An unexpected ceremony – Aksum, Ethiopia

Proof that yesterday’s early morning rise to witness the moving procession of the Ark of the Covenant, we’re up at 4:30am again today to do it all again before grabbing a few hours nap until the real day begun. Having stumbled upon a hidden gem of a place sheltered from the traffic behind high hedges, we decided to try the cafe within Ezana Park for breakfast. Turns out this is our tip for the best chill out restaurant/bar/outdoor pool hall in the whole of Ethiopia

Parade of the Ark of the Covenant
Another early morning start well spent, procession of the Ark of the Covenant

Ezana Park Cafe.
Colours of Axum

Maze like pathways of hedges, vine covered tunnels and fences hide shaded courtyards, rooms and booths fashioned from brightly coloured sheets of corrugated iron, metal, wood or stone, giving the place an edgy yet rustic vibe. A mish mash of brightly coloured tables and chairs scattered throughout gives you plenty of choice of where to sit, most of it shaded from the scorching Ethiopian sun, and there’s the odd stelea or two scattered around. Unfortunately the food didn’t live up to the venue and we were left disappointed with our plain omelet and slightly stale bread roll.

Ezana Park Cafe.
Another of Ezana Parks courtyards, perfect for afternoon beers

Ezana Park Cafe.
Stelea in Ezana Park

Tuk tuks.
Tuk tuks lined up on Axum’s main street

With a full day to explore more of Axum’s history, we headed back past the Queen of Sheba’s paths and headed up a muddy road towards the Ezana Stone. For those of you who have ever visited the British Museum with Sarah, you’ll know the first thing she visits is the Rosetta Stone, an ancient stone (196BC) covered in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Greek and the basis for the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Ezana Stone (4th century AD), documenting King Ezana’s conversion to Christianity and conquests over his neighbours, is written in Ge’ez (ancient Eritrean/Ethiopian language), Sabaen (South Arabian) and Greek, making it Ethiopia’s own Rosetta Stone. Unfortunately for us the site was closed, those we had a welcome distraction when five small children joined us, held our hands and walked with us.

Aden's families house on the way to Ezana's Stone
Aden’s families house on the way to the monasteries behind Axum

Coffee Ceremony.
Gorgeous little Sonia and friend

Coffee Ceremony.
Mama making coffee

The oldest in the group, Aden, proudly used her English tell us repeatedly that she was now in Grade 7 and to let us know that her mother would like to show us a traditional coffee ceremony. With such cute faces how could we say no. Taking a seat among the children in the modest family yard (complete with cows and chickens), Aden’s mother proceeds to freshly roast the coffee beans, giving us a traditional waft of the aroma (to which we did the expected ‘mmm’ and nod of the head), before grinding and brewing. It’s considered polite to accept no less than three cups, and so we did, as a small pot of incense burned away in front of us.

Coffee Ceremony.
Coffee beans being freshly roasted

Coffee Ceremony.
Our new friends

With the kids commandeering Sarah’s iphone for a selfie session, Sonia the youngest was left out of the action, so she took things into her own hands, breaking into an impromptu traditional Ethiopian shoulder dance. With a round of applause from us she’d stolen the show and the others soon joined in. We enjoyed every minute of the hour or so we spent here messing around with these lovable youngsters. Showing their mother a photo of Sarah’s newborn nephew, with hand on her heart, she gave the phone a loving kiss, an action that was then copied by little Sonia and left us both feeling very touched. All this for only 10 birr each, a fraction of what you’d pay for a manufactured hotel coffee ceremony.

Coffee with the locals.
Trying the #ngry sunglasses out

Our friend
Little Sonia proving you’re never too young for coffee

We hit the path with a caffeine fueled pep in our step and make our way slowly uphill where we bump into a boy who’d tried desperately to sell us amethyst the day before. With a handshake we congratulate him on his hard work of tracking us down again though apologies that we’re still not going to buy it, with a smile he leaves us alone to make our way through the farmland paths for a view of the Pentalewon Monastery. Abba Pentalewon, one of the Nine Saints so instrumental in bringing Christianity to Ethiopia, supposedly built the monastery, then shut himself away in it for 45 years. Rumour has it that one of the countries most famous monarchs, King Kaleb spent the remainder of his life here after abdicating from the throne, tortured by his war filled life. As only men are allowed to enter the old church, we decided to skip it and just enjoy the view from the outside.

