Book 1: The Calling (an excerpt)
IN THE HIGHLANDS of an ancient land in the Horn of Africa, fitted in the mountains like a multi-hued, sparkling jewel near the Erythrean (Red) Sea, there flourished the Kingdom of Aksum. A great city in all its splendor and glory situated north in the country of Abyssinia, and south of all what the Greeks called Ethiopia. In a land that has been a mystery and a myth to the Greeks and Romans for centuries, and the Egyptians revered for millennia and dear not provoke its inhabitants, the source of the great Nile River. Here reigns a succession of kings who call themselves, Negusa Negast which is King of Kings and Yeh Yihuda Anbessa which is translated "The Lion of Judah", in their official Hebasha language of Geez. This is, of course, in reverence to the one and only true King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the risen and ascended Yesus Kristos.
It is the 11th day in the month of Ter in the Aksumite calendar (January 19th in the Gregorian calendar) and the Aksumites are preparing for Timkat, the three day celebration of baptism of the Messiah Iyesus Kristos by Yohannes the Baptiser (John the baptist). Citizens of the cities and country side, from shepherds, merchants and artisans to priests, monks and clergy of all churches and monasteries, and all the royals in the palaces and castles are preparing in great anticipation of one of the most colourful and splendid ceremonies of the year. All the Kings noblemen and all the kings guards are also preparing in their own ways and according to their responsibilities. They awake early in the morning before sunrise to take baths, perfuse themselves and put on their clothing and uniforms. The Kahenat, which are the Priests, wear full regalia of splendid ceremonial robes of magnificent velvet and fine satin, swinging bronze censers with sweet incense smoke billowing into the air. Guards and warriors in full armory and poise as if for battle. In the kings court the musician start orchestrating music quietly on the kirar, begenna, washint, sistras and masenko, letting it resonate through the halls, and permeate the souls of all who can, and even those who cannot, hear it.
Ella Ameda II (Reign 536 - 542 AD), whose royal throne name is known as Gebre Meskel, son of Ella Atzbeha (Emperor Kabel, Reign 519 - 536 AD) is the reigning Negusa Negast, him and his wife the Queen, The Empress, First Lady of the land, arise and go to separate rooms to prepare with their maids and servants. On top of the king and queens white cotton garments is a black jacket, embroidered with gold patterns around the neck and extending to the shoulders and down the front hems. Over this layer of clothing two servants assist the king with a magnificent robe upon his back and shoulders, royal purple in colour and decorated with golden, fanciful embroidery of patterns, geometric shapes and cross motifs. Next, His Imperial Majesty (HIM) is presented with rings on his fingers, his strapped sandals, lion headed scepter and then his bejeweled golden crown. The King and Queen both step out of changing room quarters wearing matching regalia today. They greet each other with kisses on the cheeks, right, left then right again, and proceed down the hallways, being escorted by two servants and four guards to the throne room for breakfast. Already the corridors and hallways of the royal palace are permeating with the aromas of sweet smelling incense and frankincense mingled with food.
While the royal family prepare themselves, so do the royal guards in their quarters. Hundreds of guards in various ranks and duties. There are chief warriors of old age, mature captains and sergeants and young foot soldiers, mercenaries and royal guards all according to their skills. It is an honour for a young man to be considered worthy to become a warrior and defend the King and fight for his country in the name of Agziabeher (The Almighty Creator). Enforce the law, defend the faith. Execute judgment justly and truthfully.
One such young man, in the prime of his youth, is Mekonnen, who is just about 21 years old, serving as kings guard and warrior for about a year and a half. Young, fresh, and ready to take on the world, Mekonnen is skilled in sword fighting, spear throwing and archery. He can also perform hand to hand combat without weapons. He practices with his friends and fellow warriors everyday except the Lords day, on Sunday, when the whole Aksumite Kingdom attend church service. Mekonnen is about three and a half cubits (6 feet) tall, medium built and muscular like most warriors would be. Black curly hair like sheeps wool frames his medium brown face, a handsome face it is. Noticeable eye brows shelter his brown eyes, pronounced nose with high nose ridge.
Today, the first day of Timkat, Mekonnen puts on his baggy white trousers, fitted white long sleeved shirt with vertical ribbed fittings from shoulder to wrists. He fastens his brown leather belt with a bronze lion head for a buckle, with two sheaths, one for a long sword and another for a 6 inch dagger fastened to the waist. He wears a robe of lions fur on his shoulders, covering his back and forming a flower shape, narrowing as it comes down the front. The older Warriors wear more colorful robes and lion fur head pieces. Mekonnen straps on his sandals, wraps a white turban around his head and grabs his 2 cubits long spear in his right hand and his metal shield in his left hand which is a cubit in diameter, geometrically studded with small dome shaped nubs near the curved edges. He wears a decorative, one inch armband around his right biceps, not a requirement but just for personal style. It was a present to him from his mother on his 19th birthday. All the men in Mekonnens rank are uniformed the same and march out together, ready to protect the King and Queen and celebrate Timkat.
