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Search for the Ark of the Covenant

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Source: The BASE Institute

Search for the Ark of the Covenant

Disclaimer Statement
The research and site survey being investigated by the BASE Institute has strong potential. Is it the path of the Ark of the Covenant? The BASE Institute does not make the claim that we have found the Ark of the Covenant. We’ll let you draw your own conclusions. In our opinion, it’s a candidate. The research continues.

EDITOR’S NOTE: While investigating possible locations of the Ark of the Covenant, the BASE research team has conducted expeditions to Ethiopia, Egypt, Israel and Rome. Although the subject is controversial and clouded with confusion, one emerging theory indicates that the Ark of the Covenant was transported out of ancient Israel and may be in Ethiopia today. As unusual as this may sound, the BASE team has uncovered compelling evidence that the Ark may well have been spirited up the Nile River to an eventual resting place in the remote highlands of ancient Kush–modern-day Ethiopia.

ISRAEL (Jerusalem)

Although the Temple Mount in Jerusalem was the last known location of the Ark of the Covenant, its date of departure from the Temple is a topic of much debate. The last known reference alluding to the Ark’s presence in the Temple dates from 701 B.C., when the Assyrian king Sennacherib surrounded Hezekiah’s forces in Jerusalem. Isaiah 37:14-16 states, “And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. Then Hezekiah prayed to the Lord, saying: ‘O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim . . .'” This reference to the presence of God’s Shekinah Glory abiding above the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, between the cherubim sculpted on the lid of the Ark, seems to confirm that the Ark was still located in the Holy of Holies in 701 B.C.

It appears that the villain in the drama of the Ark was the subsequent king, Manasseh, and that the Ark most probably was taken out of the Temple during his reign. Although the extent of Manasseh’s evil does not allow a full description here, the Bible summarizes his deeds by noting that he did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed. He practiced wizardry and sorcery, placed pagan idols in the Holy of Holies, and shed innocent blood far and wide in the streets of Jerusalem. Our belief is that a pure Levitical priesthood, left over from the days of Hezekiah, would not have tolerated the degrading and polluting of the Temple containing the Ark of the Covenant. It is even possible that Manasseh would have ordered the Ark removed from the Temple before installing his own debased idols. Whatever the reason that the Ark was removed, it is interesting to note that just a short time after King Manasseh (687-642 B.C.), King Josiah (who brought great reform to the Jews) mentions the Ark’s absence from the Temple. In 2 Chronicles 35:3 we read, “Then he said to the Levites who taught all Israel, who were holy to the Lord: ‘Put the holy ark in the house which Solomon the Son of David, king of Israel, built. It shall no longer be a burden on your shoulders.'” This not only appears to confirm that the Ark had been removed from the Temple, but also that the priests had been moving it somewhere in the manner prescribed by Levitical law. But if the Ark of the Covenant was removed from the Temple during the reign of Manasseh, to what location was it taken?

EGYPT (Aswan, Elephantine Island)

We have discovered historical evidence that, during the reign of Manasseh in Israel, a colony of Jews – including Levitical priests – migrated from Israel and founded a colony on Elephantine Island in Egypt. It is strongly possible, if not probable, that the Elephantine Jews were escaping the desecration and persecution of the wicked King Manasseh, and that they had the Ark of the Covenant with them. In our visit to Elephantine Island, we thoroughly investigated ruins of a replica Jewish temple that had been built by 650 B.C.,  which precisely matched the dimensions of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem. Of course, the practice of building temples outside of Jerusalem was strictly forbidden by Deuteronomic Law, so only the most dire of circumstances would have compelled a group of Jewish refugees to undertake such a project. Moreover, a temple replica would have been fruitless at that point in history without serving its primary function: as a resting place for the Ark of the Covenant.

A number of ancient documents (such as the Elephantine Papyri) seem to confirm the existence of a Jewish Temple at Elephantine. Egypt, or at least certain districts of Egypt, would have been a safe haven for Jewish refugees, as we see from King Neco’s friendly appeal to Josiah in 2 Chronicles 35:20-21, less than a generation later. (It may even be that Josiah died trying to gain enough control over Egypt to reclaim the Ark). What’s more, our scholarly contact in Egypt, Dr. Atif Hanna, curator of the Aswan Museum, has concluded, from his own investigation, that the Ark of the Covenant did indeed come to Elephantine Island during the reign of Manasseh in Israel, and that it was housed in the replica temple. However, Dr. Hanna has also determined that the replica temple was destroyed for unknown reasons – possibly the advance of a new, aggressive from of idol worship – in 410 B.C. That event, then, raises the question: Where would the Ark have been taken? Where might our search lead us next? At this point, all indicators pointed toward Ethiopia.

ETHIOPIA (Lake Tana)

Why take our search to Ethiopia? Firstly, for centuries of Ethiopian history, there has existed strong tradition and legend that the Ark of the Covenant did indeed find its final resting place in Ethiopia. But, even more importantly, the Bible and related sources are not silent on the subject of a direct connection between the Jews and Ethiopia. Josephus, Jewish historian to the Romans, cites a strong connection between Moses (during his princely upbringing in Egypt) and Ethiopia. In Book II, Chapter X of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus recounts an episode in which Moses, leading forces from Egypt, besieges the Ethiopian city of Saba, and subsequently receives an offer of marriage from the King’s daughter, Tharbis. According to Josephus, Moses accepts and by consummating his marriage to the Ethiopian, wins the city for Egypt. Is this fable or fact? It’s hard to say with certainty, but in Numbers 12:1 we find that “. . . Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married; for he had married an Ethiopian.”

If such a marriage took place, it is easy to see that a line of Mosaic descendants in Ethiopia would provide an ideal place of refuge for the Ark. This would be especially true if its welcome had been revoked further down-river in Egypt, and if its return to Israel was not possible because of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587-586 B.C.

Our research on-site in Ethiopia led us to the shores of Lake Tana, a body of water 53 miles long and 41 miles wide, located on the headwaters of the Blue Nile. Isolated far out on the waters of Lake Tana is Tana Kirkos Island, considered by the Ethiopians to be a holy island, populated only by Ethiopian, Christian monks.

