AN ETHIOPIAN PILGRIMAGE
Early in 2006 I made my third pilgrimage to that most beautiful and mysterious of African countries, Ethiopia. My interest in, and fascination by, Abyssinia, was first aroused in my youth. I read of Solomon and Sheba, Prester John, Rasselas, Coleridge’s Abyssinian maid, and Mussolini’s invasion. My uncle, a South African fighter-pilot, had been imprisoned by the Italians, having been shot down whilst defending Ethiopia.
My resolve to visit Ethiopia was determined during a week’s stay in the Old City in Jerusalem; it was in the first year of the latest intifada, and the Holy City was deserted. Every morning, when the Church of the Holy Sepulchre opened, I would make my way down to the greatest of all Churches. Soon after 5.00 am the Copts, Armenians, Catholics and Ethiopians began their liturgies. I would move slowly between the Copts in their chapel behind the Edicule, to the Armenians on the first floor, and then up to the Ethiopians in a chapel just beneath the roof of the Holy Sepulchie. The lengthy, complex beautiful liturgies of the Copts and Ethiopians, fascinated and attracted me. During one of the Ethiopian liturgies the celebrant, the bishop, beckoned me up to the front of the congregation and gave me a prayer stick on which to lean. When the liturgy was over two hours later one of the monks invited me to join his rooftop community for a celebratory lunch. It was a feast of St Michael that day, and a cause for rejoicing. Monk Solomon, over lunch, encouraged me to visit his country. I needed little persuading.
Ethiopia is a vast country, five times the size of the United Kingdom, and has a population of 65 million. Approximately 60% are Christians, the majority of whom are members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Ethiopian Church was founded in Axum in the 4 th century AD and its first bishop, Frumentius, was consecrated in Alexandria, and very strong ties have always existed between the Copts and the Ethiopian Church. Until 1955 the Ethiopian Orthodox Church technically came under Alexandria’s governance. Ethiopic Christianity developed in isolation until the advent of the Portuguese Jesuits in the 15 th century. The Ethiopian liturgy and rules are indisputably Christian, but have strong traces of Jewish custom no doubt derived from the Felasha and various Jewish sects that existed in pre-Christian Ethiopia. Orthodox Ethoipians practice male circumcision soon after birth, and females are governed by a number of menstruation regulations. There are many fast days (approximately 150). Religious dances are a part of the liturgy, and use is made of drums, trumpets and sistras (a metal rattle type instrument). The music is provided by the Debteras, or choirmen; dressed in white, the Debteras are a special group of men specially educated not only music and liturgy but also in traditional forms of healing, and they occupy a special area in the church.
A central feature of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the Tabot or Ark of the Covenant. According to tradition the Tabot was abducted from Jerusalem in the first millennium BC and transported to Ethiopia where it has remained to this day. It is now kept in a special building in Axum, guarded by a solitary keeper, who may never leave it. Every Ethiopian church has a replica of the Ark (essentially the Tablets of the Law that are kept in the Ark). These Tabots are kept in the inner sanctuary, or Holy of Holies, and are the most important part of the churches, giving them their holiness. The Maqdas, or Holy of Holies, may only be entered by priests and deacons. Ethiopian churches often have several entrances. The southern entrance is for women, and the northern one for men. The western entrance may be used by men and women. Once inside the church the men go left (north) and the women go right (south). There are thousands of churches all over the countryside, towns and cities. More often than not they are positioned on the tops of hills, sometimes virtually inaccessible except to those possessing mountaineering skills and a lack of vertigo.
My pilgrimages to Ethiopia have had two main objectives. Firstly, to visit many of the churches considered unique in Christian Architecture, and secondly, to observe (and to worship) a liturgy that, because of virtual isolation from the rest of the Christian world from the 7 th century AD, has retained essentially the form of liturgy received in the 4 th century AD. The Mass of the Catechumens is still used. The real liturgy begins after the point in the service denoting the departure of the unbaptized. The Ethiopian Church has 14 Anaphoras (Canons) – of Our Lady Mary, the Apostles, Our Lord Jesus Christ, S t John the Evangelist, S t Basil, S t Athanasius, the Three Hundred and Eighteen Fathers, S t Gregory the Armenian, St Epiphanius, S t John Chrysostom, S t Cyril, S t James of Servg, S t Dioscorus, St Gregory of Alexandria. The standard one in most common use is the Anaphora of the Twelve Apostles. At least two priests and three deacons are required to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Nine major and nine minor holy days are kept in the Church of Ethiopia, all connected with events in the life of Christ. Other feast days include one for each of the 12 Apostles. The martyrs, S t George, S t Stephen and S t John the Baptist are also commemorated. Other important holy days are those in commemoration of S t Michael and S t Mary – no less than 33 holy days are devoted to S t Mary, an indication of the special veneration attached to the Blessed Virgin in Ethiopia. As in the rest of Christendom Sunday is, of course, a special day of worship and rest.
