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Published: September 24th 2010
The minibus is jostling through rural Tigray in northern Ethiopia. Rock outcrops of striated sandstone tower above the flat of the land. Fields of undulating green spread out from the base of the cliff walls, broken periodically by squat houses of stacked stones fenced in by prickly pear cacti. We pass a few tiny towns, but largely, it looks like Zion, only greener.
Stepping out into the blinky brightness of the day, there is initially a profound silence. Then faintly, a whispering in the wind. It comes from the tops of the dusty-rose colored cliffs, from the stair steps of distant terraced fields, and it rustles through the green shoots of barley and tef and the spindly stalks of corn growing on the plain:
“Ferenji! Ferenji! Ferenji!
You! You! You!”
Then, out of the emptiness of the land, faint suggestions of movements flow together, coalescing, and moving towards us. Slowly taking form and shape, a gathering swarm of big eyed children stream across fields and down from the highlands. Soon they are upon us, but before overwhelming us, they stop abruptly and tentatively extend a multitude of shy grasping hands:
“Salam. Hello,” they say.
“Salam. Hello,” we
Formalities aside, the gathering finds its collective voice:
“Birr. Banana. Pen. Birr. Banana. Pen. Money. Banana. Pen”
The ferenji fever is upon them so the words spill out, running over each other in an ecstatic frenzy. We begin to move, shaking the tiny outstretched hands of Birr, Banana, and Pen. They seem confused when asked why their mothers have given them such strange names, but undeterred, they fall in behind us, their ‘birr, banana, pen’ mantra ushering us upwards towards the rock-hewn churches that lie hidden somewhere in the cliffs far above.
Legend has it that the churches were the work of the saints Abreha and Atsebeha, twin kings of the ancient empire of Axum. In the 4th century, the saint-kings converted and began spreading a Christianity untouched by Rome and still deeply infused with ancient Judaism. Perhaps foreseeing the 9th century Falasha (Jewish) Queen Yodit, who razed Axum and many of the surrounding churches, or the jihad of the marauding 16th century muslim Ahmed Gragn, or the pasty tourists who would arrive much later, Abreha and Atsebeha hid their churches high atop atop the dorsal fin cliffs, spires, and towers littering the northern highlands. The
churches, much like Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, evolved, thrived, and became something singularly unique in their isolation; though they remain living churches, money has pried open the doors of the sacred for the covetous eyes of the profane.
Money or not, getting to the churches is a process: first you need a vehicle. And a driver. And a guide. And a key man. And a priest. And, whether you want it or not, an escort. Vehicles, and for that matter white skin, are rare enough that when one stops, the curious and the opportunistic arrive en masse. One of whom must be contracted to find the local priest. Others claim to be ‘mandatory’ security. The rest serve as informal escorts. All of them understandably want a slice of the ferengi birr pie, not least of all the priests waiting in the cliffs above. Once the host is assembled, the procession to the church begins.
The small church of Abuna Yemata is tucked into a crack at the top of a rock pillar that rises some 500m above the surrounding plain. Following foot and hand holds worn by the faithful into the soft sandstone over the centuries, a near vertical
face climbs upwards until arriving at a narrow ledge, sheer cliff on one side and 200 meter drop on the other, leading to the church door. Upon payment of admission (the mandatory tip comes later), the miracle of the finding of the key is performed and the white swathed priest swings the heavy wooden door inward. The harsh brightness of day spills into the shadowy gloom of the church making the impossibly vivid paintings of biblical heroes peering down from the walls and ceiling glow warmly. Coarse fibered rugs cover the stone floor and the distinctive mustiness of cave is overlaid by the sweet of incense. While the guide recounts tales of miracle and wonder, the old priest dozes in the corner. Roused, he shuffles off into the shrouded inner sanctum to root out the holy books, the holy leaning stick, and the holy rattle for show and tell. Though guides and priests claim the paintings have remained untouched since the 4th century, ‘experts‘ say they more likely date from the 15th century, which for 600-year-old cave paintings, is still astounding. Duly impressed, we tip the priest who stays behind to await a bus load of Spaniards seen streaming ant-like
getting some church learning
instead of being photogenic, the priest would soon be snoozing in his corner
far below. Today, clearly, the largesse of god is bountiful.
On a nearby plateau, atop a 2,480m-high cliff, is the church Maryam Korkor. After climbing for a hour through a narrow cleft in the rock and then up and over a steep face, the ‘renovated’ facade of the church appears at the edge of the plateau. From somewhere, a canary yellow robed priest appears. He meets us at the door, collects his due, and leads us into the multi-chambered church: bas relief crosses and frescoes adorn the cruciform pillars (4 sides; 4 gospels) that rise 30ft to sweeping arches and high vaulted ceilings shrouded in the deep shadows of the cavernous church. The rich amber of the late afternoon sun gathers in pools around the door and trickles into the antechamber, but is swallowed by Maryam Korkor’s depths. The headlamp’s sickly weak light reveals little of what hides in the dark recesses beyond. The guide’s who, when, where, and why of Maryam Korkor is much the same, but whereas Abuna Yemata felt intimate and personal, Maryam Korkor’s dark cavern seems colder, veiled in deeper mystery, the faded paintings and thick darkness more evocative of a Kierkegaardian fear and trembling.
The primordial fear of the night, I suppose. The day fading, we leave the church; the sanctuary’s twilight and shadows dispelled by the golden glow of late afternoon settling over the spires of the Gheralta Ridge and the green patchwork of the valley below. Not ugly.
The next day, new years day, we set off early to climb to the church of Debre Tsion. Just before the church, we reach a long white-washed stucco building. A gaggle of priests, bearded and wrapped in flowing white robes and turbans, have gathered to punish the local supply of tela, a mild barley beer. The priests seem terribly amused by our arrival (my guess is they had been at the tela for a while) and send the deacon off to find something more suitably plastic for the foreigners’ libations than the clearly priest-worthy, slightly rusted, yellow quart-sized tomato cans being drained vigorously by all present. Properly lubricated for more church viewing after an hour or so, we follow the deacon, who is 12 and definitely tipsy, over to the church. Meanwhile, someone returns to the long house to convince the priest and key master that it is economically advantageous to temporarily forsake
the important business of pounding tela. Inside: 30ft ceilings, arches, cruciform pillars, bas relief, paintings etc. Then, unexpectedly, the priest decides we should see the holy of holies, the inner sanctum where only priests are allowed. I suspect this decision was predicated on the quantity of tela consumed rather than our apparent sanctity. Nevertheless, in the flickering glow of candle light, the curtains are thrown aside Wizard of Oz style to reveal more chambers, more paintings, and somewhere in the gloom, the replica of the Arc of the Covenant. There is some possibly ingenuous, definitely absurd, religious kow-towing in the direction of the sacred relics by certain ferengis, and then the lot of us (now numbering about 4 or 5 priests, 3 ferengis, 1 guide, 1 deacon, and 1 key finder boy) go through a door in the back of the main chamber. This leads to a rough hewn hallway that rings the church and leads to a tiny door. Bowing low to enter, the whole lot of us squeeze into a small circular chamber where Abuna Abraham, the presumed church founder, meditated 1600 years ago. Whether temporarily overcome by religious fervor or just the irrepressible need to be a
smart ass, Nico asks the priests if we can perhaps have a moment of silence to remember the great abuna. All the priests seem well pleased with this devotional exercise. After our moment, we bow and scrape back out into the passageway, where there is much congratulatory intimation, hand pumping, and tip giving. Still fortified with tela, we say our farewells to Debre Tsion and the holy men and start back down the mountain.
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