The morning flight from Addis Ababa to Bahar Dar on the southern shore of Lake Tana took about an hour and a half. Despite the fighting reported in the area, no special procedures were observed during the landing, and the plane made a low, slow, scenic approach over the Blue Nile Falls before touching down on the bumpy gravel strip. From there, after hiring a taxi, Richard Pankhurst and I motored the few remaining kilometres into town along roads lined with jacaranda and flame trees.
We checked into two of the hundred empty rooms at the Tana Hotel on the lake’s edge and then drove to the Maritime Authority pier where the motor launch that we hoped to use was moored. After protracted negotiations with the officials concerned it was eventually agreed that we could charter the boat – but not until the next day, Tuesday 21 November, and then only if we were prepared to pay the piratical hire of 50 US dollars an hour. Since I had no other choice I grudgingly accepted this extortionate figure and asked that the vessel should be made ready for a 5 a.m. departure.
With time to kill that afternoon we drove out of Bahar Dar to the nearby village of Tissisat and then hiked through tawny countryside overlaid with a patchwork of fields until we came to a massive stone bridge thrown across a steep gorge. Built by the Portuguese in the early seventeenth century, this crumbling edifice looked highly dangerous; Richard assured me, however, that it was still serviceable. We crossed it, and climbed a hillside – at the top of which two militiamen suddenly appeared out of a clump of shrubbery. They searched us, looked at our passports (classically, mine was examined upside down) and then waved us on.
Fifteen minutes later, after negotiating a narrow goat-track lined with thick tropical shrubbery and yellow daisies, we began to sense a low, thundering vibration underfoot. We walked on, aware of an increasing dampness in the air, and in a short while caught a first glimpse of what we had come to see – the spectacular basalt cliff over which, with tremendous power, the Blue Nile hurls itself before embarking on its epic journey out of the Abyssinian highlands.
The local name for the Blue Nile Falls, and for the village through which one must approach them, is Tissisat, meaning ‘water that smokes’. As I stood enraptured, gazing at the rainbows playing amongst the fine spumes of spray thrown high into the air by the boiling cataract, I could well understand why.
I was also reminded – and struck by the accuracy – of the description given by the Scottish explorer James Bruce after his visit here in 1770:
The river … fell in one sheet of water, without any interval, above half an English mile in breadth, with a force and a noise that was truly terrible, and which stunned and made me, for a time, perfectly dizzy. A thick fume, or haze, covered the fall all around, and hung over the course of the stream both above and below, marking its track, though the water was not seen … It was a most magnificent sight, that ages, added to the greatest length of human life, would not deface or eradicate from my memory; it struck me with a kind of stupor, and a total oblivion of where I was, and of every other sublunary concern.1
Ethiopia, I reflected, was a country in which time really could stand still: there was nothing at all, in the scene now laid out before me, which suggested that more than two centuries had elapsed since Bruce had been here. Not for the last time I felt a deep sense of empathy with the Scottish traveller whose family name I happened by coincidence to share (through the maternal line – my grandmother was born a Bruce, and Bruce, too, is my own middle name).
Later, surrounded by crowds of local children who had materialized from nowhere in order to demand money, pens and sweets, Richard and I set off on the walk back towards Tissisat village. Thus far there had been something almost idyllically peaceful and rustic about the afternoon; even the militiamen who had searched us earlier had done so lethargically and with good humour. Now, however, as we re-crossed the Portuguese bridge with the first chill of evening setting in, we were confronted by an incongruous and jarring spectacle: at least three hundred heavily armed soldiers dressed in green battle fatigues advancing towards us from the other direction.
It was impossible to be sure whether we were looking at government or rebel troops. They wore no regimental insignia, nor any other identifying paraphernalia. Neither did they appear to be disciplined or even under the command of an officer: rather than being organized into a discernible marching order they slouched oafishly along with angry and resentful glares. I also noticed that a number of the men were carrying their weapons very sloppily: one used his rifle as a walking stick; another held an AK-47 barrel-forwards across his shoulder; a third was loosely waving a loaded rocket launcher which, if fired accidentally, could have demolished a fair-sized building – or, for that matter, the bridge we were all standing on.
Richard, whose Amharic is better than mine, greeted several individual members of this surly rabble in a familiar manner, shook hands heartily with perhaps a dozen more, and made eccentric gestures of friendship towards most of the rest. ‘They think all foreigners are slightly mad,’ he explained to me in a stage whisper. I’m just living up to the stereotype. Believe me, it’s the best thing to do.’
