Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

As many as half a million people have descended on Ethiopia’s sacred city of Aksum, according to its mayor, for a religious festival taking place for the first time since the civil war in the northern region of Tigray ended.

Aksum is a holy site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians who say it is home to the Ark of the Covenant, believed to contain the 10 commandments handed down to Moses by God – and later brought to the city from Jerusalem.

It is constantly under guard at the city’s Our Lady Mary of Zion Church and no-one is allowed to see it.

The pilgrims gather near the church to mark the festival of St Mary of Zion, which falls at this time.

Woman with crowds in the background
Mahlet Taddelle travelled 200km (125 miles) from the regional capital, Mekelle. She told that she had been waiting her whole life to come.

The two-year civil war, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, ended just over a year ago.

Aksum, which is said to be the birthplace of the biblical Queen of Sheba, was the focal point of the conflict. Early in the war, the ancient city was the site of an alleged massacre in which hundreds died.

female pilgrim
Medhin Gebre Anenia had travelled more than 1,000km from the federal capital, Addis Ababa.

During the conflict she had been worried about her family in Tigray but is now happy that things are relatively peaceful in the region.

Priests praying
During the festival, priests prayed and gave thanks to God for the peaceful situation. This is a normal prayer at this gathering, but it had special poignancy in the wake of the conflict.

Worshippers from across the country – who had been on different sides of the conflict – came to Aksum in the spirit of peace.

Priests praying
The priests were standing near a field of ancient obelisks, or stelae, which date from the 4th Century.

Aksum had once been at the centre of a large empire.

One of the obelisks had been transported to Rome when Italy occupied Ethiopia in the 1930s. It was returned and re-erected in 2008.

Crowd of people near a church
The city’s residents observed the culture of welcoming strangers into their homes and offering them food.

People also stayed in church compounds or the houses of relatives if they had some in Aksum.

By Joy

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