Inside the rock-hewn churches of “Africa's Jerusalem”
Growing up, my impressions of Ethiopia were largely grim: the impacts of civil war, fly-ridden babies with distended bellies and landscapes cracking from severe droughts. These impressions were mixed into a larger narrative of African catastrophe. But as I got older, visits to Africa began to unravel my preconceptions. I roasted coffee with "mamas" in Tanzania, hung out with Rasta brothers during the Sauti Za Busara music festival in Zanzibar, kissed the Ankhs of Egypt, and lived on a farm in Rwanda while working at a school started by a Belgian lawyer.
Africa is amazing in its diversity and resilience. The air is charged with energy, the same energy I felt when I moved to China. The growing Sino-African ties are exemplified by the endearment 非洲兄弟 (African brothers). Chinese investment has poured into Africa over the past decade, but Chinese trade with Ethiopia can be traced back all the way to the Tang Dynasty (around 618-907 AD) – its first trade partner among African countries.
Prior to my visit, I knew there were gaps between the two clichés: Ethiopia as impoverished and war torn, and Ethiopia in the midst of an investment-boom. My trip was planned around Timkat, the Ethiopian Orthodox celebration of Epiphany, and while I was abstractly aware of Ethiopia’s Christian history, I didn’t expect the religion to be so pervasive and so embedded in their everyday lives.
Below are images from my trip, shot on film, which changed my impressions of Ethiopia.
The depths of hewn churches designed by King Lalibela, who attempted to recreate Jerusalem in northern Ethiopia in 1187AD. These earthworks act as both an extensive system of ceremonial passages and drainage ditches, connecting the “Heavenly Churches” and “Earth Churches”.
White cotton cloths are woven for Ethiopian Orthodox devotees. When wrapped in the cloths, only the hands can be seen, making all worshipers equal within the church and preventing the 'distractions' of beauty.
A portrait of Mary rests on a chair in a Church alcove. Churches often feature original paintings and frescoes from 1,000 years ago or more. Ancient texts and relics remain in use even today, and the ancient Ge’ez language is still studied.
A priest greets a boy during preparations for Timkat.
Saint George, Ethiopia’s most revered military martyr, has a stand-alone church, the most iconic of the Lalibela pilgrimage sites.
Tourists and devotees alike observe the procession, the one time each year they can glimpse the sight of the Tabots, (models of the sacred Ark of the Covenant), which are usually concealed in the inner sanctum of churches.
The procession that heralds the Tabots is a throng of men dancing, which lasts for two days.
En route to the baptism site, where worshipers camp out overnight. A devotee carries a bag marked “Made In Ethiopia”. A local told me that while Chinese factories have made goods more affordable, they've taken over production of traditionally local crafts, including religious items. Some religious crosses are now being touted with pride as having been made locally.
Foreign influences are also apparent.
Grandstands are being built for tourists, but there’s still a visceral hypnosis listening to the lilt of the people’s voices harmonising with the priest’s chants. It’s vaguely familiar, like the Islamic Adhan (call to prayer). The morning chants reverberate through the village town of Lalibela, and the white cloths they wrap themselves in are also reminiscent of Islam, perhaps unsurprising given that the origin of Islam is closely tied to the historical nation of Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea).
When the locals told me they would be baptised after the ceremony, I was not expecting festivities like Song Kran, the New Year water fights that take place around Southeast Asia. Buckets and bottles of sacred water were scooped from a cross-shaped pool and we were soon soaked.
A man sprays a hose over priests.
The last of the Tabots is returned home.
“The Gateway to Hell” – a pool of boiling lava and sulphur fumes – is located in the Afar region. Just like Lalibela's rock-hewn churches, and many other parts of Ethiopia, myth is built into the landscape.
- Article by Huiwen Lee