The Jewel of Ethiopia
The next morning we arrived at the Maritime Authority pier at 5 a.m. There was no sign of activity and Richard, who was wrapped in a blanket against the cold, muttered something about the ‘maambfak syndrome’.
‘What’s that?’ I asked.
‘Many appointments are made but few are kept,’ the historian grumbled.
Within half an hour, however, the captain of the MV Dahlak had arrived. So too had a clean-shaven young man in a well cut suit who introduced himself as Wondemu and informed us, with great humility, that he was the Second Deputy-Assistant Regional Administrator: ‘Yesterday afternoon my boss received a phone call from Comrade Shimelis Mazengia in Addis telling him that we should look after you. I immediately reported to your hotel but you were not present. Then from Reception I learned about this research you are conducting today. So,’ he concluded with a broad smile, ‘here I am.’
By 5.45, shivering in the dawn chill, we were on the water and making good headway towards Daga Stephanos some twenty miles to the north. Above the mountains ringing the eastern shore of the huge lake the sun was already rising. A fresh breeze carried the sounds of birdsong and of barking dogs.
Before too long Richard and Wondemu disappeared into the cabin to chat and drink tea. Entranced by the view, by the invigorating Alpine quality of the air, and by the romance of travel, I remained on deck gazing out at the ever-shifting lacustrine panorama and fretting subliminally about exactly how much this little pleasure cruise was going to cost me. To reach Daga, the captain had said, would take about two and a half hours. Since we would need to be on the island for at least that long and would then require a further two and a half hours to get back, it looked like I was going to end up shelling out almost 400 dollars.
I was interrupted in this slightly depressing piece of mental arithmetic by the striking spectacle of two native long boats with high, curved prows pulling out towards us from the distant shore. Silhouetted in the pink light of the early sun I could discern five or six men crouched down inside each vessel wielding paddles which, in unison, they raised and dipped into the water, raised and dipped, raised and dipped.
Known as tankwas, I remembered from my previous visit in 1983 that local craft such as these were a common sight on Lake Tana. The two now running briefly parallel to us, but heading in the opposite direction, were much larger than any that I had seen before. Nevertheless they were clearly of the same basic design, being made of bundles of papyrus reeds bound together.
Having spent a considerable fraction of the previous few months studying archaeological sites in Egypt I was now able to confirm with my own eyes something which I knew that several historians had already observed – namely that the Ethiopian tankwas bore an uncanny resemblance to the reed boats used by the Pharaohs for transportation, hunting and fishing on the Nile.2 I had seen representations of high-prowed vessels just like these in frescoes decorating the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and also in reliefs carved into the temple walls at Karnak and Luxor.
Not for the first time I found myself wondering whether the ancient Egyptians had ever visited the Tana area. It was not just the similarity in boat design, suggestive as it was of a strong cultural influence, that led me to this speculation, but also the lake’s importance as the principal reservoir of the Blue Nile.
Tana is not itself officially regarded as the source of that great river, identified as twin springs, in the mountains to the south, that were visited by Bruce and by other travellers before him.3 At these springs rises a river known as the ‘Little Abai’ which flows across the southern edge of the lake (there is a discernible current) and then out again as the ‘Big Abai’, the local name for the Blue Nile.
To all intents and purposes, however, as geographers and engineers now accept,4 the Blue Nile’s real source is Lake Tana, which is fed not only by the ‘Little Abai’ but also by many other rivers, thus draining a huge expanse of the Abyssinian highlands. Indeed, with a surface area of 3,673 square kilometres, this vast inland sea provides an estimated six-sevenths of the total volume of water in the combined streams of the Blue and the White Niles.5 Most important of all, it is Ethiopia’s long rainy season – which causes a veritable flood to race out of Lake Tana and along the Blue Nile – that has been responsible since time immemorial for the annual inundation that brings silt and fertility to Egypt’s Delta. By comparison the longer White Nile – which loses more than half of its volume in the swamplands of southern Sudan – contributes almost nothing.6
As I sat watching the papyrus-reed tankwas, therefore, it seemed to me inconceivable that the priests of Karnak and Luxor – who worshipped the Nile as a life-giving force and also, symbolically, as a blessed god – would not at some stage in their long history have made their way to Ethiopia. There were no records to prove this, just another hunch; but nevertheless, in the numinous dawn glow of that November morning, I felt confident that the ancient Egyptians must at some point have visited Tana – and venerated it.
