"Axum trip - May 1994" by Paula Berg

The "article" below is not my own - it was written by Paula Berg, a retired State Dept. secretary who comes back as a "rehired annuitant" to fill brief gaps here and there when someone is taking home leave, etc. I'd almost forgotten I had it. She wrote it to send to her friends at home and for the embassy community. I have stuck in a few bracketed footnotes of my own.


Our Communications Officer, Larry Bucher, his Thai wife, Jamroon, and I, hired a vehicle and driver, Haile, and took off for a three-day trip to the ancient town of Axum in northern Ethiopia. Jamroon had packed an ice chest with bananas, cold lobster, salad fixin’s, rice and lobster curry, as well as a variety of snacks; my contribution was comparatively small - mangoes, apples, tangerines and cookies. We had what we hoped would be an ample supply of potable water, blankets, pillows and towels, since we had been told that the hotel accommodations in Axum were short of Hilton standards.

The drive south took about 4 1/2 hours. On the Eritrean side, we passed much evidence of the recently won war of independence; trenches, rusted Russian tanks and trucks, scarred landscape and roadway. We crossed the border without incident at the Mareb River, the natural border between the two countries, where the paved road ended. [Note 1] On the Ethiopian side, the road was relatively well-packed and graded gravel. As it was a Saturday, there was not too much traffic, but we did pass convoys of trucks carrying food-aid to and from the Eritrean port of Massawa headed for both Eritrea and Ethiopia. Of course, we shared the road with the usual array of livestock and humans, many carrying impossible loads on their heads and backs.

We arrived in Axum dusty and a bit tired, but eager to settle into our rooms and dig into the cooler chest goodies. The restored Yeha Hotel was surprisingly clean and comfortable, albeit somewhat lacking in services. [Note 2] For example, there was running water only for 20 minutes each evening. Each guest, however, was provided with a large pail of water for flushing the toilets, sponge bathing, but certainly not for drinking. The dining room had tablecloths and cloth napkins and it, too, was immaculate. There was a modern-style bar with a somewhat limited supply of soft drinks, whiskey and beer . . . nice and cold. However the menu was limited: dinner was a choice of spaghetti or soup as starter, chicken or beef and vegetables for entree, a crepe or banana for dessert, with strong, Ethiopian coffee or tea and homebaked bread. We discovered that pretty much the same menu was available for lunches and dinners, the variety being the method of preparation (baked or fried). Breakfast consisted of 3 eggs, bread with butter and jam, coffee or tea. While the food was mediocre (the cows and chickens in this part of the world lead very difficult lives . . . not conducive to tenderness), it was edible and the hotel staff tried valiantly and sincerely to please. For example, at approximately 7:00 PM, they would come looking for their guests and phoning to their rooms to advise them that the water was running. The idea was to hurry to our rooms to shower or to fill up the tubs for use later. Of course, the water was cold! The electricity functioned from about 7:00 PM until about midnight and there was ample illumination to read myself to sleep. There was a delightful breeze into my room, but I had to prop the window with the towel I had brought along. The hotel towels were quite sufficient, actually, but I was certainly glad to have my pillow.

At check-in time we inquired about a guide who had been recommended to us and were told where and when to find him. After our succulent feast and a brief rest we assembled in the courtyard and were guided to the most well-known attraction in the town, the ancient obelisks and steli of Axum [Note 3], which pre-dated Christianity by 1000 years. We paid a fee of about $5 for the entire day’s touring. Our knowledgeable guide, Ato (Mr.) Berhane, who works for the Ethiopian Ministry of Culture in Axum, was a fountain of information. He knew everything there was to know, names, dates and history of the obelisks, the excavations - most of which had been abandoned during the war or the time of the Dergue’s rule - the queens and kings. He showed us the underground rooms which had been discovered during the archeological digs (French, British, Italians and Americans at various times) and described some of the treasures which had been taken out of the country, much to the dismay of the Ethiopians, who, naturally believe that their treasures should remain in their own country. They did manage to retain some unearthed treasures which we were able to view at the Archeological Museum. Among the mostly stone, wood, and clay relics were found glass goblets belonging to Queen of Sheba, as well as molds for ironworks, evidences of a very advanced society. Berhane told us that the underground tunnels discovered at the obelisks connected with those found at the ruins of King Ram Hai’s palace, 2 kilometers distant. Since the excavations are far from complete, one wonders how much of the “history” is fact and how much is legend and myth.

