The wealthy, powerful, and stunningly beautiful Queen from Sheba - a
place in what is now Northern Ethiopia - came to visit wise King Solomon whose
powers and greatness she had heard about,in Jerusalem some time in the eighth
century B.C., and after their mutual seduction returned to her capital, Aksum, where
she gave birth to Solomon's son, who she named Menelik, “Son of the Wise.”
Years later, according to the Ethiopians, Menelik travelled to Jerusalem to see his father, who greeted him with joy and invited him to remain in Jerusalem to rule after his death. But Menelik chose to return home, taking the Ark of the Covenant with him back to Aksum in Northern Ethiopia where it resides today, justifying the Ethiopian view that their country is God's chosen country, the final resting place that He chose for the Ark (does this sound vaguely familiar?), making the Queen of Sheba the mother of the Ethiopian nation, and giving the kings of Ethiopia the divine right to rule asher direct descendants. I thought you’d like to know.
On the first of my two day trips planned in compensation for not being able to get to Lalibela or Gondar I head for an 11th century church at Adidi Mariam. As planned, Awet meets me at the van. He has never been to Mariam and is looking forward to the trip. He has also told me that when we get to Debre Libanos tomorrow he intends to be left there for a week of meditation and prayer. He brings to show me the certificate he received upon completion of his introductory German class at the University, for which he received an A+ grade, and also the gift of a small pamphlet written in English entitled “The Great Green Charter of the Human Rights of the Jamahiriyan Era,” published by the People’s General Congress of the Great Popular Arab Libyan and Socialist Jamahiriya in the year 1397 (1988 A.D) after the Prophet’s death as “Inspired by the First Declaration of the Great Fatah Revolution (1969),” which,you’ll be pleased to know, as was I, “was the final triumph of freedom on this Earth” and is committed “to an end to the arms trade and to their manufacture for export purposes” and “against the dangers represented by the waste from nuclear power plants.”
I imagine the pamphlet is not something Awet had as part of his library, but rather something he purchased it from one of the many used booksellers found on the streets of Addis, probably for one birr (five cents). And whatever the manner by which Awet came into possession of the text I trust it has nothing to do with his belief (or understanding) of the text’s content and is intended exclusively as a gift of gratitude to me, for which I am genuinely touched.
I tell Hemot, our driver, that our first stop must be for coffee and he takes usto a lovely shop filled to the brim in the early morning hours with Ethiopian men and a scattering of women where three coffees and one massive, sugary, oily, chocolate draped donut that Hemot orders and attempts to share costs a total of one dollar … and then we’re off in the van listening to the traditional sounds of Tracy Chapman, Stevie Wonder, Burning Spear, and Joe Cocker, all music Hemot has downloaded onto a small memory stick he plays through the van radio.
The countryside we pass through on our way to Adidi Miriam, about two hours south of Addis, is absolutely stunning. It’s the dry season, and the fields where wheat, beans, barley, some corn, and lots of tef - the grain used to make injeera - are grown are a radiant golden color made up of unharvested dried plant stems standing in colorful contrast to the rich red earth that stretches across vast arid plains for mile after mile. The houses we pass are almost all traditional round structures made of thin tree limbs or tree trunks of less than one inch in diameter that are lashed together in a circle with natural fibers that help support the structure standing upright and then plastered inside and out with cow dung which provides it rigidity and encloses the house. Attention is given to a doorway and very few windows. The roof is made of thatch radiating out from a center pole and thin rafters that rest on the sides of the house. The floors are earthen. They usually have no electricity and certainly no running water. I'm sure the design hasn't changed in thousands of years.
In the fields people are working with hand tools hoeing and harvesting. I see no tractors. At peasant dwelling after peasant dwelling unharnessed cattle are being made to walk around and around in tight little circles, head to head, belly to belly, like a slowly spinning carnival ride, for the purpose of threshing the grain. Their mouths are tied shut to prevent their stopping to eat. The cow on the outside of the pack walks the furthest, and is being whipped and yelled at to keep moving. The axis cow is really just spinning around and around an imaginary center, as the grain is separated, wheat from chaff, and then winnowed in the traditional manner of being thrown up into the air where the wind carries off the chaff, and the desired seed falls to the earth to be further strained in handheld screen trays and then gathered into sacks where ubiquitous little burros carry it off. As we pass by men wave.