Certainly the Greek geographer Strabo, who lived around the time of Christ and who was deeply versed in Egyptian learning, was aware (as later scholars were not) that the Blue Nile rose in a giant lake in Ethiopia, a lake which he called ‘Pseboe’.7 In the second century AD the Egyptian geographer Claudius Ptolemy expressed a similar opinion, although the name that he gave to Tana was ‘Coloe’.8 I also thought that the Athenian dramatist Aeschylus might have been inspired by more than just poetic fancy when he wrote hauntingly in the fifth century BC of ‘a copper-tinted lake … that is the jewel of Ethiopia, where the all-pervading sun returns again and again to plunge his immortal form, and finds a solace for his weary round in gentle ripples that are but a warm caress.’9
These, I knew, were not the only references linking the mysterious waters of Lake Tana to the ancient cultures of Greece, Egypt and the Middle East. As I sat on the deck of the MV Dahlak en route to Daga Stephanos I also remembered that the Abyssinians themselves firmly believed the Blue Nile to be nothing less than the Gihon of Genesis 2:13 – ‘the second river’ that ‘compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia’. This, furthermore, was a very old tradition,10 almost certainly pre-Christian, and thus added considerable weight to the notion that the lake, together with its rivers and islands, might indeed have some genuine connection with the Ark of the Covenant.
It was therefore with a certain flush of optimism that I looked ahead, across the intervening miles, to the green slopes of Daga island rising above the shining waters like the peak of some submerged mountain.
It was around 8.30 when we finally moored at Daga. The sun was now high in the sky and, despite the altitude (Tana stands more than 6,000 feet above sea level), the morning was hot, humid and breathless.
We were met on the wooden jetty by a delegation of monks dressed in astonishingly dirty robes. They had obviously been monitoring our approach for some time but did not appear to be in the least bit pleased to see us. Wondemu had a word with them and eventually, with obvious reluctance, they led us through a small banana plantation and then up a steep, winding path towards the summit of the island.
As we walked I stripped off the pullover I had been wearing, stretched my arms and took a few deep breaths. The track that we were following passed through the midst of a dense forest of tall gnarled trees, the leaves of which formed a canopy above us. The air was laden with the loamy scent of freshly turned earth and with the fragrance of tropical flowers. Bees and other large insects buzzed industriously about and, in the distance, I could hear the monotonous ringing of a traditional stone bell.
Eventually, some 300 feet above the surface of the lake, we began to come across low round buildings with thatched roofs – the dwellings of the monks. Next we passed under an arch set into a high stone wall and finally entered a grassy clearing at the centre of which stood the church of Saint Stephanos. This was a long rectangular structure, curved at the ends, with a covered walkway extending all around it.
‘Doesn’t look all that old,’ I said to Richard.
‘It isn’t,’ he replied. ‘The original building was burnt down in a grass fire about a hundred years ago.’
‘I suppose that would have been the one that they brought the Ark to in the sixteenth century?’
‘Yes. In fact there’s probably been some sort of church on this site for at least a thousand years. Maybe even for longer than that. Daga is reckoned to be one of the holiest places on Lake Tana. Because of that the mummified bodies of five former emperors are kept here.’
Wondemu, in his self-appointed role as our guide and interlocutor, had been talking quietly to some of the monks. Now he detached one member of the group – whose vestments were slightly cleaner than those of his fellows – and led him by the hand towards us. ‘This,’ he announced proudly, ‘is Archpriest Kifle-Mariam Mengist. He will answer all your questions.’
The archpriest, however, seemed to have ideas of his own on this subject. His wrinkled, prune-like features registered a curious mixture of hostility, resentment and greed. In silence he sized Richard and me up, then turned to Wondemu and whispered something in Amharic.
‘All …,’ sighed our guide, ‘I am afraid he wants money. It is to purchase candles, incense and … er … other necessary church items.’
‘How much?’ I asked.
‘Whatever you feel is appropriate.’
I proposed 10 Ethiopian birr – about 5 US dollars – but Kifle-Mariam indicated that this sum was not sufficient. Indeed, he declared, the proffered note was so lacking in the quality of sufficiency that he could not even bring himself to detach it from my fingers.
‘I think you should pay more,’ Wondemu hissed politely in my ear.
‘I’ll be happy to do that, of course,’ I said. ‘But I’d like to know what I’ll be getting in return.’
