Chapter 18

A Treasure Hard to Attain

Ed Milner and I disembarked from the KLM Airbus that had carried us to Khartoum and stepped out into the moist embrace of an African night. We had no visas, only reference numbers given to us by the TPLF in London. These, however, were clearly known to the immigration officer who handled our arrival and who retained our passports while we went to collect our luggage.

Married to a lovely Thai wife, and with two beautiful children, Ed was best man at my wedding and is one of my oldest friends. Short and stockily built with dark hair and angular features, he is also a consummate television professional – a veritable one-man band who produces and directs, shoots film and records sound all by himself. These special skills, quite apart from his contacts at Channel 4, had made him an ideal choice for this trip, for while I had needed to offer the TPLF a news story I had not wanted my own work in Axum to be complicated by the presence of a large film crew.

Ed’s full name is John Edward Douglas Milner. In the arrivals hall at Khartoum Airport, therefore, we naturally pricked up our ears when we heard these words over the tannoy: ‘John Edward, John Edward, John Edward. Will Mr John Edward please report to Immigration Office immediately.’

Ed complied and then disappeared. Half an hour later I had collected all our luggage and had been handed my passport duly stamped by immigration. A further half an hour passed, then an hour, then an hour and a half. Finally, well after midnight, with all the other passengers cleared through customs and the airport virtually deserted, my colleague surfaced again looking perplexed but cheerful. ‘For some reason,’ he explained, ‘the name John Edward appears on the police blacklist. I’ve tried to make it clear to them that I’m John Edward Milner but they don’t seem to get the point. They’ve kept my passport. I have to come back tomorrow morning to pick it up.’

The TPLF had sent a car to the airport to meet us. Its driver, who spoke no English, whisked us through the deserted streets of Khartoum, stopping every few minutes at road blocks manned by loutish, heavily armed soldiers who illiterately examined the laissez passer that he carried.

I had been in the Sudan before – indeed, between 1981 and 1986 I had visited the country regularly. I was immediately aware, however, that much had changed since then. For a start it was clear from the road blocks that there was now a strictly enforced curfew, something that would have been unheard of in the old days. Also, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, the atmosphere felt different. There was an eerie quality about the blackened buildings, the litter-strewn alleyways, and the roaming packs of stray dogs. Always a mess, Khartoum tonight felt ugly and out-of-joint in a way that was entirely new to me.

We had arrived in the centre of the city and presently we turned right on to the Shariah-el-Nil, just to the north of the imposing Victorian palace where, in the year 1885, General Charles Gordon was killed by the Mahdi’s dervishes.

Shariah-el-Nil means ‘Nile Street’ or ‘Nile Way’ and we were, indeed, now driving alongside that great river. Overhead a canopy of Neem trees blotted out the stars while to our right, glimpsed between the thick trunks and hanging branches, the Nile itself could be seen flowing sedately towards distant Egypt.

On our left we passed the vacant terrace of the Grand Hotel, once an elegant meeting place, now looking rather seedy and run-down. Soon afterwards we came to a last check-point at a roundabout, and here the driver was once again obliged to produce hislaissez passer. Then we were waved on to the spit of land at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles where the Khartoum Hilton stands. As we pulled into the hotel’s well lit courtyard I was looking forward very much indeed to two or perhaps three double vodkas, tonic and a bucket of ice. When I later attempted to order these items from room service, however, I was reminded of an important fact that I had forgotten: since the adoption of Islamic law in the mid-1980s, alcohol had been banned in the Sudan.

The next morning, Thursday 10 January, Ed and I took a taxi to the offices of the Relief Society of Tigray, where the TPLF in London had told us to report to make the final arrangements for our trip. Our names, we noticed, were scrawled in chalk on a blackboard in an upstairs room; however no one there seemed to know anything else about us. Neither was it immediately possible to make contact with Haile Kiros, TPLF head of mission in Khartoum: always unreliable, the city’s telephone system appeared to have broken down entirely that morning.

‘Can’t we just drive over to the TPLF office?’ I asked one of the REST officials.

‘No. Better you stay here. We will find Haile Kiros for you.’

By mid-morning there was no news. We decided that I should stay put to wait for Haile Kiros and that Ed should go to the airport in the taxi to collect his passport. He did this. Two hours later, however, he had failed to return and there was still no sign of the TPLF official, or indeed of anyone who appeared to be even remotely interested in me or my plans to get to Axum.

The silver lining to this particular cloud, I reflected, was that such a laid-back attitude did not lend credibility to my paranoid fancies that I might be murdered in Tigray. Indeed, a much more realistic prospect was beginning to suggest itself to me, namely that all concerned could turn out to be too comatose and slow-moving to get me to Tigray at all.

I looked at my watch and found that it was after one o’clock. In less than an hour, I remembered, all offices in Khartoum would close down for the day, probably including those of REST and the TPLF. Tomorrow, Friday, was the Islamic sabbath. It was therefore clear that nothing very much was going to happen before Saturday 12 January.

And where was Ed? Perhaps he had gone directly back to the Hilton. I tried to telephone the hotel but of course could not get through. Feeling increasingly irritated I wrote a note for Haile Kiros giving him my room number and asking him to contact me. I then handed this note to one of the friendly young people manning the REST office and walked out on to the street in search of a taxi.

First I went back to the Hilton, but Ed was not there. Then, just in case, I went to REST again, but he was not there either. Finally I ordered my driver to take me to the airport – where, with much patient inquiry, I managed to establish that my colleague had been detained and was being ‘interviewed’ by the police.

Could I go in and see him?

No.

Could I get any further information at all?

No.

When might he reappear?

‘Today, tomorrow, maybe Saturday,’ explained the English-speaking businessman who had kindly assisted me. ‘Nobody knows. Nobody will say. It is the National Security Police who are holding him. Very bad men. Very impossible for you to do anything.’

By now genuinely concerned, I hurried over to the airport information kiosk which – amazingly – was open. There, not without some difficulty, I obtained the telephone number of the British Embassy. Then I found a public telephone which actually worked and, moreover, was free of charge. Unfortunately, however, no one answered at the other end.

Two minutes later I was in my taxi again. The driver did not know where the Embassy was – although he had claimed otherwise – and eventually located it by a curious process of trial and error which took slightly more than an hour.

I spent what was left of the afternoon back at the airport with two British diplomats whom I had found drinking illegal substances at the Embassy club. These officials, however, were no more successful than I had been in establishing why – or even where – Ed was being held. Their efforts, moreover, were complicated by the fact that Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had just arrived in a Libyan jet to discuss the Gulf crisis with Sudan’s military dictator, General Omar el-Bashir. Bristling with automatic weapons, platoons of soldiers roamed around giving vent to patriotic anti-Western feelings and generally making life unpleasant for everyone. Neither were my two diplomats in a particularly good mood. ‘All British citizens have been warned to stay away from this bloody country,’ one of them reminded me with a faint note of accusation in his voice. ‘Now perhaps you can see why.’

Around nine that evening, with Ed still not rescued, I was dropped back at the Hilton for dinner. Then, just after ten, to my great relief he appeared in the lobby looking a little grimy and tired but otherwise none the worse for wear.

He held up his hands as he sat down at my table. They were covered with black ink. ‘I’ve been finger-printed,’ he explained. He then attempted – fruitlessly – to order a large gin and tonic. Finally, with only minimal disgruntlement, he settled for a warm non-alcoholic beer.

On the road

As it turned out, Ed had not been held by the dreaded National Security Police but by the Sudanese branch of Interpol. Apparently the name ‘John Edward’ was one of the half dozen or so aliases used by an internationally wanted drugs dealer. Ed’s fate had been sealed when the investigating officers had noticed that his passport contained a visa stamp for Colombia, the cocaine capital of the world. The fact that he had been there to film a news story for Channel 4 had not impressed the Sudanese detectives at all, nor had his distinct non-resemblance to the photograph of the wanted man that had been wired by Interpol. Fortunately a set of fingerprints had been sent as well and, rather late in the evening, someone had the bright idea of comparing Ed’s fingerprints with these. His release had followed shortly afterwards.

The next day we told the story to Haile Kiros, the TPLF representative, who turned up at the Hilton in the middle of the afternoon. Though it had been rather worrying at the time, it was risible in retrospect and the three of us had a good laugh about it.

We then began to discuss the logistics of the trip to Axum and, as we did so, I found myself watching Haile Kiros closely. I could detect absolutely nothing in his demeanour, however, to suggest that he might wish me any harm whatsoever. On the contrary, he was an affable, easy-going, sophisticated individual who was clearly devoted to the cause of overthrowing the Ethiopian government but otherwise appeared to be entirely without malice. As we talked it began to dawn on me just how badly I might have got things out of perspective in the preceding months. Confronted with the friendly reality of Haile Kiros, all the fears and anxieties that I had suffered at the prospect of putting myself into the hands of the rebels looked unwarranted and all the dark imaginings that I had admitted into my life seemed absurd.