In order to visit most of the churches and monasteries it is necessary for the Non-Orthodox pilgrim to produce a permit and/or a letter of introduction to gain entry. The welcome usually afforded genuine pilgrims is helpful and warm. Ethiopians are a friendly and hospitable people and this, allied with an extremely strong Faith, makes them wonderful and generous hosts. My pilgrimage trail has usually concentrated on the main Christian area in the North of Ethiopia – the monastery islands of Lake Tana, Gonder, the Simien Mountains, Axum, the rock-hewn churches of Tigray and Lalibela. This huge area can more easily be covered by flying from centre to centre but although the views from the small planes are superb I have preferred to journey by road, which gives a better feel and appreciation of what I believe to be the most spectacular and beautiful country I have ever visited.
Today Axum is a rather modest small town, yet it was once the site of a great civilisation. Legend has it that in the 10 th century BC it was the Queen of Sheba’s capital. Now it is the unofficial religious capital. Most Christian Ethiopian’s firmly believe that Axum is where the Ark of the Covenant resides. During my first visit to Axum, after seeing the huge stelae field and the ruins of the palace of the Queen of Sheba, I made my way to the walled compound containing the two churches of S t Mary of Zion. The older of the churches, a fine rectangular building was built by Emperor Fasiladas, who founded Gonder in 1665. It sits on an ancient podium which may have been part of the original church constructed by King Kaleb or King Ezana in the 4 th or 6 th centuries after Christianity was adopted. This would make it the very first Church on African soil. The church contains many excellent murals and a comprehensive array of liturgical musical instruments. Of the vast new church, the less said the better. It was erected in the 1960’s and has little to commend it. Of much greater interest is the modest little edifice housing the Ark of the Covent. Confined for life in this little building and small surrounding garden is the Guardian of the Ark, who must, before he dies, nominate his successor. I had the extremely unusual privilege of meeting the current keeper who happened to open the door of the building and shyly looking around saw me and the guide. To the guide’s astonishment and delight the venerable priest approached us and began to question me as to where I was from. Did people in England know about Christianity in Ethiopia? Was I a Christian? What had I heard about the Ark of the Covenant? Would I like a blessing from the water under the Ark? This offer my guide and I were only too happy to accept. After our impromptu audience the guide was beside himself with joy, explaining that he had been coming to this Sacred Place in Axum for over a quarter of a century and had never spoken to the Guardian.
From Axum we had a long and terrifying drive over the Simien Mountains to Gonder. The mountains are spectacular, with huge peaks, stomach turning gorges and chasms, with the wheels of the Land Rover on the edges of the narrow roads. Reaching Gonder after ten hours of the most extraordinary mountain ranges in Africa was almost an anti-climax. Gonder was founded in 1635 by King Fasiladas, and was the imperial capital for 250 years. It is renowned for its many 17 th century castles. My main objective was the magnificent church of Debre Birhan Selassic (Trinity of the Place of Light). One of 40 churches in or near Gonder, its interior is the most famous and most photographed in Ethiopia. The painting on the ceiling depicts the winged heads of 80 cherubs, all with different expressions. The magnificent wall paintings show the life of Christ and various saints. An extremely horrible devil leading a captive Mohammed is near the main door. The whole interior is a galaxy of colour.
I moved on to Bahir-Dar, a large town on the southern shore of the huge Lake Tana. The Lake is approximately 70 km long, and 50 km wide covering over 3500 sq km. There are more than 20 monastery churches on the islands and peninsulas of the Lake, and most can be approached by boat. Few of the monasteries permit women. I have, over a number of pilgrimages, managed to land on half a dozen of the islands. Although it takes most of a day to cross the lake from South to North the effort is well worthwhile. A number of the churches are very beautiful and the monks friendly. Ideally, three or four days are necessary to visit all the monastery islands properly. There are a number of churches on the wooded Zege Peninsular; of these the most impressive is Ura Kidhane Mihret. The monastery was founded in the 14 th century and the present church was built in the 16 th century. The walls are covered with paintings dating from that time, and are revealingly gruesome.
Continuing by boat I landed on some of the monastery islands that form a string from East to West across the southern section of Lake Tana; Rema Medhane Alem, Tana Chirkos, Daga Istafanos and Narga Selassie on Dek Island. The view of these islands with their church roofs barely visible amongst the tree tops is a moving sight, redolent with the image of hundreds of monks virtually removed from all contact with the mainland and its attendant secular cares. At one of the churches I happened on a funeral of a soldier killed during the war with Eritrea, his body only just having been returned. Underneath the trees on the perimeter of the Church compound a group of priests chanted the funeral liturgy, occasionally interrupted by the wailing mourners, but always accompanied by a slow, steady beat of the drums. The tinkling sistras and sonorous trumpets completed the sound and sight of a scene thousands of years old.
