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by - September 28 2010

I timed my visit to Aksum to coincide with Meskel, a religious festival at which people celebrate the "discovery of the true cross". Supposedly a queen dreamed that smoke from a fire would lead her to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The cross is supposedly now somewhere in Ethiopia.

As Ethiopia's holy city, Aksum is one of the best places to observe Meskel. Meskel is celebrated over two days. On the evening before there is dancing, a precession, and fire jumping. On the day itself there is a big gathering of priests and worshippers who dance round a giant bonfire and pray for rain.

It was interesting to see all the priests out in their priestly attire. One of the stranger elements was the holy umbrellas. These are normal umbrellas that have been re-covered with ornately woven fabrics and in some cases plated with gold or silver. The priests also shake a special rattle while praying.

The highlight was definitely the fire jumping. At dusk (most things happen at dawn or dusk) the adolescent men gather at the top of a hill and take it in turns to prove their manhood by jumping through a huge blazing fire. To make this possible they are allowed a run up and there is a natural ramp for them to jump off. Even so, the heat from the fire was so strong that I couldn't stand closer than 15ft to it. It was a very impressive sight. It's a shame it was too dark to take good photographs.

Descending the hill after the fire jumping was almost as impressive as the jumping itself. It was pitch dark, there was no path, and the men were charging down a steep rocky hill with only a few of them falling over. I picked my way down slowly with the aid of a headlamp.

On the way back to my hotel I found myself surrounded by a horde of overexcited children who wanted money. They weren't just following me but grabbing onto me and reaching for my wallet. It felt like I was playing rugby and my wallet was the ball.