On the morning of Saturday 12 January we were joined by a TPLF official whom I was only ever to know by the single name of ‘Hagos’. Lean and slightly built, with a complexion scarred by childhood smallpox, he explained that he had been assigned to accompany us to Axum – where he had been born – and to return with us from there when our work was complete. Meanwhile, here in Khartoum, he would facilitate our travel warrants to the border and would also help us to hire a vehicle for the journey.

By noon we had completed the paperwork and by the early evening we had done a deal with an Eritrean businessman resident in the Sudan who agreed to provide us with a sturdy Toyota Landcruiser, an even sturdier driver named Tesfaye, and six jerry-cans for spare fuel. At US$200 per day the rental seemed to me a bargain: I knew, you see, that much of our journey would have to be made by night on precarious mountain tracks so as to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the Ethiopian government aircraft that still patrolled the daytime skies above the rebel province of Tigray.

The next morning, Sunday 13 January, we left Khartoum just before dawn. Ahead of us lay hundreds of kilometres of Sudanese desert into which we now motored at high speed. Tesfaye, our driver, was a piratical-looking character with woolly hair, tobacco-yellow teeth, and a wandering eye; he handled the Landcruiser with masterful confidence, however, and clearly knew the route well. Beside him in the front of the vehicle, keeping his own counsel, sat Hagos. Ed and I occupied the rear bench and said little to each other as the sun of a white-hot day gradually rose to greet us.

We were aiming for the frontier town of Kassala where, that evening, a convoy of lorries operated by the Relief Society of Tigray would be marshalling to cross the border. Our plan was to join that convoy and ride with it as far as we could in the direction of Axum. ‘It is safer to travel in a large group,’ Hagos explained, ‘in case anything goes wrong.’

The journey from Khartoum to Kassala helped me to realize just how drear and empty the landscapes of the Sudan really were. All around us, in all directions, an arid plain stretched away towards the horizon, making me aware, as I had never been before, of the soft relentless curve of the planet’s surface.

Then, as the day soared towards noon, we began to pass the desiccated corpses of sheep, goats, cattle and – finally and alarmingly – of camels as well. These were the first casualties of a great famine in which people, too, would soon perish – but which the government of the Sudan had thus far refused even to acknowledge, let alone to seek to remedy. This, I thought, was surely an act of fatal arrogance on its part – the callous folly of yet another African dictatorship obsessed with maintaining its own prestige and power at the price of immense human suffering.

But I had supported just such dictatorships in the past, hadn’t I? And even now I could hardly be said to have severed all my links with them. So who was I to judge? Who was I to feel regret? And by what right did I seek now to empathize with the dispossessed?

Kassala

Shortly before two that afternoon we crossed the silt-laden stream of the Atbara river near its confluence with the Takazze and I realized, almost with a sense of shock, how rapidly and how remorselessly the great distance that had once separated me from Axum was now being narrowed. Only a month before, that distance had looked impossible to bridge – a chasm deep and wide raging with nameless dreads. It therefore seemed almost a miracle that I was here and that I had been allowed to set my eyes upon the very rivers that I felt sure the Hebrew migrants had followed when they had brought the Ark of the Covenant into Ethiopia – the mighty rivers that scoured the land shadowing with wings, that poured down into the thirsty deserts of the Sudan, that merged with the Nile, and that flowed on past Elephantine and Luxor, past Abydos and Cairo, to spend themselves at last in the Mediterranean Sea.

Soon after three p.m. we arrived in Kassala, which was built around an oasis of date palms and dominated by a weird granite outcropping which reared up more than 2,500 feet above the surrounding plain. That red and withered hill, I realized, though it appeared to be isolated, was in fact the first harbinger of the great highlands of Ethiopia.

I felt a thrill of excitement at the knowledge that the border was now so close – just a few kilometres away – and looked around with renewed interest at the turbulent frontier town through which we were driving. Everywhere, oblivious to the enervating heat, crowds of people milled about, filling the dusty streets with bright colours and loud sounds. Here a group of quick and subtle Highlanders, down from Abyssinia to barter the trade of the mountains for the trade of the desert, stood arguing with a stall-keeper; there a fuzzy-haired nomad sat astride his grumbling camel and gazed at the world with arrogant eyes; here a Muslim holy man, dressed in rags, bestowed benedictions upon those who would pay him and curses upon those who would not; there a child, squealing with glee, pursued a makeshift hoop with an outstretched stick …

Hagos directed Tesfaye to drive us to a small, flat-roofed house on the outskirts of town. ‘You have to stay here,’ he explained, ‘until it is time for us to cross the border. The Sudanese authorities are a little unpredictable at the moment. So it’s better that you keep your heads down and remain indoors. That way there will be no chance of any problem.’

‘Who lives here?’ I asked as we climbed down from the Landcruiser.

‘This is a TPLF house,’ Hagos explained, showing us into a clean courtyard around which a number of rooms were arranged. ‘Rest, get a little sleep if you can. It’s going to be a long night.’

Across the border

At five that evening we were driven to a huge, open, dusty expanse of ground littered with the bones of slaughtered quadrupeds. Swarms of blowflies buzzed around and here and there, amongst the mouldering vertebrae and the fusty shoulder-blades, lay little piles of stinking human faeces. To my right, thoughtfully arranging itself between Kassala’s great granite butte and the town itself, the sun descended the sky in a surreal extravaganza of tangerine and magenta. The whole collage, I thought, looked like some existentialist vision of the end of all flesh.

‘Where exactly are we?’ I asked Hagos.

‘Oh … this is where the convoy assembles before crossing the border,’ explained the TPLF official. ‘We will wait maybe half an hour, maybe an hour. Then we will go.’

Ed immediately climbed down out of the Landcruiser and went off with his tripod and video camera to find a vantage point from which to film the lorries arriving. His story for Channel 4 would focus not only on religious issues, as I had told the TPLF, but also on the burgeoning famine in Tigray.

While he was making his preparations I wandered pensively about, warding off flies and looking for somewhere to sit down and complete my notes for the day. The charnel house atmosphere, however, had thoroughly disconcerted me. Besides, with the sun now resting on the horizon, the gloaming was already too deep to write in.

A coolness also had filled the air, an unexpected chill after the heat of the afternoon, and a keen wind sang amongst the derelict buildings that ringed the marshalling ground. People walked to and fro – shadowy figures of men and women who seemed to have come here from nowhere with nowhere to go. Meanwhile small groups of ragged children had gathered to play amidst the rubbish and the bones, their high-pitched giggles mingled with the lowing of a passing herd of cattle.

And then I heard the rumble of approaching vehicles accompanied by a crashing of gears. Looking back in the direction from which these sounds were coming I saw a glimmer of headlights, then a dazzling beam. Finally, out of the murk, the mammoth shapes of perhaps twenty Mercedes lorries materialized. As they rolled past me I could see that each one was loaded up with hundreds of sacks of grain, loaded so heavily that the suspension sagged and the chassis groaned.

The trucks pulled to a halt in parallel files in the centre of the open ground and there, in twos and threes, their number was augmented by others snaking out from town. Soon the evening air was filled with billowing clouds of dust and the sounds of revving engines. And then, as though on a signal – though none was given – the whole convoy started to move.

I ran back to the Landcruiser where Ed, helped by Hagos, was hurriedly stowing his camera equipment. Then we all jumped into the vehicle and set off in pursuit of the lorries’ tail-lights. The trail that we were following, I could see, was deeply rutted and grooved and I wondered how many convoys over how many years had passed this way bearing food for people made hungry by the folly and wickedness of their own government.

In our faster car we soon overtook the last of the trucks, and we passed perhaps a dozen more before Tesfaye – who was clearly enjoying the role of safari-rally driver – slotted us into position in the middle of the convoy. All around us now the dust and sand that the vehicles were throwing up created a wild and turbulent agitation, sometimes reducing the visibility to just a few feet. Straining my eyes to peer out of the windows at the night as it rushed by, I experienced a sensation of tremendous momentum coupled with a feeling of inevitability. I was on my way, going wherever I would go, to get whatever Fate would send. And I thought: this is where I want to be; this is what I want to do.

Shortly before seven we arrived at the border and halted at a Sudanese army check-point – just a collection of mud huts in the middle of a bleak and furrowed plain. Carrying hurricane lanterns, a few uniformed men emerged out of the darkness and began to check documents and identities. Then, one by one, the lorries ahead of us were waved through.

When our turn came Hagos was ordered out of the car by an officer who questioned him closely, making frequent gestures towards the back seat – where Ed and I were doing our best not to look conspicuous. At one point our passports were produced and minutely examined under the headlights. Then suddenly the officer seemed to lose interest in us and walked off to harass the occupants of the next lorry in the queue.

