and sideways to clear a path for the advancing tabotat.

As the morning wore on and as the sun rose towards its zenith I followed the procession back through the streets of Gondar as far as the main square of the old city. There the dance of David before the Ark was again enacted amidst shouting and the sounds of tambourines and cymbals, amidst the blowing of trumpets and the music of sistra and stringed instruments.

Then finally the priests carrying the seven tabotat wheeled and separated. As they did so the multitude too divided itself into seven different parts – seven different processions that now streamed out of the square in seven different directions.

Running to keep up, panting and sweating, I followed close behind the tabot of Medhane Alem, followed it all the way back to the old round church and there, amidst a thousand exuberant songs and dances, watched as the priest who bore it circled the building once, circled it twice, and then at last, to a tremendous roar of joy and approbation, vanished from my sight into the darkness within – into the Holy of Holies, into the mystery of mysteries.

A year’s reprieve …

I left Gondar in January 1990, quite certain that I was right to seek the Ark in Ethiopia. Despite a thin and superficial Christian veneer, the central role of the tabotat in the ceremonies that I had witnessed, the strange dances of the priests, the frenzied adulation of the laity, the archaic music of sistra and of tambourines, of trumpets, drums and cymbals, were all phenomena lifted straight out of the most distant and recondite past. And it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that these intricate rituals, these complex institutions – all of them focussed upon the Old Testament worship of the Ark of the Covenant – would not have been adhered to with such fervour and fidelity over so many weary centuries if all that lay behind them were mere replicas.

No. The Ethiopians had the Ark itself. Perhaps in the way described in the Kebra Nagast, or perhaps by some other more historically probable means that I might in due course be able to identify, it had come into their possession in the first millennium BC. And now, so near the end of the second millennium AD, they had it still, hidden away, concealed from prying eyes.

But where?’

In answering this last question I felt that I could not ignore the implications of my own research: the sacred relic was not on an island in Lake Zwai; it was not on an island in Lake Tana; instead all the evidence suggested that it lay still in its traditional resting place – safe in the Holy of Holies of the sanctuary chapel at Axum. There could be no absolute certainty, of course, but I felt sure in my own mind that I was right. And twelve months hence, when Timkat came around again in January 1991, I would have to go to Axum to seek it – and to see it if I could.

I felt a sense of inevitability about this, as though a challenge had been laid down – laid down as clearly and as compellingly as the Green Knight’s taunt to Sir Gawain:

I am known to many, so if to find me thou endeavour, thou’lt fail not to do so. Therefore come! Or to be called a craven thou deservest.… Yet a respite I’ll allow, till a year and a day go by.53

And what would I do in my period of reprieve, in my year of grace? I would, I determined, learn everything I could about the baleful object that beckoned to me – about its origins, and about its powers. I would study the Ark of God and I would attempt to discover whether there might not be a rational explanation for the terrors and the miracles that it was believed to have worked in Old Testament times.

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