Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Aksum around

I woke up early in Aksum, and went walking around the city.  I was looking for a place recommended in the Lonely Planet as a good breakfast spot, but was having no luck finding it.  There was an interesting place next to my hotel serving fata, which I had read about.  I saw people breaking up round bread into a large metal bowl, so I pointed for one.

The place brought me out a round metal bowl, and two round crusty loaves of Tigrayan himbasha bread--and I got to work breaking it up into little pieces.  When I was done breaking it up, they took the bowl, and performed their magic.  The metal bowl came back with the bread soaked in a special spicy sauce.  They also brought out a small cup of yogurt and a small plate of slivers of tomatoes, red onions and hot peppers.  I mixed the yogurt and veggies into the metal bowl, and had a fata feast, which was absolutely delicious.

After breakfast, I had a little more coffee in the bunna coffee roasting ceremony on the street.  I watched a girl grind up the fresh roasted beans, then put it in the traditional pot and heat it over coals.  I chatted with two local college students, who informed me that it was a special holiday in Aksum.  Apparently, it was a festival day for women and girls where they dress up in traditional clothing and go out in packs around the city accosting men with singing and music and demand money.  I had been warned.

I found my way towards the Aksum Tourism Office to buy my ticket for the obelisk stelae sites for the city but the office was confusingly closed.  A young tourguide named Merhat got off his bike and started walking with me towards the stelae site, explaining that I could get my ticket at the office at the monuments.  He offered his services to be my guide, so I peppered him with questions of why he would be a good guide, and whether he would be able to sneak me into see the Ark of the Covenant. We agreed on a price for his services, and I bought my ticket into the Aksumite Stelae area.

We wandered through the obelisk field that marked the burial place for the rulers of the mighty--the historical capital of the Aksumite Empire that ruled much of the Horn of Africa. These pics are mostly from the stelae (obelisk) fields and mausoleum tombs that the Aksumite rulers built in the 3rd century AD.

 The mighty Aksumite Empire ruled the Red Sea trade routes that linked India to southern Arabia, eastern Africa and the Roman Empire--trading ivory, incense, gold and slaves across the southern Spice Routes.

I learned about the different styles of obelisks, ranging from the carved varieties to the blank obelisks.

The Rome Obelisk was the second-largest, and had been stolen by Rome on Mussolini's orders, and was razed and re-assembled in Rome.  It stayed in Rome until 2005, when Italy finally returned it.  It was re-raised in 2007.

I also visited the different tombs, and learned about how, much like the Egyptian pharaohs, the dead rulers had their entire households and household staff buried with them.

I stopped in the fascinating Archaeological Museum that chronicled the rise and fall of the Aksum Empire.  There were all sorts of items like lamps, incense burners and jewelry.  I marveled at the reach of the Aksum Empire, and the sophistication of the once-mighty empire.

We continued through the ages, stopping at the Queen of Sheba's Bath.  The large reservoir, despite local legends, was not actually the Queen of Sheba's bath, but still makes a good story for a watering hole that is a few thousand years old.

And I got to see King Ezana's Inscription, which was like an Ethiopian Rosetta Stone.  The stone was unearthed in 1988, and had alternating inscriptions in Ge'ez, Sabaean and Greek, dating back to the mid-4th century.

We continued on past villagers herding goats, cows and sheep, and past people digging ditches and on to the tombs of Kings Kaleb and Gebre Meskel on top of the hill.  I went tomb-raiding in the darkness, then went on. 

We walked back to the city, and I bade my guide goodbye when it was clear he could not sneak me in to see the Ark of the Covenant.

I walked back into town, and started getting harassed by the bands of little girls singing and demanding money.  It was actually a bit annoying because these bands of girls would come up and demand money for their shitty singing, and wouldn't go away.  I was joking around with one band, but was getting annoyed that they wouldn't go away. I was walking backwards, telling them to go away and that I wouldn't give them money, when I almost fell in a manhole.  I stepped back into a grate, and fell down.  Thankfully there were enough bars on the manhole that it braced my fall, but was a bit scary.  Literally the whole street stopped with my crash.  Some other Ethiopians yelled at the girls to leave me alone,

I re-grouped for some lunch at Cafe Ezana--the breakfast spot I had been searching for.  I had some special ful--fava bean paste with scrambled eggs and yogurt, eaten with the crusty himbasaha bread.  Yum.

I took a little nap, then realized that the roving bands of girls offered a great photographic opportunity.  Instead of balking at giving them money, I realized I could buy them off for 1 birr (5 cents) and they would both stop and I could get some great photos.  And I did.

I wandered back through town to visit the St. Mary's Church.  The St. Mary's Church is supposedly home to the Ark of the Covenant, which I fully intended to steal back.

I first visited the new church, constructed by Emperor Haile Selassie.  This particular wing was (not-exclusively) for women, who are not allowed to visit the other section.

I also visited an pretty amazing museum, that hosted the crowns and robes of various Ethiopian emperors like Menelik II and Haile Selassie, as well as a number of phenomenal gold-encrusted Orthodox bibles and chalices.  

I ventured past the shrine holding the Ark of the Covenant.  No one is allowed in, save for one monk who spends all his days inside the shrine--praying and lighting incense. Foreigners are not allowed with 20 feet of the fence because some foreigners tried to scale the fence some years back.  In vain, I tried to convince my tour guide that he should help me sneak in.

I made my way into the last church--the original St. Mary's to take in some of the fine murals.

I made my way back home to the Africa Hotel, with only accosting and bribery, and chilled out a bit.  I went back out in the streets later, but it was only getting more frenetic, so I hopped a tuk-tuk up to the Yeha Hotel, which was supposed to have the best menu outside Addis.  It really did, and I had some delicious pan-fried fish with lemon, rice and collard greens.  I sat out sipping St. George Amber, reading Kate Chopin in my pocket classics.  I would recommend her short stories if you have never heard of her/read her-- she was a famous writer at the turn of the 20th century who has a solid twist in her tales and turns a phrase well (the best compliment I can offer).

I walked my way back down through the quiet street to get some rest ahead of a long travel day awaiting me.

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