The monks of Tana Kirkos believe they are living on the island where the Ark of the covenant rested, and where Levitical-style blood sacrifices were performed until 338 A.D., when the nation of Ethiopia converted to Christianity.

The monks of Tana Kirkos escorted us to a high plateau where they showed us several large, moss-covered stones which they said had previously been used in sacrificial ceremonies when the Ark of the Covenant was on the island. They also told us that the rock surface on which we stood had been the location of a tabernacle-like tent that had housed and protected the Ark.

Intrigued that a tent had been on the rock surface, I excavated some loose topsoil and discovered four hand-carved socket holes, spaced to create a 13′ by 13′ square, oriented in a north-south/east-west configuration, apparently to emulate the original Holy of Holies.

The monks then asked me if I would care to see implements from Solomon’s Temple. Intrigued by their statement, I waited expectantly while a monk approached a large mud-brick building, unlocked a heavy latch and lock (the only signs of modern society present on the island), entered and then emerged with four large, heavy artifacts. I first was shown two large metal forks, which they claimed were meat forks used for burnt offerings in Solomon’s Temple. They were about 4-1/2 feet long and bore the ancient symbol of a budding almond flower on the top of each one.

Next the monks showed me a large, bronze bowl that was approximately 22″ across and 2″ deep. They referred to the bowl as a “gomer,” and described it as a vessel in which priests placed animal blood during temple ritual, stirring the blood occasionally to keep it from coagulating. Finally, the monks showed me a metal stand, approximately 3′ high, designed to hold the bronze bowl, though extreme age had caused the metal of the stand to fatigue and droop.

I asked the monks why these items remained on the island, and they told me that, in 338 A.D., King Ezana was converted to Christianity by a Syrian monk named Abba Salama. Since Christianity was then decreed the new religion of the country, blood sacrificial ceremonies were no longer used, and the implements were rendered obsolete.

My next question was key: If the implements of sacrifice were left with the monks, what happened to the Ark of the Covenant? I was told the Ark itself was taken to Axum, where today it is kept in absolute isolation at St. Mary’s of Zion Church.


We next journeyed to Axum, the purported resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, and made our way to St. Mary’s of Zion Church. There I was introduced to a man referred to as “The Guardian of the Ark of the Covenant.” This man, reportedly, lives his entire life inside a fenced-off area surrounding St. Mary’s of Zion. He will not leave this fenced-off compound until he dies–when he will be replaced by the next Guardian of the Ark. In the chapel of the church, 30 robes from 30 previous guardians are on display – and every one of those 30 professed that the object they protected was the true Ark of the Covenant.

I was able to speak, through an interpreter, with the Guardian of the Ark, who told me that no other man besides himself could lay eyes on the Ark, that it was an absolutely holy object. He said that the world would not be allowed to pollute it by looking at it. He added that he and the villagers would protect the Ark with their lives, if necessary.

Interestingly, we were shown two silver trumpets that bore a remarkable similarity to the trumpets pictured on the arch of Titus in Rome, commemorating the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Trumpets like these were an essential part of the implements used in Temple worship.

Subsequent to this initial investigation, we located and interviewed two people who have claimed to have seen the object resting in St. Mary’s of Zion. The first was a 105-year-old priest who once was the Administrator at St. Mary’s of Zion. On two occasions, he said, when the Guardian of the Ark died and a new guardian was trained in the worship rituals, he was able to gaze upon the relic. He described it as a gold box with two winged angels on top.

In his detailed inventory of the treasury, he described the Ark as a gold box with two winged creatures on the top. He described 24 smaller angelic-type figures forming a molding around the top, with two green stones (not described in the Bible) at either end. Is this the Ark of the Covenant described in the Bible? At this juncture, we cannot say with certainty that it is, but neither can be say for certain that it isn’t. What we have concluded is that St. Mary’s of Zion church in Axum, Ethiopia, is the resting place either of an incredible replica of the biblical Ark of the Covenant, or, of the actual Ark of the Covenant itself.

A Final Note:

Is the Bible entirely silent on the subject of the Ark of the Covenant’s current resting place, or of its existence between the present day and the eternal kingdom? Some argue that Scripture is, indeed, silent, and that the Ark is a moot point now that the Messiah has come, suffered and died for the whole world. Others, however, suggest that there may yet be a role for the Ark to play during a period of time following a real and triumphant victory by Messiah over the armed forces of the world system, before He institutes His eternal kingdom on a new earth.

In Isaiah 18, the prophet records a message from God concerning Ethiopia. It deals not only with Ethiopia’s past, but also with the future of God’s Messiah. Verses 3-4 read, “All inhabitants of the world and dwellers on the earth, when he [Messiah] lifts up a banner on the mountains, you see it; and when he blows a trumpet [of victory], you hear it. For so the Lord said to me, ‘I will take My rest, and I will look from My dwelling place.”

If this and the verses that follow describe Messiah’s triumph over the armies of the world, what happens next is very interesting. Verse 7 reads: “In that time a present will be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people tall and smooth of skin [Ethiopians, according to verse 1] . . . to the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, to Mount Zion.” What might the present be that is brought from Ethiopia to the “place of the name of the Lord” – to the Holy of Holies? Only the future will tell….

Written by Tseday

November 14, 2008 at 5:18 am

My Moments in Addis Ababa

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by Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska


Ethiopia, its culture and people have been part of my life for many years. But it is different every time I come here and it makes me realize how little I know about this country.

It is most probable that if you fly to Addis from another country, you will arrive at night and your first glimpse of the city will be at its dark side. Do not pay too much attention to your first impression. It will get better when the sun rises.

Not many people appreciate the capital city of Ethiopia and many tourists try to escape from there as soon as possible. Of course it is not easy to see the best of the city if one is in a rush. The city is like a woman whose charm you are able to see only after a while.

It does not strike you at the beginning but soon you are under a spell and have no idea how it happened.

Addis – the New Flower
Most tourists come to Ethiopia because they heard about its ancient sites, old churches and thousands of years of history. It is true that many of them are ancient sites but not Addis. This city is new as its name implies “New Flower.”

