The road degenerated into a rutted, rocky pathway that twisted around the hillsides, and our SUV struggled to exceed ten miles per hour. I reached Aksum in darkness and shared the hotel dining room with United Nations peacekeepers from Uruguay and Jordan who told me they were monitoring a stretch of the Ethiopia-Eritrea border about an hour's drive away. The latest U.N. bulletin, they said, described the area as "volatile and tense."
The next day was hot and dusty. Except for the occasional camel and its driver, Aksum's streets were nearly empty. We weren't far from the Denakil Desert, which extends eastward into Eritrea and Djibouti.
By chance, in the lobby of my hotel I met Alem Abbay, an Aksum native who was on vacation from Frostburg State University in Maryland, where he teaches African history. Abbay took me to a stone tablet about eight feet high and covered in inscriptions in three languages—Greek; Geez, the ancient language of Ethiopia; and Sabaean, from across the Red Sea in southern Yemen, the true birthplace, some scholars believe, of the Queen of Sheba.
"King Ezana erected this stone tablet early in the fourth century, while still a pagan ruler," Abbay told me. His finger traced the strange-looking alphabets carved into the rock 16 centuries ago. "Here, the king praises the god of war after a victory over a rebel people." But sometime in the following decade Ezana was converted to Christianity.
Abbay led me to another stone tablet covered with inscriptions in the same three languages. "By now King Ezana is thanking 'the Lord of Heaven' for success in a military expedition into nearby Sudan," he said. "We know he meant Jesus because archaeological digs have turned up coins during Ezana's reign that feature the Cross of Christ around this time." Before that, they bore the pagan symbols of the sun and moon.
As we walked on, we passed a large reservoir, its surface covered with green scum. "According to tradition, it's Queen Sheba's bath," Abbay said. "Some believe there's an ancient curse on its waters."
Ahead was a towering stele, or column, 79 feet high and said to weigh 500 tons. Like other fallen and standing steles nearby, it was carved from a single slab of granite, perhaps as early as the first or second century A.D. Legend has it that the ark of the covenant's supreme power sliced it out of the rock and set it into place.
On our way to the chapel where the ark is said to be kept, we passed Sheba's bath again and saw about 50 people in white shawls crouched near the water. A boy had drowned there shortly before, and his parents and other relatives were waiting for the body to surface. "They say it will take one to two days," Abbay said. "They know this because many other boys have drowned here while swimming. They believe the curse has struck again."
Abbay and I made our way toward the office of the Neburq-ed, Aksum's high priest, who works out of a tin shed at a seminary close by the ark chapel. As the church administrator in Aksum, he would be able to tell us more about the guardian of the ark.
"We've had the guardian tradition from the beginning," the high priest told us. "He prays constantly by the ark, day and night, burning incense before it and paying tribute to God. Only he can see it; all others are forbidden to lay eyes on it or even go close to it." Over the centuries, a few Western travelers have claimed to have seen it; their descriptions are of tablets like those described in the Book of Exodus. But the Ethiopians say that is inconceivable—the visitors must have been shown fakes.
I asked how the guardian is chosen. "By Aksum's senior priests and the present guardian," he said. I told him I'd heard that in the mid-20th century a chosen guardian had run away, terrified, and had to be hauled back to Aksum. The Neburq-ed smiled, but did not answer. Instead, he pointed to a grassy slope studded with broken stone blocks—the remains of Zion Maryam cathedral, Ethiopia's oldest church, founded in the fourth century A.D. "It held the ark, but Arab invaders destroyed it," he said, adding that priests had hidden the ark from the invaders.
Now that I had come this far, I asked if we could meet the guardian of the ark. The Neburq-ed said no: "He is usually not accessible to ordinary people, just religious leaders."