Walking around the hills of Asxum.
Pentalewon Monastery

View back down towards Axum

Walking around the hills of Asxum.
Pentalewon Monastery

African goats will climb on anything and everything

Using our trusty compass we point the needle south and wind our way through the farms to a dirt road which leads back to the main road, and with the sun still shining we decide to give Ezana Park another go. Choosing a nice shady spot out of the afternoon heat, the food (our staple vegetarian beyanetu) was a little small and the coffee overpriced, though they have Dashen Beer on tap for 15 birr/400ml. We loved this place and ended up visiting several times…our advice? Skip the food, stay for the beer. Back on the street local kids are peeling and selling cactus fruit for 2 birr each, and as we’ve never tried it we give it a shot. Pretty tasty if we’re honest, give it a go!

Ezana Park Cafe.
Afternoon beers in the shade of Ezana Park

Ezana Park Cafe.
Afternoon beers in the shade of Ezana Park

Ezana Park Cafe.
The beyanetu was a little small for our liking but as a location for afternoon beers, Ezana Park has no rival in Axum

With the Celebration of St.Mary in full swing (see our previous Axum blog), we head to the church complex to have a look around. Inside the walls the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion is the most important church in the country as it used to hold the Ark of the Covenant, resting place of the original 10 Commandments handed down to Moses in Sinai (or so they say…). Due a leaky roof a new home was built in the Chapel of the Tablet right next door. Unfortunately once again women are not permitted to enter, so Sarah had to make do with peaking over the fence while Matt checked it out (though even he wasn’t allowed inside and had to make do with an external view).

Men worshipping around the Chapel of the Tablet, supposed resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the 10 Commandments

Sarah’s view from outside the compound

Churches of Axum

It’s quite a surreal feeling, whether you believe all the old bible stories or not, to be so close to would could potential be the actual stone tablets containing the original 10 commandments. Though only one guardian is ever allowed access to the Ark, to spirit of the story lives on and you can feel it in the faith of the people who come here to pray. There are several other churches within the compound however being time for mass on a religious holiday most of them, including the slightly garish domed Tsion, were off limits to tourists. On the plus side we were never able to track down anybody to pay the extortionate 200 birr entrance fee to so not a total waste of time.

Hand woven Baskets.
Traditional handwoven baskets and injera serving platters for sale

Colourful houses in the backstreets

Heading into the backstreets to explore we got sandwiched by a double header storm coming from both in front and behind. The lightning was relentless and half way home the heavens opened as we ducked into a tiny ATM booth. Joined by two teenager girls and an elderly couple, for over 30 minutes we huddle together as hail the size or marbles bounce of the pavement and the lightning and thunder are non stop. Eventually, even though it’s past closing time, the bank security take pity at the ferocity of the storm and let us in to shelter for 15 minutes until is passes.

Caught in a massive rain storm.
The aftermath of the double storm with a foot of water flooding the street

The Hide Out ATM.
The wonderful Bank of Abyssinia who took us in and sheltered us from the torrential rain

Passing a bar we notice three drunk girls at an outdoor table covered in empty beer mugs. They’re Ethiopian but are dressed in short shorts, cleavage exposing tops and not much else and had been drinking here since 12 (it was now 5pm). Rude and acting like whores, their lack of respect for the people and their culture gained them no respect from the locals in return, and we joined them in some eye rolling and sly laughs as we took a seat inside.

Locals and dancing.
Dancing the night away with the locals

The social front room has seating along the walls making for a social atmosphere. The evening evolves when a couple of Azmari, travelling minstrels) enter the bar and proceed to sing a song about us whilst playing a single string wooden instrument. With some locals translating, this gets us all up dancing. Crossing what appears to be a river rapid across the road we make it back to Africa Hotel and arrange our free airport transfer for the following morning as another storm front closes in, cutting the power and leaving only the frequent lightning to illuminate.

For more Ethiopian pics go to our Flickr page.

Tips for Axum

  1. It’s very limited which churches and monasteries women can actually enter in Ethiopia, so if you’re going to pay an entrance fee ensure you’re allowed in first.
  2. The walk to Abba Pentalewon is easy, and if you’re unsure of the way locals will point you in the right direction.
  3. If invited into somebodies home for a coffee ceremony, say yes! You won’t regret it.
  4. If you’re here in the rainy season be prepared…you will get wet!
  5. Africa Hotel offers free airport transfers when you stay with them

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