It is bit over a hundred years old. But this doesn’t mean that the mystical Ethiopia is not there. And it is worth taking a risk to try to make friends with Addis Ababa.

When Menelik, the powerful king of Showa, whose aim was to rule the whole of Ethiopia moved into the area of today’s Addis Ababa, he settled on Entoto, a mountainous province of the country. He was accompanied by his wife, Taitu.

The couple were powerful, perceived by their subjects as beautiful and divine. Moreover, Menelik and Taitu had a blueprint of how to rule the country.

When they settled on Entoto they were already on their way to fulfill their dreams. Not much later Menelik was crowned niguse-negest meaning Emperor and Taitu was crowned Itege or Empress.

She was not only the Emperor’s wife, but also a crowned wife, an Empress with her own rights. The couples influenced Ethiopian fate in almost all of its aspects. The administrational and geographical shape of the country changed completely. What was old Ethiopia constituted one third of the area of the country in its new shape.

The couple also realized that contrary to Ethiopian tradition, they need a permanent capital, a place to settle and to rule.

Entoto was good, but not perfect. Cold at night and dry. Taitu used to travel down the hill to cure her aching back in the hot springs of Fil-wo-ha.

It was her idea that the lower plain was good not only for her back but for a permanent settlement too. It was then that Menelik and Taitu decided to put up their tents and grow Addis Ababa (the new flower) there.

A view from Entoto and the two churches
It is good to go to Entoto when you are in Addis. The view from above shows the city in a completely new perspective. It is quiet, without smoke with no one to bother to you and you can enjoy the eucalyptus forest and the breathtaking view over Addis.



There are also two churches on the hill, Raguel Church and Entoto Mariam Church. Both of them are reminders of the imperial couple.

One was founded by Taitu and the other by Menelik. Both are splendid but there is something extraordinary about the one founded by Menelik – the paintings.

Actually, whichever church you visit in Ethiopia, the churches and their murals do not let you leave before you carefully study each and every representation.

Aba Lukas who painted the murals of the church was an Ethiopian monk from Gonder. A very talented monk, whom I deeply believe one day art historians will admit into the gallery of the most remarkable artists somewhere between Bosch and Broughel.

Inside the city
The marriage between Ethiopia and her coffee has been hailed by many to be the best in the world and with an Italian style. Italians occupied Ethiopia for five years (1936-1941) and whatever harm they did to the country, they also left a bit of their habits behind which turned out to go very well with Ethiopian habits. Coffee places are the best example of this combination.

There are a lot of places to be visited in Addis, providing that you do not run away from this place too soon. Churches each with their own spectacular history and some of them witnessing the most spectacular moments of Ethiopian history.

Like the coronation of Haile Selassie I or another one ‘Selassie Cathedral’ which places the Emperor’ssellasie_cathedral body buried in the year 2000, twenty five years after his death.

From the three imperial palaces in Addis, only one can be visited. The first palace of Haile Selassie I has been housing Addis Ababa University since 1960.

After a failed coup d’etat which was supposed to deprive the Emperor of power, he offered this palace to the University and moved to the new one. Now it is one of the governmental buildings.

menelik_mausoleumUnfortunately, neither the old Menelik’s Palace located next to the Menelik Mausoleum can be visited since the office of Prime Minister has its seat there.

Churches are not everything and being a typical tourist it is good to learn a bit and visit some museums. In Addis there are quite a few of them.

The National Museum with a replica of Lucy is the best known but there are others, like Addis Ababa Museum.

The building of the museum is an old residence which allows visitors to imagine Addis Ababa’s aristocratic life style from before.

A mug of Menelik, one of his daughter Zawditu and lots of pictures are there. museum_addis_ababa

If someone doesn’t find it fascinating, it is better to stay in the nearby Meskel Square where huge white pigeons have been constructed to meet the New Millennium.

According to the Ethiopian Calendar year 2000 has started on the 12th of September 2007.


Addis Downtown
Addis Ababa is a very joyful place with some quarters even more joyful than others. Piazza, the center has the most shopping and nightlife areas and used to be called ‘Arada’ before the Italian occupation. Now it is a name which is only inserted in some lyrics referring to the busy district.

There is another part of Addis that is now struggling to be the most occupied place on Saturday nights. Bole, a district spreading towards the airport is full of modern shops, restaurants and busy night clubs. The list of bars which are recommended by those who know it well will keep you there for the whole time.

At Piazza you feel more of Ethiopian life-style in comparison to Bole; especially, if you decided to stay in Itege Taitu Hotel. It is the first hotel in Ethiopia founded by Menelik’s wife. It is still offering something of the feeling of an imperial era in a very shabby, yet charming style. It is like one of those places which get old and fall apart with dignity.

Crowded streets and people calling you is what imagination brings when we think about African cities and Addis Ababa is no different. Ethiopians often talk freely to each other no European standard of pretending that we don’t see each other.

And foreigners or ‘ferengi’ I say this because it is a term applied by Ethiopians for foreigners. It is not meant to be offending even though some ferengi may feel like killing the 100th person who has called them by this name on the street. It can be tiring when used a lot, but this is one of the cultural differences that we want to experience as we travel. It seems ridiculous to complain.

This is one place in Addis that missing it would be a big mistake. Not only for shopping but for visiting, seeing, smelling and touching. Merkato is a place that you will love to go back to.

It is one of the biggest market places in the world. It is a whole district with a huge number of tiny streets, big and little shops offering you anything you want.

As in all traditional markets, each profession has its own sectioned area. You walk through sellers offering a variety of strange parts of odd machines, threads, garments, fruits, spices, colors, aromas, and you see the people excited, smiling, talking, touching …etc. Touching is also a way of noticing…another piece of culture that we come to experience.

One may ask how many days are needed to enjoy Addis before getting tired of the crowds, cars and smoke. I say, for some two minutes might be enough while others believe that this is the place where they may find a sense for their lives.

But all are tempted to go further to explore Ethiopia out of its capital. Of course whatever you may find in Addis, the real experience and real Ethiopia is waiting for you when you leave the city.

But what can be a big surprise is that when you return to the city before your next trip or to fly back to your country, you realize that you feel at home there.

