Saturday, January 21, 2012

Monasteries Monks and Mountains

St Gyorgis Rock Church, Lalibela
I left Motta two weeks ago and now after long flights via Dubai and Bangkok and two nights in Sydney we are in New Zealand.. But before leaving Ethiopia we made a quick tour of the top tourist spots in Northern Ethiopia – Lalibela, Gonder, the Simien Mountains, the Monasteries on Lake Tana,and Addis Ababa. The  distances between these places are not huge but the road to Lalibela and the road north from Gonder to the Mountains are rocky dusty tracks that even 4WD vehicles struggle along – we went in a minivan, and passed several wrecked ones along the way. Lalibela is famous for the eleven 700 year old churches carved into the solid rock, and on  the Ethiopian Xmas Day  pilgrims flock to them in their thousands. My guide book reckons that if these amazing constructions were as accessible as the Pyramids they would be more popular. It also makes the point that unlike the Pyramids these are still living functioning sacred sites, and believers who get there perhaps only once in their lives leave with a huge sense of rejuvenation and re-invigoration of their faith that can only be felt in  such places. We didn’t see much in the way of organized religious ceremony, but there were spontaneous outbreaks of singing and clapping, open air preaching, praying and personal acts of devotion and worhip at every site, at every icon, at every gateway and altar throughout the site. We saw one man whipping himself – albeit rather languidly – but nothing else that was weird or hysterical. Everyone was dressed in white and on Xmas night thousands gathered around the churches and eventually slept there in the rocks and hollows and crevices round about. When we left, people in our minivan were ecstatic about their visit.
Our two day trek in the Simien mountains left us breathless, not just because of the grandeur of the scenery and the strenuous exercise but also because we were close to 4000 metres above sea level, and at night water in the puddles turned to ice. We also nearly froze. The “mountains” are really a huge plateau that rises steadily to its highest point,  Ras Dashen, but the sides of the plateau which was formed 30 million years ago have been gradually worn away leaving massive cliffs and escarpments falling away to valleys and river flats up to 2km below. The edges of the cliffs are inhabited by Gelada Baboons in their hundreds, and Lammergeyer eagles cruise the updrafts.
The view from our tent
The Monasteries on the islands and shores of Lake Tana were fascinating – well the two we managed to visit in our half day tour were. What I found fascinating first of all was the style of these buildings. They are circular wooden structures hundreds of years old, with a cone shaped roof and 3 concentric walls, the inner two defining the space where believers are permitted to go. A door through the innermost wall gives entry to what they call the Holy of Holies, a place where only priests can go, and which contains, in every such Church in Ethiopia, a replica of the “Ark of the Covenant”, a venerated object that only the Top Priest can ever view, and that happens rarely, perhaps annually. Ethiopians believe the real Ark is in the Holy of Holies in the church at Axum an ancient city  in the far north of Ethiopia.. I asked the guide about the Ark – what is it exactly, how big is it, what is it made of, why is it so sacred – he had no idea, and just kept repeating that only the High Priest has ever seen it – and apparently is forbidden to even  talk about it. This vast mystery in the centre of every church creates an atmosphere of intrigue and wonder that I am sure must heighten and strengthen  the whole religious experience for these believers.

Angels guarding the Massive doors into the Holy of Holies
The other fascinating thing at the monasteries were  the huge wonderfully colourful paintings that decorate much of the interior. These paintings, all crammed together and reaching from floor to a very high ceiling were essentially cartoons of all the Bible stories, a sensible way to get your message across to the illiterate Believers, and they were  frequently surprisingly  graphic and gory – but then the Bible is not all Sweet Baby Jesus in a Manger is it?  Beheadings, mass killings, people being tortured and burning in Hell, the martyrdom of the Saints, monsters and demons, snakes, drownings, plagues, - and lets not forget crucifixion! – I gasped  out loud when I saw the sword plunging into a pregnant womans abdomen with blood pouring down , part of a gruesome illustration of the story about Herod slaughtering all newborns when he heard a messiah was about to be born. The rest of the panel was full of soldiers and dead babies and blood!  Curiously there were also many illustration of events I don’t recall reading in any Bible I was ever familiar with – St George and the Dragon was a popular one – and there were lots of illustrated stories about the life of the Virgin Mary even regular western Catholics wouldn’t have heard – but would probably like – and so I asked the guide about them. He explained that there are many other  Holy Books besides the Bible, and they contain lots of such stories – actually that must be where the story is about killing pregnant women because I couldn’t recall that part of the Bible story  I was familiar with – I thought it was all newborn Boys . These holy books also contain the instructions about fasting and all the other behaviours and doctrines that constitute Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity and that make it so different from the forms of Christianity we are used to in the west. 

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