Some eight million years ago the earth opened up, splitting what is now the modern nation of Ethiopia right down the middle. The split, which today is known as the Great Rift Valley, also divided an ancestral population of apes in two. The population on the western side of the rift, living in lush tropical forests, evolved into chimpanzees, while the western population, living under harsher, more arid conditions, developed upright locomotion, as well as the ability to use tools and weapons, and evolved into us. Today the lowest portions of the Great Rift Valley are occupied by a number of lakes, the northernmost of which is Lake Zwai.
More than a thousand years ago, a Jewish queen, Gudit, led a bloody civil war against Ethiopia’s rulers. Her armies besieged Axum, razed much of the city to the ground, and killed the emperor, along with two of the royal princes. A third managed to escape to Rohas, ensuring the survival of the Solomonid bloodline, although they were not to re-take the throne for more than three centuries. Meanwhile, according oral history recorded by the author Graham Hancock, the Holy Ark of the Covenant had been taken for safekeeping from Axum to Debra Zion (“Mount Zion”), an island in Lake Zwai.
Gudit had been the leader of a tribal confederation called the Agaw. Not much is known about Ethiopian history in the years following her death, but we do know that within half a century Ethiopia was under control of the Zagwe dynasty, which means “the dynasty of the Agaw.” The new dynasty established its capital in the city of Rohas, in the heart of the land of the Agaw. By the time the Ark was returned to Axum, the Agaw rulers had converted to Christianity.
Hancock journeyed to Debra Zion, an island in Lake Zwai, where the monks related to him the above story. Hancock reported that the residents of the island all spoke Tigrigna, the language of Axum, rather than Amaregna, the language of the Province of Shoa where Lake Zwai is located. This bespeaks a migration of people from Tigray to Lake Zwai at some time in the past.
I traveled to Lake Zwai with my wife Yaa and our daughter Baaba. Serving as our drivers were two brothers, Alex and Binyamin, recommended to us by a friend. We stopped at Bulbula Spot, a restaurant on the shore of Lake Zwai. I strolled down to the water’s edge where some maribou storks agreed to pose for pictures.
Then we dined on some delicious tilapia fried over a wood fire which had probably been swimming in Lake Zwai an hour before.
We met a fellow who offered to take us to Debra Zion via motorized skiff for 1,300 birr (about a hundred dollars). The wife refused to pay. After a long and unproductive haggling session, we piled into the car and left.
You couldn’t hope for a better traveling companion than the wife. She makes friends instantly wherever she goes and gets the inside scoop on where things are, how to get around, how much to pay. We spent the night at Sabana resort on Lake Langano, just south of Lake Zwai, and she arranged for another boat to take us over for eight hundred birr – still too much, according to our Ethiopian friends, but better than one thousand three hundred.
The next morning after a leisurely breakfast we went for a swim in Lake Langano. A group of high school students sharing the beach with us insisted on having their pictures taken with the big hairy ferengi.
Early after noon, we drove back to the Bulbula spot. I wondered how we were going to be received, but I needn’t have been concerned. The fellow who had offered to take us over to Debra Zion for 1,300 Birr was giving us the evil eye, but everyone else appeared glad to see us. We met our skipper, Alemeyehu, and his two mates, Gage and Gezai.
On the way over to Debra Zion, Gage informed me that Lake Zwai occupies an area of 934 square kilometers, and that Debra Zion is the largest of five islands in the lake, with a population of five thousand. He also informed that the inhabitants spoke not pure Tigrigna but rather a patois of Amaregna, Oromoo, and Tigrigna called Zai.
The trip took about an hour and forty-five minutes. As we hauled up on shore, we watched a three-foot monitor lizard disappear into the bushes – too fast for me to get out the camera and get a picture. We hiked up a steep mountainside, and arrived at a surprisingly modern-looking church.
The caretaker, Abraham, informed us that this was not the church where the Ark of the covenant had been brought, over a thousand years before. That church had been located on top of an even higher mountain, which he pointed out to us. That church was abandoned when the new one was built in 1974.
Alex and Binyamin said there was nothing left of the original church. I had a hard time believing that – there’s nothing left, not even a foundation? They assured me that was the case. The told me couldn’t got there, but I their English wasn’t very good, and I was never able to get from them a coherent answer to the question, are we not allowed to go there, or is it just too far to go?
Presently the priest, Father Genzabo, arrived and led us around to the back of the church. He opened a door and showed us shelves filled with ancient books consisting of bound sheet of parchment between wooden covers, along with some crosses and other assorted relics.Speaking through Binyamin, Father Genzabo told us that all these relics were brought there in the eighteenth century.
The books were obviously deteriorating in the moist tropical heat – the pages tore as he leafed through them. As he held up the books one by one, Binyamin told us each one had been written one thousand, one hundred, and forty-eight years ago. They couldn’t all have been written in the same year, I thought to myself, and eventually I figured out that what Binyamin meant was that the books were all brought here one thousand one hundred and forty-eight years ago. Wait a minute, I thought to myself – I thought Father Genzabo said the books were brought here in the eighteenth century?
A light bulb went off in my head. “Just a minute,” I asked Binyamin. “These books were brought here in the eighteenth century after what? It can’t be the eighteenth century after the birth of Christ. Does he mean the eighteen century after Menelik the First came to Ethiopia?” Binyamin put the answer to Father Genzabo, and then assured me that that was exactly what he meant.
Let’s see now – one thousand one hundred and forty eight years ago was 862 C.E. That was a comfortable eighteen centuries and change after Menelik I supposedly brought the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia.
Now it all made sense. “And that was the same time the Ark of the Covenant was brought here?” Father Genzabo assured me it was. “How long did it remain here?” Forty years, I was told, and then it was returned to Axum.
We thanked Father Genzabo for his time, and Alex handed him a note for one hundred birr. Father Genzabo handed back the note, obviously finding the proffered sum insultingly small. The wife began arguing with him, with Alex and Binyamin and Gage all joining in.
I asked Alemeyehu how much the old man wanted. Two hundred birr, I was told. Not wanting to offend our hosts, I reached into my wallet, peeled off two hundred-birr notes, and handed them to the old man. “Betam ameseggenaluh,” I said, and the old man smiled.
On the way back, several hippopotamuses (hippopotami?) swam out to investigate us, and we snapped several pictures.
As for the Ark: after the civil war between the Christians and the Jews, it was returned to the original Church of Saint Mary in Axum. More than two hundred years later, mysterious strangers arrived in Ethiopia in search of the Holy Ark of the Covenant.
This is the third of eight parts
All photos by author