Part III: Ethiopia, 1989–90


Chapter 8

Into Ethiopia

On my visit to his estate in Scotland, the Earl of Elgin confirmed that my suspicions about James Bruce were correct: the explorer had indeed been a Freemason (a member of Canongate Kilwinning Lodge No. 2 in the city of Edinburgh).

Elgin also told me that Bruce had been very much involved in the ‘speculative’ side of Freemasonry – as distinct from the more pragmatic and mundane ‘craft’ Masonry. This meant that he would have cultivated an interest in the esoteric and occult traditions of the brotherhood – traditions, including ‘Knight Templarism’, that most modern Masons neither knew nor cared anything about.

I should add, at this point, that I had never felt that all Masons would have had access to the Templar legacy; on the contrary, it was reasonable to suppose that such access would at all times have been restricted to a very few people.

Bruce, however, looked like an ideal candidate for membership of that privileged group. With his extensive knowledge of the Scriptures, his scholarly attraction to mystical works such as the Book of Enoch, and his ‘speculative’ leanings within the Masonic system, he was precisely the kind of man who would have investigated Templar traditions concerning the last resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

After my meeting with Lord Elgin, therefore, I felt more confident than ever that it had been the Ark all along, rather than the Nile, that had lured the Scottish adventurer to Ethiopia in 1768. His paradoxical dishonesty on certain key issues (paradoxical because he was normally so truthful) now made sense to me; his evasiveness and secrecy were now explained. I might never know what mysteries he had uncovered in the Abyssinian highlands all those many years ago; now, however, I could at least be reasonably sure about his motives.

It had been in the summer of 1989 when I had first begun to wonder whether Bruce might have been a Mason, but it was not until August 1990 that I had my discussion with Lord Elgin. Meanwhile, as recounted in the last chapter, I had followed up the ‘Portuguese connection’ represented by members of the Order of Christ who had travelled to Ethiopia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

All the evidence that I had unearthed seemed to point in the direction of a continuing quest for the Ark – a covert venture that had drawn travellers hailing from quite different historical periods and from different lands towards the same lofty and enduring goal. Moreover, if this had been the case in centuries past then might it not still be the case today? Might not others be seeking the Ark in Ethiopia just as I was? As my research progressed I kept an open mind on this question while continually adding to my files on people like James Bruce and Christopher da Gama. Even without the stimulus of competition, however, my findings during the spring and summer of 1989 had convinced me that it was high time for me to return to Ethiopia to add some detailed field work to what had hitherto been primarily an intellectual exercise.

Difficult times

I took this decision as early as June 1989, but several months were to elapse before I was finally able to implement it. Why? Because on 19 May of that year a violent coup had been attempted in Addis Ababa throwing the whole of Ethiopia into turmoil.

The government of President Mengistu Haile-Mariam survived, but only at great cost. After the dust had settled one hundred and seventy-six rebellious officers were rounded up and arrested, including no less than twenty-four generals, amongst them the Commander of Ground Forces and the Chief of Operations. Rather than be captured and face trial, the Armed Forces Chief of Staff and the Commander of the Air Force committed suicide. Eleven other generals were killed in the fighting and the Minister of Defence was shot dead by the coup plotters.

The consequences of this ugly bloodbath were to haunt Mengistu and his regime for a very long while to come: with the officer corps effectively gutted, the military’s decision-making capacity was reduced virtually to zero, a state of affairs that quickly translated itself into reverses on the battlefield. Indeed, in the months immediately following the coup, the Ethiopian army suffered a series of crushing defeats that ended in its total expulsion from the province of Tigray (which the TPLF declared a ‘liberated zone’) and from most of Eritrea as well (where the EPLF was already laying in place the structures for an independent state). The fighting also spread with alarming rapidity into other areas – including north-east Wollo, where the ancient city of Lalibela was overrun in September 1989, and Gondar, where the regional capital was besieged.

The worst setback of all, at least from my own selfish perspective, was that the government was no longer in control of Axum. Indeed, as noted in Chapter 3, the sacred city had been seized by the TPLF at the end of 1988, some months before the attemptedcoup.I had at first hoped that this would be a temporary state of affairs. As the dismal events of the second half of 1989 began to unfold, however, I had to face up to the possibility that the guerillas might be able to hold on to Axum indefinitely.

This, of course, left me with the option of approaching the TPLF in London and trying to win their co-operation in getting into the areas that they now administered. I was, however, not ready to pursue this option immediately. My own long-standing connections with the Ethiopian government meant that the Liberation Front would regard any overtures from me with intense suspicion. One possible outcome, unless I played my cards very cleverly indeed, was that they would point-blank refuse my request to go to Axum. But frankly I was more concerned about the safety of my skin if they did agree to take me in: as a known friend of the hated Mengistu regime wasn’t there a chance, on the long and dangerous road into Tigray, that some local guerilla commander might decide I was a spy and have me shot – even if the London office had cleared me for the visit?

