Inheritor of one of antiquity’s biggest empires, Ethiopia has a history full of treasures, legends and mysteries. Let’s talk only about three: the return of a prodigal giant, the gold mines of the Queen of Sheba and the Ark of the Covenant

In 2005, Ethiopia celebrated the unveiling of the re-assembled Axum obelisk, one of the country’s greatest treasures. The obelisk, at least 1 700 years old, was looted by Italian troops in the 1930s and returned to the country after a long diplomatic battle. The ceremony was the last big event of Ethiopia’s millennium year, the year 2000 according to the country’s Coptic calendar. Intricately carved obelisks were erected at the tombs of Ethiopia’s ancient kings when Axum was the centre of a great empire. But only one remained standing amid the tumbled blocks of its former companions. The monument weighs more than 150 tonnes and was brought back from Italy in three pieces. At the time, Ethiopia’s ambassador to the UK, Berhanu Kebede, told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that the
obelisk would help his country “to build a stronger and vibrant nation. We have fought a protracted battle to bring back our historical asset, and this is very important because it’s a manifestation of who we are and it also shows what our ancestors have done. The obelisk shows the architectural talent of our ancestors and modern architects are fascinated how the Ethiopians were able to do it during that period”. In a country with a history so full of wonders and legends, perhaps one of its biggest mysteries has also been unveiled. Last year, Dalya Alberge reported, with obvious enthusiasm in The Observer: “A British excavation has struck archaeological gold with a discovery that may solve the mystery of where the Queen of Sheba of biblical legend derived her fabled treasures”.

 

SUN AND CRESCENT

Her story is so full of contained but vivid excitement that it deserves to be reproduced, a way of not breaking the spell: “Almost 3 000 years ago, the ruler of Sheba, which spanned modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem with vast quantities of gold to give to King Solomon. Now, an enormous ancient goldmine, together with the ruins of a temple and the site of a battlefield, have been discovered in her former territory. Louise Schofield, an archaeologist and former British Museum curator, who headed the excavation on the high Gheralta Plateau in northern Ethiopia, said: ‘One of the things I’ve always loved about archaeology is the way it can tie up with legends and myths. The fact that we might have the Queen of Sheba’s mines is extraordinary’. “An initial clue lay in a 20 ft (6 metresHoly Mary of Sion Church in Axum) stone stele (or slab) carved with a sun and crescent moon, the ‘calling card of the land of Sheba’, Schofield said. ‘I crawled beneath the stone—wary of a 9 ft cobra I was warned lives here—and came face to face with an inscription in Sabaean, the language that the Queen of Sheba would have spoken.’ On a mound nearby, she found parts of columns and finely carved stone channels from a buried temple that appears to be dedicated to the moon god, the main deity of Sheba, an 8th century BC civilisation that lasted 1 000 years. It revealed a victory in a battle nearby, where Schofield excavated ancient bones. Although local people still pan for gold in the river, they were unaware of the ancient mine. Its shaft is buried some 4 ft down, in a hill above which vultures swoop. An ancient human skull is embedded in the entrance shaft, which bears Sabaean chiselling. “Sheba was a powerful incense-trading kingdom that prospered through trade with Jerusalem and the Roman empire. The queen is immortalised in the Qur’an and the Bible, which describes her visit to Solomon ‘with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold and precious stones … Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices’. Although little is known about her, the queen’s image inspired medieval Christian mystical works in which she embodied divine wisdom, as well as Turkish and Persian paintings, the Solomon oratorio by Handel, and Hollywood films. Her story is still told across Africa and Arabia, and the Ethiopian tales are immortalized in the holy book, the Kebra Nagast. Hers is said to be one of the world’s oldest love stories. The Bible says she visited Solomon to test his wisdom by asking him several riddles. Legend has it that he wooed her, and that descendants of their child, Menelik—son of the wise—became the kings of Abyssinia. Schofield said that as she stood on the ancient site, in a rocky landscape of cacti and acacia trees, it was easy to imagine the queen arriving on a camel, overseeing slaves and elephants dragging rocks from the mine. “Tests by a gold prospector who alerted her to the mine show that it is extensive, with a proper shaft and tunnel big enough to walk along. Schofield was instrumental in setting up the multinational rescue excavations at the Roman city of Zeugma on the Euphrates before it was flooded for the Birecik Dam. Her latest discovery was made during her environmental development work in Ethiopia, an irrigation, farming and eco-tourism project on behalf of the Tigray Trust, a charity she founded to develop a sustainable lifestyle for 10 000 inhabitants around Maikado, where people eke out a living from subsistence farming. “Sean Kingsley, archaeologist and author of God’s Gold, said: ‘Where Sheba dug her golden riches is one of the great stories of the Old Testament. Timna in the Negev Desert is falsely known as ‘King Solomon’s Mines’, but anything shinier has eluded us. ‘The idea that the ruins of Sheba’s empire will once more bring life to the villages around Maikado is truly poetic and appropriate. Making the past relevant to the present is exactly what archaeologists should be doing.’” (Ed. note: the team is waiting for more funds to pursue the search and the humanitarian project).