Hagos climbed back into the Landcruiser and slammed the door.

‘Any problems?’ I asked nervously.

‘No. None at all,’ replied the TPLF official. He turned and gave me a broad smile: ‘Don’t worry. They are not going to arrest Ed again. Everything is in order. We can go.’

He said something in Tigrigna to Tesfaye who happily released the handbrake and gunned the engine. Then we rolled forward across the border and on into Ethiopia – though not yet into Tigray. Our route, I knew, would take us first through territory controlled by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, a guerilla movement older than the TPLF which had been fighting for the independence of Eritrea for almost thirty years and which now, in early 1991, was nearer than ever before to achieving its objective. As we drove I asked Hagos about the links between the two rebel groups.

‘We co-operate closely,’ he explained. ‘But the EPLF is campaigning to create a separate Eritrean state whereas we in the TPLF do not seek to secede but only to make it possible for a democratic government to be elected in Ethiopia.’

‘And to do that you have to overthrow Mengistu?’

‘Certainly. He and his Workers’ Party are the main obstacles to freedom in our country.’

We drove on for about half an hour, during which we saw no sign of the rest of the convoy. Then suddenly lights appeared in front of us and we pulled to a halt amongst parked lorries in what seemed to be a broad valley surrounded by low hills.

‘Why are we stopping?’ I asked Hagos.

‘We will wait for the other vehicles behind us to catch up. Also we will collect some TPLF fighters who will travel with us as guards for the convoy.’

Without further explanation Hagos then got out of the Landcruiser and disappeared. Ed grabbed his camera and a hand-held light and walked off too.

A moment later I decided that I might as well stretch my legs and have a look around. Stepping down into the velvety coolness of the night, I stood for a while quite close to the vehicle gazing up at the sky. I was aware of the faint effulgence shed by the clusters of stars and the crescent moon above me, and I could just make out the silhouettes of the nearby trucks, their headlights now extinguished. Off to my right, almost lost in deep shadow, was a grove of acacia thorn trees. Further away a white rock at the top of a hill reflected a delicate incandescence.

Gradually my eyes adjusted and I was able to see more and more of what was going on around me. Groups of fierce and brigandish-looking men stood here and there or crouched down on the ground talking in low voices. And whereas there had been no guns in evidence while we were still inside the Sudan, everyone now appeared to be armed with automatic weapons.

Feeling slightly apprehensive, I walked amongst the parked lorries and, after a few moments, came across Hagos, who was conversing with several TPLF fighters dressed in battle fatigues. As I approached I was startled to hear the harsh metallic clunk of an AK47 assault rifle being cocked and I thought: I’m going to get shot and it’s going to be now.

But instead Hagos welcomed me and introduced me to the other men. I had even been wrong about the noise I had heard – which turned out to have been produced by a weapon being expertly stripped and cleaned. Not for the first time I experienced a sense of shame at the self-inflicted terrors that I had endured in the months before setting out on this trip. And I resolved that henceforward I would trust the rebels – who, after all, had also been obliged to trust me.

It was quite some time before we were back on the road: one of the lorries that had passed through the border post behind us had punctured a tyre and it seemed to be a matter of policy to keep the convoy together. Eventually, however, we set off and drove for perhaps another two hours.

Then – and I don’t think it was later than eleven p.m. – we stopped again. We seemed, though I could not be sure, to be in the middle of a vast plain. Here all the vehicles arranged themselves side by side into a straight rank and doused their headlights.

‘We won’t be going any further tonight,’ Hagos announced after a moment’s silence.

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘There is shelter nearby and we will have to spend tomorrow there. The next safe place is too far ahead for us to reach before sunrise.’

And with that, cradling an AK47 that he had somehow acquired, the TPLF official fell asleep.

Breakfast at Tessenei

I slept, too – though rather badly – with my feet and shins stuck out of the open side-window of the Landcruiser. Then, after a few hours of troubled dreams and restless discomfort, I was awakened by the asthmatic sounds of engines turning over and the smell of diesel smoke.

We did not drive far. Less than a kilometre away there was a copse of tall, thickly leaved trees under which the entire convoy proceeded to conceal itself. I watched with amazement as canvas tarpaulins were produced and draped over all the vehicles, including our own. ‘To cut out reflections,’ Hagos explained. ‘From the air we will be almost invisible unless any shining metal attracts the MiGs.’ He then added that even the most careful attempts at camouflage could not guarantee our safety: ‘Sometimes the pilots just bomb and strafe woodland like this on the off-chance that relief trucks will be taking cover there.’

The sun had risen while the convoy was being hidden and, in the pale light of the early morning, like a salutary lesson, I could see the blackened and burnt-out hulks of three Mercedes lorries. ‘They hit those a few weeks ago,’ said Hagos. ‘It was just bad luck.’ He then broke a leaf-covered branch from one of the trees and walked out onto the sandy plain behind us. There he joined Tesfaye and several of the other drivers who were methodically engaged in brushing over the criss-crossed network of tyre tracks leading to the copse.

At around eight in the morning all was done and Hagos proposed that we walk into the nearby Eritrean town of Tessenei.

‘How far is that?’ I asked.

‘Not far. Half an hour or so. We should be quite safe. The MiGs are mainly interested in high-value targets like trucks. They don’t usually shoot up small groups of people out in the open.’

‘And what about the towns?’

‘Sometimes they attack the towns if they see any vehicles or any large public gathering. Tessenei has been bombed many times.’

The walk was a pleasant one, along an earth path through little clumps of scrub vegetation amidst which brightly coloured birds darted prettily to and fro. Looking around I could see that we were in rising country and, in the far distance, I thought that I could just make out the hazy silhouettes of lofty mountains.

Tessenei itself was surrounded by eroded granite hills in a boulder-strewn valley. Not a single car moved on the largely unpaved streets but there were people everywhere: children playing, an old woman leading a heavily laden donkey, three attractive teenage girls who covered their faces and fled giggling as we approached, and large numbers of armed men – all of whom greeted us with warm smiles and cheerful waves.

The town, frankly, was a mess. Most of the poor, flat-roofed buildings showed signs of house-to-house fighting – gaping holes blown through walls, façades cratered by machine-gun bullets, collapsed masonry. Above us, to our right, was the hospital, completely gutted. Underfoot, everywhere we walked, were countless spent shell cases that formed a glittering, clinking carpet.

I asked Hagos: ‘What happened here?’

‘A few years ago, when the government seemed to be winning the war, Tessenei was one of the last strongholds of the EPLF. In fact the Ethiopian army seized the town several times, but the EPLF always got it back again. There was a great deal of heavy fighting – very brutal, very bloody. But now the front line is far away and it is peaceful here – except for the bombing.’

A few minutes later Hagos led us into a small hotel which consisted of perhaps twenty rooms arranged in a square around an earthen courtyard. Here, under a canopy of camouflage netting, several groups of Eritreans were sitting at tables drinking cups of coffee and conversing light-heartedly. A waitress bustled to and fro and a promising aroma of cooking filled the air.

There was, I decided, a rather décontracté, boulevard atmosphere about this little scene which contrasted remarkably with the devastation outside. People, clearly, could adapt to almost any circumstances – no matter how grim – and find a way to make life bearable.

As though reading my thoughts, Hagos said to me as we sat down: ‘They don’t have much, but at least they are free now. And conditions are getting better every day.’

Evidence that this was indeed so soon arrived in the form of a breakfast of fried eggs and a six-pack of Dutch beer.

‘Where on earth did they get this from?’ I spluttered as I opened my first can.

‘Since the EPLF took back the port of Massawa from the government last year there has been beer in Eritrea,’ explained Hagos with a smile. He opened a can for himself and took a long swig, then added: ‘It is a great luxury after Khartoum, is it not?’

In this fashion, drinking beer and chatting with half the population of Tessenei – who had by now trooped into the hotel to see the foreigners – we whiled away most of the morning. At noon we tuned in to Ed’s short-wave radio and listened to the increasingly gloomy news from the Arabian Gulf. It was now Monday 14 January and the UN deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from occupied Kuwait was due to expire at midnight on the 15th.

We then slept for a few hours, awoke at four p.m., and walked out to rejoin the convoy in time for its scheduled departure at six.

The magic and the marvels

That night’s journey seemed to go on for ever, although in reality it only lasted for eleven hours. Full darkness had fallen by the time we left Tessenei. Tesfaye manoeuvred us into his favourite spot in the middle of the convoy and then, amidst the now familiar clouds of dust, we began an epic drive through the western foothills of Ethiopia’s great central escarpment and then up into the mountains beyond.

