Tag Archives: orthodox

Playing Tourist – The Rock Churches of Lalibela

21 Jan

Christmas Day I walked through the bowels of hell to come out into the light on the other side. Dramatic, non? Well, that’s just how you get around in Lalibela, Ethiopia – tunnels, trenches, on your knees in caves and alcoves. Heading East after the first few days in Ethiopia, my family and I set out to see some of the most impressive monolithic architecture in the world. This is national Geographic stuff people.

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

At Bet Giorgis, the most famous rock hewn church

through the trenches of Lalibella

through the trenches of Lalibella

my dad at one of the entrances

my dad at one of the entrances

The columns were carved so straight in lines

The columns were carved so straight in lines

Over two days we toured the three compounds of the rock churches in Lalibela, monolithic ones (freestanding), ones that had three sides exposed and one wall attached to the “mother rock,” and cave churches (similar the buildings in Petra, Jordan). Though the monolithic churches were impressive, the passageways, trenches and sheer number of buildings (11 built in just 24 years) made the whole experience unbelievable. King, or Saint, depending on who you talk to, Lalibela built his 11 churches as a 2nd Jerusalem, a place of pilgrimage for African Christians in the 6th or 7th century. Most certainly religious in nature, these churches are still active (with the pilgrims to prove it). The architectural and engineering feet brought the center of Ethiopian political power to Lalibela during that time nonetheless. Today, Lalibela is still a small town, boasting only about 35,000 people, but during holidays like Genna (Ethiopian Christmas on January 7th) the town grows to accommodate 3, 4, even 5 times that size.

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastica style cross

praying on the wall, including an ancient swastika style cross

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

around sunset the lichen glows yellow on Bet Giorgis

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

typical Ethiopian Orthodox painting of Mary and Jesus

wax candles

wax candles

My family and I visited over Christmas, the ferenji kind, December 25th, so not that much was going on. Pilgrims were starting to come in to the town for the big event two weeks later, but really we got a front row seat to these churches. Though orthodoxy really doesn’t come close to my family’s version of Protestantism at all, it was still a powerful experience to walk through and see all the devotion.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

an orthodox priest who told me that visiting Lalibela would mean 7 generations of my children would be blessed because it is the 2nd Jerusalem. When I told I had been to the 1st Jerusalem, he changed that number to 14 generations.

A priest with his cross

A priest with his cross

wind erosion

wind erosion

me and the brothers

me and the brothers

priest's drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus' back.

priest’s drums to accompany the chanting. The leather lashes represent the lashes of the whip on Jesus’ back.

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

some amazing carvings and an old Star of David. There is a lot of connection to Jewish history in Ethiopia

a hermit on pillgrimage

a hermit on pillgrimage

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these trenches provide paths and drainage

these trenches provide paths and drainage

On our second day in Lalibela we took a drive up to Yemrihane Kristos monastery about 40 km north of the town. The monastery is still active as a religious school and houses a few different buildings in a large ivy covered cave.  The priest showed us the carvings by candlelight, bringing us back to when they were first built. Just living in Ethiopia tends to bring you back to Biblical times, with farmers threshing wheat by hand, livestock running over the open air markets and huts that make my theater sets look sturdy. But going through the same unchanged churches and monasteries that people have worshiped in for centuries really brought me back in time.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

Ancient Tukul Bets raised and made from stone. Usually they are sticks and mud.

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

our van needed a little help on the sandy roads

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

Yemrehana Kristos Monastery is in that ivy covered cave

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Mummies in the monastery

Mummies in the monastery

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Yemrehanna Kristos by candelight

Very different from the historical tours in the Gondar, this was the last stop on our Ethiopian tour. In total we spent just under a week in Ethiopia, which my mom called the “real Africa” part of the trip. Considering how different the culture here is from the rest of Africa, it’s an interesting moniker, but I get what she means. Tanzania was luxury and animals. In Ethiopia I threw my family into the thickest of Ethiopian culture, history, food and even a little language. Recently Ethiopia has been popping up all over the place on top travel lists and best bang for your buck tourism. My home is open!