‘In return he will talk to you. Otherwise he says he has much to do.’
We settled, after further debate, on 30 birr. The money was quickly folded and conjured away in some noisome fold or pouch in the priestly robes. Then we strolled over to the arcade surrounding the church and sat down in the shade beneath the overhanging eaves of the thatched roof. Several of the other monks followed us and lurked about looking self-consciously contemplative and pretending not to listen to our conversation.
Kifle-Mariam Mengist began by telling us that he had been on the island for eighteen years and had become an expert on all matters concerning the monastery. As though to prove this point he then launched into a kind of potted history – which went on, and on, and on.
‘Right,’ I interrupted after Wondemu had given me the drift of this boring speech. ‘I do want to get a general picture. But first I’d like to ask the archpriest a specific question – which is this: I’ve heard it said that the Ark of the Covenant was brought here in thesixteenth century when Axum was attacked by the armies of Ahmed Gragn. Does he know this story? And is it true?’
Fifteen or twenty minutes of incomprehensible argument followed, at the end of which Wondemu announced that the priest definitely did not know the story. Moreover, since he did not know it, he was not able to tell us whether it was true or not.
I tried a different tack. ‘Do they have a tabot of their own? Here. Inside this church?’ Through the open doorway behind us I pointed expressively towards the entrance of the Holy of Holies, which was just visible in the gloom within.
After another Amharic question-and-answer session Wondemu announced: ‘Yes. Of course they have their tabot.’
‘Good. Well I’m glad we’ve established that at any rate. Now, ask him this: does he accept that their tabot is a copy – a replica – of the original tabot in Axum?’
‘Perhaps,’ came the enigmatic reply.
‘I see. OK. Well in that case I’d like you to ask him whether he knows anything at all about the Ark of the Covenant. How it came to Axum. Who brought it. Things like that. Get him to tell us the story in his own words.’
An immediate and perfunctory response was given to this question. ‘He says he does not know the story,’ Wondemu translated rather mournfully. ‘He says he is not an authority on such matters.’
‘Is there anyone else who is?’ I asked in exasperation
‘No. Kifle-Mariam Mengist is the senior priest on the island. If he does not know then it is impossible that anyone else will know.’
I looked at Richard: ‘What’s going on here? I’ve never, never ever, met an Ethiopian priest who didn’t know the Kebra Nagast story about the Ark.’
The historian shrugged: ‘Nor have I. It’s very peculiar. Perhaps you should offer him … a further inducement.’
I groaned. It always came down to money in the end, didn’t it? If a few more birr was what it would take to get this tight-lipped old bastard talking, however, then it would be best to pay up quickly. After all, I’d come all the way from London to check Daga Stephanos out – and even now the MV Dahlak was moored at the jetty with its meter running at the rate of approximately a dollar a minute. With grim resignation I passed over another small handful of crumpled notes.
This latest act of generosity, however, did me absolutely no good at all. The priest had nothing further to say on any subject of interest. When this had finally sunk in – and it took some time – I leaned back against one of the pillars that supported the roof, inspected my fingernails, and tried to decide what to do next.
There were, I realized, two possible explanations for the apparent ignorance of Kifle-Mariam Mengist. One, the least likely, was that the man was genuinely stupid. The other, more probable by far, was that he was lying.
But why should he lie? Well, I reasoned, there were two possible explanations for that as well. The first – and the least likely – was that he had something important to hide. The second – more probable by far – was that he wanted to extract further notes from my rapidly diminishing wad of Ethiopian currency.
I stood up and said to Wondemu: ‘Ask him again. Ask him if the Ark of the Covenant was brought here from Axum in the sixteenth century … and ask him whether it’s here now. Tell him I’ll make it worth his while if he’ll show it to me.’
Our guide raised a quizzical eyebrow. What I had just proposed was not in good taste. ‘Go on,’ I urged. ‘Just ask him.’
More Amharic, then this from Wondemu: ‘He says the same as before. He does not know about the Ark of the Covenant. But he also says that nothing has been brought to Daga Stephanos from outside for a very long time.’
The group of monks who had been standing in a semi-circle eavesdropping on my conversation with Kifle-Mariam Mengist dispersed at this point. One of them, however – barefoot, toothless and dressed in such poor rags that he would have passed for a beggar on any street in Addis Ababa – accompanied us as we walked back down the steep track to the jetty. Before we climbed on board the launch he pulled Wondemu aside and whispered something in his ear.
