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Ethiopia: Holy Days And Highland Rock Churches

Posted by addisethiopia / አዲስ ኢትዮጵያ on April 3, 2015


You see a society in which profound spiritual belief (Christianity came here in the fourth century) is interwoven into every aspect of life. Most people here have very little, but those you meet and talk to – and having a guide makes it easier to do that – seem rich in ways that many of us in the developed world have lost.

Christian belief is woven into every aspect of life in Ethiopia, as Anna Murphy discovers when she joins one of the country’s most important religious festivals

You know you are somewhere very special when even a drive to the airport is enrapturing. It was our last day in Ethiopia, and we were on our way to catch an internal flight from Lalibela to Addis Ababa, en route to London.

We had been to Lalibela – one of the most celebrated stops on the so-called northern circuit of the Ethiopian Highlands – to see its stone churches. And remarkable they were, carved into and out of the pink-hued rock between the 12th and 15th centuries, both delicate and monumental, and still very much alive – full of priests and monks and nuns and hermits and worshippers, all of them wrapped in white, as every good Ethiopian Christian is when he or she visits church.

Virtually every day of the year there will be a church somewhere in Ethiopia celebrating its saint’s day, but it’s best to time your visit to coincide with one of the great Orthodox Christian festivals, such as Easter. Known as Fasika, it usually occurs a week to two weeks after the Western Church’s Easter. It follows eight weeks of fasting from meat and dairy, and culminates in a church service on Easter eve lasting several hours and ending at 3am. Afterwards, worshippers break their fast and celebrate the risen Christ.

My own visit coincided with Timkat, in January, one of the most important festivals of the year. It’s a kind of mass baptism in which locals gather early in the morning by their church’s pool (each church has one) to be splashed and sprayed with holy water. It was such a joyous thing to witness, as everyone – from very young to very old – excitedly waited en masse for jugs of water to be thrown out over the crowd.

But it is that drive that sticks in my mind. It was market day in Lalibela and, as our charming and indefatigable guide Sammy Tilahun told us, people walked from more than 12 miles away to attend. At 8am the road was packed, not with vehicles – driving around this vast, beautiful, often mountainous country, you usually have the road to yourself – but with people and animals on the move. Many of the women and children were dressed in the traditional embroidered cotton dresses, the men wrapped in large swaths of cotton, or – on a couple of occasions – bath towels (evidently something of a step up). Some were herding goats, others cattle with enormous horns, others heavily loaded pack mules. Some – usually women – were carrying vast Byzantine bundles of twisted firewood on their backs, or unidentifiable bunches on their heads. For them it was a long walk, hard work, but it was also a social occasion – people were talking, smiling, hanging out, step by step, hour by hour.

Those 30 minutes from the window summed up much that is wonderful about Ethiopia. You see a life largely untouched by this century, and a couple of earlier ones. You see a society in which profound spiritual belief (Christianity came here in the fourth century) is interwoven into every aspect of life. Most people here have very little, but those you meet and talk to – and having a guide makes it easier to do that – seem rich in ways that many of us in the developed world have lost. Of course it is easy, and distasteful, to be dewy-eyed. Poverty is everywhere. But so too is a kind of peace, contentment. This is a country that makes even an atheist like me ponder organised religion as a force for good.

But there were other, much quieter experiences that also helped make my time in Ethiopia so remarkable. Here is a country with incredible cultural riches, including religious art that to me in its sublime colour and creativity matches the Byzantine churches of Ravenna and the Chora Church of Istanbul. And it allows you an intimacy with art that is an impossibility in the developed world. In the Nakuta La’ab monastery, for example, built into a cave in the cliffs near Lalibela, we were alone with the priest, who showed to us and only us the pages of a beautifully illuminated 700-year-old manuscript with wide-eyed Madonnas and horse-riding martyrs, all rendered in dazzling reds and blues.

Again, at the incredible Ura Kidane Mihret monastery, on the shores of Lake Tana, we were alone in what was, quite simply, one of the most remarkable places I’d ever been. A circular building, one of the two favoured structures in the Ethiopian Orthodox church, its interior walls are covered with… well, where to begin? With the Madonna again, or saint Mary as the Ethiopians call her; with assorted other saints; with the two archangels-cum-dudes complete with Afros (looking straight out of Earth, Wind and Fire); with martyrs (40 of them, their heads in a row in the sea); with leopards and lions; with the disembodied heads and wings of a choir of angels; with the three Kings. The paintings are between 100 and 250 years old, and were designed to be “read” by the illiterate worshippers. They tell stories we know from our own Bible, but also those from the additional 14 books in the Ethiopian bible. One of my favourites, and one of the most important to Ethiopians, is of the saint Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus. He is pictured with fur on his body, flanked by the lions and leopards that are his friends; beside one eye is a little bird who drinks from the tears he sheds whenever he prays.

I could go on. And indeed one day I hope to: Ethiopia is such a fascinating country that I am already planning to return. To be continued…



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