Around the world, it’s Christmas Day. But not in Ethiopia.
In Ethiopia, one of the first Christian nations in the world, the faithful must wait another two weeks to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
That’s fine by them. Ethiopian Christians have always done things a little bit differently than in the rest of the world. Here, in the highland town of Lalibela, is living, breathing proof of that.
A woman, draped in a white netela, removes her sandals and kisses the limestone doorway before entering the church. We follow her. Inside, a priest, draped also in white, chants from an ancient holy book made from animal hide. He faces a wall filled with brightly painted depictions of Christ and the Virgin Mary – or “Maryam” as they call her in Ethiopia. The woman enters the chanting room, contemplates an image, bows her head and kisses the artwork, and then moves on to the next painting. All the while, the priest’s ancient Ge’ez song echoes ethereally against the stone walls of this ancient church.
I am in Bet Gabriel-Raphael , the main entrance of the southeastern cluster of Lalibela churches. It is Saturday morning, and Lalibela is alive with worshippers. This is the heart of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
As with all things, Ethiopians have a unique brand of religion. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church dates back to the 4th century, a strange amalgamation of Judaism and various forms of Christianity, including Greek Orthodoxy and Coptic Christianity. This was in the days of the great Axum empire, one of the four great kingdoms of the time (the others being Persia, China, and Rome!).
What made Ethiopian Orthodoxy different from other forms of Christianity, exactly, I did not know. Yet I was drawn to this mysterious religion from the outset. I captured photos of its churches all over the country, their ornate crosses reaching high above the trees, building, and hills that encircled them. I visited the Ethnological Museum in Addis Ababa, where I studied the caricature-like religious paintings and learned about the development in styles of hand crosses. I read the guide book, where I learned that Ethiopians particularly revered the Virgin Mary, and that they had a large collection of saints and stories unfamiliar to the rest of Christianity.
But I still didn’t feel I had a grasp of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. A piece of the puzzle was eluding me.
I am standing on a hill overlooking Bet Giyorgis, the most famous of all of Lalibela’s churches. Saint George Church stands alone, carved down into its own rocky mountain in the form of a Greek cross. The sun is rising to my left, illuminating the highlands of Ethiopia that roll out onto the land as far as the eye can see. Below me, two priests, clad in colourful gold-bordered vestments, are reading from the Bible under the shade of an equally colourful umbrella. Around them are dozens of white-clad believers prostrating themselves before the priest, the cross-shaped church, and the holy hills. I am witnessing Sunday Mass as it has been played out here for almost a millennium.
Ethiopians claim deep roots between their land and their religion. They say that Ethiopia was settled by Ethiopic, the great-grandson of Noah. They assert that there are at least thirty references to Ethiopia (or “Abyssinia,” the old name of the country) in the Old Testament. And most of all, they believe that the holy Ark of the Covenant (the tablet of law given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai) has rested safely in Ethiopia for more than a thousand years.
This story goes all the way back to the Queen of Sheba (who may or may not have existed). This Ethiopian Queen supposedly went to Jerusalem and had a child with King Soloman. Menelik (“son of the king”) became the first great Solomonic king of Ethiopia, a line that is claimed to have ruled almost unbroken until the 1970s (an impossibility). When Menelik went to Jerusalem, he returned to Ethiopia with the son of a high priest of the temple of Jerusalem, who carried with him the Ark of the Covenant.
No one has seen the Ark inside Ethiopia, and history lost track of it over a thousand years ago. But Ethiopians believe it is resting in the inner sanctuary of the Church of Saint Mary in Axum. And as with all things religion, their faith is enough.
Faith is what propelled the creation of the churches of Lalibela in the 12th century. In a dream, King Lalibela was inspired to recreate Jerusalem in his own country. In twenty three years, and with the help of angels, King Lalibela had eleven churches carved down into three separate mountains. Four of the churches were completely freed from the mountain rock around them, one was carved out of a cave (made for Queen Lalibela in a single night with the help of angels), and several underground passageways connected the churches.
We are walking down the longest passageway. It is pitch-black. I have my left hand on our guide’s shoulder as my right hand glides along the wall of the tunnel. My hair skims the ceiling. All I can do is walk forward and wait for the light.
That is the point of the tunnel. This particular passage, between Bet Gabriel-Raphael and Bet Merkorios, represents Hell. The light at the end of the tunnel represents Heaven. It certainly feels heavenly to emerge into the bright courtyard of Bet Merkorios.
