Land of the crossLand of the Cross.

Bianca Berg-Mathiassen

Symbol of the country’s ancient spiritual roots, the Cross is a sign of the deep religiosity of the people of Ethiopia. Every Christian wears or carries a cross. Every monk holds a cross in his hands, using it to bless people who continuously seek its spiritual power. Each year on September 26, the great festival of Meskal is celebrated and attended by large crowds in Meskael Square in honour of the finding of the true Cross.  Impressed by the people’s religiosity and friendliness, Bianca Berg-Mathiassen reports on her recent tour of the country where she visited well-known historical sites such as Axum, Gondar, Lake Tana, Lalibela and the Afar region of the Great Rift Valley


I don’t really know what I expected of Ethiopia. As we flew over Kenya and approached Addis Ababa my thoughts kept returning to the famine of years gone by. I visualised a brown barren land where few crops grew, of starving children with vacant eyes and hands outstretched. Surprisingly, the beauty of this ancient land, with its ancient culture and fascinating civilisation, is in vast contrast to my preconceived ideas. It has left me with a longing to return someday in order to take in all that was left out due to the enormity of what it has to offer, to relive the stories of emperors and kings, to look again at the old palaces and churches, to learn more of the faith and spirituality of its people and above all to bask in the friendship of its warm and welcoming citizens.

Two days in the capital city took us to the National Museum of Ethiopia, the palace of emperor Menelik II, the Entonto Mariam church and the church of St George who is the patron saint of Ethiopia. This church was built by Menelik II to commemorate his victory over the Italians at Adwa in 1896.

We were fortunate to find ourselves in the city during the great festival of Meskal which is a national holy day. This festival celebrates Queen Helena’s finding of the true Cross on which Christ was crucified. With much pomp and circumstance this great ceremony was attended by an estimated 300 000 people. Scripture readings and singing took up most of the afternoon with various choirs participating. All the ornate and elaborate robes worn by the participants bear the symbol of the Cross in one form or another and these robes are worn with great pride. The military and police bands paraded up and down in front of the dignitaries’ stand where His Holiness, Aba Paulos, Patriarch of Ethiopia, Archbishop of Axum, Etchegie of the see of St Tekle Haimanote, President of the World Council of Churches and Honorary President of World Religions for Peace, stood ready to deliver his message of peace and hope to his people. I was touched when he spoke in English, welcoming all foreign visitors with genuine warmth and kindness: ‘Ethiopia stretches out a hand of friendship to you and welcomes you with open arms’ he said. It brought a lump to my throat. Any concern I may have had at being an Italian in Ethiopia (Italy having occupied Ethiopia in the late 1930s) was dispelled by the sincerity and forgiveness of its people. ‘We are all one now!’ they said.

Axum’s stele and Gondar’s castles

The second leg of our journey took us north to Axum. Our hotel, situated on a hilltop, gave us a bird’s eye-view of Stelae Park. A closer inspection at the sight reveals the magnitude of the gigantic granite monoliths which mark the royal tombs of kings and queens. These date back to the 3rd and 4th centuries. The largest of these stands 33 m tall (the tallest ever erected). This particular one was stolen by Mussolini’s Fascist Italian regime and only returned to its rightful place 65 years later. Other fallen monolith remains are present in the park.

We visited the Tsion Maryam church built by Haile Selassie. Ethiopian Christians believe that Christianity started in Axum and ruins of the original site of the first church are visible next to the Tsion Maryam church. Haile Selassie we were told, means ‘The power of the Trinity’. The Durgur ruins reputed to be the palace of the Queen of Sheba and her bath, formed part of our visit at Axum. Another site of great interest was the chapel which tradition dictates, houses the Ark of the Covenant brought from Israel to Axum some 3 000 years ago by Menelik I, who is believed to be the offspring of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.

The Simien Mountains National Park, home of the ibex, the Abyssinian wolf and the Gelada baboons was a remarkable journey which took us in 4×4 Land Cruisers ever higher into the Ethiopian highlands to reach an altitude of 3 240 m. The mountain peaks popped out above the clouds as we watched a troop of Geladas sunning themselves on warm grassy open patches. They are the only grass-eating primates on the planet and live in a very complex social society. Although basically ignoring us humans they were not bothered by our presence. The various shades of green of the mountains, interspersed with carpets of yellow, pink, mauve and white flowers and the clouds below that licked the slopes aided by the upward thermals, gave the Simien Mountains a fairy-tale quality that definitely warrants a return visit.

Next we travelled to the fascinating city of Gondar (previously the capital city) often referred to as the ‘Camelot of Africa’. The seven well-preserved castles within the royal enclosure built between 1632 and 1855 are Axumite and Arabian in style and on walking around from one castle to the next, it was hard to believe that we were in Africa.

