I recently stumbled upon an article in the Daily Mail gleefully pointing out that a leaky roof in the Arc of Covenant’s chapel in Axum, north Ethiopia, would soon force the removal of the sacred artefact to an adjacent building, and thus reveal it to the world in all its glory.
As most people know from the widely beloved Tintin in Ethiopia (French serialised edition 1963-1966, English edition 1966) the Arc of the Covenant has been held in safety in Ethiopia since the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
The story goes that Menelik the first, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, brought it back to his mother’s country with the scions of Israel’s tribes, thus planting the seed of Israel in Africa and symbolically transferring God’s covenant from Israel to Ethiopia – all of this information is imparted to Haddock at the beginning of the story by a vehement Ethiopian to whom he has just said ‘Oh, the tabernacle thing, that disappeared from Solomon’s Temple, never to be seen again…’ while Haddock is comically fed gursha – hand fed that is – by two sprightly orthodox nuns who keep telling him to just say ishi. This is not to be his last force fed ingestion of Ethiopian culture!
But the Daily Mail article got me thinking about the Ark again, and turning to something more tangible, I reopened my favourite Tintin. In case you are one of those adults who no longer thumb the classics of childhood, let me flip through it quickly.
The album begins in Moulinsart, where Haddock and Tintin are reading about the Negous (Emperor Haile Selassie) and his recent triumphal trip to Europe. Calculus is bumbling about with his pendule, darkly talking of a weapon to end all wars and mistakes Haddock’s ‘The Negous of Ethiopia!’ for ‘The Egg of Utopia’ and, to Haddock’s annoyance, begins a long philosophical ramble on what came first, Utopia i.e Eden, or the egg.
Of course, this is only a prelude to their adventures in Ethiopia – Hergé’s clear drawings make for wonderful depictions, of Lalibela, the highlands and the Semien Mountains and Lake Tana – I particularly like the moment when Tintin and Haddcock are travelling on the lake in a tankwa to the Monastery of Narga and mistake Calculus’s submarine for a new species of hippopotamus. Another favourite of mine is the Zar spirit invocation in the Fasilides Castle in Gondar, in which the spirit takes over not Tintin or Haddock but Snowy!
When Rastopopulus arrives on the scene it becomes clear that the Arc of the Covenant’s theft, in order to harness its devastating weapon like capabilities and transform the world into a dictatorship ruled by a crazed and reclusive Russian Communist, is the real objective of the story – and not Tintin’s purported work to cover Haile Selassie’s Jubilee celebrations (which actually took place in the mid 1950s anyhow).
The 60’s were of course both the hight of the cold war, and of Haile Selassie’s reputation. The last image, of the avuncular and wise emperor waving from the steps of the Jubilee Palace as Haddock, Calculus and Tintin – and Snowy of course ! – is particularly poignant when one remembers that the emperor would be bundled from the steps of this same happy scene just a decade later, when he would be taken to prison in the back of a maroon Beetle Volkswagen. And how not to see in the conniving Sergeant Solomon a prescient precursor of Colonel Mengistu?
There are some who see in this late work, produced by the Studio Hergé, a tired version of Tintin in Tibet – and it is true that there are close parallels between the Semien shepherd boy Mamoush and Chang of course, and that some scenes do seem at times directly transposed from earlier albums. For all that, it remains a startlingly accurate portrayal of Ethiopia after the war. The ethereal quality of Hergé’s style – always a quality of his clear line drawings – seems particularly suited to his subject here – just think back to those iconic scenes in the Semien in which Tintin and Mamoush, disguised as Bleeding Heart Baboons, have to feast on grass and roots, in the middle of a 1 000 strong baboon pack. As the Bearded Vulture hover above, it is the reader himself who is given a bird’s eye view of what is may mean, in a perfect and platonic vision, to be in Ethiopia. Never has the particular light of the Ethiopian Highlands been captured so well.
But I suppose one should not read too much into a comic book, even when imagined by the great Hergé – likewise, I don’t think much of interpretations that see in this work the cartoonist’s act of contrition for the colonial and ethnocentric Tintin in Congo.
In my opinion, Tintin in Abyssinia is one of the most clear sighted and accurate depictions of Ethiopia there is and I encourage anybody who wants to get a good feel for the country to go out and get it immediately – lest you be force fed cultural gurshas à la Haddock!