‘What was that?’ I asked sharply, expecting a further demand for payment of some kind.
Money, however, turned out not to be the issue this time. Wondemu frowned: ‘He says that we should go to Tana Kirkos. Apparently we will learn something about the Ark there … something important.’
‘What’s Tana Kirkos?’
‘It is another island … east of here. Quite far.’
‘Ask him to tell us more. What does he mean by something important?’
Wondemu put the question again and translated the answer. ‘He says that the Ark of the Covenant is on Tana Kirkos. That is all he knows.’
My first reaction to this astonishing piece of news was to roll my eyes heavenwards, tug distractedly at my hair, and kick the side of the launch. Meanwhile the monk, whom I wanted more information from, had hobbled back along the jetty and vanished into the banana grove.
I looked at my watch. It was now almost noon. We had been out of Bahar Dar for six hours, or 300 dollars.
‘Is Tana Kirkos on our way back?’ I asked Wondemu.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I have never been there. No one ever goes there. But I know it is more or less due east. Bahar Dar is south.’
‘I see. Any idea how long it will take us?’
‘No. I shall ask the captain.’
Wondemu did that. It would take us about an hour and a half.
‘And after that, how long back to Bahar Dar?’
‘About three more hours.’
I did some rapid calculations in my head. Say two hours on Tana Kirkos, plus an hour and a half to get there, plus three hours to Bahar Dar … that’s six and a half hours. Call it seven, plus the six we’ve already had. That’s, let’s see, thirteen hours. Thirteenbloody hours! At fifty bucks an hour. Six hundred and fifty dollars minimum. Christ!
I fulminated inwardly for some time longer. Eventually, however – with a heart as heavy as my wallet was light – I made up my mind to go.
Of course the Ark wouldn’t actually be on Tana Kirkos. I knew that. In fact the most likely scenario was that I would be given the run-around again, just as on Daga Stephanos. Money would be extracted from me in dribs and drabs until the point was reached where I was obviously not prepared to hand over any more. Then another tantalizing little hint would be dropped naming yet another island – and off I would go, banknotes at the ready, to enrich yet another community of needy anchorites.
James Bruce, I remembered, had been to Tana in the eighteenth century. ‘There are forty-five inhabited islands in the lake,’ he had written, ‘if you believe the Abyssinians, who, in everything, are very great liars …’11
I was not in a receptive frame of mind when we arrived at Tana Kirkos. Nevertheless, as I stood in the bows of the MV Dahlak scowling at the island ahead, I had to admit that it was a beautiful and unusual place. Completely covered in dense green shrubbery, flowering trees and tall cactus plants, it rose steeply from the water to a high peak on which I could just make out the thatched roof of a circular dwelling. Hummingbirds, kingfishers and bright blue starlings darted through the air. On the shore of a small sandy bay, on a makeshift jetty, stood a group of monks. Smiling.
We dropped anchor and clambered out of the boat. Wondemu did the usual round of introductions and explanations. Hands were shaken. Lengthy greetings were exchanged. Finally we were led up a narrow, overgrown path cut out of the side of a grey cliff, through an archway at the top – again hewn out of the bare stone – and finally into a clearing containing three or four dilapidated buildings and a dozen ragged monks.
Set back behind natural rock walls, the grassy space in which we stood was enclosed, silent and dark. The light that did penetrate, filtered as it was through the overarching trees and bushes, seemed muted and green. Against my better judgment, I began to suspect that there might be something worth seeing here after all. I could not have explained why, but Tana Kirkos felt ‘right’ in a way that Daga Stephanos had not.
The senior priest now arrived and introduced himself, through Wondemu, as Memhir Fisseha. He was lean and smelled of incense. He did not ask for money, but he did ask whether or not we had security clearance.
I was nonplussed by such a question, coming as it did from a traditional figure in clerical robes.
‘As a matter of fact,’ I said, ‘yes we do.’ I pulled from my pocket the permit we had obtained from the security police in Addis and gave this to Wondemu, who in turn passed it to Memhir Fisseha. The old man – were all priests in Ethiopia so old? – studied the document with an abstracted air and then handed it back to me. He seemed to be satisfied.
Wondemu now explained that I wanted to ask some questions about Tana Kirkos and about the Ark of the Covenant. Would that be OK?