Around one in the morning we stopped to refill the Landcruiser’s tank from the reeking jerry-cans that we had brought with us. Stiff and cramped, bruised from the pounding I had taken on the bumpy and rutted tracks, I stepped down from the vehicle while this operation was under way and watched the lorries that had been behind us roll by one by one, their headlights blazing, air brakes hissing.

When the last of them had gone past and disappeared I took a deep breath, and gazed up at the constellations overhead and felt grateful to whatever good fortune it was that had allowed me to be here. Then we were back on the road, back amongst the potholes and the gullies, lurching forward to catch up with the convoy.

Soon I became aware, as I had not been before, that we were ascending increasingly precipitous gradients, winding around hairpin bends that seemed to hang suspended over empty space, powering forward across bleak stretches of plateau, and then climbing again. And I had the sense of great distances being covered and of profound changes in the terrain.

I knew that at some point in the past few hours we had crossed over the border from Eritrea into Tigray. And gradually, though my body ached from the unremitting pummelling that it was taking, I found myself slipping into a dream-like state in which everything that had happened to me during the past two years, the strange twists and turns of my quest, the dead-ends, and the moments of discovery, seemed to merge into a single continuous and coherent form. And I understood, all at once and with boundless clarity, that the search which had obsessed me for so long would amount to just a poor and meaningless adventure if it had been motivated only by avarice and ambition. Lying in the remote darkness of its sanctuary, the Ark of God might glitter with ancient gold, but its real value did not lie in that. Neither did it matter that it was an archaeological treasure beyond price. Indeed nothing about it that could be measured, or calculated, or evaluated, or costed out had the slightest significance, and if I had ever set my eyes on these things (and I knew in my heart that I had) then the error that I had committed verged on desecration – not of the object sought, but of the seeker, not of the the Holy Ark, but of myself.

And where, if not in the material world, did the true value of the relic lie? Why … in its mystery, of course, and in its enchantment, and in the hold that it had exercised upon human imaginations in many different lands across all the long and weary centuries. These were the enduring things – the magic and the marvels, the inspiration and the hope. Better to hold fast to them than to ephemeral prizes; better to aspire with a certain nobility and to win nothing than to succeed and later be ashamed.

Lonely road

Just before dawn, exhausted, grey from head to toe with the fine, powdery grime of the road, we pulled into a small town where not a single light flickered, not a single person stirred.

Here Hagos beat unmercifully on a locked door until it was opened. Then we unloaded Ed’s camera equipment and other luggage that we might need during the day and went inside while Tesfaye drove off to hide the Landcruiser somewhere.

We found ourselves in a half-covered, half-open courtyard where people lay sleeping on rudimentary beds. Some of these beds, fortunately, were empty and Ed, Hagos and I quickly acquired three of them. I then wrapped myself in a sheet, closed my eyes and fell instantly asleep.

A few hours later, when I awoke in full daylight, my two companions had disappeared and a dozen Tigrayans were sitting around staring at me with keen interest. I said good morning to them, got up with as much dignity as I could muster, washed my face in a dribble of water from a tap attached to a metal barrel, and then sat down to write my notes.

Soon Ed and Hagos came back – they had been filming the distribution of some of the food brought by the convoy. I asked where we were.

‘This is Cherero,’ Hagos replied. ‘It’s an important town in this part of Tigray. Also it is the destination of the convoy. All the trucks have unloaded here.’

‘How far is it to Axum?’

‘One more night of driving. But it is somewhat unsafe for us to proceed alone. It may be advisable for us to wait here until another convoy assembles.’

I looked at the date indicator on my watch. It was Tuesday 15 January – just three days away from the start of Timkat.

‘Do you think we’ll have to wait long?’ I asked.

‘Two, three days maybe. Or maybe we will be lucky and have the chance to leave tonight.’

‘Why do you say that it’s unsafe for us to proceed on our own?’

‘Because the government sends saboteurs into Tigray from their garrison at Asmara. They send out small teams to ambush vehicles moving on the roads. A Landcruiser like ours with just a few people in it would make a good target for such an attack.’

‘What about the convoys? Aren’t they subject to attack too?’

‘No. Almost never. Too many lorries. Too many guards.’

The day passed long and slow, hot, boring and sticky. Then, as evening came down, Hagos, who had been out and about for several hours, announced that no convoy would be leaving that night. ‘I advise’, he said, ‘that we stay – at least until tomorrow.’

Seeing the look of horror that this remark had induced on our faces he then added: ‘But of course, it is up to you.’

Ed and I had already made up our minds on this point, which we had discussed between ourselves at some length during the afternoon. We therefore told the TPLF official that we would like to press on – unless he thought it completely foolhardy for us to do so.

‘No. It is OK. I understand that you want to get to Axum before Timkat. The danger is not very great. But I will see if we can bring one other TPLF fighter with us in case there is any trouble.’

At dusk we set off again. On the front bench beside Hagos was the guard he had promised – a teenage boy with startlingly white teeth, an extravagant Afro, an AK47, and three or four magazines of spare ammunition. He was a cheerful sort of fellow who laughed a great deal and insisted on playing Tigrayan war songs at maximum volume on the Landcruiser’s stereo as we drove through the night. But I couldn’t help feeling that all his energy and bravado would not be sufficient to keep the bullets at bay if anyone decided to shoot us up – from the cover, say, of that bush over there, or of that clump of trees, or from behind that boulder even.

I was amazed at how different it felt to be travelling alone like this, unescorted, with no great rumbling lorries in front of us and none behind. Before we had seemed part of some prodigious and invincible army relentlessly beating down the barriers of darkness, driving away the shadows with a barrage of light. Now we were small, vulnerable, forsaken. And as we wound our way amongst the withered trees of the mountain slopes I was conscious of the immensity of these wild lands and of their bleak and implacable hostility.

We climbed for several hours, the engine labouring under the stress, the outside air temperature dropping steadily. Then suddenly we emerged at the top of a narrow pass to find armed men blocking our path.

I muttered some expletive but Hagos reassured me: ‘Nothing to worry about. There is a TPLF camp here, guarding the road. These are our people.’ Opening his door, he exchanged words and handshakes with the rebels who had now surrounded the Landcruiser. Then we were waved through an improvised barrier and emerged moments later on to a windswept plateau where campfires flickered amongst wooden huts.

We paused for half an hour to drink tea and then we were on the move again, edging forward through the lonely night. Behind us, one by one, the lights of the camp disappeared and were replaced by shadows.

Time passed. I dozed, then awoke again to find that we were skirting the lip of an immense valley: to our left the mountainside, stony and close, to our right a plunging abyss defined by the road’s ragged edge. And then, out of the inky blackness that filled the chasm’s floor, a brilliant firefly soared up towards us, a speck of pure energy pulling behind it a ghostly, luminescent trail. In a fraction of a second this glowing apparition had reached us. It streaked directly across our path, narrowly missing the front windscreen of the car, and then extinguished itself against the embankment.

As this happened Tesfaye jammed on the brakes and switched off all the Landcruiser’s lights. Meanwhile Hagos and the guard whom we had brought with us from Cherero leaped out and rushed to the rim of the precipice clutching their AK47S.

The two men, I thought, looked lithe and dangerous, businesslike and unafraid. They seemed to move in harmony together, as though they were completing some manoeuvre for which they had been well trained.

‘What on earth’s going on?’ asked Ed, who had been awakened from a deep sleep by the dramatic, skidding stop of the vehicle.

‘I’m not sure,’ I replied, ‘but I rather think we’ve just been shot at.’

I was about to suggest that it might be in our interests to get out of the car when Hagos and his companion came running back towards us. They clambered up on to the front bench, slammed the door behind them and ordered Tesfaye to proceed.

‘I assume that was a tracer bullet we saw,’ I remarked a few moments later.

‘Yes,’ replied Hagos matter-of-factly. ‘Someone down in the valley fired off a few rounds at us.’

‘But there was only one.’

‘No, no. We only saw one. Several shots would have been fired – a short burst. The normal practice is to load a round or two of tracer at the top of each magazine to enable the gunner to correct his aim. The rest of the bullets are of the ordinary type.’

‘Charming,’ remarked Ed.

We drove on in silence for a while, then I asked Hagos: ‘Who do you think shot at us?’

‘It would have been government agents. As I told you, they are constantly sending such people into Tigray to cause trouble. At night they cannot bomb us from the air so they make use of these sabotage squads in order to disrupt the traffic moving on the roads. Sometimes they succeed …’

Another question had occurred to me: ‘Why didn’t they carry on firing? We were sitting ducks up there.’

‘Too dangerous for them. Since they missed us with the first burst and since they were not very close to us, they would have been unwise to continue with the attack. There are a lot of TPLF fighters in this area. A prolonged exchange of fire would have attracted attention.’

‘Oh … I see.’

