A celebration of St George’s Day at the church of Bet Ghiorghis (St George), the best-known and last-built of the 11 rock churches of Lalibela. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church holds lengthy church services on three days of every week and calls for fasting twice every week and during the 55 days before Easter.
Ethiopia – Long Read

No one may see the Ark of the Covenant

Photo by Nathan Harrison

Ethiopia – Long Read No one may see the Ark of the Covenant

Hello Ethiopia, home to one of the most ancient and original Christian cultures in the world. Here, the harshness of the Old Testament and the hope of the New co-exist in a mountainous land where poverty is ever present but hospitality is rich. Discover the rock churches of Lalibela and perhaps even the Ark of the Covenant – although no outsider may see it.

Julio Etchart
Julio Etchart

Getaye’s request surprises me. As a guest with her family on the outskirts of the ancient town of Lalibela, Ethiopia’s fabled “New Jerusalem”, I am enjoying touching hospitality and ask her if there is anything I can offer in return. The 16- year-old is studying French and Italian but also keen to improve her English. “Could you send a copy of the Bible?” she asks. “It is my favorite book.” I tell her that the language in it is difficult, even for native English speakers, but the shy girl holds firm in her request. “The Bible is full of wonderful short stories,” she says. “And even if I don’t understand all the words, I will be quite happy just to keep the spirit of the tales.”

The spirit of the tales. I think about her words as I look at the dramatic views nearby. The scenes are biblical in their simplicity, the distant vistas, unbroken by roads or any sign of modern life, are dotted with white-robed figures, making their way down steep mountain passes before coming into town via narrow unpaved paths shaded with trees and lined with stone walls.

The pilgrims with their long walking staffs, the donkeys with their loads of goods for market, the children in rags who peep shyly behind their hands at the white-skinned foreigner, are converging on one of the world’s most dramatic sights: 13 churches carved out of solid rock, buried deep in the ground. No pictures can really prepare you for the reality of Lalibela and that first sense of awe never leaves me on subsequent visits. My brain hurts just thinking about the work and the planning needed to chisel every door, window, window sill, cross or other decoration out of one solid rock: an amazing piece of negative construction. Get it wrong, and your church has no porch. Even the altars are carved from the living rock.

The builders worked during the day and the angels worked at night

Getaye’s brother Ayehu is my guide and he explains the legend of how King Lalibela built this 12th century wonder that he gave his name to and the town grew around. “The builders worked during the day and the angels worked at night so it was finished in three days and nights.” It is said that the king spent time in the Holy Land as a youth and built this New Jerusalem as his capital in response to the capture of the old Jerusalem by Muslims in 1187. Many features have Biblical names, from the town’s River Jordan to its highest hill, Golgotha.

It is difficult see any resemblance to the real Jerusalem but easy to see why these amazing structures could be thought of as the work of angels, despite the fact that the soft rock from which they are carved means many are now protected from the elements by unsightly corrugated iron roofs and rickety scaffolding.

Ethiopia was among the first countries in the world to become Christian - in 330 AD, when much of Europe was still populated by barbarians – and it remained a Christian bulwark as other countries around it in Africa converted to Islam. The religious roots here go back at least another ten centuries before the Christian era and the Ethiopian Church still follows the old Judaic tradition of circumcision and keeps Saturday as its holy day, rather than Sunday. The rock churches, however, are open every day for the pilgrims who come to have prayers answered or just worship at this Unesco-listed eighth wonder of the world.

At Bete Maryam, the church dedicated to Jesus’s mother, I witness dozens of monks chanting the “Ave Maria” prayer dedicated to her and, even for a lapsed Catholic like myself, it is a moving experience. I feel a strong sense that this ageless rock building has been witnessing the same rites for centuries. The stone floor is covered in a worn carpet and a bare neon tube provides some illumination but otherwise it is as if nothing has changed since the church was built. Even the fact you have to take off your shoes adds to the sense of grounding.

The services last for hours, or even days

The long white cotton robes worn by everyone, the ancient crosses and Byzantine-style icons and the obvious piety of the worshippers make for a strong sense of continuity. The smell of frankincense and beeswax candles hangs in the air made thick with their smoke, and the hypnotic spell cast by the sing-song words of the Ge’ez language in which the service is held is broken only by the ringing of a hand bell. The church is too small to hold all the congregation and most stand outside, while the priests emerge from time to time to offer some words in Amharic. Ge’ez is used only by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and it remains as impenetrable to the average Ethiopian as Latin is to today’s Roman Catholic church-goers. The services last for hours, or even days, and many pilgrims make use of their long- stemmed staffs, topped with an ornate top that tucks under their armpit, to help rest weary legs; there are no pews.

