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Church of St. Mary of Zion

Listed under Sacred Spaces in Ethiopia.

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Ancient legends in Ethiopia (also called Abyssinia) describe the area of Axum as a swamp inhabited by evil spirits. God helped the local people by coming down to the nearby sacred hill of Makade Egzi to spread a miraculous dust from heaven which dried up the swamp, dispelled the evil spirits and charged the region with a magical power. Over uncounted centuries shrines were set upon the sacred hill and where the swamp had been. Around this holy place developed the cities of pre-Axumite and Axumite kingdoms. Between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, various kings of Axum erected the tallest granite obelisks in all the ancient world, their function still unknown. A few hundred meters from a cluster of these towering obelisks is a walled compound with the church of St. Mary of Zion, built in 372 AD, and a fenced-off building said to contain the fabled Arc of the Covenant.

What factors explain this mysterious church isolated deep in the remote mountains of northern Ethiopia, so far from the orbit of Christianity? Different legends offer contrasting answers. At some unknown date, the enigmatic Arc of the Covenant vanished from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Ethiopian legends explain that Menelik, son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought it to Axum. Scholarly research however, suggests that during the 6th century BC Jewish priests from Solomon’s temple transferred the Arc to a Jewish temple on the Egyptian sacred island of Elephantine for 200 years. It was then hidden for 800 years on the island of Tana Kirkos in Lake Tana, and finally brought by a Christian Axumite king to the church of St. Mary of Zion sometime after the 4th century AD. The Arc remained in Axum until the early 1530’s when it was removed to a secret hiding place to protect it from approaching armies. With peace restored a hundred years later, the Ark was returned to Axum and St. Mary’s church. There it remained until 1965 when Haile Selassie transferred it to a more secure chapel adjacent to the old church. Other scholars believe the Arc was buried in secret tunnels beneath the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, only to be rediscovered and stolen 1700 years later by the Knights Templars. Wherever the location of the true Arc, no one but the head priest of St. Mary of Zion is allowed to see the Arc of Axum.

More on St. Mary's Church from Sacred Sites.

Written by  Martin Gray.

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