I rested my head wearily against the side window of the Landcruiser and thought how easily life could be stolen by a mindless bullet and how fragile we all were beneath our bluster and conceit.

At around three that morning, picking up speed on a metalled road, we drove by a field in which a tank lay derelict, its turret blown askew, its gun-barrel drooping impotently. Then, to our left, I saw the hulking ruins of an ancient building bathed in starlight. I was overtaken by an acute, almost poignant, sense of dejà vu and I asked: ‘Where are we?’

‘We are coming into Axum,’ answered Hagos. ‘We have just passed the Queen of Sheba’s palace.’

A few minutes later we entered the small town, turned right and left through the narrow streets, and then pulled to a halt in front of a walled enclosure draped with creeping vines and tropical flowers. While the others knocked on the gate to gain admission, I slipped unnoticed around the side of the Landcruiser, dropped to my knees and kissed the ground. It was, I knew, an extravagant and sentimental gesture. But somehow it felt right.

Strategy

In the morning I was awakened by bright sunlight streaming through the uncurtained window of the room that had been assigned to me. In the small hours, when we had arrived, everything had been in darkness, for there was no electricity in Axum. But now, as I stepped outside, I could see that we were lodging in a pleasant little guest house built around a patch of green lawn.

I ambled over to a terrace where some chairs were arranged. There, in a corner, a kettle was boiling promisingly on a stove fashioned out of a large oil can. Nearby was a kitchen in which two women, whom I judged to be mother and daughter, were chopping vegetables.

I was greeted with smiles and was almost immediately provided with a cup of sweet, scented tea. Then I sat down and collected my thoughts while I waited for the others to wake up.

The date was now Wednesday 16 January 1991. During the night that had just passed, the UN deadline for the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait had expired – and I wondered, in a rather abstract way, whether World War III had broken out. Meanwhile, in just two days’ time, the Timkat ceremonies were due to begin here in Axum and I needed to have a strategy worked out before then.

I found myself curiously reluctant to march straight round to the Saint Mary of Zion church and to the sanctuary chapel. Strangely, having come all this way, those few final steps seemed the hardest of all to take. This was partly natural diffidence, partly superstitious dread, and partly because I felt that an early visit to the church of Saint Mary of Zion would alert the priests to my presence and would probably ensure that the true Ark would not on this occasion be carried out in the Timkat processions. It therefore seemed logical that I should hold back and keep a low profile until the beginning of the ceremony. Then, in the scrum of wild dancing that I knew would occur, I might find some opportunity to get close to the relic and to take a proper look at it.

There was, however, an argument against this strategy. Ever since my discussion in Jerusalem with the Falasha elder Raphael Hadane I had become aware that the real Ark might never be used in the Timkat processions – that a replica might be substituted for it while the genuine article remained safely inside the chapel. If this was so then clearly the sooner I introduced myself to the Axum priests the better. I would have nothing to gain by waiting and nothing to lose by being open and above board. Quite the contrary, in fact, because only by talking to the clergymen at great length would I have any chance of persuading them that I did not represent a threat, that I was sincere, and that I was a worthy candidate for admission into the presence of the Ark.

For these reasons, faced with irrevocable decisions that had to be made right away, I was in something of a quandary as I sat drinking my tea on that morning of 16 January.

In a little while a bleary-eyed Ed appeared from his room, clutching a short-wave radio to his ear.

‘Has the war started?’ I shouted.

‘Well no, actually. It hasn’t. The deadline’s passed but there are no reports of any fighting at all. Now what about some tea? Or coffee? Coffee will do. And some breakfast. Is there any of that around?’

While Ed was being catered for, Hagos also arrived – though not from his room. He had obviously been into town already because, in tow behind him, was a venerable bearded old fellow in flowing vestments.

‘This is my father,’ explained the TPLF official, making polite introductions all round. ‘He is a priest at Saint Mary of Zion church. I told him about your interest in the Ark of the Covenant and he said that he would like to meet you.’

An honour and a burden

I had, of course, talked to Hagos about my quest on several occasions during our long journey from Khartoum. I had learnt before we set out that he was a native of Axum but it had not occurred to me for a moment that he might have any connections with the church, let alone that his father would actually turn out to be a priest. Perhaps if I had known that I would have been more guarded in my remarks – but then again perhaps not. I had liked Hagos from the beginning and had not wanted to keep anything from him.

The end result was that any element of surprise that I might have retained had been removed, not out of design or malice on anyone’s part but as the result of a pure fluke. I decided, therefore, that there was no longer any point in attempting to be guarded or cloak-and-dagger about what I was here to do. Better by far to put all my cards on the table and accept the consequences, whether positive or negative.

I had a long discussion with Hagos’s father, who seemed intrigued by the notion that a foreigner should have come all this way in the hope of seeing the Ark of the Covenant.

‘And will I see it?’ I asked. ‘During the Timkat ceremonies? Do they use the real Ark or do they use a replica?’

Hagos translated my question. There was then a pregnant pause which the old man eventually broke with this reply: ‘On such matters I am not qualified to speak. You must talk to my superiors.’

‘But you know the answer, don’t you?’

‘I am not qualified to speak. It is not my responsibility.’

‘Whose responsibility is it?’

‘First and foremost you must meet the Nebura-ed, the most senior of all the priests in Axum. Without his blessing you will be able to do nothing. If he grants his permission then you must also talk with the guardian of the Ark …’

‘I was here before,’ I interrupted, ‘in 1983, and I met the guardian then. Is he still alive do you know? Or has someone else taken over from him?’

‘Unfortunately that one died, four years ago. He was very old. He named his successor to replace him and this new man is now at his post.’

‘And he always stays at the chapel where the Ark is kept?’

‘It is his burden that he may never leave the Ark. Do you know that his predecessor, the guardian whom you met, attempted to run away when he was told that he had been appointed?’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘I didn’t know that.’

‘Yes. He fled outside Axum, into the mountains. Other monks were sent after him to catch him. When they brought him back he still wanted to escape. He had to be chained at the chapel for many months before he fully accepted his responsibility.’

‘Chained, you say?’

‘Yes. Chained inside the chapel.’

‘I’m surprised.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it sounds like he really didn’t want the job. I would have thought it was a great honour to be appointed as guardian of the Ark.’

‘An honour? Yes, certainly. But it is also a heavy burden. After he takes up his post the chosen monk has no life outside the Ark. He exists to serve it, to burn incense round about it, to be before it constantly.’

‘And what would happen if it were ever taken out of the chapel – during Timkat, for example? Would the guardian go with it?’

‘He must stay close to it at all times. But you should speak to others about these matters. I am not qualified …’

I put several other close questions about the Ark, but all of them produced the same response from the old man – such matters were not his business, he couldn’t say, I would have to talk to someone more senior. Interestingly, however, he did tell me that government officials had come to Axum shortly before the town was captured by the TPLF and had attempted to remove the relic.

I asked: ‘How? I mean, what did they do? Did they try to go into the chapel?’

‘Not at first. They wanted to persuade us that the Ark should go with them to Addis Ababa. They said that there was fighting coming and that it would be safer there.’

‘And what happened?’

‘When they became forceful and aggressive we resisted them. They called soldiers, but we resisted them. The whole town heard what they were trying to do and there were demonstrations in the streets. Eventually they returned to Addis Ababa empty-handed. Soon afterwards, thanks be to God, Axum was liberated.’

I was aware that the father of a guerilla fighter was likely to be biased in favour of the TPLF. Nevertheless I asked: ‘Since the government forces left, have things improved here for the clergy, or have they got worse?’

‘Definitely things are better. In fact the situation in the churches is very good. We go to the church to pray when we like – as much as we like, day, night, evening, whenever we wish. Before, under the government, due to the curfew that they had imposed, we were not allowed to go to the church at night, or to go home from the church at night. If we went out from the church, even for fresh air, they came and took us to prison. But we don’t have to fear now. We can sleep safe in our homes and go to church every day like normal people, and feel safe. We don’t have to spend the night in the church for fear that we might be caught walking home at night. During the government’s time we never felt relaxed when we attended services. There was always fear, not knowing what might happen to us or the church. Now we practise our faith in peace.’

Croix pattée

Hagos’s father eventually left, promising that he would arrange a meeting for me with the Nebura-ed, the chief priest of the Saint Mary of Zion church. He did not advise that I should attempt to contact the guardian of the Ark before this meeting had taken place: ‘That might cause some bad feeling. Things should be done in the proper order.’

Although this strategy seemed to me to be full of potential pitfalls, I realized that I had little choice but to go along with it. I therefore decided, while waiting for an appointment with the Nebura-ed, that I would explore some of the archaeological sites which I had visited all too briefly in 1983 – and others that I had not been able to see at all.

