ONE @ 50: Ethiopia Celebrates Mary

In honor of ONE magazine’s 50th-anniversary year, the CNEWA blog series, ONE @ 50: From the Vault, aims to revive and explore the wealth of articles published in ONE magazine throughout its history. In this month of Mary, learn about Ethiopia’s Mariam Zion celebrations, including a pilgrimage to a shrine in Aksum, originally published in May 2006.

Not far from Ethiopia’s disputed border with Eritrea lies the sleepy town of Aksum (population, 41,000). Though not a common tourist destination, Aksum holds its place as an important heritage site. It is littered with archaeological ruins, including the steles for which it is famous. Once the capital of a prosperous empire that stretched from eastern Africa to Arabia, Aksum controlled the East-West trade routes linking India and Rome. Its emperors were among the first to embrace Christianity, using it to forge a distinct culture and nation from a bewildering number of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Each year, on 30 November, Aksum is aroused from its sleep. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, wrapped in their white pilgrimage attire, or gabis, converge on Aksum to celebrate one of Ethiopia’s holiest days, Mariam Zion, or Mary of Zion. They focus their attention on a modest shrine that is actually part of a cluster of churches all dedicated to her. Surrounded by a simple iron fence, and guarded by a solitary monk who alone has access to its contents, the chapel houses Ethiopia’s greatest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant.

Ethiopian Orthodox deacons celebrate the feast of Mary of Zion in Aksum. (photo: Sean Sprague)

Mariam Zion commemorates this African nation’s Judaic heritage and its Christian faith: Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant, which enshrines the Ten Commandments, has been in Ethiopia since their first king, Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, took the Ark from Jerusalem. Others have suggested it came after 587 B.C., when references to the Ark disappear from Scripture after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Mariam Zion therefore celebrates God’s presence in the Ten Commandments and honors Mary as the New Ark.

Legend or fact, Ethiopians take seriously what the Ark and Mary both represent: vessels in which the presence of God, the God of the Old and New Testaments, dwells.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s director of communications.

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