Father Worku Bele is one of the keepers of Bete Maryam church and I ask him why Christianity is still so much alive here. “We come from a very ancient tradition, and our town has been isolated from the outside world for many centuries,” he says. “It is only recently that the authorities have developed the tourist facilities and upgraded the airport to receive them. You will witness how simply people live. Most of our parishioners are very poor but full of the grace of God; they walk for two days to come to church for Easter and other important celebrations during the year. That is why our congregation is so devout; it is like going back to the first centuries of Christianity, when the followers of Jesus hid in the mountains, fasted and gave witness to His message.”

Ayehu leads me on treks into the mountains where I can see this simple life for myself. On our walks, I struggle with the steep slopes, where rocks roll from underfoot and the heat rises with the dust, but Ayehu bounds ahead. So it is a surprise to hear he is doing it on an empty stomach. “I’m fasting for the next three weeks,” he says. “I only take food in the evenings.” This “fasting food” consists of injera, the sour-tasting pancake which is the national dish, and a few boiled vegetables. We are only three weeks away from Easter, so, like the Amharic majority in this vast country, he is observing Lent by eating only once a day and abstaining from meat or eggs.

The 18-year-old student has trained as a guide with the pioneering Tesfa eco-tourism organization. “Tesfa” stands for Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives which, translated into plain English, means it helps local people find work from tourism but, in Amharic, it also means “hope”. His poor country family sent him to town hoping he could get an education and he is determined to go on to university to study history. Why history? “I want to become a professional tourist guide,” he says. His clothes are in shreds and his only pair of plastic sandals has been sewn to keep them from falling apart. Yet, his composure and dignity are striking. I ask him how he endures such a harsh existence, and the answer comes naturally: “I find strength in my religion. Jesus also lived a very poor life, He taught us to be like Him.”

Mountain sheep foraging in the desolate heights

He leads me on through amazing highland scenery, harsh but beautiful and surprisingly green and fertile in the valleys. We pick our way across breaks in the rocky path and cowpats, past scented wild thyme and gnarled olive trees. The bark of a village dog carries for miles in the still air. I watch a farmer harvesting a field of teff, the short grass-like grain that is used to make injera. He uses a hand scythe and the simple cloth wrapped round his loins and the golden light of evening produces an image that could come from a Renaissance painting of the Holy Land. A few boys come past shepherding mountain sheep foraging in the desolate heights and they sell me a richly-woven, thick wool hat, an odd purchase in the heat of the day. No one speaks English, and I struggle to manage the unfamiliar sounds of Amharic – happily, “teanaste’lle’n” means both “hello” and “goodbye” – though the children we pass dare each other to shout a few words of greeting. There is no begging, which Tesfa discourages, asking visitors to donate to the whole community if they wish, rather than to individuals.

But the real highlights of our walks are the mountain-top monasteries, where a hermit monk is happy to bring out into the sunlight centuries-old Bibles or picture books, wonders of Medieval illumination. As he does, the monk often puts on sunglasses to protect eyes more used to the dim light inside the churches from the flash-guns of tourists such as myself. A museum conservator would weep at the damage being done to priceless manuscripts by the harsh light but, like the rock churches, I find the knowledge that these objects are in casual daily use a comforting one. Once they become museum pieces, they start to die.

One night, we sleep in a traditional ‘tukul’ roundhouse made of thatched roof on stone walls with a solar-heated shower and “eco” toilet, where a handful of soil keeps everything hygienic. The open charcoal fire is a welcome source of warmth in the surprisingly cold night air. The family who look after it greet me shyly - their normal contact with outsiders is usually only on market days when they rise before dawn for the long walk down the mountainside into Lalibela. I am treated to a coffee ceremony, an important ritual of hospitality that takes an hour to get through, a reminder that our “instant” modern life is far away. Freshly ground beans are roasted in a pan over a charcoal furnace, being shaken back and forth to prevent them from burning.

The pleasant smell fills the room, dispelling the smell of our kerosene lamp, and my host walks around with the pan to make sure it permeates and blesses every corner. Part of the ritual is to waft the smell toward you with your hands. The beans are then pounded by hand in a pestle and mortar before going into a traditional clay pot, which is brought to the boil as a small pinch of spices are added. The thick black coffee is served in tiny cups, poured from on high in a throw-away display of skill. It comes with popcorn. Why not?