I remembered that there was supposed to be an ancient carving of a lioness on a rock face near the quarries where Axum’s famous stelae had been cut in pre-Christian times. That carving had been out of bounds in 1983 because it had been located beyond the area controlled by the military garrison. Now, however, it was accessible.

While Ed went off with another TPLF official to film various sequences for his Channel 4 news story, I persuaded Hagos to take me to the quarries in the Landcruiser. This was a risky thing to do because of the danger of an air strike. However, we would be driving less than five kilometres and would be able to conceal the vehicle when we arrived.

We set off out of town past the so-called Queen of Sheba’s palace and soon came to a rock-strewn hillside. We parked in a gully, covered the Landcruiser with its camouflage tarpaulin, and then began to hike up the scree.

‘What do you think of my chances of persuading the priests to let me into the chapel to see the Ark?’ I asked as we walked.

‘Oh … they will not allow you to do that,’ replied Hagos confidently. ‘Your only opportunity will be during Timkat.

‘But do you think they really do bring the Ark out at Timkat? Or do you think they use a replica?’

A shrug: ‘I don’t know. During my childhood I believed, and all my friends believed, that it was the true Ark rather than a replica which was carried at Timkat. We never questioned that fact. It was not even an issue for us. But now I am not so sure …’

‘Why?’

‘It does not seem logical.’

Hagos would be drawn no further on this subject and for the next fifteen minutes or so we climbed strenuously in complete silence. Then he pointed out a giant boulder across a ridge: ‘Your lioness is there,’ he said.

I had noticed that he had developed a slight limp. ‘What happened to your leg?’ I asked. ‘Did you sprain it?’

‘No. I was shot.’

‘Oh. I see.’

‘It happened a few years ago, in a battle with government forces. The bullet passed through my shin, shattering the bone. Since then I have not been fit enough to participate in active service.’

We had come now to the boulder and Hagos led me round its side. There, although partially occluded by deep shadow, I could quite clearly make out the gigantic silhouette of a charging lioness carved in low relief. It was extensively eroded. Nevertheless it conveyed a lifelike sense of ferocity and sinuous grace.

I knew that Theodore Bent, a British traveller and amateur archaeologist who had visited Axum in the nineteenth century, had also seen this carving – which he had later described as ‘a very spirited work of art, measuring 10 ft. 8 in. from the nose to the tail. The running attitude is admirably given, and the sweep of the hind legs shows that the artist had thorough command of his subject.’ Bent had then added: ‘A few inches from the nose of the lioness is a circular disk with rays, probably intended to represent the sun.’1

I now examined this ‘circular disk with rays’, which turned out to consist of two pairs of elliptical incisions cut into the bare rock. If these incisions had been arranged around a watch-face then the top pair would have pointed, respectively, to 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock and the bottom pair to 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock. I therefore found it easy to understand Bent’s interpretation of the device: at first glance it did indeed look like a series of spokes – or rays – emanating outwards from a disk-shaped centre.

It was far from being that, however. Indeed the ‘circular disk’ that the traveller had described was an illusion. If he had bothered to trace the complete shape defined by the spaces between the elliptical incisions he would have found that the result was not a representation of the sun at all but of a croix pattée with arms that widened out from the centre point – in other words, a perfect Templar cross.

‘Hagos,’ I said, ‘am I seeing things or is that a cross?’

As I asked this question I ran my fingers around the outline that had immediately been so apparent to me.

‘It is a cross,’ affirmed the TPLF official.

‘But it shouldn’t be there. The lioness is definitely pre-Christian – so how come there’s this Christian symbol beside it?’

‘Who knows? Maybe someone added it later. There are other crosses, just like this one, at the site of King Kaleb’s palace.’

‘If you don’t mind,’ I said, ‘I think I would very much like to go and see them.’

The work of angels

I had visited Kaleb’s palace in 1983 and I knew that the ruins dated to the sixth century AD, the early part of the Christian era in Axum. I remembered that it was a hill-top fortress with deep dungeons and chambers beneath.2 I did not, however, remember seeing any crosses there.

Now, as we drove back into town, I looked forward impatiently to exploring the palace again. In 1983 the Templars had held no significance for me. My more recent research, however, had raised the possibility that a contingent of knights could have come from Jerusalem to Ethiopia in search of the Ark of the Covenant at the time of King Lalibela (AD 1185–1211) and could later have served as bearers for the Ark itself.3 The reader will recall that I had found what looked like striking support for this theory in an eyewitness account given by the thirteenth-century Armenian geographer Abu Salih – an account that had spoken of the Ark being carried in Axum by men who were ‘white and red in complexion with red hair’.4

If those men had indeed been Templars, as I very strongly suspected, then it was reasonable to suppose that they might have left some mementos of their order behind in Axum. It therefore seemed to me at least possible that the oddly out-of-place croix pattée on the rock beside the carved lioness could have been put there by a Templar artist.

This particular type of cross, as I knew very well, was not one that was common or popular in Ethiopia: indeed in all my years of travels in that country the only place in which I had ever seen one had been on the ceiling of the rock-hewn church of Beta Maryam in the town of Lalibela – a town that had been the capital of the very king who I believed had brought the Templars to Ethiopia in the first place.5 Now I had found another croix pattée on the outskirts of Axum and, if Hagos was right, I was about to see several more in the ruins of King Kaleb’s palace – a structure that could well have been still standing and inhabited in the thirteenth century.

After driving past the grass area where the majority of Axum’s great stelae were located, we skirted the huge and ancient reservoir known as the Mai Shum. In local tradition, I remembered, this was supposed to have been the Queen of Sheba’s pleasure bath. Since the coming of Christianity, however, it had been used for the curious baptismal rituals associated with Timkat. Here, in two days’ time, the Ark was supposed to be brought in procession at the start of the ceremonies that I had come to witness.

Leaving the Mai Shum behind us, we motored about half way up the steep and broken path leading to the site of King Kaleb’s palace and completed the journey on foot after first camouflaging the car. Hagos then led me into the ruins where he poked around for a while amongst the rubble before finally exclaiming in triumph: ‘Here! Over here! I think this is what you want to see.’

I hurried to join him and saw that he had retrieved a block of sand-coloured stone about two feet square and six inches thick. Out of it had been carved four elliptical holes of precisely the same shape and disposition as the elliptical incisions near the carving of the lioness. In this case, however, because the holes passed right through the block, there could be no ambiguity at all about the shape of the remaining stone: it formed another perfect Templar cross.

‘When I was a child,’ mused Hagos, ‘I and my friends used to play up here. In those days there were many blocks like this lying around. I expect that all the other ones must have been removed since then.’

‘Where would they have been taken?’

‘The townspeople constantly re-use the stones from the ruins to build or repair their own homes. So we’re lucky to have found this block intact … But there are other crosses, just the same shape as this one, in the cellars under the palace.’

We made our way down a flight of stairs into the dark dungeons that I had visited in 1983. Then, by flashlight, I had been shown a number of empty stone coffers which the Axumites believed had once contained great riches in gold and pearls. Now, producing a box of matches, Hagos showed me a Templar cross carved into the end of one of these coffers.

‘How did you know that was there?’ I asked in amazement.

‘Everyone in Axum knows. As I said, I used to play in these ruins when I was a boy.’

He then led me into the next chamber, struck a match, and showed me two more Templar crosses – one, rather crudely formed, on the far wall and another, beautifully executed, high up on the longer side wall.

Until the flame guttered out I stood gazing up at these crosses lost in thought. I knew that I might never be able to prove my hypothesis to the complete satisfaction of archaeologists or historians, but I now felt certain in my own heart that the Templars had indeed been here. The croix pattée had been their characteristic emblem, worn on their shields and on their tunics. It was entirely in keeping with everything else that I had learnt about them that some of their number should have come down here, into the obscure darkness of these dungeons, to leave that emblem on the walls – as a kind of puzzle perhaps, or as a sign, for future generations to wonder over.

‘Are there any traditions’, I asked Hagos, ‘about who carved these crosses here?’

‘Some of the townspeople say that they were the work of angels,’ replied the TPLF official, ‘but of course that is nonsense.’

A bearer of bad news

I did not hear from Hagos’s father until after night had fallen, and when I did the news was bad. He came round to the little guest house in which we were staying shortly after seven that evening to tell me that the Nebura-ed was out of town.

My first reaction, which I did not voice, was that it was extremely unlikely that the chief priest of the Saint Mary of Zion church would be absent at this time of year. With Timkat just around the corner, and many preparations to make, his presence would surely be required in Axum.

‘How unfortunate,’ I said. ‘Where’s he gone?’

‘He has gone to Asmara … for consultations.’

‘But Asmara is still in government hands. How can he go there?’

‘The Nebura-ed may go anywhere.’

‘And will he be back before Timkat?’