‘Yes,’ the priest replied, rather sadly I thought. He directed us to the doorway of what, from the blackened pots and pans lying inside, appeared to be a kitchen. Here, on a small stool, he sat down, indicating that we should join him.
‘Do you believe,’ I began, ‘that the Ark of the Covenant was brought from Jerusalem to Ethiopia by Emperor Menelik I?’
‘Yes,’ Wondemu translated.
I heaved a sigh of relief. This was already much better than Daga Stephanos.
‘I have heard a story’, I continued, ‘that the Ark is now here – on the island of Tana Kirkos. Is that story true?’
An anguished expression crossed Memhir Fisseha’s leathery face as he answered: ‘It was true.’
Was true? What on earth did that signify? ‘Get him to elaborate,’ I barked at Wondemu in some agitation. ‘What does he mean by was true?’
The priest’s response excited and distressed me in roughly equal measure: ‘It was true. But the Ark of the Covenant is not here any longer. It has been taken to Axum.’
‘Taken back to Axum!’ I exclaimed. ‘When? When did they take it?’
An intense discussion followed in Amharic, with the main point obviously being clarified several times. Finally Wondemu translated: ‘The Ark was taken to Axum one thousand six hundred years ago, in the time of King Ezana. It was not taken back. It was simply taken there, and it has stayed there ever since.’
I felt perplexed and frustrated. ‘Let me get this clear,’ I said after a moment’s thought. ‘He’s not telling us that the Ark was here recently and has now gone back to Axum, is he? He’s telling us that it went there a very long time ago.’
‘Exactly. One thousand six hundred years ago. That is what he says.’
‘OK, then ask him this. How did the Ark get here in the first place? Did it come here from Axum, and then go back there? Or was it here before it was ever taken to Axum? That seems to be what he means, but I want to be absolutely sure.’
Slowly and painfully the story emerged. Extracting it was like extracting the stump of a rotten tooth from an inflamed gum. Several times consultation was required with the other monks and once a huge, leather-bound book written in ancient Ge’ez was referred to and a passage read out.
In summary, what Memhir Fisseha told us was that the Ark had been stolen from the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem by Menelik I and his companions. They had brought it out of Israel, he explained, and into Egypt. Then they had followed the Nile – first the Nile and afterwards its tributary the Takazze – until they had reached Ethiopia.
This, of course, was the tradition of the theft of the Ark reported in the Kebra Nagast. What came next, however, was completely new.
Looking for somewhere safe and appropriate where they might install the precious relic, the old priest continued, the travellers had come to Tana. At that time, he said, the entire lake was sacred. It was dear to God. A holy place. So they had come to Tana, to its eastern shore, and they had chosen this island, now called Kirkos, as the resting place for the Ark.
‘How long did it stay here?’ I asked.
‘For eight hundred years,’ came the reply. ‘It blessed us with its presence for eight hundred years.’
‘Was there a building? Was it put into some sort of temple?’
‘There was no building. The Holy Ark was placed inside a tent. And it stayed within that tent, here on Tana Kirkos, for eight hundred years. We were Jews then. Afterwards, when we became Christians, King Ezana took the Ark to Axum and placed it in the great church in that city.’
‘And you say the Ark was taken to Axum one thousand six hundred years ago?’
‘So if it was on Tana Kirkos for eight hundred years before that, then – let’s see – it must have arrived here something like two thousand four hundred years ago. Is that right? Are you telling me it came here about four hundred years before the birth of Christ?’
‘You do know that 400 BC was a long time after Solomon – who was supposed to be Menelik’s father? In fact Solomon would have been dead for about five centuries by then. What do you say to that?’
‘I say nothing. I have told you our tradition as it is recorded in our sacred books and in our memory.’
A remark that the priest had made a few moments earlier had interested me enormously, and I now picked him up on this: ‘You told me that you were Jews then? What did that mean? What kind of religion did you have?’
‘We were Jews. We performed sacrifice … the sacrificial lamb. And we continued with this practice until the Ark was taken from us to Axum. Then Abba Salama came and he taught us the Christian faith, and we built a church here.’
Abba Salama, I knew, was the Ethiopic name for Frumentius, the Syrian bishop who had converted King Ezana and the entire Axumite kingdom to Christianity in the 330s AD. This meant that the periods of time that Memhir Fisseha had given me made sense – or at least were internally consistent. The only contradiction was the huge gap between the known dates for Solomon – mid 900s BC – and the date that the Ark had supposedly been brought to Tana Kirkos (which, if I subtracted eight hundred years from 330 AD, would have been 470 BC).