In the post-coup atmosphere nothing could be certain in Ethiopia; no plans could be made with any degree of confidence; and there was no way of predicting what might happen from one week to the next. Any number of dramatic developments looked theoretically possible – not least the fall of Mengistu and a complete victory for the combined forces of the EPLF and the TPLF. I decided, therefore, that I would focus my efforts on other aspects of my research until a clearer picture had emerged. It was thus not until November 1989 that I finally returned to Ethiopia.

A secret hiding place?

The information that precipited my return was provided to me by the Very Reverend Liqa Berhanat Solomon Gabre Selassie. I first encountered the man who owned this extremely long name in London on 12 June 1989, at which time I discovered that he also had an extremely long and full grey beard, nut-brown skin, twinkling eyes, splendid ceremonial robes, and – suspended around his neck – an elaborate wooden crucifix. Archpriest of the Saint Mary of Zion Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, he was, in fact, a missionary. He had been sent to Britain some years previously by the Patriarchate in Addis Ababa in order to spread the Orthodox message. Moreover he had succeeded in winning a number of converts, mainly young Londoners of West Indian origin, some of whom he brought with him to our meeting – which I had arranged in order to pump him for information about the Ark.

Archpriest Solomon was, for me, the very image of an Old Testament patriarch. The venerable beard, the sagacious and yet slightly roguish manner, the charismatic personality leavened with genuine humility, and the absolute conviction of a deeply held faith all added irresistibly to this impression.

It quickly became clear to me as we talked that he possessed an unshakable belief that the sacred relic was indeed in Ethiopia. An intelligent and obviously highly educated man who spouted out biblical references with an assurance born of a lifetime of study, he expressed this view firmly and calmly and refused to accept that there was any possibility at all that he might be mistaken.

On a sheet of paper in front of me I took careful notes as he forcefully reiterated this point: the original Ark of the Covenant which had been constructed at the foot of Mount Sinai to contain the tablets of stone bearing the Ten Commandments – that very same pure and authentic object now rested in Axum. Furthermore, he insisted, it still had ‘its powers, thanks to the Grace of God’ and was, in addition, ‘protected by the entire population of Tigray’. ‘It remains today’, he concluded, ‘in the safe hands of the church and Christian people who are constantly seen around the church’s compound.’

Before the archpriest left, I wrote down a list of fifteen questions that I wanted him to answer in detail. When his considered replies arrived at my home by post in mid-July, however, I was far away in Egypt. On my return some weeks later I barely glanced at the ten pages of mixed handwriting and typescript that he had sent me. Indeed I was so busy analysing and working through the Egyptian material I had gathered that I didn’t even bother to send him a note of thanks.

In an idle moment in early November I finally turned my attention to the document which I had placed in the ‘pending’ tray on my desk more than three months previously. I found that it contained point-by-point responses to all my fifteen questions. Some of the answers, furthermore, were both intriguing and provocative.

For example, I had asked whether the alleged ‘supernatural’ powers of the Ark had ever been harnessed by the rulers of Ethiopia to bring victory in war. The Bible made it clear that this had been done on several occasions in ancient Israel.1 If the Ark was really in Ethiopia, therefore, wasn’t it logical to suppose that this tradition would have been maintained?

‘In the teaching of our Church’, Solomon had replied, ‘God is the only power in the universe. He is the creator of all existing life, visible and invisible. He himself is the uncreated eternal light, which gives us light and power and grace. There is, however, a tangible dimension in which we can understand the relation between God and the Ark, for since the Ark contains the ten sacred words of the Law, written by God, the gift of His holiness cannot be diminished within it. Up to this day, therefore, His grace still rests upon the Ark, so by the name of God it is holy and of great spiritual significance.’

The former rulers of Ethiopia, the archpriest’s answer continued, had known this. Since their prime function was to protect and defend the Orthodox Christian faith they had, during the many wars fought over the passing centuries, made use of the Ark from time to time ‘as a source of spiritual strength against the aggressors … The King would rally the people for battle and the priests would stand as on the day when Joshua carried the Ark around the city of Jericho. Likewise our priests carried the Ark, chanting and going into battle in the glory of God.’

This use of the sacred relic as a war palladium – and as an effective one at that – was not, according to Archpriest Solomon, just something that had happened in Ethiopia’s distant past. On the contrary: ‘As recently as 1896 when the King of Kings Menelik the Second fought against the Italian aggressors at the battle of Adowa in Tigray region, the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the field to confront the invaders. As a result of this, Menelik was very victorious and returned to Addis Ababa in great honour.’

I re-read this part of the reply with considerable interest because I knew that Menelik II had indeed been ‘very victorious’ in 1896. In that year, under the command of General Baratieri, 17,700 Italian troops equipped with heavy artillery and the latest weapons had marched up into the Abyssinian highlands from the Eritrean coastal strip intent on colonizing the whole country. Menelik’s forces, though ill prepared and less well armed, had met them at Adowa on the morning of 1 March, winning in less than six hours what one historian had subsequently described as ‘the most notable victory of an African over a European army since the time of Hannibal’.2 In a similar tone, the London Spectator of 7 March 1896 commented: ‘The Italians have suffered a great disaster … greater than has ever occurred to white men in Africa.’

