Rock-hewn Medhane Alem Church, in the remote mountain town of Lalibela, draws visitors to ancient sites in Ethiopia. Arriving just before the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, a date on the Orthodox Christian calendar which commemorates Jesus’ appearance in divine form before three (3) apostles on Mount Tabor. The grandest of King Lalibela’s eleven (11) monolithic churches, chiseled out of a single mass of reddish limestone by royal craftsmen at the end of the 11th century.
The churches of Lalibela, a poor mountain village that has remained essentially unchanged for millennia, constitute the most remarkable part of what Ethiopians call “the historic tour” a several day circuit through ancient Christian kingdoms that flourished in the northern highlands during the fourth (4) century AD.
Legend holds that Syrian monks crossed the Red Sea then converted the Axumite King Ezana to Christianity. Over the following centuries, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church spread through the country. However, we assure the reader that the advent of Judeo Christianity in Ethiopia is much more complex than the legion outlines. But this is not the appropriate forum to embroider the popular legion…
Currently, it is widely believed that about half of Ethiopia’s 70 million people are Orthodox Christians (though some experts contend that Islam is now the predominant religion). In the northernmost province of Tigray, where the Orthodox religion took root, 3,500 churches cover the landscape, and the practice of Orthodoxy is nearly universal.
For decades, access to the historic sites and to Ethiopia in general, has been subject to the vagaries of politics and war. In the 1970’s and 1980’s the Soviet-backed Marxist dictatorship known as the Dergue, led by Haile Mengistu Mariam, sealed itself off from the West, while torturing and murdering tens of thousands of people and presiding over the catastrophic 1984-85 famine in which one million people died.
In 1991, after months of fierce fighting, a coalition of rebel forces overthrew President Mengistu. He fled into exile in Zimbabwe.
Over the following seven (7) years, foreigner, mostly humanitarian aid workers, diplomats, journalists and intrepid backpackers, trickled into Ethiopia. However, the door slammed shut in 1998, when a territorial dispute between Ethiopia and Eritrea erupted in a savage war that lasted two (2) years. The conflict, which ended with a peace deal signed in 2000, left tens of thousands of soldiers dead on both sides.
It is possible to travel across Ethiopia with a relative degree of comfort. Guided tours through Ethiopia’s historic Christian route: Axum, Lalibela, Lake Tana and Gondar are available. But those who want to venture on their own will discover that Ethiopia is reasonably well set-up for independent exploring. They will find a proud, if bedraggled country with ruggedly beautiful landscapes and a unique sense of identity. Their unique identity is shaped in part, by Ethiopia’s stubborn refusal to submit to Western colonizers.
Axum is a town of about 50,000 is resilient as it seems in perennial recovery mode from many decades of war and turbulence. Its decrepit appearance belies its rich history. About 3000 years ago, Axum emerged as one of the principal cities of the kingdom of Saba, a prosperous commercial state centered in Yemen that controlled the main trading routes between the Red and Mediterranean Seas.
The town’s most popular ruins date to the reign of King Ezana, popularly referred to as the first Christian king. The king and his successors are responsible for dozens of granite obelisks, between 10 and 90 feet high, intricately carved with rune-like geometric shapes. This strange and mystical place, a cemetery for aristocrats and monarchs, is honeycombed with crypts and treasure vaults that lay several dozen feet underground.
The grandest of these stelae, 78 feet high weighing 160 ton was carted off to Rome by Mussolini’s invading army in 1937.But, after decades of pressure by the Ethiopian government; Italy returned the stolen treasure to Axum, touching off days of celebrations. In addition, we would be remiss if we didn’t note that during the Italian invasion there was a “massacre in Addis Ababa” that was never acknowledged by the West… On the other hand the event is well known in Ethiopia.
The stela was cut into three (3) pieces by the Italians to make it easier to transport back to Axum, and the three (3) immense blocks still lie in a corner of the field, wrapped in their steel and wood shipping materials, while the cash strapped Ethiopian government keeps delaying its plans to raise the obelisk again.
Across from the field stands the Church of St. Mary of Zion, a vine-shrouded stone structure built in the 1600’s. The basilica replaced the original fourth-century church, known to be the oldest in sub-Saharan Africa, which was burned down by an invading Arab army in the 10th century.
Across from the church is a building known as the treasury, whose nondescript appearance hides its key role in Ethiopia’s Judeo-Christian tradition. According to many Ethiopian Christians, the building houses the original Ark of the Covenant. The gold leafed wooden box encasing the actual stone tablets.
Menelik I, referenced as a son from the union of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, (1st Kings), is said to have stolen the Ark from the First Temple replaced it with a replica, than took the Ark from Jerusalem and carried it to Axum, 1000 years before the birth of Christ.
No one but a single monk from the Levite priesthood is allowed the see artifact. Moreover, few people are permitted to see the monk. Replicas known as Tabots are brought out once a year for Timkat celebration of Christ baptism on January 19. Tabot is an Ethiopian word that means Ark of the Covenant, which is unique to the Ethiopian Mass service. Therefore, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is also known as “Tabot” Christianity.
Axum civilization began to decline during the seventh (7) century, and by the eleventh (11) century a new Christian dynasty, the Zagwe arose in the mountain town of Roha, which later was renamed Lalibela on honor of its most revered king.
Lalibela received a vision from angels commanding him to chisel 11 churches out of the soft limestone hills on which the Zagwe capital was built. Over 25 years, master artisans carved both cave churches from vertical cliff faces, and monolithic churches out of bedrock. In 1960, UNESCO declared the churches a protected site, citing “a remarkable coupling of engineering and unique artistic achievement.”
A bustling city of about 250,000, Amhara-speaking people in the heartland of Ethiopia. It served as the center of Ethiopian Christianity from 1635 to 1855, at which point the capital moved to Addis Ababa. Gondar’s most celebrated monarch Fasilidas, constructed an elaborate stone castle-a fusion of Moorish, Portuguese, Ottoman and Mogul architectural styles-on the outskirts, and his successors added their own edifices over the following century.
The ruined castle complex, surrounded by a crumbling stone wall, contains such oddities as sauna baths and a dozen lion cages. Ethiopia’s rulers kept lion here until 1991, when the Dergue abandoned the city and left the animals to starve to death. Rebels managed to save two (2) of them, and sent them to a zoo in Addis Ababa.
Across from the castle complex is Gondar’s other main attraction: the Debre Birthan Selassie church, constructed in 1624. A local artist at the time covered the small interior with brightly painted frescoes, recently renovated by Unesco, that depict scenes of the life of Christ, St. George and the Dragon, Daniel in the lion’s den, the beheading of John the Baptist, and the Devil and the damned. Hundreds of beautifully smiling angels adorn the ceiling, each one painted with a subtly different expression.
Gondar is also the cradle of traditional Ethiopian music…
For now, at least the ancient Christian route is open and thriving. But in this long embattled land in the horn of Africa, one can never plan too far in advance…