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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

The holy cities

Dabra Damo, a fine example of Aksumite architecture.
Even devoted globetrotters--the kind who delve into a culture rather than check something off a list--often don't have Ethiopia on their been-there-done-that lists. So when the New York Times published an article this week about Ethiopia's holy cities--Aksum and Lalibela--I had to smile. Could it be the quietly magnificent East African nation is becoming the next tourist hot spot?

Perhaps not--but it is certainly becoming more mainstream. If it's on the Times' radar and if, as the article states, the place is starting to teem with tour groups, then you better believe it won't be long before you can check into the Lalibela Marriott.

For now, however, Aksum and Lalibela are still little trod. I, for one, like it that way. Aksum, where the story of The Tenth Saint is largely set, is a down-in-the-heel royal city that now resembles a dusty backwater--and yet it is famed as the home of the Ark of the Covenant. The story goes back to biblical times, when Menelik, the supposed love child of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought the Ark to Ethiopia for safekeeping. I find that duality fascinating: a run-down, poor mountain town with a claim to history's most important relic.

Lalibela, as I have written before, is a magical place, where Ethiopia's Orthodox Christian tradition flourishes in traditional ceremonies, delivered in Ge'ez by priests robed in pure white. The rock-hewn churches, each built deep into the ground and carved of a single piece of volcanic stone, are marvels of architecture and could very easily belong on some "world wonders" list. They are absolutely worth the pilgrimage.

Aside from setting much of The Tenth Saint in Aksum and Lalibela, I have a personal passion for both places, and rather prefer their under-the-radar status. Ironically, electricity only came to Lalibela a little more than 10 years ago. Now, tour buses are coming. It was only a matter of time.

See the New York Times article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/arts/design/churches-of-aksum-and-lalibela.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all

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