That night, I hear the howl of a wolf and recall a half-remembered Biblical retelling in a poem by Byron: “The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold.”

This is where the Greek gods went to rest and reflect

After my days in Lalibela, I catch an Ethiopian Airways plane to the small city of Gondar. Here, 2,300 meters high amid the beautiful Simien Mountains near the shining waters of Lake Tana, the scenery is even more striking. According to Homer, this is where the Greek gods went to rest and reflect. Gondar now is a busy, dust- colored town of concrete buildings, tin roofs and potholed roads, where the only color is the bright Chinese plastics and spices for sale in the local market. Tailors work foot-powered Singer sewing machines, laughing market women display a few piles of fruit and tiny children furrow their brows at the sight of this odd white-skinned visitor.

It is a strong contrast to the romantic history. From the early 1600s onwards, the Ethiopian Emperor Fassilidas and his sons built their capital here, with 12 Imperial castles, one for each of the 12 Apostles, a library, sauna baths and, of course, a church. Glowing red in the evening light, the four-story main castle looks like an illustration from a book of fairytales, its soft, rounded battlements conjuring up images of knights, damsels in distress and fire-breathing dragons. The reality was almost as fabulous. The castle was described as finer than the House of Solomon, decorated in ivory, mirrors and frescoes, with its ceiling covered in gold leaf and precious stones. For 200 years, Gondar was a site of religious learning, music, dance, poetry and art. The names hint at what was: the Temple of Love, the House of Songs, and the Paradise Gardens. A poet wrote: Gondar, seat of prosperity and of savoury food! / Gondar, which emulated the City of David! / She will be a myth unto eternity!

In 1885, a Muslim army sacked the city, destroying 40 of the 44 ancient churches and countless priceless objects. Happily, however, yet another wonder survived destruction in this country of surprises, protected from the invaders by the Archangel Michael, flaming sword in hand, and a miraculous swarm of bees. The Church of Debra Berhan Selassie, the Light of the Trinity, lies a few kilometers from the town center, surrounded by high walls with, once again, 12 towers. It is a plain, thatched, rectangle but, inside, the walls are a kaleidoscope of Ethiopian church art, including a magnificent red and gold painting of St George, the country’s patron saint, prancing on a white horse and slaying his dragon.

Hundreds of wide-eyed angels smile down from on high

But the greatest sight is the ceiling, where some hundreds of wide-eyed angel faces, all different, smile down from on high with wide Byzantine eyes and African features. While the soaring arches and bright stained glass of the cathedrals of Europe intimidate with the power of their architects and patrons, this simple roof brings a smile to the lips and a sense that heaven might actually be a place of fun, rather than dull and serious piety.

Another flight takes me to the northern city of Axum, where I come face to face with a last glory of Ethiopian Christianity: the Ark of the Covenant. OK, not the Ark itself, because I have watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, and have no desire to see my face collapse like a melted waxwork. You will recall that the Ark was built to hold the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and was a weapon of mass destruction against hostile tribes as the Israelites wandered in the desert. Ethiopians believe a small, inconspicuous building here now holds it, while every church in the country holds a replica, although why is a story for a long evening of coffee drinking. No one can see inside except its attendant, a priest who never leaves and whose earthly needs are attended to by a small group of boys, one of whom will take his place when he dies.

Meantime, he prays inside, coming out once in a while to pace the equally small garden, being careful to avoid the cameras of inquisitive outsiders such as myself. I stare at the square, dome-topped, concrete church for a while, but feel or hear no hum of power, merely the noise of traffic as the white Toyota Hiluxes of the aid agencies bustle past.

More impressive are the town’s stellae, the largest 33 meters high and weighing 520 tonnes, and one of which stood in the middle of Rome until returned in 2005. No-one knows what they are for – grave markers is the most likely explanation – but the carvings of doors and windows on their sides conjure up incongruous thoughts of skyscrapers. However, I find myself drawn to the “Queen of Sheba’s Bath”, a step- sided reservoir that, again, is setting for Old Testament scenes. Women in bright robes and white headscarves squat to draw containers of water, which they load onto the shoulders of their bareheaded daughters. Meanwhile, the young boys plunge into the water, screaming with delight, as old men sit around quietly chatting, perhaps remembering the time they too did the same. That the containers are of bright yellow plastic, rather than goatskin, seems the only concession to the modern world. Truly, the “spirit of the tale” lives on in the heart of Ethiopia.

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