Queen of Sheba’s gold mine discovered in Ethiopia

The gold mine of the Queen of Sheba has been discovered in Ethiopia, the Guardian reports.

A local prospector led British archaeologist Dr. Louise Schofield to a mysterious mine in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Schofield believes that this was the source of the Queen of Sheba’s fabulous gold, a large pile of which she gave to King Solomon when she visited the Holy Land, as is reported in the Old Testament, the Koran, and the Kebra Nagast, one of the holy books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Sheba was probably the Sabaean Kingdom, a wealthy kingdom that included what is now northern Ethiopia and Yemen. It rose to power 3,000 years ago and controlled trade along the Red Sea, especially the profitable spice trade.

Inside the extensive mine, Schofeld found an inscription in Sabaean and a stele bearing a carved sun and crescent moon, the symbol of the Sabaean Kingdom. The remains of a temple and battlefield were found nearby. Schofield is planning to start a major excavation at the site.

This can only be good news for Ethiopia’s growing tourist industry. During a road trip around Ethiopia two years ago, I was stunned by the desolate grandeur of Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The main attractions are Axum, the ancient capital of a kingdom dating from 100–940 AD and considered by many to be a successor state to the Sabaean Kingdom, and Debre Damo, an amazing clifftop monastery that I had to climb up a leather rope to visit.

When I returned to Ethiopia a year later to live in Harar, I found that tourism had increased. Most of the visitors I spoke with said that Ethiopia’s history was one of the main reasons they came to visit, and the Queen of Sheba was often mentioned. While Ethiopia can be dangerous just like any other adventure travel destination, most regions are safe and I’ve had no trouble in the more than four months I’ve spent in the country. Going back is my number one travel priority this year.

Hopefully this latest discovery will help inspire more people to discover Ethiopia’s long history, friendly people, great food, and of course the world’s best coffee.

Photo of an Ethiopian painting of the Queen of Sheba on her way to meet King Solomon courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Lalibela: Ethiopia’s ancient jewel

For an agnostic I’ve certainly been to a lot of holy places.

I’ve always been skeptical of received wisdom, and fascinated that so many people dedicate their lives to a deity they can’t see, can’t prove exists, and who has left them in the lurch on more than one occasion. I’m also fascinated that this strange behavior called religion often makes people better people, and just as often is used to justify appalling crimes. Nor am I impressed by atheists who claim to “know” there is nothing higher, since that’s unprovable too.

So when I travel I always end up at the holy places–camping among the 70 million pilgrims at Kumbh Mela, or sitting with sadhus at the burning ghats in Benares, or discussing Islam in the shady courtyard of a mosque in Isfahan, or climbing up a dubious-looking rope to reach the clifftop monastery of Debre Damo.

One of my friends, a devout Catholic who likes to debate theology as we go on pub crawls, is convinced my interest in religion means I’m going to convert. I could tell him that devoting his academic life to studying the works of Samuel Beckett means he’s going to become a nihilist, but that hardly seems sporting.

I wish he’d been along for my visit to Lalibela, because not only is the town a monument to Ethiopia’s faith in God, but it also brews the country’s best tej. We would have had a hell of a metaphysical boozer.

Lalibela is off the main highway and reached after many miles bouncing along ass-punishing dirt roads. It is here, starting in the 12th century, that a series of churches were dug out the bedrock. This construction-in-reverse was the brainchild of Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, a king of the Zagwe dynasty. The eleven churches he dug here were meant to be a New Jerusalem, in response to the Muslims capturing Jerusalem and making it difficult for Christian pilgrims to visit. The river flowing through Lalibela is called the River Jordan and a pilgrim can visit the Ethiopian version of Bethleham, Golgotha, and the Holy Sepulchre.

The most grand is Biet Medhane Alem, the largest rock-hewn church in the world. It’s a massive block of stone with 72 towering pillars symbolizing the 72 disciples of Christ. A stone passage leads to Biet Mariam, possibly the first to be built and easily my favorite. As our eyes adjust to the dim interior we see 800 year-old frescoes decorating the walls and ceiling. They show scenes from the Bible and their rich colors blend with the shadows to create a soothing, otherworldly effect.