We were taken to the old orthodox christian (Coptic) church of Axum, which is mostly restored, but where the Ethiopians claim the Ark of the Covenant is located. Of course, no one has ever seen it, as it is always guarded by a man who devotes his life to its protection. Women are not permitted inside the orthodox churches, so the crown jewels and silver Axum crosses were brought out by the priests for us to view.

We then drove past the Queen of Sheba’s swimming pool, located just below the hotel (which is on a hill overlooking the obelisks and steli) and onto yet another excavation where the ruins of King Kaleb’s palace were found. There, too, were underground rooms and the beginnings of tunnels awaiting further excavation at some future time. The archeologists who discovered the ruins ran out of oxygen and stopped excavating in 1905.

We drove out to the excavation site of the Queen of Sheba’s palace. Berhane pointed out the intricately developed system of plumbing throughout the palace of 55 rooms. This, of course, was the same Queen of Sheba who traveled across the Red Sea to meet and seduce King Solomon. I had noticed among the jewelry relics at the archeological museum a small, stone Star of David.

We returned to our hotel, bathed and spent the early evening on the patio overlooking the ancient ruins. There was a cool breeze and it was quiet and relaxing. Our dinner over, Larry and Jamroon taught me to play cribbage, a card game I had learned some 20 years ago and had forgotten. We went early to bed to be rested and ready for an exciting excursion the next morning to the remains of an ancient coptic monastery at Adwa, 60 kilometers drive from Axum. Adwa is best noted as the site of a famous battle where the Ethiopians were victorious in 1896 against the first Italian colonialists.

At the town of Yeha, we visited a pre-Axumite Temple dating back to 1500 AD. [Note 4] The priests showed us a book and silver crosses from 500 AD, gifts of King Kaleb’s son. A most interesting contrast was the gathering of townsfolk under cover of a grove of trees where there was taking place a pre-election meeting. We saw several such gatherings throughout the weekend in various villages.

We returned to Axum, ate lunch and then picked up our guide for the short drive out to where is located a huge granite rock on which is the carving of lion dating back 1500 years. Had I known that I would have to climb 1,000 meters up a rocky mountain to view it, I might have refused. As it was, I was there and had no choice but to brave it up the mountain, slowly, to be sure. But I made it, with Berhane’s help and it was well worth the climb.

In the late afternoons, Berhane took us to several shops for purchasing souvenirs and cloth goods. I also purchased a string of lovely, red amber beads with silver.

We left the next morning for our return trip to Asmara and took along a German photo-journalist who had asked us for a ride. We had sufficient room, so we agreed to take him along. We had hoped to take the long way back on another road, but our driver was unable to find diesel fuel and had only enough to get back on the shorter road. [Note 5] After a silly delay of half an hour at the Eritrean border . . . immigration officials must show their official power . . . the drive back was uneventful and we arrived in Asmara, dusty and happy, just as festivities were about to begin for the Independence Day celebration.

End of Paula’s writing. My footnotes:

1 - The Mareb bridge on the Eritrea-Ethiopia border was bombed out during the war. It is possible to detour across the river bed in the dry season.
2 - I can’t remember when the hotel was built; maybe the later Kagnewers used it; I never did. It is a very nice hotel, modern, clean, well decorated. When the cold water comes on for half an hour and when the electricity goes off, you remember where you are.
3 - While passing through Addis, I had noticed an interesting item in an English-language paper. Archeologists had just completed a dig at Axum, and their theory - repeat, theory; they were not certain of it - was that the largest, broken obelisk had never stood upright, but had fallen and been broken during the attempt to erect it.
4 - “pre-Axumite . . . dating back to 1500 AD” is obviously in error. Off the top of my head I think 500 BC.
5 - We’d hoped to return via Adigrat and the eastern (Asmara-Addis) road, but were in a diesel-fueled Toyota Land Cruiser.


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