‘I am told that he will not return for several days. His deputy will stand in for him during the Timkat ceremonies.’

‘So what does this mean for my work? Will I be able to talk to the guardian of the Ark, for example? There are so many questions that I have to ask.’

‘Without the permission of the Nebura-ed you will be able to do nothing.’

Hagos’s father was clearly an innocent messenger, so I had no right or reason to feel furious with him. Nevertheless it seemed obvious that the information he had just delivered was part of a strategy to prevent me from learning more about the Ark. Though they would probably be polite and friendly towards me as individuals, the plain fact was that the monks and priests of Axum would not co-operate with my investigation without the permission of the Nebura-ed. Sadly, however, the Nebura-ed was absent. Therefore I could not obtain his permission. Therefore I would not be able to find out anything of any significance from anyone; nor would I be able to do any of the things that I had come so many miles to do. In this classically Abyssinian fashion, I would be neutralized without anyone actually having to refuse me anything. The clergymen would not have to be boorish or rude; on the contrary they would only need to shrug and tell me with deep regret that this or that could not be done without the sanction of the Nebura-ed, and that – on this or that matter – they themselves were not qualified to speak.

‘Is there any way,’ I asked, ‘that we can get a message to the Nebura-ed – about my work here?’

‘While he is in Asmara?’ laughed Hagos’s father. ‘Impossible.’

‘OK then. What about the deputy chief priest? Can’t he give me the permission I need?’

‘I do not think so. To give you that permission he would first have to obtain the permission of the Nebura-ed.

‘In other words he would have to get permission to give me permission?’

‘Exactly.’

‘But can’t I at least try? Can’t I even meet the deputy and explain to him why I’m here? Who knows? He might be willing to help me.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Hagos’s father. ‘At any rate I will talk to the deputy tonight and I will bring you his answer tomorrow.’

Sanctuary of the Ark

The next morning, Thursday 17 January 1991, we were all up and about before dawn. Ed had wanted to shoot some general views at sunrise and Hagos had suggested that the summit of one of the several stony hills behind the town would provide the best vantage point.

Accordingly, at four-thirty a.m. we rousted Tesfaye, our driver, out of the bed that he been sharing with a local prostitute virtually non-stop since our arrival. On the road before five, we shoved the aerial of Ed’s short-wave radio out of the window. The reception was bad, fogged with static. Nevertheless we managed to unscramble enough of the broadcast to understand that war had finally broken out in the Gulf, that American bombers had flown hundreds of sorties against Baghdad during the night, and that massive devastation had been caused. Apparently the Iraqi airforce had not managed to send up a single fighter in response.

‘Sounds like it’s all over,’ commented Ed with a certain amount of satisfaction.

‘I doubt that,’ said Hagos. ‘We will have to wait and see.’

We sat in silence for a while, listening to the continuing reports, as Tesfaye manoeuvred us up the steep track towards the summit we were heading for. The sky was still almost completely dark and he was perhaps dreaming of the humid pleasures he had so recently been enjoying; at any rate he managed to half roll the vehicle at one point and only just avoided driving us over the edge of a small cliff.

Ed, Hagos and I took this as our cue to get out. Leaving Tesfaye to deal with the camouflage tarpaulin we then walked the rest of the way to the summit.

It was a short hike through the litter of an old battlefield. ‘This was where the last part of the Ethiopian army garrison held out when we took Axum from them,’ explained Hagos. ‘They were tough fighters, from the Seventeenth Division. We over-ran them in eight hours.’

All around us were smashed military lorries, burnt-out armoured personnel carriers and gutted tanks. And, as the sun began to come up, I noticed that huge amounts of munitions were still lying underfoot. Most of the debris consisted of spent shells and chunks of shrapnel. There were also several 81mm mortar bombs, rusty but unexploded, which nobody had bothered to remove.

Eventually we reached the summit, upon which perched the twisted and blackened wreckage of a barrack block. There beneath the crimson sky of morning, I stood and gazed gloomily down on the town of Axum.

Behind me was the devastated ruin of a building. Its corrugated aluminium roof, still partially intact, creaked and groaned eerily in the cold dawn breeze. On the ground in front of me was a soldier’s helmet, split across the brow by some anonymous projectile. Further off, in a crater, lay a soldier’s rotting boot.

The light was stronger now and far below I could see the garden in the centre of Axum where the main collection of giant stelae stood. Beyond, across a deserted square, set back in a secluded compound, rose the battlements and towers of the great church of Saint Mary of Zion. And by the side of that imposing edifice, surrounded by barbed iron railings, sat a squat grey granite chapel, windowless and barred, with a dome of green copper. This was the sanctuary of the Ark, near and yet far away, approachable and yet unapproachable. Within it lay the answer to all my questions, proof or disproof of all my work. Accordingly I looked down at it with longing and respect, with hope and agitation, with impatience but also with uncertainty.

Men of straw

We returned to the guest house for breakfast. And there we sat until mid-morning surrounded by a group of unusually sombre and pensive Tigrayans – all of whom had come to hear the news that boomed and crackled out of Ed’s short-wave radio and that Hagos solemnly translated for them. Looking around at the faces, young and old, handsome and plain, I was struck by the poignancy of this intense interest in a distant war. Perhaps it provided a distraction from the home-grown conflict that had killed and maimed so many in this little town. Perhaps it arose from feelings of sympathy at the thought of the savage bombing that others were now enduring.

Taking in the nuances of this scene, I realized that such freedom of association would have been quite impossible for the browbeaten and terrorized townsfolk in the days when the Ethiopian government still ruled in Axum. And it seemed to me, though there was great poverty, though the schools were closed, though people could not move openly for fear of air strikes, though farmers could hardly plough their fields, and though famine threatened, that things were better here – far better – than they had been before.

Around eleven a.m., after Ed’s filming schedule for the day had been worked out, Hagos and I walked into town in the direction of the main stelae park. At one point we passed a handpainted TPLF mural which depicted President Mengistu as a ravening demon with a blood-stained swastika on his cap and lines of armed soldiers marching out of his mouth. Half a dozen MiGs circled above his head and he was surrounded by tanks and artillery. The caption proclaimed in Tigrigna: We will never kneel before the dictator Mengistu.’

We walked on through the pot-holed streets of Axum, past poor market stalls and empty shops, amongst the simple houses, encountering on our way a constant stream of pedestrians – monks and nuns, priests, urchins, dignified elders, peasants in from the countryside, townsfolk, a woman carrying a huge earthen pot of water, groups of teenage boys trying to look stylish like teenagers everywhere. And I thought: a few years ago I would have been quite happy to stand by while the government took all these people away to resettlement camps.

‘Hagos,’ I said, ‘things are so different in Axum since you expelled the government troops. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but the atmosphere’s completely changed.’

‘It is because no one is afraid any more,’ the TPLF official replied a moment later.

‘Not even of the bombing and the air raids?’

‘We fear those things, of course. But they are more of a nuisance than a terror – and we have found ways to avoid them. In the past, when the government was here, we could not avoid the cruelty of the garrisons, the tortures, the random arrests. That was the terror that oppressed us for so long. Yet when we confronted it, do you know what happened?’

‘No. Not exactly.’

‘We discovered that it had been spread by men of straw and that freedom had always been within our grasp.’

We had reached the garden of the stelae. As I walked amongst the great monoliths, I marvelled at the artistry and at the sheer skill of the forgotten culture that had conceived them. And I remembered that in 1983 the guardian monk had told me that they had been raised up by the Ark – by ‘the Ark and the celestial fire’.

At the time I had not known what to make of the old man’s words: now, with all I had learned, I knew that he could have been telling the truth. In its history the sacred relic had worked many great miracles: the erection of a few hundred tons of stone would surely not have been beyond its powers.

Miracle made real

That afternoon at four Hagos’s father came to the guest house to report that the deputy chief priest would see us. He said that for reasons of protocol he could not accompany us there but gave us precise directions as to where we should go.

Hagos and I then walked over to the Saint Mary of Zion church and entered into a warren of small dwellings built around the rear of the compound. Passing under a low arch we came to a gateway. We knocked and were admitted to a garden where, on a bench, sat an elderly man dressed in black robes.

When he saw us approaching he murmured a quiet command. Hagos turned to me and said: ‘You must stay here. I will talk on your behalf.’

An earnest conversation then ensued. Watching it from a distance I felt … impotent, paralysed, nullified, invalidated. I considered rushing forward and passionately pleading my case. But I knew that my entreaties, however heartfelt, would fall on ears tuned only to the rhythms of tradition.

Eventually Hagos came back. ‘I have told the deputy everything,’ he explained. ‘He says that he will not talk to you. He says that on a matter as important as the Ark only the Nebura-ed and the guardian monk are qualified to speak.’