The man at the corner who is trying to sell you pots from Gambella even though you bought two from him already, seems to be your old friend. It does not matter how ugly Addis Ababa may seem to be for some, you like it more as time passes by.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska has plenty of travel experiences to Ethiopia and is a contributor to our site.

She has specialized in modern history of Ethiopia and currently lectures at Warsaw University, Department of African Languages and Cultures.

Dr. Hanna Rubinkowska (Ph.D.)

Written by Tseday

November 14, 2008 at 5:04 am

Posted in Ethiopia

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Reading about Téwodros

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by John Coyne (Addis Ababa 62–64)

WHENEVER ONE STARTS TO READ about Ethiopia, very soon he or she discovers Téwodros II, the infamous emperor of the Empire in the mid-nineteenth-century. Téwodros was a great, romantic visionary, and a mad figure of Ethiopian history who rose to power in the 1850s by overthrowing the principal feudal leadership in the north.

His objective, as his British admirer Consul Plowden reported at the time to the Home Office in London, was to integrate the country by placing “the soldiers of the different provinces under the command of his own trusty followers.” In this way Téwodros started “organizing a new nobility, a legion of honor dependent on himself, and chosen specially for their daring and fidelity.” And thus began the “arduous task of breaking the power of the great feudal chiefs – a task achieved in Europe only during the reign of many consecutive Kings.”

Among other achievements, Téwodros was responsible for important improvements in the country. He had built, for example, the first road in Ethiopia, from Debra Tabor to his mountain citadel Magdala. He attempted to establish a fleet of boats on Lake Tana. He started a foundry at Gafat and manufactured Ethiopia’s first cannon. He also attempted to stop the slave trade, reform the land tenure system, and introduce Ethiopian dress. He took steps to replace verbal messages with letters, wipe away concubines and promote marriage.

Yet much of what he achieved was rendered futile by the debacle at Magdala, and thereby hangs the tale, the source of much literary prose, and why Téwodros is so well remembered by the world.
All of them: Ethiopian scholars, African historians, romance novelists, adventure travel writers, tourists and travelers have been caught up in the history of this tortured man. Many have written about him, searching for some understanding of the man as well as wanting to tell his tale.

I first read about Téwodros in Alan Moorehead’s The Blue Nile (if you haven’t read The Blue Nile, put this article down and go read that book immediately – it is available in our library and can be borrowed at no cost) when I was teaching at the Commercial School in Addis Ababa in 1962. Between classes, sitting in the backroom of the Teacher’s Lounge, or across Smuts Street at a small café where I’d go for cappuccino early in the morning, I’d read chapter after chapter of Moorehead’s fascinating account of the Blue Nile and of the Empire under Téwodros.

Téwodros claimed that he was of royal blood and in the direct line of kings descending from Solomon and Alexander the Great, but none of that was true. He was the son of a small local chieftain, born in 1818 close to the source of the Blue Nile.
He reign was from 1855 to 1868, and during it he was constantly involved in war. He fought successfully against Tigre and conquered Shewa, taking the boy Menelik, who represented the Shewa dynasty there, to live at his court. He waged war against the Gallas. And all the while, he attempted to modernize the Empire.
While being portrayed as a model of politeness even towards the meanest peasants, he also was the victim of ungovernable rages. His humanity was such, it was recorded, that he would buy slaves from the Muslim traders in order to emancipate and Christianize them, yet at the same time he burned deserting soldiers alive and threw prisoners from precipices.

It was during this period that a number of Europeans found their way into Ethiopia: German and English missionaries, German artisans and zoologists, a French painter and a more than a few travel adventures.
But then in 1864, after the British Foreign Office did not – for two years – answer a letter he had written to Queen Victoria, Téwodros threw the Consul, Cameron, and the other British citizens into prison. The British government sent a man named Rassam to protest and he, plus sixty more Europeans, were seized and chained.

At the time, Téwodros was moving towards Magdala, a natural fortress overlooking Wallo Province. Here is where he met Sir Robert Napier, sent from India by the Queen to free her subjects and all the other imprisoned Europeans. Napier landed near Massawa and using an impressive assortment of transport animals including elephants, bullocks, and camels, advanced overland at a mile a day to Magdala. Of the 3,400 British and Indian troops who took part in the assault on Magdala, not one was lost. Téwodros, who had at first boasted to his chiefs — “Oh! That we may meet those white donkeys. We shall show them what the sword and lance of Ethiopia can do.”- killed himself when he saw that defeat was certain. He was buried in the Magdala church, though suicide, as we know, is a rare and grave crime among Ethiopian Christians. (The story is told of Workneh Gebeyehu, one of the leaders of the failed 1960 coup d’ etat, when cornered by soldier shouted to his assailants, “Téwodros has taught me something.” Putting a pistol into his mouth, and he killed himself, and, therefore, ensured that he would be forever linked to the Emperor Téwodros.)

After reading about Téwodros in Moorehead’s book, I, too, thought he would make the subject of a great novel, but never did any research on the Emperor. A few years later, when I was on PC/Ethiopia staff as an Associate Director, and had the Dessie Road as part of my responsibility, I ran into a group of British students in Dessie. At the time they were “crashing” at John Hoover’s small house and setting off the next day to climb up to the old fortress at Magdala in honor of the 1867 Napier Expedition. I wanted to tag along but was due in Waldia the next day and never made it to Magdala.

For years, however, Téwodros’s story has stayed with me. Once, in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I had gone for the Shakespeare Festival, I spend an afternoon in the Edinburgh library reading Field Marshal Lord Napier of Magdala, a memoir by his son, published in 1927.

Back in London I wandered into the Maggs Bros. Ltd. Antiquarian Booksellers on Berkeley Square and bought for 48 pounds Reconnoitering in Abyssinia by Colonel H. St. Clair Wilkins that was published in 1870. It was the royal engineer’s account of the reconnoitering party that went to Ethiopia prior to the arrival of the expeditionary field force from India.
The opening goes:”In August 1867, the British Government resolved upon the invasion of Abyssinia. It was decided to dispatch a military expedition to that remote county, for the purpose of releasing from the hands of the Christian King Theodorus, a British Consul and an Envoy and suite confined in irons in the fortress of Magdala without just cause, and contrary to the laws of nations; and to obtain full satisfaction for the dishonour thus cast upon the British nation.”