%Gallery-90277%The most famous of the churches, the one seen in all the tourist brochures, is Biet Giyorgis. It blends with the surrounding stone even while standing out and dazzling the eye. It’s retained the same color as the surrounding rock–none of the churches are painted on the outside–and the builders cleverly left the roof pitching at the same angle as the rest of the slope, making the church seem like a natural part of the ground. At twelve meters high, it is the highest (or I should say deepest) of Lalibela’s churches.

At each of the churches a priest will come out on cue, bearing an elaborate medieval silver cross and wearing his colorful raiment. While this makes for great photos, I feel it cheapens the place somewhat, a bit like the monks trotting out illuminated manuscripts at the monasteries on Lake Tana. Still, it’s their choice how they respond to tourism, and tourist money helps maintain the churches and monastic libraries.

Lalibela is one of the most touristy places in Ethiopia. Touts and self-appointed guides abound. While this is nowhere near as annoying as the situation at the Pyramids or the Taj Mahal, it can still be hard to find a decent guide. If you already have a driver, like we hired from Abey Roads, he can find you a reliable local guide. We went with Taye Abebe, who was knowledgeable, spoke good English, and took me to extra places for no additional charge simply because he knew I was interested. He can be contacted at taye_lalibela@ yahoo.co.uk.

On the second day of our visit, Taye takes me to a predawn mass. I leave my wife asleep in the hotel, skip breakfast, and go with him through the darkened town to Beit Gabriel. It’s Gabriel’s holy day today. Because of the steep incline of the original slope one wall of the church seems to soar to the sky. The Ethiopians call it the “Stairway to Heaven”. We cross a narrow stone bridge, with a sheer drop several meters down on either side, and enter the packed interior.

Inside, the rough stone walls are aglow with the light of candles, and resonate with the sound of chanting. Everyone is wearing white, from the aged priests leading the service to the village women leaning wearily against the pillars, exhausted from having spent the night in prayer. We stand next to a religious class of sleepy-eyed kids who take turns reading aloud from a holy book written in Ge’ez. None of them take the slightest notice of me, the only foreigner in the room. Instead they concentrate on puzzling through the ancient liturgical language.

The head priest comes out of the holy of holies bearing an elegant silver cross. One by one the faithful go up to him and kiss it, and he rubs it along their bodies to give them a blessing. We stay and watch as the sun rises and beams its first golden light into the interior. At last we go, but the priests and townsfolk and pilgrims stay. They’ve been praying all night, and they’ll pray all day too.

For the rest of the day I wander around more of Lalibela’s churches, amazed that people can be so sure of something they can’t prove that they’d dig out more than a dozen buildings from solid rock. I’ve met atheists who sneer at such feats, saying it’s a means of social control, a waste of money and effort to worship something that doesn’t exist. But that’s missing the point. People need these festivals and rituals and grand monuments. It takes them out of their day-to-day life and shows them something higher. Even a religion hater like atheist author Sam Harris says spirituality is an important part of life. And that’s what these places provide, even for a cynic like me. Because every now and then, you need to feel that rarest of emotions–awe.

And you don’t have to believe in God to figure that out.

Next time: Addis Ababa: Ethiopia’s New Flower.

Check out the rest of my travel articles about Ethiopia.

Climbing Ethiopia’s clifftop monastery

While visiting the ancient capital of Axum is one of the highlights of any trip to Ethiopia, you can’t see its most famous relic–the Ark of the Covenant, reputed to be kept in a special building behind the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam. Only a lone caretaker is allowed entry into this sacred building. Every Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a replica of the Ark, called the tabot, but only members of the clergy are allowed to see it.

Even though the holiest artifact of Ethiopian Christianity is strictly off-limits, outsiders can still see places that look like something straight out of the histories of the early Christian Fathers.

After Axum, the main highway loops southwards through the border province of Tigray and passes Debre Damo, built in the 6th century and one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Perched high atop a sheer mesa (amba in Tigrayana), it has survived wars, invasions, forced conversions, and the relentless pressures of time. Women are forbidden to enter the monastery and even female animals are kept away. The only way to enter is by climbing a thick leather rope up a sheer cliff. The priests have cut many footholds over the years, but this didn’t help my fear of heights.

