Thursday, 10 May 2012
Sometimes the line between past and present blurs, yesterday feels like today and it is possible to believe that you are living in the pages of the Old Testament. This was my experience, high on a mountain in northern Ethiopia.
It’s over 2,000 years since the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded, but many of its traditions have remained unchanged. There are more than 12,000 churches of differing shapes and sizes throughout Ethiopia. But our small group of travelers was headed for two remote churches near the town of Hawzen in Tigrai. Our bus dropped us off at the bottom of a mountain. This wasn’t gentle undulating countryside. There were huge cliffs, ridges and tors bursting up out of the ground. We started to climb, clambering over rocks and scrambling up a narrow gully. It didn’t seem that difficult so our confidence grew.
We had lots of helpers: the hired guides plus a crew of children who appeared from nowhere. Some were meant to be tending goats and donkeys, but they refused to return to such ordinary tasks whilst there were the foreigners to check out!
We reached the top of the gully to be greeted by another fantastic view - and a sheer rock face! We stared at the cliff in dismay. There didn’t seem to be any hand or foot holds.
However, there was lots of advice from both official and unofficial guides! I can’t remember the detail of that climb, but I can clearly recall the sense of exhilaration as I high-fived my guide at the top!
We had a well-earnt rest in the shade of a small cave blackened with smoke, a shelter for shepherds and travelers. Here, some of the group reluctantly decided that they had had enough. That left four determined to continue.
Up the mountain side we continued, pausing every now and again to catch our breath and gaze, awestruck at the view. Ethiopians believe that the Garden of Eden was located in their country, and I had no difficulty believing it to be somewhere nearby. The vistas stretched for miles and miles to a distant shimmering blue horizon.
The rest of the track was a steady climb, some parts were difficult because of loose stones and gravel, at other times the path was so narrow that you had to watch every step. Then around a bend and finally ahead, there was our goal! The first church, clinging to the rock face: Mariam Kokore. Built in approximately 600AD, Mariam is one of the largest and most complex rock cave churches in Ethiopia.
The facade of the church appears to be a later addition, whereas inside was clearly a hollowed-out cave. We stumbled over the uneven rock floor using our torches to peer at the intricately carved columns, arches of rock, and ancient painted murals.
Daniel Kokore, the second church, was a further careful walk along a narrow ledge. This was an even older church. We squeezed through a narrow doorway to see more ancient murals. The tiny church could barely hold the four of us. As remote and isolated as these churches are, they have been in continuous use since the day they were built, if built is the right word. They chose the location over 1,500 years ago to ensure isolation, so I was concerned that we were unwelcome intrusions. These priests wanted to focus on their faith without distraction. Surely tourists would be unwelcome. Luckily the priest wasn’t at home, being away on church business.
About halfway down the mountainside, we did meet him on his way back. We clasped hands and exchanged greetings. Salem, peace be with you. He had an air of tranquility, and far from resenting our presence, appeared genuinely pleased to see us. We didn’t have a common language, but there was no mistaking his gratitude for our small contribution towards the upkeep of the church. I felt humbled in the presence of this man, someone who was not interested in material wealth, but sought spiritual gold. A humble man, content to be living in solitude, close to his God, seeking enlightment in a stunningly beautiful part of the world.
Posted by Sue at 02:04
Has the Ark of the Covenant survived thousands of years? Does it rest in a church in Axum Ethiopia? The Ethiopians believe so. The son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Emperor Manikil of Ethiopia, stole the Ark from his father after their first meeting! King Solomon forgave the theft and made a gift of the Ark, healing the rift between father and son. And the Ark remained in Ethiopia ever since.
The existence of the Ark is celebrated each year as part of the Timkat Festival. In January 2012 I was fortunate enough to witness this epiphany celebration.
We were in Gonder, a city of ancient palaces. Our guide had found us a viewing point on a hotel balcony. Up four flights of steep steps, it was an excellent stakeout, but just too removed from the real action! Two of us left the tour group and headed back into the fray. It was early, but the town was already buzzing with excitement. We made our way through the crowds, weaving and side stepping, trying to find another vantage point. We headed for the town square which had broad steps on one side leading to a hotel. We found the steps already packed with tourists, but somehow we managed to wedge ourselves in. We had a splendid view: straight across the square and down the main street!
Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best. The sun seemed even more dazzling as it reflected off spotless white dresses and robes. There was dust, there was noise, there was heat, and it was so exciting! A plane circled overhead, around and around, disgorging pamphlets and reeds. Catching one of these heavenly gifts guaranteed good luck for the following year.
The procession was starting! We could see it coming down the main street. Groups of young men led the way, chanting, stamping and flourishing sticks. Very warrior-like, but I felt safe on the steps. Gleaming horses followed embellished with tassels and pom‑poms. Large floats trundled along, a castle and a church, decorated with enormous crosses and religious paintings. Choirs flowed past in waves of red, yellow and green, the national colors of Ethiopia. We were overwhelmed by music as everyone joined in singing hymns, swaying and clapping.
Only later did we realize that these square canopies were tabots, the replica Arks of the Covenant.
Then more choirs, more singing, and more dancing. But the end of the procession was in sight, and it was time to move. We decided to join the flow of happy spectators on their way to the baptism pool. Once again, we weaved our way through the crowd following the procession. The people were relaxed, but tightly packed. We found it difficult to make our way, so chose gaps wherever we could whilst concentrating on staying together. Suddenly, somehow, we had joined the procession! We were on the wrong side of the barrier, separated from the spectators! Embarrassed, I apologized profusely to all around me. But as there was nowhere else to go, the only polite option was to join in. I tried to hide the fact that I couldn’t sing by smiling broadly, clapping loudly and dancing vigorously. I like to think my efforts were appreciated! Finally, exhausted, we threaded our way to the other side of the road, leaving the procession and meeting up with the other members of our group.
We were all hot, tired and dusty, but exhilarated from our religious experience!
Posted by Sue at 01:55