By car I travelled on to Lalibela and its mysterious rock-churches – one of the man-made glories of the world. Lalibela itself is a small, lonely town in the Lasta Mountains. It is a unique Christian shrine; there are 13 churches in two clusters – northwest and southeast. The churches are constructed in two ways; Bet Giorgis and the northwest group were excavated from below ground and are encircled by courtyards, trenches and alleys, giving the appearance that they are normally constructed buildings. The churches are monolithic or mostly monolithic, quite free from the surrounding rock, or partially free. The southeast cluster are, for the most part excavated from a vertical rock face, sometimes making use of large caves. Bet Medhane Alem is the largest monolithic rock church in the World; it is in the northwest group. It is 11.5 m high, and covers an area of 800 m 2. It is supported by 72 pillars, half inside and half outside. It takes a day to visit all 13 churches, but if time permits I try to spend longer and return to attend various services in different churches. The grandeur of the buildings, the brilliant design and craftsmanship needed to achieve such perfection almost beggars belief. At each church a priest will give an individual blessing with the cross or crosses particular to that church. It was in Bet Medhane Alem that I was blessed with the 800 years old gold Lalibela Cross – one of the greatest of all Ethiopia’s national treasures (it had been stolen in 1997, but recovered in Belgium two years later). There can be no doubt that the rock churches of Lalibela are one of the most marvellous ‘building’ achievements in Christendom. Hewn out of rock, their architects and carvers unknown, they stand as a witness to the brave and deep Christian faith of the Ethiopians. It is always moving and sad to leave Lalibela.
My 3000 miles of pilgrimage ended with a journey to explore some of the churches of the Tigray. There are some 130 of them, spread over a vast area of hills, mountains, fields and woods. Many are unknown to all but a few non-Ethiopians. During the 7 th to the 14 th centuries a series of superb churches carved out of rock were created in eastern Tigray, elsewhere in Tigray many more less grand churches were hollowed out of rock. Some of the great funerary churches, such as Abreha and Atsbeha, Mikael-Amba and Weqro, are separated from the rock on three sides with only the sacred areas remaining deep within the rock-face.
The ‘mother of monasteries’ Debre Damo is a most awesome place. Visible from miles around the monastery is on a high 2800 m plateau, 700 m long and 300 m wide. To reach the monastery involves a steep climb and the final stretch can only be climbed by rope – this portly, elderly pilgrim wisely decided instead to scramble sideways to visit an anchorites cave some 100 m away, where I received rest and refreshment. My youthful fellow pilgrim bravely allowed himself to be hauled up to the plateau where he found a large number of enclosures and buildings to shelter the monks, of which there are over 100. There are two churches on the plateau and a number of large water cisterns. I was informed that the panoramic views from the plateau were breathtaking. A large number of the Tigray churches are located in groups, known as ‘clusters’; the best known are those of Gheralta, Takatisfi, Tembein and Atsbi. In an attempt to visit these clusters I had based myself in Mekele. Until the mid 1960’s these churches were virtually unknown outside Tigray – even to most Ethiopians. Even today little is known about their history and architects. Some of the churches have been dated to as early as the 4 th century, but the majority are probably between the 6 th and 10 th century, thereby predating the Lalibela churches. With so many exquisite churches to see I had to limit myself to the better known and most accessible, although it almost always necessitated long, steep walks, occasional ladder climbs; however there were always helping guiding hands from monks, priests, deacons and boys, all of whom were grateful for a modest tip. Abuna Yemata Guh on a mountain in Gheralta is one of the most beautiful churches anywhere. It is also the most feared. Carved into the top of one of the tall perpendicular rock pillars which are a feature of the region, the inside of the church, which can only be reached by a small crack in the rockside, reveals a jewel – the roof and wall paintings are superb and perfectly preserved. The narrow ridge, leading to the entrance in the rock, has a drop of 200 m. This ridge can only be reached by way of hand and footholes in the sheer rock face – it is for the brave!
Southeast of Yemata Guh is the monastic church of Debre Maryam Korkor which is perched on a small plateau at the top of a sheer-sided 2500 m high mountain. The interior is large, 17 m deep, 10 m wide and 6 m high. On the way up to Maryam Korkor there are several disused churches where it is possible to enter the Holy of Holies. During my tour of the Tigray sometimes I had the good fortune to enter churches during a service. Priests, deacons and farm workers straight from the fields worshipping at midday or in the late afternoon. I was always made welcome. Was it a reminder of pre-Reformation days in Britain? I have made three pilgrimages to Tigray and have not even scratched the surface of that almost unreal area of Christian civilization.
I shall ever be grateful for the blessing of those early mornings in the Church of the Holy Sepulchie which led me to Ethiopia and, indeed, to Coptic Egypt.