Four years of rock climbing in college made me able to control my fear, but never took it away. Still, I wasn’t about to pass up a lifelong dream. You see, back when I was about ten I read a National Geographic article on Debre Damo and thought the idea of monks living all their lives on top of a cliff was really cool. It was my first impression of Ethiopia, and the image stuck with me through all the reports of famine and war in the 1980s and 90s. I knew there was a different Ethiopia to the one I saw on television and I was determined to see it .

Seeing it was turning out to be tough going.

The high altitude has both me and Sntayehu, my Ethiopian driver/translator/fixer, out of breath before we even get to the bottom of the cliff. Once there, a local guide ties me to the “security rope”, a thick leather strap that snakes up the cliff and disappears out of sight. Tying me in isn’t done with any sort of proper climbing harness, but a loose knot around my waist fastened with a long pin. I have to climb up the main leather rope hand over hand as some unseen assistant keeps the safety rope firm in case I fall. Travel is all about trust, but I’m determined not to test his belaying skill.

%Gallery-90292%So up I go, while Sntayehu stays at the bottom to take photographs of my squashed remains wondrous feat of climbing. The “assistant” at the top of the cliff yanks on the rope, and keeps yanking so hard he nearly pulls me free of the cliff. The security harness burns my skin and almost comes off as I puff up the cliff hand over hand as fast as I can for fear of getting assisted to death. In less time than I think possible I’m up, one hand on a rock crevasse, the other on a wooden threshold worn smooth by centuries of desperate grabs for dear life. Another pull up and this forty-year-old writer sees what he had been waiting three decades to see–the interior of one of Ethiopia’s most remote monasteries.

My view is suddenly blocked by the guy who had been so helpful on the climb up, a young deacon who promptly asks for the entrance fee. At 100 birr ($7.50) this is twice as much as most places, but an entire community of monks lives up here and this is one of their only means of support. Sntayehu told me a story of a group of Israeli backpackers who got to the top, complained about the price, and refused to pay. The deacon pulled up the rope and said they could climb down on their own. They paid. The monks may live in a different world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid!

Once that formality is finished, I chat with a couple of monks sitting on a narrow staircase leading up to the top of the mesa. My Amharic is limited, their English nonexistent, but I communicate how happy I am to finally be here and they communicate how welcome I am. Ethiopians are good at communicating that. Up the stairs I go and pass through a gate and onto the bare, flat top of the mesa. It’s large, large enough to house a couple of churches, a couple of hundred monks, and lots of open space in which to be alone. The monks only go down to buy food or perform church services, and when they get too old to climb down, they stay up here for the rest of their lives. Simple stone houses shelter them from the sun, and small herds of animals wander around grazing on the few shoots of grass poking up through cracks in the rock. The place looks abandoned as nearly everyone is at a church service.

With the main church closed for services there aren’t many “sights” to see up here, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the atmosphere I came to feel. The quiet is almost palpable, with only the wind blowing across bare rock and the occasional swoosh of an eagle riding the currents of air. A deacon tells me there are hermits living over the lip of the cliff, sitting in caves out of sight and accessible only by tiny finger- and toeholds. The oldest one has lived in a cave for sixty years. Unlike at the monasteries of Lake Tana, they aren’t given a holy book or icon to study, but simply sit thinking and looking out on the vast landscape. At night the monks can hear them singing.

I try to imagine what it would be like sitting alone in a cave and staring out at the rough, dry countryside. The terrain reminds me of the Holy Land, or the desert of Egypt where the world’s oldest Christian monastery still stands. I wonder what it is about deserts that draws mystics of all cultures. Is it the remoteness? The harshness? The proximity to death? Whatever it is, this is how monasteries started. At first hermits went out seeking solitude, then they were followed by more religious seekers until entire communities took root.

I also wonder what it’s like to live the life of a monk up here, but there’s nobody with enough English to ask. The deacon says he’s going to become a priest, the life of a monk being too hard. So I climb back down the rope little wiser than I went up it, except for seeing what life was like for the earliest Christians, and what it is still like for some. I’ve glimpsed a lifestyle I didn’t know still existed. And I learned that the hermits sing at night.

That’s enough.

To see earlier posts in this series, click here.