Dehnah neuh/ How are you doing? Mekonnen greets his fellow guard and companion Afewerki, who is about the same height and built as he is.
Dehnah Neuny/ I am fine. Afewerki replies. Nice morning isnt it?
Yes it sure is, Agzio is gracious to give us fine weather, this morning. But I think it could rain later this evening.
Rain? No, dont say that. It will be sunny all day, I hope. It is not even rainy season.
I only say that because of yesterday. It seemed Agzio and the Nachash were fighting each other, sun, then rain, then sun. Then sun and rain at the same time.
Yeah, I remember. Then there was a beautiful rainbow in the south over the Simiyen mountains.
Aferwerki muses as he motions with his out stretched right arm to the highlands of Tigray to the north-west and Mount Ras Dashen in the southern highlands of the Amhara region. As he turns back around to face Mekonnen, Mekonnens eyes widen and he exclaims jokingly,
Oh, but look, the rainbow is still there!
Afewerki swings his head back around to view the highlands again, Huh, where?
Mekonnen playfully hits Afewerki on the back of his head, Afewerki quickly realizing the joke and hits Mekonnen on the arm with equal playfulness, then they both have a good laugh at themselves.
but this is a new day, Meko my brother, let us eat. Says Afewerki and the two companions follow the rest of the guards to the breakfast tables.
These two are very familiar with each other and grew up together since they were tennish wonde, little boys. In fact people notice that they resemble each other in appearance and that is because they are near kinsmen, cousins, their fathers being brothers. Although many Abyssinians and Aksumites may resemble each other even if they may not be close blood relatives, yet many are related in some way, having large families and marrying within their close knit towns and communities. Even strangers can recognize the unique facial features of the inhabitants of Aksum, a mixture of various tribes, of being chiefly descendants of Kham and Shem in genealogy, culture and speech. The Arabians across the Red Sea to the east called them Habeshat, thus naming the country Habeshinya (Abyssinia), land of the beautiful people.
(Note: I most verify the Amhara words used are the same or different from the more ancient Geez language.)
Aksum, situated between two mountains that are among a greater range of verdant mountains, is a center of attraction at this time of year. The city proper is arrayed with magnificent palaces, castles and church cathedrals of fine architecture in authentic Aksumite style and a mix of influences from African, Greek and Sabaean designs. The Royal Palace sits upon a platform of steps and has four high towers each adorned with a brazen unicorn as if protruding out from the towers, elegantly formed with fine craftsmanship, each one facing in four directions, north-east, North-west, south-east and south-west. In the center is a dome shape with balconies around and a cross at the very top. Reports of these four shiny unicorns galloping out of the four towers have reached as far as Rome in Europa and is even written in the journals of the Egyptian monk, Cosmas Indicopleustes1.
The hundreds of towering Aksumite stelaes are impressive structures to behold, surpassing even the ones in Egypt. The underground passage ways, tombs and rock hewn caverns are still a mystery to most Aksumites. People from far and wide come to the glorious city to either celebrate, trade or obverse. Indians, Arabians, Egyptians, Sabaeans, Nubians, Hebrews, Cathays from the far east and even Greeks, Romans and Syrians are all expected to converge into Aksum and other Ethiopian cities to intermingle with the locals. Some foreigner take advantage of the season to do buying and trading with those who would need wares, clothing, satin, lace, spices, frankincense and materials needed for festival preparations. They themselves are hoping to return to their respective countries with large shares of Abyssinian gold, bronze, ivory spices, myrrh, exotic animals and birds and much more. Not to mention mint Aksumite coins for business and souvenirs.
By this time of morning people are caravanning on foot, donkey, camel or horse back according to their social status and what ever one can afford. Some nobles, officials, and various royal and priestly individuals come in chariots and carriages drawn by handsome horses and tremendous African elephants fitted with beautiful harnesses decorated with gold and silver fabric and colourful precious stones. Chariots drawn by the elephants are a grant spectacle and leave the little children awestruck from the enormous size and motion of the whole thing. Followed by the giraffes, zebras, lions, leopards and paracera-horses that are paraded in the main streets of Aksum for a grant spectacle.
Some time later Mekonnen and Aferworki are at their post near the kings palace. Mekonnen is thinking, and has been thinking deeply and about his life and state of being for some time. Questions have been swimming in his mind like, What is the purpose in life, What is my destiny, Who is Agziabeher and is he real?, And why were we put is this world, to labour, suffer and cry in pain?. So he turns to Afewerki and says,
You know Afi, Ive been thinking, about life and such. Like the future and destiny. What about you, do you think about the future?