I pressed on: ‘Before Abba Salama came and taught you Christianity you had no church here?’
‘No church. I told you. We were Jews. We performed sacrifice.’ He paused, then added: ‘The blood from the lamb was collected in a bowl … a gomer. Then it was scattered over some stones, some small stones. They are here still, up to this day.’
‘Sorry. Come again. What are here to this day?’
‘The stones that we used for sacrifice when we were Jews. Those stones are here. On the island. They are here now.’
‘Can we see them?’ I asked. I felt a tiny thrill of excitement. If what Memhir Fisseha had just said was true, then he was talking about physical evidence – real physical evidence to support the strange but curiously convincing story that he had told.
‘You can see them,’ he replied. He got to his feet. ‘Follow me. I will show you.’
Scattering the blood
The priest led us to a high point on the cliff edge near the summit of the island, overlooking Lake Tana. Here, on a raised plinth made of natural unhewn rock, he showed us three short stone pillars grouped closely together. The tallest of the three – perhaps a metre and a half high – was square in section, with a cup-shaped declivity hollowed out in its top. The remaining two were each about a metre high, circular in section, and as thick as a man’s thigh. At the top they also had been hollowed out to a depth of approximately 10 centimetres.
Though copious quantities of green lichen grew on them I was able to establish that the three pillars were all monoliths, that they were freestanding, and that they had been carved from the same type of grey granite. They looked old, and I asked Richard for his opinion on this.
‘Of course,’ he replied, ‘I’m not an archaeologist. But I would say from the way they are cut, the style – particularly the square one … I would say they are at least from the Axumite period, if not earlier.’
I asked Memhir Fisseha what the cup-shaped declivities were for.
‘To contain blood,’ was his answer. ‘After the sacrifice, some was scattered over the stones and some on to the tent that contained the Ark. The remainder was poured into these hollows.’
‘Can you show me how it was done?’
The old priest beckoned one of the other monks and gave him an instruction in a low voice. He strode off and returned a few minutes later carrying a wide but shallow bowl so corroded and tarnished with age that I could not even guess of what metal it was made. This, we were told, was the gomer in which the sacrificial blood was first collected.
‘What exactly does gomer mean?’ I asked Wondemu.
He shrugged: ‘I don’t know. It is not an Amharic word, nor Tigrigna. It does not sound like it belongs to any Ethiopian language.’
I looked to Richard for enlightenment but he confessed that he was not familiar with the word either.
Memhir Fisseha said simply that it was called a gomer and had always been called a gomer and that was all he knew. He then positioned himself next to the stones with the bowl in his left hand, dipped into it with his right forefinger, swept his right hand above the level of his head and commenced an up-and-down motion. ‘The blood was scattered in this way,’ he said, ‘over the stones and over the tent of the Ark. Afterwards, as I told you, what was left was poured thus.’ He then tipped the bowl sideways above the cup-shaped hollows in the tops of the pillars.
I asked the priest if he knew where exactly on the island the Ark had been kept in its tent. All he would say, however, was ‘near here … somewhere near here’.
I then sought clarification of our earlier discussion: ‘You told me that it was taken from Tana Kirkos to Axum one thousand six hundred years ago. Is that correct?’
Wondemu translated the question. Memhir Fisseha nodded affirmatively.
‘OK,’ I continued. ‘Now what I want to know is this: has it ever been brought back here? At any time, for any reason, has the Ark ever come back to this island?’
‘No. It was taken to Axum and it stayed in Axum.’
‘And as far as you are aware it is still there to this day?’
No further information seemed likely to be forthcoming, but I was more than satisfied with what I had got – particularly since the information given had at no point been bartered for money. Grateful for this I handed over a 100 birr note as a voluntary contribution to the monastery’s expenses. Then, with Memhir Fisseha’s permission, I set about photographing the sacrificial pillars from a variety of different angles.
We were back in Bahar Dar shortly before eight that evening. We had been out and about on Lake Tana for more than fourteen hours and the final bill for the hire of the MV Dahlak came to 750 US dollars.
36 The Blue Nile Falls near Lake Tana, Ethiopia.
37 Papyrus-reed boat on Lake Tana.
38 Hollowed stones on the island of Tana Kirkos, said to have been used to contain blood during sacrifices in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. The monks claim that the Ark remained on their island for eight hundred years before being taken to Axum.