‘And I assume that the Nebura-ed is still away?’

‘Still away. Yes. But I have good news. The deputy has accepted for you to talk to the guardian.’

A few minutes later, having followed a maze of dusty paths, we came to the Saint Mary of Zion church. Passing in front of it we arrived at the metal railings that surrounded the sanctuary chapel. I stood for a while, staring through these railings. I calculated that with an energetic climb and a short dash I could reach the locked door of the building in about ten seconds.

Half joking, I mentioned this idea to Hagos, who responded with a look of genuine horror.

‘Don’t think of it,’ he cautioned. He gestured back in the direction of Saint Mary of Zion where half a dozen tall young deacons were loitering. ‘As a foreigner you command great respect. But if you were to commit such sacrilege you would certainly be killed.’

‘Where do you suppose the guardian is?’ I now asked.

‘He is inside. He will join us when he is ready.’

We waited patiently until the sun was low in the sky. Then, as the darkness deepened, the guardian appeared. He was a tall, heavily built man, perhaps twenty years younger than his predecessor. Like his predecessor, his eyes were occluded with cataracts. Like his predecessor he wore thick robes redolent of incense.

He showed no inclination to invite us in but approached and shook hands with us through the railings.

I asked his name.

In a gravelly voice he replied simply: ‘Gebra Mikail.’

‘Please tell him’, I said to Hagos, ‘that my name is Graham Hancock and that I have spent the last two years studying the history and traditions of the Ark of the Covenant. Please tell him that I have come all the way from England, a journey of more than seven thousand kilometres, in the hope that I will be allowed to see the Ark.’

Hagos relayed this message. When he had finished the guardian said: ‘I know. I have been informed of this already.’

‘Will you allow me to enter the chapel?’ I asked.

Hagos translated the question. There was a long pause, and then the expected answer: ‘No, I cannot do that.’

‘But,’ I protested lamely, ‘I have come to see the Ark.’

‘Then I regret that you have wasted your journey. Because you will not see it. You should have known this if, as you say, you have studied our traditions.’

‘I knew it, and yet I hoped.’

‘Many hope. But other than myself no one may visit the Holy Ark. Not even the Nebura-ed. Not even the Patriarch. It is forbidden.’

‘This is a great disappointment for me.’

‘There are worse things in life than disappointment.’

I asked: ‘Can you at least tell me what the Ark looks like? I think that I could go away content if you would tell me that.’

‘I believe that the Ark is well described in the Bible. You can read there.’

‘But I want you to tell me in your own words what it looks like. I mean the Ark that rests here in the sanctuary. Is it a box made of wood and gold? Does it have two winged figures on its lid?’

‘I will not speak about such matters …’

‘And how is it carried?’ I continued. ‘Is it carried on poles? Or in some other way? Is it heavy or light?’

‘I have said that I will not speak about such matters, and therefore I will not speak.’

‘And does it perform miracles?’ I persisted. ‘In the Bible the Ark was described as performing many miracles. So here in Axum does it also perform miracles?’

‘It performs miracles. And it is in itself … miracle. It is miracle made real. And that is all that I will say.’

With this the guardian thrust his hand through the bars again and clenched my own hand firmly for a moment as though in farewell.

‘I have another question,’ I said insistently. ‘Just one more question …’

A faint, affirmative nod.

‘Tomorrow evening’, I continued, ‘is the beginning of Timkat. Will the true Ark be brought out then, for the procession to the Mai Shum, or will a replica be used?’

As Hagos translated my words into Tigrigna the guardian listened, his face impassive. Finally he replied: ‘I have already said enough. Timkat is a public ceremony. You may attend it and see for yourself. If you have studied as you have claimed, even though it may only have been for two years, I think that you will be able to know the answer to your question.’

And with that he turned away and slipped into the shadows and was gone.

The secret behind the signs

The object that was carried to the Mai Shum reservoir when the Timkat ceremonies began late in the afternoon of Friday 18 January 1991 was a bulky rectangular chest over which was draped a thick blue cloth embroidered with an emblem of a dove. And I remembered that in Wolfram’s Parzival the dove, too, had been the emblem of the Grail.6 Yet I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that what I was looking at was neither Grail nor Ark. Rather it was in itself an emblem and a symbol, a token and a sign.

As the Falasha priest Raphael Hadane had warned me months before, the sacred relic kept in the sanctuary chapel remained there – jealously guarded in the Holy of Holies. What was brought out in public procession was therefore merely a replica of it – a replica, however, that was quite different in form from the familiar flat tabotat that I had seen paraded during the previous year’s celebrations at Gondar, and that did indeed accord with the shape and dimensions of the biblical Ark.

How, then, can I be so sure that it was a replica? The answer is simple. Not for a single moment during the whole of the two-day ceremony did Gebra Mikail, the guardian monk, leave the sanctuary chapel. Late in the afternoon of the 18th, as the procession carrying the cloth-wrapped chest moved away in the direction of the Mai Shum, I saw him sitting there behind the iron bars, leaning against the grey granite wall of the squat building, seemingly lost in contemplation. He did not even look up as the priests departed, and it was plain that the object which they bore aloft held no special importance for him.

Then, when they were gone, he disappeared inside the chapel. Moments later I heard his slow arrhythmic chant. And had I been permitted to move closer I knew that I would have recognized the sweet savour of frankincense.

For what was Gebra Mikail doing, there in the thick darkness, if not offering up a fragrance pleasing to the Lord before the Holy Ark of His Covenant? And why else should he, who had been selected from amongst all his brethren to fulfil a precious trust, have stayed closed within the sanctuary until morning, if the sacred and inviolable relic that he had forfeited his own freedom to guard had not remained there with him?

In this way I believe at last that I did glimpse the secret behind the symbol, the glorious enigma proclaimed in so many wondrous signs – proclaimed and yet not revealed. For the Ethiopians know that if you want to hide a tree you must place it in a forest. And what else are the replicas that they venerate in twenty thousand churches if not a veritable forest of signs?

At the heart of that forest lies the Ark itself, the golden Ark that was built at the foot of Mount Sinai, that was carried through the wilderness and across the river Jordan, that brought victory to the Israelites in their struggle to win the Promised Land, that was taken up to Jerusalem by King David, and that – around 955 BC – was deposited by Solomon in the Holy of Holies of the First Temple.

From there, some three hundred years later, it was removed by faithful priests who sought to preserve it from pollution at the hands of the sinner Manasseh and who bore it away to safety on the far-off Egyptian island of Elephantine. There a new temple was built to house it, a temple in which it remained for two further centuries.

When the temple was destroyed, however, its restless wanderings resumed again and it was carried southward into Ethiopia, into the land shadowing with wings, into the land criss-crossed by rivers. Having come from one island it was taken to another – to green and verdant Tana Kirkos – where it was installed in a simple tabernacle and worshipped by simple folk. For the eight hundred years that followed it stood at the centre of a large and idiosyncratic Judaic cult, a cult whose members were the ancestors of all Ethiopian Jews today.

Then the Christians came, preaching a new religion, and – after converting the king – they were able to seize the Ark for themselves. They took it to Axum and placed it in the great church that they had built there, a church dedicated to Saint Mary the Mother of Christ.

Many more years then went by and – as the weary centuries passed – the memory of how the Ark had really come to Ethiopia grew blurred. Legends began to circulate to account for the now mysterious and inexplicable fact that a small city in the remote highlands of Tigray appeared to have been selected – presumably by God Himself – as the last resting place of the most precious and prestigious relic of Old Testament times. These legends were eventually codified and set down in writing in the form of theKebra Nagast – a document containing so many errors, anachronisms and inconsistencies that later generations of scholars were never able to see their way through to the single ancient and recondite truth concealed beneath the layers of myth and magic.

That truth, however, was recognized by the Knights Templar, who understood its earth-shaking power and who came to Ethiopia in pursuit of it. It was, moreover, expressed by Wolfram von Eschenbach in his story of Parzival, where the Holy Grail – ‘the consummation of heart’s desire’ – served as an occult cryptogram for the Holy Ark of the Covenant.

In Wolfram’s text the heathen Flegetanis was said to have penetrated the hidden mysteries of the constellations and to have declared in a reverential voice that there was indeed ‘a thing called the Gral’. He declared also that this perfect thing, this spiritual thing, was guarded by a Christian progeny bred to a pure life. And he concluded his soothsaying with these words: ‘Those humans who are summoned to the Gral are ever worthy.’7

So too those humans who are summoned to the Ark – for Ark and Grail are one and the same. I, for my part, however, was never worthy enough. I knew it even as I traversed the waste land. I knew it as I approached the sanctuary chapel. I know it still. And yet … And yet … ‘my heart is glad, and my very soul rejoices, and my flesh also shall rest in hope.’

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
                Shantih shantih shantih

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