At the time in his Magdala fortress, Téwodros had thirty European artillery pieces, 3,000 soldiers armed with percussion guns and several thousand spear armed foot soldiers. While he was safe within a impregnable fortress, Téwodros decided to attack and the British soldiers (mostly Indians) of the 4th King’s Own had the very latest breech loading rifle – the Snider – which was being used for the first time in battle. The firepower and discipline of the British units completely overwhelmed the musket and spears of the Ethiopians. Over 500 Ethiopians were killed and thousands more were wounded in a battle that lasted an hour and a half.

A ripe source for novelists

From such historical documents, several novels have been written. Alan Scholefield’s The Hammer of God, published by William Morrow & Company in 1973; Ann Schlee’s The Guns of Darkness, Atheneum, 1974; and When The Emperor Dies by Mason McCann Smith, Random House, 1981.

There are other historical accounts, besides Alan Moorehead, but these are the only novels that I have been able to locate

In The Guns of Darkness, Ann Schlee tells the story of Téwodros from the point-of-view of fourteen year old, Louisa Bell, daughter of John Bell and the Princess Worknesh Asfa Yilma. Schelee is a fine writer, mostly of young adult novels set in exotic countries. This novel focuses on the human side of the history, the small details of everyday life that surround the historical events. Schlee touches, for example, on the torture that the ordinary people, Ethiopians and Europeans, suffered under Téwodros. She had based her novel on the alleged fact that John Bell had four children by an Ethiopian woman. The fourth child was called Louisa and was on a list of the released prisoners as recorded by the Royal Geographical Society’s observer, C.R. Markham.
Californian Mason McCann Smith, too, blends fact and fiction in his novel, When The Emperor Dies, using characters, both real and imaginary. Of the two books, Smith has the more details of the march and attack on Magdala, and the most research. However, the novel is overwritten and is centered mostly on Napier and his men.

Alan Scholefield is a well known South African writer, author of Great Elephant, Wild Dog Running, The Young Masters, etc. In The Hammer of God, he has an arrogant Victorian sportsman in search of the rare ibex, his new, young wife, Catherine, an ex-Army officer guide, and a scheming secretary, all in the highlands together when they are captured by the Emperor. Scholefield creates several new characters and uses Téwodros and the events of Magdala as the historical backdrop. Being an experienced novelist, he moves the story at a faster, more telling pace. Nevertheless, both novels pale when compared to Alan Moorehead’s prose and narrative skill in The Blue Nile,* first published in 1962.

Moorehead’s incomparable The Blue Nile

Moorehead spends roughly 70 pages of his 330-page book on Emperor Téwodros, the British expedition, the battle on the Arogi plateau, and seizure of Magdala, and it is a fascinating tale.
“There has never been in modern times a colonial campaign quite like the British expedition to Ethiopia in 1868,” Moorehead writes. “It proceeds from first to last with the decorum and heavy inevitability of a Victorian state banquet, complete with ponderous speeches at the end. And yet it was a fearsome undertaking; for hundreds of years the country had never been invaded, and the savage nature of the terrain alone was enough to promise failure.”

Other histories

There are a few other useful histories about Téwodros. Walter Plowden’s Travels in Abyssinia, published in 1868; H.A. Stern’s The Captive Missionary in 1868; H. Rassam’s Narrative of the British Mission to Téwodros King of Abyssinia, 2 vols, published in 1869. In 1870, T.J. Holland and H.M. Hozier, wrote the official Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia, 2 vols, with maps and plans. There is also Correspondence Respecting Abyssinia 1846-68 that was presented to the House of Commons in 1869. This 700-page report gives much information not only about the imprisonment of the captives but about Téwodros and Ethiopia in general. H.M. Stanley published in 1874 Coomassie and Magdale; the Story of Two British Campaigns in Africa.
Some recent publications are S. Rubenson’s King of Kings: Téwodros of Ethiopia, published in Addis Ababa in 1966. The March to Magdala by Myatt, Frederick, published in 1970 by Leo Cooper. And in 1973 R.J. Pankhurst’s essay “The Library of Emperor Téwodros II at Magdala” appeared in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, XXXVI, 15-42. And more recently, Oxford Press published in 1979, The Abyssinian Difficulty: The Emperor Theodorus and the Magdala Campaign, 1867-68 by Sir Darrell Bates.
I am sure I have missed other accounts, but for anyone interested in this historical moment in Ethiopia, the books I’ve mentioned are a good start. And it is a great story.


John Coyne is the editor of the and editor of Living On The Edge: Fiction by Peace Corps Writers published by Curbstone Press in 2000. He has written or edited over twenty books.

Written by Tseday

November 7, 2008 at 5:50 am

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Treasures from Ethiopia

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The collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum include a number of Ethiopian objects and images. Many of these are associated with a British military expedition undertaken to Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia) in 1867-68, which ended with the ransacking of the Ethiopian Emperor’s fortress at Magdala. Not all of the objects, however, are straightforward products of plunder. Indeed, the stories behind the acquisition of the photographs, textiles, jewellery, religious and other artefacts held by the V&A reveal a complex web of people, places and politics brought together by conflict. This article presents the stories which lie behind some of these objects and contrasts the personal experiences of those caught up in the conflict with the way in which the ‘Abyssinian Expedition’ was presented to the British public. This article highlights just some of the objects and images associated with the Expedition which can be found in the V&A’s collections.

Personal histories

Julia Margaret Cameron - 'Dejatch Alamayou' Photograph of Prince Alamayou 1868

The Ethiopian Prince Alamayou was one of the casualties of the conflict. He is pictured (on the right), aged seven, in a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron after he had been brought to England following the death of his parents. Alamayou’s sad story was reported in the British press and attracted the sympathy of many, including Queen Victoria who arranged for the state funding of his education. He was popularly cast as a romantic and melancholy figure, as is apparent in Cameron’s photograph. Alamayou’s death of pleurisy at the age of 18 was described by the Queen as ‘too sad’. His image appears in four places in the V&A’s collections; in the Cameron photograph, on two cartes de visite and in a photograph pasted into a family album.