We turn off onto a very narrow poor dirt road and pick up four peasant women hoping for a ride. They smell like sweet silage. When we drop them off they offer to pay, thinking we were a taxi, and their money is declined. The conversation is mostly a lot of sign language as they all speak Omoro and Awet and Hemot speak only Amharinga (Amaric in Amaric). An hour’s drive down the road and we are in Marian, a dusty mostly empty village of mud houses, where clearly few tourists ever arrive.
The church at Miriam was built as best as I can figure by first digging a huge circular trench with a diameter of about two hundred feet and a trench width of four or five feet that goes down to a depth of about eighteen feet and then excavating, tunneling, and digging away from the remaining circle of earth to create rooms with ceilings ten feet high and windows out onto the circular trench, as well as passageways and archways, and creating a church by taking away what must have been tons and tons of earth rather than building up and adding on to, which is just fascinating archeologically and architecturally. Besides which, the cost of materials was nil.
Into the outside wall of the trench have been dug three arced staircases that permit visitors and supplicants to get down to the church and trench floor, which slopes downward from west to east and at the lowest end has a large drain that runs out into what is now a dry local creek for water to escape to in times of rain. Inside the church breezes and gauge curtains are blowing deliciously, and the air is very dry and cool. On the walls of the church are hung quite beautiful anonymously created religious paints, all of which are covered with a curtain of gauze to protect them, but which are quite weather worn nonetheless. In one picture an absolutely blissed out very maternal Mother Mary is seen looking at Jesus and onto the sleeve of her blue garment is embroidered a golden Star of David. It takes my breath away and reduces me to tears, as does the entire deep, deep Jewish root reality of the holy family and their times. In a poem I wrote about the church appear the lines:
… and ancient paintings of the holy mother
with a star of david on her sleeve
jesus looking on
happy and familiar
as someone you went to school with
someone trying to fathom
the mystery of so divine a creation
as he knows himself to be
and knows we all are
living the flawed lives we do
thirsty patient painted jesus
praised by peasants
who bring their camels and asses
to be blessed
who kneel down and cross themselves
next to the now all but evaporated
tears streaming down your face …
Outside, the church, as we prepare to leave
the village, I ask Hemot to stop at a small hut that serves as the local
general store selling things such as thread, batteries, umbrellas, beans, flip
flop sandals, individual sticks of gum, hats, and other such sundries to see if
I can buy a bottle of water, which sends the proprietress digging about in the
back of her store from which she emerges with a dusty sealed bottle of water
that she says will cost me thirty five cents.
When I ask again how much she says, “Thirty cents. Last offer.” I give her the thirty five. I tell Hemot I want to walk a little ways up
hill through the village to get a better sense of it, to smell it and peer
inside the houses, to feel the dust beneath my feet and in my nostrils, to hear
the birds and braying animals, to see the unfathomable poor people of Adidi
Miriam who are peering at me with interest and who greet my wave hello to them
with immense and beautiful smiles in return.
After walking about two hundred yards I notice a slow but steadily increasing stream of school aged children coming down toward me and realize school must have just let out for the day. As the first kids reach me they hold out their hands and say, “Pen. Pen.” But I have only one pen with me and am not about to part with it. And as I stand there with the first few students, laughing together, giving high fives, shaking hands, counting in English, “One, two, three,” the throng grows much much larger until there are well over two hundred children surrounding me, pushing into me, touching and poking me, laughing with me, but who is all of a sudden concerned both for my personal safety and the safety of my passport, and the money in my pocket, when Hemot comes to rescue me.
“Do you think they sell pens at the store,” I ask Hemot, who says, “Let’s see.”
So I walk to back to the store with the teeming, screaming, joyous, mass of kids to see if this is going to be the proprietress’ lucky day. And yes, she has pens for sale, she says, showing me a box of what look exactly like inexpensive Bic pens, same color same size, on the box of which it reads, “Ideal everyday pen. No. 1 quality.Fine tip and smooth writing. Made in China.” With the brand name, OBAMA PENS, prominently and boldly featured on two sides of the box beneath the smiling picture of the American president.
“How much for a pen,” I ask.
“Five cents for one,” she says
“I’ll take them all,” I say as she counts out forty three of them, although I now have another problem, which is how to distribute this finite quantity of manna to what has grown to an infinite number of gorgeous, beautiful, deserving, deprived, needy, hungry chidren. The uncomfortable image of U.N. aid workers with finite amounts of rice to distribute in some refugee camp of starving Africans is not far off the mark.