Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Maryam Tsiyon

 I only just came across the report of an attack on the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (Maryam Tsiyon) in Axum on January 8 (or earlier). There is extensive fighting between the Tigran Peoples' Liberation Front and the Ethiopian National Defense Force. Apparently a large number of people took shelter in the church but were dragged out and shot. This should be bigger news than it is. Although, to be sure, the whole region is practically under a news blackout. And, of course, some allowance has to be allowed for the possibility that the report is inaccurate.

Maryam Tsiyon, which is an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church, is one of the great churches of Christendom. Ethiopia, of course, is one of the oldest bastions of Christianity, and the first version of the church is said to have been built in the reign of King Ezana in the fourth century. (The current version, although incorporating elements of prior churches on the spot, was built in the reign of the Emperor Fasilides in the seventeenth century.) According to Ethiopian tradition, the Church of Maryam Tsiyon long held the Ark of the Covenant, which is now said to be held in the neighboring chapel, the Chapel of the Tablet. It is said to have come to Ethiopia in the days of Menelik I, whom legends say was the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It can only ever be viewed by its guardian monk, who, once appointed, lives in the Chapel and in its presence offers prayers in the liturgical Ge'ez language for the rest of his life. Whether you accept the tradition or just that there's an old wooden box in the Chapel that represents the Ark, it's nonetheless the case that the Ark of the Covenant (and its association in Christian theology with the Virgin Mary) is central to the religious traditions of Ethiopia, and the church is the foremost symbol of that. 

I wrote a poem years ago about the church:


A cathedral hewn of a single stone
holds a golden cross and an ancient throne
where the glory sat above the cherubim
in the holiest holy.

The Ge'ez prayers of an ancient rite
softly rise into velvet night
as Ezana's children pray by the wall
of the holiest holy.

I dreamed of Aksum where angels rest
on every tabot and stars are guest
at revels of hope and undying light
near the holiest holy.

Maryam Ts'iyon walks a path alone
through the cherubim beneath the throne
of the Highest High with His glorious gift,
the holiest of holies.