 

FACTS & FIGURES

Ethiopia, officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is the second most populous nation in Africa with more than 74 million people. It is one of the oldest countries in the world (over 2 000 years) and the oldest independent country in Africa. The total area of the country is 1 127 127 km2. There are more than 80 different ethnic groups in Ethiopia today, with the three largest being Oromo, Amhara and Tigre.Ethiopia is a nation known throughout the world for its rich history: the monuments of the Axumite Empire, the rockhewn churches of Lalibela, the castles of Gondar and the walled city of Harar are only a few of the historical attractions of this ancient country. It is also currently making the most important contributions to our knowledge of human origins and development. And it is one of a few African countries to have its own alphabet and has its own time system and unique calendar, seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar. Ethiopia is truly a land of contrast and extremes, a land of remote and wild places. Some of the highest and most stunning places on the African continent are found there, such as the jaggedly carved Semien Mountains (one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites), and
some of the lowest, such as the hot but fascinating fire-cracked plains of the Denakil Depression, with its sulphur fumaroles and lunar-like landscape. It has some of Africa’s highest mountains (Ras Dashen—4 620 m and the highest in Ethiopia) as well as the world’s lowest points—Lake Asal (155 m below sea level), Dallol (116 m below sea level). Dallol is one of the hottest places year round anywhere on earth. It also has Africa’s largest cave, Sof Omar Cave. The lowlands of Ethiopia are equally compelling with strings of beautiful Rift Valley lakes and the enormous Omo Delta, home to some of the most remarkable indigenous groups in Africa including the masters of body decorating, the Hamer and Karo, the crocodile-hunting Dassench tribes and the lip-plated Mursi.Ethiopia has close historical ties to all three of the world’s major Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism). Ethiopia was one of the first Christian countries in the world, having officially adopted Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century. The country still has a Christian majority (Orthodox Tewahdo 45 million, Protestant 14 million, and a meagre 0.9% Catholic (517 430 according to 2007 data), and about 34 million Sunni Islam. It is the first Hijra in Islamic history and has the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa at Negash. Until 1980, a substantial population of Ethiopian Jews (Bete Israel) resided in Ethiopia.

 

 

SON OF THE WISE

The fascination is already present in the Bible’s tale: “And when the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bore spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart. And King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.” (1 Kings 10: 1–13) Jews, who until recently also lived in Ethiopia, were such masters of storytelling that they could mesmerize you with just a few words. The queen’s travel is related to an even bigger mystery. According to Ethiopian tradition, she returns to her capital, Axum, in northern Ethiopia, and months later gives birth to Solomon’s son, who is named Menelik, meaning ‘Son of the Wise’. The story goes that, years later, Menelik travelled to Jerusalem to see his father, who greeted him with joy and invited him to remain there to rule after his death. But Menelik refused and decided to return home. Under cover of darkness he left the city—taking with him its most precious relic, the Ark of the Covenant. He took it back to Axum, where it still resides today, in a specially built treasury in the courtyard of St Mary’s Church. According to BBC’s History of Ancient Cultures, the importance of the queen, the Ark of the Covenant and the Kebra Nagast in Ethiopian history cannot be overstated. Through their reading of the Kebra Nagast, Ethiopians see their country as God’s chosen country, the final resting place that he chose for the Ark—and Sheba and her son were the means by which it came there. Thus, Sheba is the mother of their nation, and the kings of the land have divine right to rule because they are directly descended from her. Emperor Haile Selassie even had that fact enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution of 1955. Haile Selassie was not, however, the first emperor to publicly declare the importance of the Kebra Nagast. London’s National Archives contain letters dating from 1872, written by Prince Kasa (later King John IV) of Ethiopia to Queen Victoria, in which he writes: “There is a book called Kebra Nagast which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia, and the names of the shums (governors), churches and provinces are in this book. I pray you will find out who has got this book and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it. On Victoria’s permit, the book was returned to Ethiopia, and it is now kept in Raguel Church in the capital, Addis Ababa, where a front page inscription explains its history. The Ark, true or not, remains strictly protected and kept away from profane eyes in St Mary of Sion’s Cathedral, the holiest place in Ethiopia. Guarded by monks, not even the President is allowed to see it.

 

 

DIPLOMATIC CAPITAL

One of the first countries in the world to convert to Christianity and the only African one that was never conquered or colonised, Ethiopia is usually quickly associated with hunger and poverty. There were, indeed, in the recent past, great famines, due to severe droughts but mainly to bad governance and lack of appropriate measures to prevent them. Right now, a new crisis is on the way: the government is moving people from their ancestral lands to soulless villages to lease their fields to international agribusiness, a move that spells disaster. But to stamp the simplistic label of hunger on one of the most civilised peoples in the world is quite unfair. Not by chance has UNESCO classified the largest number of World Heritage Sites in this country. The country, as the rest of Africa, is in the middle of another scramble for its wealth. Due to its tradition of tolerance and of being a cultural and religious melting pot, Addis Ababa is the natural African diplomatic capital. Indeed, it is one of the largest diplomatic capitals of the world. Currently, it is the headquarters of the African Union (AU), the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), EU and UNECA (United Nations Economic Commission for Africa) and over 190 diplomatic missions and embassies. In fact, it didn’t need a proof of China’s ‘generosity’, when in 2011, they offered the US$ 200 million African Union (AU) building as a “public demonstration of its good faith, good will and good works in Africa”. Sceptics see it as a subtle hint of China’s neocolonial ambitions and hegemonic designs.