I enter the church. It’s not nearly as large as it looks from the outside. This church is typical of the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela – arched ceilings, a few faded paintings displayed haphazardly, a wearied priest leaning on a prayer stick. The walls and entranceways have been smoothed and darkened by the hands and socked feet of centuries of believers. A smell of incense that I recognize from my Catholic days sits in the still air.
The inside of the church is divided into three sections – the holy room, the chanting area, and the sanctuary. The sanctuary is the private area of the priest, and is always hidden by a bright satin curtain. Behind the curtain lie the treasures – scriptures, crosses, and most importantly, the tabot. This is the sacred part of the church for Ethiopians – in fact, the church itself isn’t sacred. The tabot is a wooden representation of the Ark of the Covenant, and every church in Ethiopia has one.
With the exception of Bet Maryan – dedicated to the much-beloved Virgin Mary – the interior of Lalibela’s churches aren’t spectacular. There are very few [remaining?] frescoes, the ceilings are undecorated, and the walls – which still display the carving marks from tools – seem almost unfinished.
We have to drive two hours away from Lalibela to witness a church with an intricately designed interior. Yemrehanna Kristos was created by an earlier king of the Zagwe Dynasty in the hills where that dynasty had ruled for hundreds of years. Several remote churches and monasteries dot the hills of Northern Ethiopia, but this church is a particularly well-preserved example of the Axumite style. Since we weren’t going to Axum, we decide to visit.
Despite being built less than a hundred years before the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, Yemrehanna Kristos couldn’t feel more different. For one thing, it’s not rock hewn – it is built into the mouth of a cave hidden in forested hills. The exterior walls are made of alternating wood and stone layers. And, of course, almost every inch of the interior is decorated.
The grounds around the church are dark. We feel our way to the back of the cave, where bats coexist with a mound of bones of those who asked to be buried here. Inside the church, the wooden walls and ceiling display a variety of geometric patterns, each of them integrating a different type of cross. The windows display different styles of crosses, too.
I hadn’t known that there were so many different types of crosses. In Lalibela, our guide, Abay, had pointed out Greek crosses (four equal sides), Roman crosses (a longer tail), Scottish and Maltese crosses, and even a swastika (reportedly used during the rise of Islam so that Christians could hide their religion from the Muslims while still wearing the symbol of Jesus). To this day, many Amharic women tattoo crosses onto their foreheads, temples, and wrists as a form of protection, and on Sunday morning, ash crosses are drawn onto foreheads of believers.
The priest at Yemrehanna Kristos shows off his Axumite cross for a photo. It’s large and detailed, with circular patterns. A few days before, I’d seen an example of a Lalibela-style cross, the Gold Cross, by chance in Bet Medhane Alem. The Gold Cross is 7kg of pure gold, which is probably why it was stolen in 1997. It was later located, repurchased, and returned to Lalibela, whereby the priest of Bet Medhane Alem decided only to display it on special occasions.
My visit to Lalibela is evidently such an occasion, because as I walk into the church, the priest pulls the cross out and allows believers to kiss the cross and receive its blessing, giving me the opportunity to look at its symbolism. The twelve apostles stand in an arch along the top, dove wings flap along the sides, and the center cross is formed by four sets of angel wings.
Crosses are far from the only symbolism I see that day in Lalibela. A series of ten arches outside one curch represent God’s Ten Commandments. The four sets of three pillars in a courtyard represent the holy trinity and the twelve apostles. There is the tomb of Adam, and those of the apostles. The River Jordan runs between the two church clusters. An entire church represents Mt. Sinai!
In the end, though, it isn’t the symbolism that makes me finally grasp the essence of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. It is experiencing ancient rituals alive today. The insides of the church feels like they are breathing, so vibrating are they with chanting and the slow rhythm of the drums. Priests and monks contemplate the same walls as a thousand years ago, and believers still wear the rock smooth and thin with their prayers and prostrations. Faith is everywhere – in the kissing of walls and hand-crosses, in the reading-aloud from mini prayer books, in the ancient stories Abay tells us with conviction, and in the white netelas, wrapped tightly around devoted bodies.
Christmas may be another two weeks away in Ethiopia, but their faith is as alive as if it were Christmas in Ethiopia today, too.