Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ethiopia's stunning subterranean churches

I wake up and don't have a clue where I am. There is barely any light, hardly enough to pierce the curtains. But it's not the gloom or the early start that has left me confused. It's the ear-splitting chanting.The noise is in no language I've ever heard. Yet the sound is familiar, even if the language is not. I have heard it in Istanbul, the Gulf, parts of Jerusalem. It sounds almost exactly like an imam calling the faithful to prayer. Yet I am in Ethiopia, the cradle of an ancient form of Christianity, and the hotel at which I am staying is in Lalibela, one of the country's most Christian sites; there are no mosques nearby. So what is going on?

Stepping out on to my balcony, I see the hillside opposite covered with thousands of people dressed in white cotton robes. They are making their way up a series of dirt tracks, their feet throwing up a haze of red dust. The chanting seems to be coming from the hilltop. But there is no sign of a church or indeed any building up there. All that can be made out is the rough outline of part of a giant cross, seemingly carved into the ground.

My guide, Girtane, is waiting for me in the hotel lobby. Seeing my confusion, he breaks into a broad smile. "It's St George's Day," he says in explanation. St George, I learn, is the patron saint of Ethiopia. The damsel whom the knight saved from the dragon is, in local tradition, an Ethiopian princess called Beruktawit. And the chanting is not Arabic but Ge'ez , the holy language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Ge'ez has been spoken in Ethiopia since the time Rome was first founded. It has been the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's religious texts since Christianity originally spread to the country in the early fourth century, brought to this land by a Syrian Greek shipwrecked on the Eritrean coast.

The reason it sounds so familiar is that its origin can be traced to the same linguistic roots which inform Arabic and Hebrew. Ge'ez, it seems, is just another of the many ways that Ethiopia, and its church, has long been entwined with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern – and not just African – tradition. I had already been in the country long enough to appreciate its rich cultural heritage and how it is a very, very different place to its Live Aid-era image. The capital, Addis Ababa, is a hive of construction (much of it the result of the influx of vast sums of Chinese money). Great stretches of the countryside look lush and green. But, for me, the biggest revelation in my time there was about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and its relationship with the people it serves.

Ethiopia was cut off for centuries from the wider Christian world by the Islamic conquests to its north. During that time, its church flourished in isolation, untouched by and ignorant of the theological disputes dividing Europe. That means its traditions provide insight into an older, perhaps purer and certainly more mystical form of Christianity – one that dates back 1,600 years and therefore, in its unaltered forms, bears witness to a liturgy practised only a relatively brief period after the time of Jesus Christ.

To better understand this, I had come to Lalibela, Ethiopia's self-proclaimed "New Jerusalem". Here, I thought, I could engage with the religion and its beliefs. What I had not expected was that I would also get to see one of the world's most impressive – and most affecting – architectural marvels. It was the fall of the Holy Land to Saladin 900 years ago that prompted these remarkable structures to be built. Ethiopia's new king, King Lalibela, determined that his subjects, as well as the small Christian states scattered along the Nile, should have their own "Jerusalem" at his capital, Roha, to visit in order to show their devotion.

King Lalibela is so surrounded by legend that it is almost impossible to separate the man from the myth. Even his name, meaning "the man bees obey", is part of that mystique. At his birth, a swarm of bees supposedly settled upon him, covering him but not stinging him. Later, when aged around seven, it is written that he was lifted towards heaven and spent three days receiving instruction on God's divine knowledge... read more:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-spirit-of-a-pure-christianity-exploring-ethiopias-stunning-subterranean-churches-9268381.html