39 Qemant High Priest, centre, in dark cloak.
The Qemant, a pagan tribe whose religion nevertheless contains strong elements of Judaism, say that they came to Ethiopia ‘from the land of Canaan.’
40 Falasha priest at the village of Anbober, near Gondar, photographed in 1990. A year later almost all of Ethiopia’s Falasha population had been airlifted to Israel.
41 Falasha priest displaying a copy of the Torah witten in Ge’éz, the ancient liturgical language of Ethiopia. The illumination shows the prophet Moses holding the Ten Commandments.
42 and 43 Christian priests at Gondar carrying Tabots on their heads during the Timkat ceremony.
44 Christian priests performing the dance of David before the Ark during the Timkat ceremony at Gondar.
45 Timkat reveller in traditional warrior’s head-dress.
46 Ethiopian priests with sistra. Musical instruments exactly like these were used in religious ceremonies in Israel in Old Testament times.
47 The medieval castle and baptismal pool that provide the focus for the climax of the Timkat ceremony in Gondar.
It had been, by any standards, a costly day. I no longer begrudged the expense, however. Indeed, the doubts that had beset me so forcefully on Daga Stephanos had been completely banished by Tana Kirkos and I felt that I could now continue the quest with a renewed sense of commitment and optimism.
This positive mood received a further boost back in Addis Ababa. There, before I set out for the planned trip to Lake Zwai on Thursday 23 November, I had the opportunity to visit the University Library and examine a number of references concerning the use of sacrificial stones in Old Testament Judaism.
What I discovered was that pillars similar to those that I had seen on Tana Kirkos had been associated with the very earliest phases of the religion – both in Sinai and in Palestine. Known as masseboth, they were set up as altars on high places and were used for cultic and sacrificial purposes.12
I then looked in the Bible to see if I could find any specific details concerning the proper performance of sacrifices in Old Testament times. I did find such details and, as I read and re-read the relevant passages, I realized that what Memhir Fisseha had described to me on the island had been an authentic and very ancient ceremony. No doubt much had become muddled and confused in the memories of the tradition that had been handed down from generation to generation. When he had talked about the scattering of blood, however, he had been astonishingly close to the mark.
In Chapter 4 of the book of Leviticus, for example, I came across this verse: ‘And the priest shall dip his finger in the blood, and sprinkle of the blood seven times before the Lord, before the veil of the sanctuary.’13 Likewise in Chapter 5 I read: ‘And he shall sprinkle of the blood of the sin offering upon the side of the altar; and the rest of the blood shall be wrung out at the bottom of the altar.’14
It was not until I turned to the Mishnah, however, the compilation in written form of early oral Jewish law, that I realized just how authentic Memhir Fisseha’s account in fact had been. In the tractate known as Yoma, in the second division of the Mishnah, I found detailed descriptions of the sacrificial rituals carried out by the High Priest within Solomon’s Temple in front of the curtain that shielded the Ark of the Covenant from the gaze of the laity.
I read that the blood of the victim – whether lamb, goat, or bullock – was collected in a basin and given ‘to one that should stir it up … so that it should not congeal’. Then the priest, having emerged from the sanctuary, ‘took the blood from him that was stirring it and entered again into the place where he had entered and stood again on the place whereon he had stood, and sprinkled the blood once upwards and seven times downwards.’15
And where, exactly, did the priest sprinkle this blood? According to the Mishnah he sprinkled it ‘on the curtain outside, opposite the Ark, once upwards and seven times downwards, not as though he intended to sprinkle upwards or downwards, but as though he were wielding a whip … He then sprinkled the cleansed surface of the altar seven times and poured out the residue of the blood.’16
It seemed to me highly improbable that Memhir Fisseha had ever read the Mishnah. As a Christian he would have no reason to do so; nor would he have had access to such a book on his remote island; nor could he have understood any of the languages into which it had been translated. Yet his hand movements, when he had shown me how the scattering of the blood was done, had been precisely those of a man wielding a whip. And he had spoken confidently of the blood being poured not only upon the altar stones but also ‘on the tent of the Ark’.
The correspondences were too close to be ignored and I felt sure that at some time in the distant past an object of great religious significance had been brought by Jews to the island of Tana Kirkos. Despite the chronological inconsistency in the supposed date of its arrival, there was also every reason to suppose – as Memhir Fisseha himself had so obviously believed – that that object might indeed have been the Holy Ark of the Covenant.