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Ethiopia: Rocky Churches & Solid Beliefs!
According to the Book of Kings in the Old Testament ( 1Kings10 :1), the Queen of Sheba had heard of Solomon’s famous reign and so came to test him with some subtle questions...

20 August   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Ethiopian legend suggests that Solomon then proceeded to seduce Sheba with a simple trick. He promised not to lay a hand on her if she vowed not to take any of his possessions. He later fed her a spicy meal and let her go to bed. During the night, waking up with a raging thirst, Sheba drank a glass of water from her bedside. King Solomon, watching from his hiding place, pounced with the claim that she had broken her vow. She later bore him a son, Menelik, who became the first Emperor of Ethiopia.

Upon reaching adulthood, Menelik visited his father in Jerusalem for one year. Upon his return to Ethiopia, however, he took the Ark of the Covenant with him as revenge for what he deemed was his mother’s unfair seduction. Among many other claims, the ark is now also said to be in the Church of Mary Zion in Axum, guarded by a monk who spends his whole life inside the church grounds. However, even the monk is not allowed to see the Ark for fear of its enormous power. In fact, every church in Ethiopia possesses a replica of the Ark.

The Emperor of Ethiopia had always claimed direct descent from Menelik - and hence from King Solomon himself. Haile Selassie, translated as Might of the Trinity, was the225 th in this line, and his mysterious death after six decades of rule, following the revolution of1974 , marked the end of a unique piece of history. Rastafarians derive their name from his original title - Ras (Duke) Tafari Makonne - and believe that, as a god, he is still alive.

The roots of the Ethiopian Church go back a long way. The long, white cotton robes worn by all, the ageless rock, the weather-beaten churches, and the indecipherable prayers - all combine to give the impression that these same prayers have been recited in the same sites for millennia. Indeed, legend has it that King Lalibela - who ruled from the late 12th to the early13 th century CE - fell into a coma after being poisoned by his brother and was carried away to heaven. There, he was shown a plan of Jerusalem (at that time, the city was in Muslim hands) and instructed to build a replica. His builders worked during the day and angels finished the work at night. Another version of the legend claims that he built it all himself in three days and nights with the help of angels.

The first European to visit Lalibela in Ethiopia was Francisco Alvarez, a Portuguese itinerant friar, who came in the 1520’s to convert the Abyssinians to Roman Catholicism. Knowing that few people in Europe - who were convinced of Africa’s primitive nature - would believe his tales of Ethiopia’s marvels, he wrote, ‘I swear by God that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than I have already written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.’ Indeed, it is hard to find words to do justice to Lalibela that has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World. In fact, there are two distinct groups of churches, many of them linked by subterranean passages that allow the priests to go about their duties hidden from the eyes of the public - and more specifically from women. The western group of churches are freestanding, carved completely out of the rock. The eastern group of churches are still attached in places to their rock mantle. The passages and the eleven churches combine to make a maze that one can wander at will due to Ethiopia’s lack of tourism! Priceless artefacts abound: silver crosses,500 , 600 or700 -year-old manuscripts and paintings. A priest could well bring out a cross and casually tell you it was the original on Lalibela’s prayer staff! Then, he will show you an icon of St George that looks several hundred years old. Inside, a rock-cut chamber, the walls and floors covered with oriental carpets infused with the scent of centuries of burnt incense, the only reminders of the modern world outside are a few bare neon lamps.

Lailbela is one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia. Created as a New Jerusalem, it is split by the River Jordan whose banks are lined with the graves of those who wished to be buried in the shade of its holy trees. Pilgrims come from throughout the whole country to seek blessings from its churches and priests. But Lalibela is also a place where hermits live in larvae or tiny cells in the rock near the holiest sites - and most are genuinely pious! Towering over the town is Mount Aboune Yose, a steep 1200-metre ascent of some three hours on foot (or half that time by mules). On the way there, one passes lines of women carrying wood down into town, farmers taking produce to the market and pilgrims heading to their less-secular destination. Spectacular views of a green and fertile country and the hidden monastery of Asheton Maryam - also cut out of solid rock - reward this ascent. Here, the priest reverently opens a series of illuminated manuscripts, the oldest of which is 700 years old and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Inside one of the finer rocks, Bet Maryam, a central column is covered with gilded cloths.

But those green and lush hills straddle a life that is also a day-to-day struggle, with no cushion of wealth or health against a timeline of famine. All in all, Ethiopia remains a country worth visiting - not only to explore a place that has not been conquered by tourism, but also to bask in the splendour of both its holiness and penury at the same time!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   20 August


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