Africa’s historical Christian sites

After leaving Gondar, we spent a leisurely day on a boat crossing Lake Tana, enjoying the peaceful mirrored water with its abundant bird life. We stopped and moored the boat at three different islands, visiting ancient monasteries where the only sound was the lapping of water, exotic bird calls and the excited voices of young fishermen on their flimsy papyrus boats, showing us their day’s catch of yellowtail and Nile perch. The monks at the monasteries kindly showed us their beautiful ornately decorated churches with the usual magnificent iconic paintings that adorn walls and ceilings. Before sunset we exited the lake at the source of the Blue Nile as it starts its journey up to Khartoum where it confluences with the White Nile on its way to Egypt.

The following day we boarded a small plane and flew over a barren landscape of desert and mountain to Lalibela, Africa’s most historical Christian site. Lalibela has been referred to as ‘The new Jerusalem’. Its monolithic, rock-hewn underground churches—eleven in all—are considered the ‘eighth wonder of the world’ and upon visiting them it was not difficult to see why. One stood gaping in almost stupefied wonder at the absolute perceived impossibility of it all. Standing at ground level, it was hard to imagine how it had been possible to cut through solid rock with such precision and architectural perspective with the technology and know-how of the period of their construction, which has been estimated at around the 6th to 12th centuries. A maze of tunnels from the outside, weaves its way into the inner part of the church complex. A treasury of beautiful artefacts of gold and silver and fascinating ever-present icons were shown to us. One of the hand crosses held by the chief priest weighs 7 kilograms and is made of 22 carat gold. Some of these churches are still in use today and there seemed to be a never-ending stream of pilgrims weaving in and out of the tunnels in their traditional white robes decorated with crosses, carrying their prayer sticks and prayer books made of goat skin, all meticulously illustrated and written in the Amaharic script.

The Afar region

After our Lalibela visit, most of the group returned to Addis Ababa for their return flight to South Africa. Eight of us continued on into the Afar region towards the eastern part of the country which is predominantly Muslim. We boarded two Toyota Land Cruisers and headed for the Ne’akuto Le’ab church, built inside a cave on the side of a cliff. This simple church predates the Lalibela churches and is filled with wonderful treasures. Water dripping from the cave roof was channelled into rock crevices and stones that had been ground into receptacles. The water is used for drinking and for baptisms. We were shown medieval manuscripts. I found this church to be an absolute little treasure with the natural light that enters obliquely from the front entrance above the façade of the church. We also visited the rock-hewn church of Genete-Mariam (Paradise of Mary). This monolithic church, constructed in the 13th century, large in design with tall pillars and tinged pink, is very imposing even from afar.

Driving through the countryside, one is struck by the beautiful tapestry of terraced mountain slopes in varying shades of green. The simple method of ploughing with oxen and tilling the land has been used for centuries. The sorghum and corn stalks stand tall and proud, the pale green teff which blows gently in the breeze looks like a carpet of silk. Its tiny seeds form the basis of enjeera, a cereal used to make the pancake which is the staple food and national dish of Ethiopia. Wheat, long beans and chickpeas grow in abundance in neatly tended patches all over the countryside.

Our descent into the Great Rift Valley on the way to Chifra took us to the Afar region. To the north lies the Danakil Depression which dips to 160m below the sea level and is one of the hottest places on earth. Our hotel which was not air-conditioned but did have slow-moving fans, offered little respite from the oppressive heat. Some of us slept with wet towels on our bodies under the fans to try to keep cool. Even the walls were uncomfortably hot to the touch!

The Afar people are nomadic and live in little round temporary huts made of a simple frame and covered with fabric. They graze their livestock for a time and then move on. We periodically saw camels on the move, loaded with all the worldly possessions of the nomads.

At Elioha we collected our permits, picked up two armed guides and drove to the Hadar Valley to visit the site where ‘Lucy’ (Australopithecus afarensis) was discovered by anthropologist Don Johanson in 1974. The encampment was busy, with 50 students from the United States studying bone fossils that were excavated in the area. ‘Lucy’ is estimated to be around 3.5 million years old, more than a million years older than ‘Mrs Ples’ found at the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa.

The walled city of Harar

We left the barren, dry, hot Rift Valley and drove for hours towards the Awash National Park with its abundant bird life (approximately 400 species recorded). We also saw the Beisa oryx which is smaller and paler in colour than its southern African cousin and continued on to the Awash Falls with their spectacular gorge. The Fentale volcano with its ragged edges dominated the skyline.