Fasika – An excuse to eat A LOT of meat

10 May

 

Last weekend was Ethiopian Orthodox Easter, the end of a 55 day fast, and the return of tibs! Tibs, a half kilo of red meat sliced, diced, and served with injera and awazi (spicy berebere sauce) is back on the menu. The last 55 days of fasting has meant no meat products, including milk, eggs, and cheese. For some more devout orthodox, it has also meant no eating before 3pm every day.

But why 55 days instead of the 40 days of Lent? Apparently weekends don’t count so the fasting really is 40 week days… but you still have to fast on Saturday and Sunday so it ends up being 55 days.

The point is, everyone is now eating meat. You can hear the chickens and roosters every morning, the goats that know their number is up, and the dogs who can sense all the carcasses coming their way. It’s quite a cacophony of potential food. I always a enjoy a rousing game of “goat or child?” their brays sound so much alike.

Woke up to this guy’s intestines chilling in a bucket outside my house the other day… yummy. His name was Carl.

Woke up to this guy’s intestines chilling in a bucket outside my house the other day… yummy. His name was Carl.

Like other Easters, Fasika is a family holiday. I was able to eat with a few families here in Gondar, stuffed full of doro wot (chicken stew) and siga wot (red meat stew… goat). Luckily I avoided the home brews of tella and arake, the former a grassy, watery beer, the later fire in a bottle.

But I got a great surprise at my coworker Edward’s house! His brother who lives in America had sent over some Red Label Scotch.  Clearly I drank it on the rocks… I’m not solidifying any stereotypes about foreign women on that one… oops.

Fasika at Ed’s … morgan couldn’t make it, didn’t know he had put up the sign haha

Fasika at Ed’s … Morgan couldn’t make it, didn’t know he had put up the sign haha

Even though I’m a ‘homatarian’ also known as I don’t buy meat at the market and only cook vegetarian meals or care package meats in my house, I’m happy to have meat back in the restaurants.  And the price of eggs will finally go down.

So Melkam Fasika (Happy Easter!), the S’aom  (fasting) is over and we can eat siga (meat) again!

Timket – The Epiphany Celebration

28 Jan

About a week ago we celebrated one of the biggest holidays in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition – Epiphany or Timket. It was a three day celebration with parades, holy water blessings, eating, discovering new parts of Gondar, and learning more about the Orthodox tradition.

As a bit of background, the Orthodox Epiphany is different from what most protestant Christians think of it. I grew up understanding Epiphany as the time when the wise men came to Jesus (ya, it wasn’t Christmas Eve, sorry Nativity sets). But Orthodox Epiphany is the celebration of when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River some 30 years later. Epiphany being less of the wise men’s eureka moment and more of the commencement of Jesus’ mission and teachings on Earth.

Going even farther into background, the Arc of the Covenant is also believed to be housed in Ethiopia (Axum- Tigray Region). It was taken here from Jerusalem for safekeeping by Menelik I, the lovechild of the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopian) and King Solomon (wise old dude ruling Jerusalem). But Menelik didn’t exactly ask permission to take the Arc, thus creating a legend of Indiana Jones proportions (seriously, Indiana Jones goes to Ethiopia in the Last Crusade). Each Orthodox Church has a replica of the Arc of the Covenant and during Timket these arcs get paraded around each city or small town. But no one is supposed to look upon it (since it houses the Holy of Holies and all) so what you end up seeing are a bunch of umbrellas running around town.

What makes the Timket celebration in Gondar unique, and the biggest in the nation, is the ceremony at the Fasilides Baths. Most towns have parades and some holy water blessings, but Gondar goes through an elaborate ceremony and a priest converts and entire castle moat into Holy Water. Ya, it’s epic.

So I’ll walk you through some of the celebrations, history and ceremony from the vantage point behind my camera. My house was directly on the parade route and only 10 mins walk from the baths so I can safely say I was in the thick of the celebration all weekend.

Friday afternoon the celebration started with a parade of all the churches coming together with their priests, arcs, some floats and thousands of people walking from each church to the baths. There are 44 arcs (44 Orthodox Churches) in total in Gondar.

