Ethiopia is a land of vibrant color and vivid contrast. Modern wealth, by western standards, is in short supply, and yet there is a super-abundance of spiritual and cultural richness that spans millennia, and an intensely warm affection that characterizes daily encounter.
The religious practice of northern Ethiopia, Christian since the fourth century, is at once regally solemn and exuberantly joyful. Eighteen pilgrims from Trinity Church in New York City traveled there during the feast of the Epiphany, Ethiopia’s largest religious celebration, to immerse ourselves in this spiritual and cultural abundance. This is a brief daily record of that journey.
For a fuller explanation of why we are going to Ethiopia read HERE.
After lunch we plunge into the first day of Timkat, which gathers all the churches in processions from every corner of the city in solemn yet exuberant joy. The sheer scale of it is overwhelming, but what is more moving is the full-hearted devotion of every age, especially the young.
All the way along young people sing, drum, and dance. Watch the clip below for a taste of it.
The chants slowly gather strength and speed until they crescendo in the blessing of the water. Then all heaven breaks loose: young men by the hundreds fling themselves over the stone wall into the enclosure and jump into the pool. Priests with water hoses spray down the people, who clamor to get soaked. We are drenched with water and the spirit by the time we find our way out of the ecstatic melee.
The rest of the day we spend on a dusty overland journey toward Lake Tana (the source of the Nile) through an expansive landscape dotted by tiny villages. Along the way the road is clogged by a half-dozen rural Timkat processions, equally festive and richly textured. Again, the greatest beauty is in the faces.
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, and the remote island monasteries which date back to the beginning of Christian monasticism in the 6th century. Monasteries here and elsewhere in Ethiopia are the richest repository of Ethiopia’s religious traditions and the core of their spiritual life They inform everything we have seen so far.
We travel by boat out to Ura Kidanemihret, one of the larger monasteries of a cluster located on the islands and peninsulas. The place feels timeless and a world apart, and indeed has preserved Ethiopia’s treasures in times of conflict.
Here we learn the lore of Ethiopia’s colorful saints and legends, and we spend time in silent reflection. Where the past two days of Epiphany celebrations in Gonder were crowded and ecstatic, today is a wonderfully spacious counterpoint that gives us time to reflect, recover, and prepare for the next stage of the pilgrimage.
Now a rustic mountain town, Lalibela surrounds an ancient architectural wonder: 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches attributed to King Lalibela, who built them as a symbolic Jerusalem.
Throughout the afternoon we weave our way through the first group of churches, connected by caves and stairs and passageways. The whole experience has a slight Indiana Jones feel. Sculpted out of living stone, the buildings are indeed overwhelming in scale and devotion. They are named for many of the stations of pilgrimage in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, so there is a Bethlehem, and Golgotha, surrounded by landmarks like Mt Tabor, River Jordan, Mt. Sinai, etc.
All this, carved from a single stone!
With a group this size, a significant chunk of time is spent every day at meals. As the group grows closer, these become noticeably sacramental, a sustaining part of the journey itself.
Today we begin with a long drive through winding roads deep into the countryside to visit the cave church of Yemrehanna Kristos. A steep hike up through a juniper forest along with other pilgrims brings us to a huge natural cave in the rock face where a 10th-century church was built using the Aksumite style (copied in stone in the Lalibela churches).
Toward sunset, today being Sunday, we gather for a informal outdoor Eucharist at the most iconic of the churches, St. George’s. We are alone in this spectacularly alive place and moment, a very “thin” place, and our Eucharist feels both transcendent and intimate — until it doesn’t.
A number of teenage boys notice our gathering and become incensed at our “desecration” of the place with unauthorized prayer. We are less than gently hounded off the site as we are sharing communion.
It’s a jarring experience in the moment, and I think it will become an important memory that will change shape and grow in the years to come, and it certainly was unforgettable! The New Jerusalem is still an aspiration, and ours to make if we choose it.
Our third jump by plane takes us back another thousand years and to yet another dynasty, to the great Aksumite empire that covered a million square miles of Africa and Arabia. It’s hard to reconstruct the greatness of this empire, but some of the artifacts tell parts of the story on a grand scale. The single-stone stelae are larger and more intricate than those of Egypt, and the technique used to release them from the surrounding rock still cannot be replicated today. By tradition, this is also the resting place for the Ark of the Covenant. (The story of how it got here is fascinating.)
The resting place of the Ark of the Covenant is remembered by the church to be here in Aksum. It’s shrine building is not ancient, I fact it’s leaking badly enough to build a replacement next door, and it’s presence almost seems overlooked, given the overall legendary importance it assumes in religious life.
This is consistent with religious practice throughout the country though: the power of the sacred is distributed rather than reserved. Every Ethiopian knows the Ark is real, but that doesn’t create a bunkered or exalted shrine, but rather shows up in the love for each church’s Tabot replica, and for the vernacular devotion that flows so freely on the street. It is difficult to describe, but easy to see in motion.
As with most important treasuries, there is one next door to the shrine, which we were allowed to enter but not photograph. Like Lalibela’s, this treasury is stunning — more like a warehouse than a museum, with piles of crowns, crosses, texts and other artifacts. The uncatalogued expanse of it is a little dizzying.
Our day ends on the outskirts of town, passing by ancient springs that have supplied the city with drinking and bathing water for millennia (so of course they are considered the baths of Sheba) and ending at the Aksumite Dundur palace (with foundations that go back further — to Sheba?)
Like Gonder and Lalibela, Aksum adds up layer upon layer of living history, legend, and devotion. The result is like a halo, moving with and around our experience. It’s not an airbrushed ‘precious moment’, but rather vivid and immediate, like Ethiopian icons. That luminosity is most alive in the personal encounters with the extraordinarily kind and open people we have met along the way.
Our last internal flight of the trip returns us to yet another capitol, Addis Adaba, a little more chaotic than usual, as the African Union (Africa’s UN) has brought together leaders and diplomatic teams from all across Africa. It’s a sign of Ethiopia’s long and continuing role in African identity.
Addis allows us to set our journey in an even larger context, that of all human history. The Ethnographic museum, which holds the 3-million-year-old bones of “Lucy” also holds 8 million years of earlier ancestral history that is staggering to behold.
We share one last traditional meal together before we make the long trip home. We are different people — individually and together — than when we arrived. How that translates to our continuing journey we have yet to discover, but there is an abundance of new material to work with, and a surfeit of love and joy.