Afeworki glances at Mekonnen and wonders of his friends sudden cogitativeness.
Yes, I think about the future, I dont worry about it, because I know exactly what I want to do. In the right time Agzio will provide and show me the way. Whats wrong, thinking about a girl, thinking about finding a wife Ato Meko? Start a family? Afeworki smiles as he makes fun with Mekonnen.
Well, yes but, not that. I mean eventually I hope to marry but I mean more than that. Like what is this life for? We eat, sleep, fight, play genna, celebrate festivals and protect the Negusa Negast, the King of Kings. But what else is there to live for?
Well, to protect and to serve ones country and honour your family and fellow man is to serve Agzio. Is it not written in the holy scriptures to Love your neighbor as you love yourself. And Do to others as will have them do to you.
Well yes, this is what the priests read to us in church. But how do I know thats what it says for myself? Ive just been thinking?
The two young Habesha guards stand in silence for about a minute observing the crowds gathering and women and girls dressed in blue dresses with red crosses stitched to the front, singing church songs and clapping with high praises.
Then Mekonnen says to Afeworki, You know, the other day I wrote a song.
Oh really, you write songs now, I did not know you can sing.
Well, No, I dont really sing, but I write songs and poems sometimes.
Hmm, Mekonnen the Psalmist! That is interesting. How does it go?
I do not want to sing it now, well, maybe I will just recite a few verses. It begins:
Oh, Aksum, Kingdom of great splendor,
And magnificence among other kingdoms.
Kingdom of high steles and glorious palaces
Perched upon high mountains, like a nestled dove
For all the nations to see
Your fame has gone abroad, How Agziabeher, The Almighty Creator, has bless you
With magnificence and Glory of the Kings of old
Upon your throne is the seat of King Dawit
The throne of the son of the wisest King of Zion
Within you resides King Solomons abundance
And the most Holiest of Holies,
The Ark of the Covenant.
Wisdom and glory abounds but where is your heart and soul?
Do you have a heart and soul?
Do I have a heart and soul?
Is my beauty and splendor in my outward appearance
In what I see?
Or in what is within me?
My heart cries out, my soul thirsts to be filled
Fill me with peace, and contentment.
I pray thee not for power and glory
I pray thee, for wisdom and understanding
And let me be all that I could be.
That is it.
Afeworki, with a look of surprise and approval on his face, pauses a bit then replies,
That was deep my friend, I like it, you should put it to music. Let one of the court musicians help you with the strings of a begena or krar.
No, I do not want to do that yet, it is a rather personal verse, straight from the heart.
Which is why others should hear it. Oh wait, Look over there.
Some young Abyssinian girls were approaching their way, about five or six of them, looking very pretty, in their usually shapely, petite figures and doe-eyed glances, dressed in all white covered from head to ankles, with embroided meskel crosses at the top and center of front of their dresses. Three of them wore round brass disks along their hair lines at the top of their foreheads, framing their faces. They all seemed to have near flawless complexions, ranging in shades from amber to dark brown. There heads were covered with blue and white shamas, which could not hide their lovely smiles as they walk pass two handsome guards that are Makonnen and Afeworki, blushing and grinning with a softly spoken,
Selam. With the customary bow as they keep walking by, giggling amongst themselves.
Selam! The two young warriors replied, sticking their chests out and tucking stomachs in with a little more effort than usual. When the young ladies were a good distance away from them Afeworki said,
You see Mekonnen, there are many pretty maidens in Aksum. You can have someone in your family arrange to set you up with one if you like.
Mekonnen, smiles and thinks to himself that Afeworkis suggestion may be a good idea.
The sun is a little higher in the sky and the King and his Queen begin to come out of the royal palace with royal guards before and behind them, marching out in time and formation in perfect rhythm. The palace priests follow in beautiful, kaleidoscopic colors holding the holy tabots above their heads. Musicians follow them playing on their instruments and singing praises to Agzio and his son Yesus Kristos.
Warrior guards and foot soldier like Mekonnen stand at the outskirts of the platform and palace and up on high walls and low among the people, on the alert for crowd control, suspicious behaviors or the very rare sudden attacks. The palace is elevated by many steps, at the top is the wide platform where the King and all his 50 guards and 24 priests now stand looking down at the sea of people, most dressed in all white like earth-bound angels, the faithful citizens of Aksum, Abyssinia and strangers from the utter most parts of the earth, bow down low to honour the King of Kings, Gebre Mesqel. The tops of tabots can be seen from the palace as priests from other provinces and towns in the kingdom come to celebrate with the royal family. Not all the priests from far away districts are able to come to the capital city of Aksum but the ones that are at close proximity and reasonable distances do make an effort to march up to the Kings palace.