The parade coming down from Piazza, view from the mountain by my house

The parade coming down from Piazza, view from the mountain by my house

Some of the bigger churches had floats and entire entourages, all the arcs had to travel on a carpet which boys rolled and unrolled in front of the procession all the way down the hill

Some of the bigger churches had floats and entire entourages, all the arcs had to travel on a carpet which boys rolled and unrolled in front of the procession all the way down the hill

The arcs arrive, AKA a flock of umbrellas

The arcs arrive, AKA a flock of umbrellas

Arc Parade Float

Arc Parade Float

Each church had their own personality, uniform and group. In addition to the church processions many people joined and watched the parade in their finest traditional clothing [future blog post]. For women, habesha libs, as their known, are the white shawls (nutellas) with white linen dresses with beautiful embroideries on the hemlines. This year, there were a lot of Gojam (West Amhara region) farmer clothes as well. The green or blue outfits with the buttons made for the cutest little children.

This horse is decked out

This horse is decked out

Gojam boys and outfits

Gojam boys and outfits

nuns and crowd

nuns and crowd

watching the parade, and protecting herself from the sun

watching the parade, and protecting herself from the sun

As the parade passed we jumped on to the end and walked toward the baths. On the way, impromptu dance parties were happening everywhere. Morgan and I made sure to document. I was lucky enough to host Dan and Nicole, third year extension volunteers who spent their first two years in Gondar and were able to introduce me to more organizations, hole in the wall restaurants, and their favorite places around the city.

Ryan getting his shoulder shake on with a Gojam farmer

Ryan getting his shoulder shake on with a Gojam farmer

Morgan getting a good shot

Morgan getting a good shot

Dan and Nicole- best tour guides

Dan and Nicole- best tour guides

At the baths on Friday evening, the arcs arrive and the priests begin to set up. The more committed pilgrims stood vigil all night saying prayers and giving thanks. We returned the next morning in the dark at 4:30am to bleachers already full. BBC was doing a documentary on Timket this year (yay for Ethiopian tourism!) so there were a lot of media around as well. But being some of the only ferenjis able to say more than four words in Amharic we got pulled to the front and given prime spots. The enthusiasm by Ethiopians to share their traditions is really great to witness and experience. The weekend was full of anecdotes extolling Ethiopian hospitality, including the next day when five priests walked into my compound and invited us to have tea with them.

Fasilides Baths

Fasilides Baths

This priest came out and posed for our cameras, pretty awesome

This priest came out and posed for our cameras, pretty awesome

Prayer by candlelight at dawn

Prayer by candlelight at dawn

Priests lined up and chanting

Priests lined up and chanting

There were no seats left so people started climbing trees, very Zachius...

There were no seats left so people started climbing trees, very Zachius…

The ceremony lasted through the dawn and priests and worshipers sang, chanted and prayed as the sun came up. A quick sermon was given in Amharic and one of the priests blessed the water in the moat around Fasilides Castle. Not even three seconds later, hundreds of young men stripped down and jumped 20 feet off the walls into the water. Events got pretty chaotic as mobs pressed in around the sides of the pool. It’s a moment of ecstasy as (mostly men) jump into the water for blessing and then turn around and “bless” everyone else by throwing large splashes into the crowd. It was a lot of fun, if not a little claustrophobic.  Young boys climbed over scaffolding, jumped from trees, and old women filled water bottles with holy water to bring back to their homes.

As an aside, in Ethiopia, there is a superstition that holy water can cure AIDS and so part of the public health communications approach  (which is part of my work here) has been working with religious institutions not to necessarily discredit this belief, but to advocate a dual holy water/ART drug strategy.

Priest blessing the water

Priest blessing the water

The baths are open all weekend for revelers to come take a dip. Sunday afternoon we returned and the baths resembled more of a community pool with kids diving in and out and racing each other around the sides. It doesn’t sound like there is an expiration date for the Holy Water, so I filled up a bottle myself. It’s sitting full of silt on my kitchen counter- I’ll have to remember not to boil my pasta in it.

Diving in

Diving in

Lots of blessing going on

Lots of blessing going on

Jumping in, clothes and all

Jumping in, clothes and all

Baths become a community pool

Baths become a community pool

A more leisurely time to bathe

A more leisurely time to bathe

So there’s a long winded but very brief description of Timket in Gondar. It’s clearly the place to be for this holiday if the explosion of tourists (both foreign and Ethiopian) are any indication. It was a great introduction to some more of the cultural aspects of the city and Orthodox faith which pretty much dominates this region. I’m taking reservations for my floor for next year, but you’ll have to bring me chocolate.

For more Timket photos here is a link to my facebook album 

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