Our final destination in eastern Ethiopia was the walled city of Harar. The impression it made was a chaotic kaleidoscope of brilliant colours originating from the clothing worn by the Muslim women and the multitude of beautiful organic sun-ripened fruits and vegetables sold in the street markets. I did not know where to point my camera as around every corner and in every ally-way was a subject worth recording. The non-Muslim women were not permitted to enter the Grand Mosque, so after shopping for lovely scarves and items of jewellery, we sat down in a café to enjoy a cup of authentic Ethiopian Harar coffee.

After dark we took a drive to just outside the city walls where we saw the ‘hyena men’ feeding hyenas, a tradition which has continued uninterrupted for a few hundred years. I was given the opportunity to hand-feed one of these wild animals—somewhat with trepidation!

On returning to Addis Ababa, I felt awestruck—as if caught in some biblical-day time warp. That night my dreams were filled with hand crosses, prayer sticks, iconic manuscripts, white flowing robes and endless streams of pilgrims, all seeking a blessing. I too felt blessed by a sense of belonging in a land called Ethiopia, rugged, beautiful and mysterious. I believe she still holds on to many of her secrets, archaeological and otherwise. I hear her voice calling me to return again someday, and return I shall. Our wonderful Ethiopian guide, Daniel Tesfaye, put it in a nutshell: ‘Bianca’, he declared, ‘we are from the same village; we share the same DNA!’ I want to believe that with all my heart.

Religion is part of our culture
In the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, many young people are still attracted to and embrace the idea of a monastic life, and pilgrims flock to the monasteries to pray, fast and search for spiritual guidance. The testimony of Malake Maherat Apa Aragawi Tas Fai, chief priest of Abbatu Inesa in Axum, bears witness to the relevance and importance of Christianity in the life of the people and of the nation as a whole

What attracts you to this life? Does it appeal to young people?

Couples unable to have children make promises to God that should they be blessed with children, a son will be dedicated and given to the church. At the age of five years, a son is taken to the monastery where he will live with other young boys in preparation for the priesthood. Monks may marry and have children. However, a married monk will not be able to become a bishop. It is a beautiful life of prayer and dedication to Jesus Christ. It is still a very attractive life for young people.

What type of people interact with monks and come on pilgrimages?

People who come to us are people who have need of counselling, people who have need of prayer. They come to pray, they come to know more about our religion, more about God. They are people who want to show their love of God. Pilgrims come to monasteries for prayer and fasting for one or two weeks. This strengthens their faith and therefore brings them closer to God.

Which are the main religious celebrations and how are they celebrated?

They are the Epiphany, Easter and Christmas. Meskal is a huge festival celebrated all over Ethiopia by Christians. Addis Ababa celebrates in Meskael Square in the centre of the city. It celebrates the glory of God, the discovery of the true cross. The cross symbolizes power in Ethiopia.

The feast of Meskal is given special significance in Ethiopia. It is a Church holy day and also a national holy day. The feast is celebrated with prayer and religious events with lots of pomp and pride. This celebration has promoted our culture and traditions throughout the world. This tradition started with the discovery by Queen Helena of the true Cross, which she dug out from the base of a mountain, after having its location pointed out by an old man called Kerscious who knew where Jesus’ burial site actually was.

The Bishop organizes the ceremony which is divided into northern, southern, eastern and western areas. Various choirs sing songs accompanied by the military and police bands, chanting praises to God. The Patriarch then makes a speech and wishes a happy new year to the people. He counsels the nation and pleads with the people to assist the needy. The celebration ends with everyone lighting torches; a huge bonfire is lit in the middle of the square and fireworks are set off.

How important is religion to the general populace? Ethiopia has long religious history (4th century). Is this tradition still significant to people today?

Yes, most certainly this tradition is important and very significant even today. Religion is in fact part of our culture. It is practised with enthusiasm and strong faith. Look around you and you will see the cross depicted on everything, even on our clothing and robes worn to church.

What significance or importance do icons have in your spirituality and your prayer life?

Our icons are very important to us. When we pray to Jesus Christ or St Mary or St George for example, we use an icon which depicts their specific image—almost like you would a photograph—and pray to them whilst holding the icon. Even when we travel we always carry an icon with us and hold it close to our hearts.

During the oppression by Mengistu, the Red Emperor, how did religion survive?

It was never a problem really. We were allowed to continue with our normal religious practices. People continued to worship openly in the way they had always done. Religion survived and is still alive and well.

How does Church and state co-exist today?

In total harmony. There is no interference from the state. One thing though, Axum is the origin of Christianity and no mosque may be built in this specific city, although Muslims are free to worship in their homes. The reason for this is that until we are allowed to build a church in Mecca, no mosque will ever be allowed to be built in Axum.

Bianca Berg-Mathiassen  

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