The Old Church of Saint Mary of Tsion

The first church to be built in black Africa was the old Saint Mary Church in Aksum. Maybe it was the only built-up church in Ethiopia for about two centuries–from AD 4 to AD 6. At least once a year, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian pilgrims seeking a genuine Christian transformation come down to Aksum. St. Mary of Aksum’s power is so miraculous that the deaf, sightless, sad, misfit, and sinful march toward Aksum in search of mercy, healing, or confession. Even the seemingly invincible, rich, and most knowledgeable human creatures are kneeling down before their doorsteps. Others are traveling to Aksum to beg Our Virgin Lady to fulfill their dreams. From all corners of the world, hoping to fulfill their wishes, especially many infertile women and men flock to Aksum. The colorful celebrations of St. Mary’s day (November 30 in most years) and Palm Sunday (Hosa’ena) in the Zion of Aksum attract thousands of visitors every year.

Unfortunately, for Aksum and his churches, it was not always all roses. For example, around the 10th century AD, Judith, a pagan queen from the south, destroyed the many churches in the country, including the first church ever to be built in sub-Saharan Africa. Although it was later reconstructed, a Muslim rebel from Eastern Ethiopia–Ahmed Gragn (Ahmed the left handed) destroyed the church again in the 16th century. Today, only the building’s ruins can be seen. The rubbles hardly portray the values and significance attached by Ethiopian Christians to the church built in “a miraculously dried lake” by many.

Two churches, both dedicated to Saint Mary, have a distinct architectural orientation on the north and south side of the ruined building. There are rectangular churches built in or before the 17th century AD, whereas those built after that period tend to be round. This fact is apparent in the churches of St. Mary in Aksum. The old church was built in the 16th century by Emperor Fasilades and imitates the architectural motifs of the Fasilades palaces in Gondar. Its interior is adorned with biblical stories depicting exquisite walls.

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