Alamayou’s guardian in England was a British army officer and colonial official, Captain Tristram Charles Sawyer Speedy. Speedy was well-acquainted with the Prince’s homeland having travelled to Ethiopia in 1860 to assist his father, the Emperor Tewodros II (Theodore), with military training. Whilst there Speedy developed a strong affinity with the Ethiopian people; he learned to speak Amharic and adopted native dress. In 1868 he returned to serve as civilian interpreter to the British expedition. Back in England, the six foot five, red haired and bearded Captain made an unlikely but affectionate guardian figure to the slight Prince.

Julia Margaret Cameron - 'Spear or spare', Báshá Félika - Photograph of Captain Speedy 1868

Julia Margaret Cameron -

Speedy appears in a photograph by Cameron in the V&A’s collections. Wearing Ethiopian dress, he stands over a reclined unidentified African man, with a spear in his hand, apparently playing out a fantasy of conquest (the photograph has been titled ‘Spear or spare’). The mount carries the handwritten caption ‘Báshá Félíka’ meaning ‘speedy’; the Amharic name given to Speedy by Tewodros. Speedy’s relationship with the Ethiopian people is also reflected in a small collection of objects given to the Museum by his goddaughter in 1936. Unfortunately the stories behind how he acquired the engraved silver and iron handcrosses, silver anklets, hairpin and ornament have not been recorded although it is possible the objects may have royal connections. Further items formerly in the collection of Speedy are held by the British Museum.

Speedy was not the only European to make the acquaintance of the Ethiopian Emperor. In the years before the Expedition Tewodros had been an admirer of Europe and its technologies, particularly those used in the manufacture of arms. He had formed close associations with the British traveller John Bell, who visited Ethiopia in the early 1840s, and Walter Plowden, the first British consul to Ethiopia, who arrived in 1848. However, by the 1860s Tewodros had become frustrated by a lack of support from Europe for his campaigns against Turkish expansion on the Red Coast. In 1864, in an attempt to prompt the British and French governments into action, he took a number of Europeans hostage including the second British consul, Captain Cameron. Queen Victoria sent a letter to Tewodros seeking their release but her envoy, the civil servant Hormuzd Rassam, was also captured. Following parliamentary debate, Britain began to plan a punitive military expedition. Under the leadership of General Sir Robert Napier, in 1868 the expedition marched to Tewodros’s fortress at Maqdala and a brief battle took place nearby. Britain won the conflict, but not before the captives were released and Tewodros himself had committed suicide.

Tewodros’s suicide on the eve of the storming of his fortress left a widow, Queen Woyzaro Terunesh. She requested that her son, Prince Alamayou, and she be escorted by British forces to her native province of Semyen, in northwest Tigray. However, as the party reached Haiq Hallet on 15 May 1868, the Queen died, apparently of lung disease. A report in the British press described ‘Her funeral [which] took place next morning in the great church at Chelicut … The women of her household, showing her robe, her ornaments, her slippers and her drinking cup, beat their breasts, tore their hair, and scratched their cheeks, shedding tears of real grief as they bewailed her death’ (Illustrated London News, 1868). The Queen’s possessions, which were listed by the British political agent at Aden (Yemen), were sent on by ship to the Secretary of State for India at the India Office, London. They were given to the South Kensington Museum (later V&A) in 1869 and included two cotton robes lavishly embellished with silk embroidery; a shawl; silver bracelets, anklets and rings; two ‘amulet’ necklaces of leather, silver and amber and a silver hair pin with decorative finial.

Woman's dress formerly in the possession of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh - Cotton embroidered with silk - Ethiopia - 1860s

Woman's dress formerly in the possession of Queen Woyzaro Terunesh - Cotton embroidered with silk - Ethiopia - 1860s

The Queen’s possessions, the collection of Ethiopian objects formed by Captain Speedy and the photographs of Speedy and Prince Alamayou, provide a tangible link to people whose experiences of the conflict in Ethiopia strayed from the official narrative. In the British public sphere, however, these disparate experiences were written over by a unified and triumphant tale of conquest. The second part of this article reflects on the public presentation of the Abyssinian Expedition.

Public narratives

Given the great complexity and expense of the Abyssinian Expedition, which involved more than 13,000 men, 30,000 animals and a journey of some 400 miles, it was necessary to engage the support of the British public. This was largely achieved through recounting a patriotic tale of a great imperial power overcoming a hostile territory and ‘barbarian potentate’. Significantly, the expedition was one of Britain’s earliest military operations to be captured via the relatively new science of photography. Two sets of photographic stores and equipment were sent from England by the Royal Engineers’ Establishment and used to record the landscapes, camp scenes and leading individuals associated with the expedition.

The V&A’s collections include at least seven photographs taken by the Royal Engineers from a series of 78. Three of these are panoramas, painstakingly formed by pasting together three photographs. One records the expedition camp at Zoola (Zula). Taken from a high vantage point, it captures the huge amount of equipment and technology required for such an expedition. Feats of engineering were a particular focus for visual record and the Zoola image includes part of a British-built railway line which ran ten and a half miles inland. Another photograph in the series presents a view up the Sooroo Pass, or ‘Devil’s Staircase’ as the Assistant Field Engineer charged with forging a path through it, is said to have called it. It took four companies three months to construct a ten-foot-wide cart road up the pass.

Images such as these were disseminated through official and unofficial reports, museum displays and the British press as evidence of Britain’s military and technological powers. The Illustrated London News published numerous engravings of the Expedition. Some were based on the Royal Engineers’ photographs, others on sketches made by the newspaper’s Special Artist in the field, William Simpson. The V&A holds two Ethiopian handcrosses which were donated to the Museum by Simpson’s wife following his death. Both carry the inscription ‘Abyssinian Cross 1868 William Simpson’ and presumably fulfilled a function somewhere between medal and souvenir.