The tantalizing hint that the Ark had been used at Adowa raised in my mind the half-serious possibility that it might still be being used today – perhaps by the TPLF, who now had control of Axum and who, like Menelik II, had certainly been very victorious in recent months. Solomon, however, did not speculate about this in his written answers. Instead (in his reply to a question that I had asked concerning the security of the Ark in the sanctuary chapel during the current all-out war being fought between government and rebel forces) he went on to suggest a completely different scenario.

When I had talked to him in June he had seemed confident that the sacred relic was still in its usual place, ‘protected by the entire population of Tigray’. Now he did not seem so sure. ‘There have been very infrequent occasions’, he explained, ‘during periods of great violence and tribulation, when the guardian monk, who watches the Ark day and night until he dies, has been obliged to cover it up and bring it out of Axum to safety. We know, for instance, that this happened in the sixteenth century when Tigray was invaded by the Muslim armies of Ahmed Gragn and most of Axum was destroyed. Then the guardian took the Ark to the monastery of Daga Stephanos, which stands on an island in Lake Tana. There it was hidden in a secret place.’

It was the archpriest’s conclusion that really caused me to sit up and pay attention. Under the present circumstances of war and chaos in Tigray, he said, it was quite possible that the guardian could have taken the Ark out of Axum again.

Two lakes, two islands

I flew back to Addis Ababa on Tuesday 14 November 1989, arriving on the morning of Wednesday 15 November. Despite the continuing fighting in almost all parts of northern Ethiopia, I was quite clear in my own mind about the objectives of this trip. If Archpriest Solomon’s analysis was correct, I reasoned, might not the sacred relic believed to be the Ark of the Covenant be resting even now on the monastic island of Daga Stephanos – in that same ‘secret place’ to which it had been taken in the sixteenth century?

This, furthermore, was not the only location in which it might have been concealed. I also remembered very well that Dr Belai Gedai had told me in one of our several long-distance telephone conversations of another, earlier tradition concerning the saving of the Ark during the uprising of Queen Gudit in the tenth century. At the time, the Ethiopian historian had explained, it had been brought to one of the islands on Lake Zwai.

I had therefore come to Ethiopia to check out both Lake Tana and Lake Zwai: the former lying in the war-torn north, though still in an area controlled by the government; the latter in safer territory about two hours’ drive to the south of Addis Ababa.

I felt a tremendous sense of urgency during my first few days in the Ethiopian capital. I had left England less than a week after reading Archpriest Solomon’s answers to my questions, and the reason why I was in such a hurry was quite simple: though Lake Zwai was secure enough, for the present at least, there was absolutely no guarantee that Lake Tana was going to remain in government hands for very much longer. Rebel forces, I knew, had surrounded the fortress city of Gondar, which stood some thirty miles to the north of the vast lake. Meanwhile, sporadic artillery and hit-and-run attacks had also been directed against the port of Bahar Dar on the southern shore. Since the only way for me to reach Daga Stephanos was through Bahar Dar I felt that I had no time to lose.

There could be no question of going through the normal bureaucratic channels to arrange the internal travel permit. Accompanied by my old friend Richard Pankhurst, who had taken a few days off from the Institute of Ethiopian Studies in order to help me out, I therefore went along to a meeting with one of my highest-ranking contacts – Shimelis Mazengia, Head of Ideology and a senior member of the ruling Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Ethiopia.

A tall slim man in his forties who spoke fluent English, Shimelis was a committed Marxist but also one of the most intelligent and cultured of the Politburo members. His power within the regime was considerable and I knew him to have a genuine enthusiasm for the ancient history of his country. I therefore hoped that he might be persuaded to use his influence to back the research that I wanted to do – and in this I was not disappointed. After I had outlined my project to him he agreed readily to my proposed field trips to Lake Tana and to Lake Zwai. The only condition was that my stay in the Tana area should be kept as short as possible. ‘Do you have a schedule in mind?’ he asked.

I pulled out my diary and, after a moment’s thought, proposed Monday the 20th for my departure to Lake Tana: ‘I’ll fly to Bahar Dar, hire a launch from the Maritime Authority, visit Daga Stephanos and then come back to Addis on – say – Wednesday the 22nd. That should give me enough time … If it’s OK with you I’d then like to drive down to Zwai on Thursday the 23rd.’

Shimelis turned to Richard: ‘And will you be going as well, Professor Pankhurst?’

‘Well, if it is acceptable … of course I would like very much to go.’

‘Certainly it is acceptable.’

Shimelis then telephoned the Headquarters of the National Security Police in Addis Ababa and spoke rapidly in Amharic to someone in authority. After he had hung up he told us that our permits would be ready for collection that afternoon.

‘Come back and see me next Friday,’ he said, ‘after you have finished at Lake Tana and Lake Zwai. You can make an appointment with my secretary.’

We left the Party building in high spirits. ‘I never thought it would be so easy,’ I said to Richard.

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