St Mary of Zion Churches

sights / Religious

St Mary of Zion Churches information

Aksum , Ethiopia
admission Birr200, video camera Birr100
Opening hours
7.30am-12.30pm & 2.30-5.30pm Mon-Fri, 9am-noon & 2.30-5.30pm Sat & Sun
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Though religions have come and gone, Aksum remains a holy city throughout. Opposite the Northern Stelae Field, in a walled compound, lies the centre of the universe for Christian Ethiopians.

A church of some form or other has stood at this spot since the very earliest days of Ethiopian Christianity and it was God himself who, descending from heaven, indicated that a church should be built here, though the original church is long gone. The rectangular old church (men only) at the southern end of the complex is a remarkable example of traditional architecture built by the Emperor Fasiladas, the founder of Gonder, in 1665. Inside there are fine original murals, including a painting of the Nine Saints. Some say the foundation on which it sits may belong to Africa’s first church, supposedly erected by King Ezana in the 4th century and destroyed in the 9th century during Queen Gudit’s devastating raid, and then a rebuilt version was destroyed during the incursions of Ahmed Gragn the Left-Handed in 1535. More remains of this church can be seen next to the museum.

The huge new church of St Mary of Zion was built in the 1960s so women had a place to worship and it displays Haile Selassie’s usual hideous taste. Still it does cut a dramatic silhouette on the skyline. Beside it, a disproportionately tall bell tower, inspired by the stelae, sprouts heavenwards.

Nearby is a museum (soon to be moved and expanded) containing an impressive haul of treasure, including an unsurpassed collection of former Ethiopian rulers’ crowns and a dazzling display of gold and silver chalices, crosses, jewellery and even drums. It clearly demonstrates the immense wealth of the Church. Museum guides expect a tip.

Also of historical interest, beyond the gate in front of the old church, are the throne stones where local nobles were coronated.

Finally, in between the old and new churches, is the real reason for most people’s devotion: a tiny, carefully guarded chapel that houses what most Ethiopians believe is the legendary Ark of the Covenant . Don’t think you can take a peek: just one specially chosen guardian has access to the Ark. Nobody else is allowed in the chapel and foreigners aren’t even allowed to approach the fence guarding the chapel grounds because previously some foreigners tried to scale the fence and rush into the chapel! No matter what you think of the legend, there’s no denying that to be in this church compound during a major service or festival, when thousands of pilgrims pour into the city, is an experience of pure devotion and faith that that will leave you spellbound.

Note that the building currently has a leaky roof and the ark may be moved, at least temporarily.