Military personnel involved in the Expedition were encouraged to make drawings and reports. On the orders of the Secretary of State for War, Major Trevenen James Holland wrote the only official account of the expedition with a military colleague, Sir Henry Montague Hozier. Record of the Expedition to Abyssinia was published in two volumes in 1870. Holland may be the vendor of several Ethiopian items to the South Kensington Museum in April 1869 including a pair of silver anklets, a ‘Galla’ (Oromo) necklace, a pair of earrings and two processional crosses.

Crown - Ethiopia - 1740

Crown - Ethiopia - 1740

Following the defeat of Abyssinian troops, British forces entered the Magdala fortress with the aim of collecting anything of value to be later auctioned off to raise money for the troops. They were accompanied by Richard Holmes, an assistant in the department of manuscripts at the British Museum, who removed a number of objects – manuscripts, regalia, religious antiquities and other material – from the imperial treasury and from the Church of the Saviour of the World. Holmes also made a sketch of the face of the dead Ethiopian emperor, which was reproduced in the British press and in popular print formats such as carte de visite. A golden crown and chalice initially acquired by Holmes from a soldier were deposited with the South Kensington Museum by H.M. Treasury in 1872. Recent scholarship has suggested that they were commissioned by Empress Mentewwab for a church she founded in Gondar in 1740. Today these items can be seen on display at the Museum, in a gallery which highlights the role of precious vessels of gold and silver in religious rites and ceremonies.

Today, the Abyssinian items are valued for their beauty, craft and religious significance but an 1868 display at the South Kensington Museum entitled ‘Abyssinian objects from the Emperor Theodore, Lent by the Queen, the Admiralty and others’ was clearly intended to celebrate an imperial conquest. No list of exhibits survives but an essayist in the Gentleman’s Magazine described the display as a ‘show-case full of victorious trophies, “spolia opima” of our late enemy, his Majesty King Theodore’. Another noted the inclusion of a portrait of the dead Emperor’s head, presumably based on Holmes’ sketch. Even 20 years later a Guide to the South Kensington Museum noted that ‘vestments and garments’ on display had been ‘captured during the Abyssinian campaign under Lord Napier of Magdala’.

The objects and images described in this article, then, have fulfilled many different functions – religious, ceremonial, decorative, documentary and political – and their current home at the V&A represents one stopping-off point on a turbulent historical journey. In the 21st century, as in the 19th, they make a conflict distant to us in time and place more tangible and immediate. The material also challenges the idea that the ‘Abyssinian Expedition’ was a clear-cut clash between ‘them’ and ‘us’ and provides an unsettling reminder of the imperial processes which enabled British museums to acquire the cultural assets of others.

Written by Tseday

November 6, 2008 at 6:41 pm


with 4 comments

by Dr. Paul B. Henze
This paper has been prepared for the ADWA Conference of IDR/AAU in February 2007.