Mekonnen looks about the city and can see the streets and alley ways are teeming with people, from near and far. It is always a glorious site to behold. After the kings exit and the citizens bow, a lot a chattering ensued. Then two musician, one at the far right and one at the far left of the platform, took three steps forward, stopped, turn slightly at 45 degrees, one on the left to the left, and the other on the right to the right, each raise a horn to the lips then blew in unison:
Tutooooot, tutoot, TuTooooooooooooot!!
At the sound of the horns the crowds quieted their murmuring then gradually stopped talking because they knew the King was about to speak. Emperor Gebre Mesqel stepped forward then began in a loud voice:
Greetings and blessing to my people of Aksum, in the name of Yesus Kristos!
Greetings to all visitors and strangers from afar, Selam, Peace be with you! I, Emporor Gebre Mesqel, The King of Kings of Aksum and all its territories in Abyssinia and Sabaea, greet and welcome you all to celebrate in our wonderful festival of Timkat, remembering the baptism of our Lord Iyesus Kristos. We shall now proceed as we follow the lead of the royal priests through the main streets to the cathedrals, the field of great stelae and then to the water at Queen of Shebas Bath where the waters will be blessed tonight.
All praise to Agziabeher and Kristos on this glorious day. I salute and thank our friends and allies from the four corners of the earth for being here with us. I salute and recognize the nine saints that have encouraged the Kingdom of Aksum to translate the Holy Scriptures from Geek to our own language of Geez. What a glorious blessing that is to bring the Words of Life to our priests who impart it to our own people to understand and be saved. Praise be to Agziabeher, Almighty Amlak, his son Kristos and the Holy Virgin Miriam. Amen. We shall now have a reading by one of the Nine Saints, Abuna Aregari
When the King said Abuna Aregari the crowds started to jostle a bit and some tried to press forward to get a better look at one of the legendary Abunas that contributed to the spiritual knowledge and culture of the people of Axum. Out comes Abuna Aregari from among the other priests and begins to read from the Holy Sciptures in Book of Mattewos (Matt 3:13-17) about Yesus baptism in the Jordan River by Yohannes the Baptizer. He reads the verse twice, first in Greek, then in Geez,
Then Yesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by Yohannes. But Yohannes tried to stop him, saying I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me. Yesus replied, Let it be so now, it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. Then Yohannes consented.
As soon as Yesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of Agziabeher descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son Whom I love; with him I am well pleased.
At the end of the reading the crowd resounded, Amen!, Then the musicians began playing and the royal priesthood lifted their tabots, which are covered by decorated clothes, above their heads and proceed slowly down the palace steps. Some of the women in the crowd began ululations,
Yuloo, loo loo looo and singing, dancing and clapping commenced.
Meanwhile, among the crowds of Axumites and foreigners, there are strange figures lurking around in the shadows and alleyways in this city. They blend in quite effectively with the masses alright, staffs in hand, wearing all white garments with hoods and shamas like everyone else, but their hoods are hemmed with intricate designs that seems familiar at a glance, but at close inspection they are not. Strange symbols are hidden within their embroidered hems and tattooed onto their hands and feet. There are about eight or nine of them, probably more, the average height of men, dispersed among the crowds, looking, watching, waiting, signaling. What for? Nobody knows who they are or where they are from. Nobody really notices them, unless accidentally bumping into one of them and sensing an uneasy feeling within the spirit.
They blend in but seem suspicious. Spies from another country or province, scouting the land and kingdom? A strange cult seeking new converts? Word has it that cults, sects and isms sprout up quite often in the Egyptian city of Alexandria and cause all kinds of riots and unrest. Or are they strange beings from another dimension or realm, just observing human mortals like theyve been doing since before the Great Deluge until Almighty Agzio saved only Noah and his family in the Ark? Perhaps self made monks and holy men. Or the Falasha, exiles from The House of Israel, venturing out from there homes west of Lake Tsana. Nobody knows, few notice them. Who ever they are, their hoods cast a perpetual shadow over their faces so it is never revealed, even now in broad daylight.
The priests walk single file with the tabots, covered in brightly colored satin clothes, over their heads followed by the deacons, behind, then acolytes, then the musicians lead by the chief of Ethiopias sacred music, Yared the Deacon and his skilled musicians of the royal court. Singing and dancing like King Dawit in the streets of Aksum commenced as they all head towards the Queen of Shebas bath place.
They sing a Psalm of Dawit (Ps 150):
Praise you the Lord Agzio in His sanctuary,
Praise him in his mighty heavens.
Praise him for his acts of power.
Praise him for his surpassing greatness.
Praise him with the sound of the trumpet,
Praise him with the harp and lyre,
Praise him with tambourine and dancing,
Praise him with the strings and flute,
Praise him with the clashing cymbals,
Praise him with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
Chapter 1 :: Timkat
Copyright J.M. Griffith, 'Matiyas' 1992, 2010. All rights reserved.
Library of Congress, DC USA, filed 4/2009.