Opportunities and Ideas

Ecotourism represents an approach to tourism that emphasizes environmental and cultural preservation. It highlights opportunities for tourists and other visitors to experience aspects of the country’s ecology and natural endowments as well as unique features of its archaeology, history and culture. While its primary appeal, initially at least, may be to foreign visitors and foreigners resident in the country, it is also important for the country’s own inhabitants. Promotion of ecotourism assumes that people come to visit Ethiopia (and Ethiopians themselves travel) not merely for the purpose of enjoying themselves, but to gain knowledge and appreciation of the country’s geography and natural features, of its peoples and their interactions with their environment, to gain better understanding of the way development affects the environment, and how problems may be dealt with.
Tourism in Ethiopia has always involved features of ecotourism. People who visit the Historic Route are, of course, primarily interested in the country’s history and the unusual accomplishments of Ethiopians over the millennia: the great monuments of Aksum and other sites in the north; the monolithic churches of Lalibela; the island monasteries of Lake Tana. But they are also interested in the physical features of these areas and in the extent to which they are being protected. In recent years visitors have increased to other areas of major environmental interest: the Semyen mountains, the Bale mountains, the Rift Valley lakes, and especially to the Omo valley and other parts of the Southwest. Eco-lodge development in some regions of the country has begun. Some tour organizations are beginning to specialize in animal- and bird-watching tours, tours to observe indigenous forests and unusual geologic features.
As tourism develops further in Ethiopia a greater variety of the country’s attractions will become accessible to visitors–foreign tourists, diaspora visitors, foreign residents and Ethiopians themselves. The domestic aspect of ecotourism is of great importance as an educational tool for developing greater awareness among the population of the need for environmental and cultural preservation and in enlisting cooperation from the public in improving and restoring the country’s assets for the present and future enjoyment of its expanding population.
Tourism promotion and development of facilities for visitors in Ethiopia have until now concentrated primarily on attracting one-time visitors who come to travel the Historic Route and/or go to the Southwest to observe exotic peoples and wildlife. This paper will examine possibilities for expanding offerings to tourists that will appeal to people who wish to make repeat visits, who wish to pursue special interests and study unique aspects of Ethiopia’s environmental and cultural heritage.
The “Customers”:
Let us consider the “customers” for ecotourism. In developed countries in all parts of the world interest in ecotourism has long been growing and is likely to continue to grow. Most such travelers are mature and comparatively affluent. They represent a good source of income for tour organizations, but they can also be demanding. They are typically interested in several kinds of tours: safari-type luxury tours to observe wildlife, birds, landscape; adventure tours of a more modest sort which emphasize remote areas, colorful people or unusual geologic features. Ethiopia is rich in areas where camps offering a mixture of experiences and the opportunity to observe local life and natural attractions can be established such as those that already operate at Bishangari on Lake Langano and at the Experience Ethiopia site in the in the Afar region. Others are in the planning stage. 
Students and young adults who are less affluent and content with simpler accommodations and fewer comforts are good prospects for ecotourism. They are interested in trekking, exploring remote landscape, wild animals, birds, river- and lake experiences, and observing exotic ethnic groups. Scholars with a professional interest in ethnography, archaeology, various aspects of biology and geology represent opportunities for both individual and group tours sponsored by organizations. 
The experience of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society, which has been in existence for over 40 years, is rich in examples of the kind of interests in travel and study which its members–both resident foreigners and Ethiopians–undertake.
Diaspora Ethiopians are a special category. Many of them return primarily to visit family members and places where they or their ancestors formerly lived. But many come to gain better knowledge of their native country and to see parts of it they did not experience when they lived here. Many have gained knowledge in the countries where they are now living of environmental and cultural preservation programs and are likely to be interested in such activities in Ethiopia.
Fields for Development:
A paper I have prepared for the Millennium Council, “Preparing to Meet Millennium Tourism Goals” deals with the entire problem of measures that need to be taken to accommodate a great increase of tourism and diaspora travel to Ethiopia. All of these measures will help prepare the country to expand its capacity to sustain ecotourism. I list here some specific areas which merit attention:
     *Ethiopia’s mountains are almost untouched by climbers. Those who may be interested in them range from individual trekkers and hiking parties to professional climbers. Ethiopia has several mountain areas which could serve to make the country attractive to such people. They include not only the Semyens and the Bale Mountains, but mountains in Wag and Lasta, the Irob region in northeastern Tigray, Chilalo and other mountains in Arsi, lone peaks such as Zuqualla in Shoa and Fantalle in Awash National Park. In national parks that have already been established in some of these mountain areas, elementary provision for foot- and horse-trekking has already been made and some trails have been charted and marked. A great deal of further development would be useful.
     *Ethiopia’s lakes have many varied features of great interest to ecotourists: birds, wildlife, vegetation, colorful ethnic groups, historic churches and monasteries, unusual geologic features. Facilities for visiting most of them as well as accommodations are extremely limited.  
     *Ethiopia’s expanding national parks are still at a very elementary stage of development, though improvements in roads, trails and accommodations are improving. Good maps of parks are rare and information for viewing animals and birds is often not available. Visitor centers are rare (An exception is the elementary but excellent one at Melka Kontoure south of the Awash; but at nearby Tiya, though a World Heritage Site, there is nothing and visitors are usually harassed by local children as they find their way among the stelae.)
     *Churches are not only of historic significance, they are also significant as sites where trees and natural vegetation have been preserved for hundreds of years while it has been mostly destroyed in surrounding areas. A few churches in particularly attractive groves of well-preserved trees and other vegetation might be identified as places where tour agencies could bring people to observe their significance as refuges for vegetation and sanctuaries for birds. This is even more true of monasteries. Some monasteries are examples of adaptation to unusual geographic circumstances; some have made efforts to preserve natural features and exploit their surroundings in ways that reveal serious environmental concern and successful adaptation to local conditions. Some make ingenious use of springs and irrigation for raising fruit and special crops; some engage in productive traditional agriculture. Most preserve manuscripts and objects of historical interest.
     *Caves, Rock Art have only recently begun to attract attention but should not be neglected as sites of interest. Best known is Sof Omar in lowland Bale, which is interesting for its historical and religious connections. Some caves and rock shelters have paintings and carvings of people and animals. Some are ancient; others may be recent. In northern regions some of these are the site of historic churches: Makina Medhane Alem, Nakuto La’ab, Imrahana Christos; there are many others. Those that are easily accessible are now frequently visited by tourists; others are difficult of access and likely to be of interest only to determined trekkers or scholars.
It would be desirable to make a survey of published material useful to ecotourists–maps of important regions, handbooks on birds, animals, flora, geology, ethnography–to arrange for procurement or republication of the best material. It would be desirable to encourage writing and publishing of further materials that would be useful.
Suggestions and Possibilities:
The ideas sketched out below represent possibilities for support and development of ecotourism beyond what appears immediately possible. They are drawn primarily from experience in other parts of the world. They may not be immediately feasible for Ethiopia, but the ideas are advanced here to stimulate thinking.

     Countryside Walking Tours: 

In Europe and in parts of America countryside walking tours have become popular with tour organizations in recent years. Such tours take place in a small section of countryside with particularly attractive geographical, ethnographic or historical features. Tourists sometimes go out in different directions from a central point where they stay and to which they return each night or, in some cases, they walk from place to place, staying and eating at local inns or private houses. Such tours sometimes have a particular study purpose–folkore, music, handicrafts. Some sections of Ethiopia would appear to be appropriate for this kind of ecotourism: the Gurage country and other parts of the Southwest; areas with large numbers of rock churches in the north; Harar and its surroundings; national parks.

     Retracing of Historic Routes:

Tours can be organized to follow all or part of routes of earlier explorers, expeditions, trade routes, trails that served particular economic or religious purposes such as pilgrimage routes. An example which has been occasionally followed in Ethiopia for several years is the Salt Route into the Afar Depression. There are may other possibilities, including portions of the Napier Expedition to Magdala and historic Ethiopian military campaigns.
     Sites of Battles: 

Many significant battles have taken place in Ethiopia. The exact locations of those that took place in the past century or two are known. The most interesting being the Battle of Adwa. Magdala also comes to mind. There are many others, including locations of partisan actions during the Italian occupation and sites important in the 1941 liberation. Visitors to the sites now find almost nothing of significance, though local people sometimes are ready to recount what happened at such sites. Visitor centers with small museums could be built at some of these sites (the Adwa battlefield, because of its world significance, would be a high priority) and on some battlefields signs and plaques along trails could inform visitors of the main features of the action. Examples for this kind of historical commemoration of battlefields are numerous in Europe and America. Other sites of significant political events could also be given similar treatment: e.g., Boru Meda in southern Wollo, the site of the Church Synod in 1978 Yohannes IV and King Menelik of Shoa in the presence of church dignitaries and other prominent leaders settled religious issues important at the time. 
     The Concept of a Muslim Historic Route outlined in a paper I prepared for the Millennium Council would offer possibilities for adaptation of some of these ideas.
                                        Paul B. Henze
                                        Washington, VA    
                                        9 January 2007
The Author has traveled for more than 40 years in most parts of Ethiopia. He has trekked in the Semyens and Bale, climbed Chilalo, Zuqualla and several other mountains, explored all the Rift Valley lakes and their islands as well as the island monasteries of Lake Tana. He has visited innumerable churches, monasteries and archaeological sites all over the country and published extensively on them.

Written by Tseday

November 5, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Posted in Ethiopia

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