ETHIOPIA-KEEPING THE FAITH
by Melissa Burdick Harmon
Reverend Doctor Marvin Bentley, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church of Corona, Queens, snaps a Polaroid photo of a colleague. Abba (Father) Hailemariam Genetu, Head Priest at Azwah Maryam, a 14th-century Ethiopian Orthodox church and monastery, watches wide-eyed as his image appears. Then he shyly asks if he may keep the photo for his wife.
Although these two men both devote their lives to preaching the same message, they clearly live in different centuries. Pastor Bentley, who shepherds a congregation of 700 African American New Yorkers, sports blue jeans and a T-shirt, his long locks tied back with a do-rag. Father Genetu, swathed in sunshine-yellow muslin, presides over an infinitely smaller church on the shores of Ethiopia’s Lake Tana. The Christianity that he espouses is far older, and far more closely related to Judaism, than the post-Reformation message of the American Baptists. Yet, in essence, the two are doing the same job, in very different ways — and epochs.
Father Genetu’s amazement at the Polaroid “miracle” offers a testament to how few travelers have come to see his ancient church and the other rich, vivid, sometimes breathtaking sites that trace Ethiopia’s history. Our journey will take us from the ruins of the Queen of Sheba’s palace, circa 1,000 b.c.; to the exquisite churches of Lalibela, each carved out of a single piece of stone in the 12th and 13th centuries; to castles that look as though they were airlifted from a fairy tale. Add to that spectacular landscapes and charming, gracious people, and I’d put money on this country soon becoming a very hot travel destination. Ethiopia — Keeping the Faith.
Ethiopia is already hot among one group: African American Christians. They are proud and fascinated by the role this African country played in the early development of Christianity and by its once-great leadership in international trade. In addition they admire and respect Ethiopia’s Solo-monic Dynasty, which ruled, with a brief interruption, from the birth of King Menelik I some 1,000 years before Christ until Emperor Haile Selassie, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” was deposed in 1974.
Our “Journeys Unlimited” group — 10 African American Baptists and me — has signed on for the “Ethiopia of the Old and New Testament” tour, which will take us to all of the major sites on the country’s Historic Route. We are there to have a good time, make friends, and learn, of course, but we also represent one of the fastest-growing trends in the travel industry — religious tourism.
Not surprising, then, that we make our first stop at Father Genetu’s church, with its elaborate, ancient crosses and praying sticks and centuries-old illuminated manuscripts. The walls of the round, grass-roofed building are covered with paintings in the brightest primary colors, illustrating the Christian message for illiterate worshippers centuries ago. Angels are depicted as dark-eyed African women, while the Holy Trinity appears as three identical dark- skinned men with white hair and beards. Huge ritual drums — used in ceremonial dances dating back to the fourth century — line one wall.
The next stop on the Historic Route, the small city of Gondar, zooms us forward to 1632. Naming this town the country’s first official capital, the then-emperor Fasiladas started a building spree that would continue for generations. His castle features European-style towers and battlements, and was built with mortar — something that most of Europe had yet to discover.
As ruler followed ruler, each constructed a new palace in the compound, with rooms trimmed with ivory and jewels, and thrones trimmed with threads of gold. That interior glory has long vanished: in fact, Mussolini’s Fascists, who occupied Ethiopia from 1935 to 1941, used the castles as barracks. Yet the graceful buildings remain, a touch of Camelot in the Horn of Africa.
The dusty town of Axum, once the heart of the great Abyssinian Empire, takes us back to the beginning. Here we visit a remarkable pile of stones believed to be the remains of Gondour, the palace of the beautiful Queen of Sheba. According to Ethiopian belief, the dark-eyed queen left her country only once. Her journey took her to the court of King Solomon in Jerusalem, where she fell in love, and upon her return to Ethiopia bore Solomon’s son Menelik. When Menelik became king, the Solomonic dynasty began.
But there’s more. According to the Ethiopian Orthodox church, Menelik I returned to Jerusalem to visit his father. When he returned to Ethiopia he brought back with him the original Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets on which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments. That great treasure resides in Axum’s Church of St. Mary of Zion, in the care of one ancient and saintly monk, the only person allowed to see it. He would name his successor on his deathbed, as has been done in death after death, century after century.
In the heart of Axum, the sky is pierced by pure-white stelae — vast monoliths of unknown origin. These structures — one soaring as high as a nine-story building — are each made from a single piece of stone. The tallest of all lies in fragments on its side, where it has rested since at least 850 a.d. Many of these mysterious monoliths have blind doors and windows. Some say they were built to house spirits.
Ethiopia’s rock churches preside as the real jewels in its crown. Here in a remote area of the highlands, an Emperor called Lalibela — responding to a dream — ordered 11 churches to be carved out of the local volcanic rock. The builders were said to have been helped by crews of angels, who worked night and day, finishing the job in record time.
In the church complex, priests dressed in rich brocades and toting ceremonial umbrellas perform rituals that have been followed in Ethiopia for almost 1,700 years. Modern-day Ethiopian nuns in bright-yellow robes perch on the rocks and pray. And tucked into fissures in the stone are piles of bones, the remnants of pilgrims from centuries past who came to Lalibela to die.
From there our journey takes us to the capital. Addis Ababa bustles — a city packed with embassies, tall buildings, tin shacks and the offices of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. It is also a municipality without a single street sign or ATM, where the crowing of thousands of roosters awakens travelers in luxury high-rise hotels. Roaring rush-hour traffic dodges around goats taking a stroll in the street. At its open-air market — the largest in Africa — shoppers can buy everything from glorious African print fabrics to newly repaired flip flops to qat, the mildly narcotic leaf that has become one of the country’s major cash crops.
On a museum run, we see a plaster cast of Lucy, the skeleton of a woman who lived 3.2 million years ago; the fossil was discovered in 1974 in northeastern Ethiopia. We also tour Haile Selassie’s bedroom and powder-blue, sixties-era bathroom. At the Ethnographic Museum we learn about the country’s more than 70 different ethnic groups. Then there’s shopping — stores brim over with bags of strong, rich-tasting coffee that we all race to buy. Ethiopia, after all, is said to have been the source for all the coffee in the world.
On our last afternoon we drive up to Mount Entoto, high above this third-highest-capital city in the world, where we snap each other’s photos and prepare to say goodbye. As we pose, we look over toward the circular green, yellow and sky-blue St. Mary’s of Entoto, built in 1885. Will this church too last for hundreds of years? Will the Ethiopian Orthodox Church continue to thrive? Will this impoverished country—once one of the richest in the world — ever reclaim its proper place?
Who can answer? Certainly not this weary band of pilgrims. But one thing shines clear. On this trip we’ve all expanded our definitions of Christianity and religious ritual. We have new thinking about what churches are meant to look like. And in meeting the friendly, deeply devout Ethiopian Christians, our hearts have been touched.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Journeys Unlimited offers religious tours to Ethiopia, Israel, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Germany and England.
There are two Ethiopia itineraries: the 10-day “Ethiopia of the Old and New Testament” (from $2,598 to $3,198 per person, double occupancy); and the eight-day “Ethiopia: In Search of the Ark of the Covenant” (from $1,998 to $2,698 per person, double occupancy). Both include round-trip economy-class air from New York City.
Journeys Unlimited is part of Group IST, a leading provider of specialty travel, including religious tours, wine tours, small ship and barge programs, and customized group travel. Phone: 800-486-8359; Website: www.journeys-unlimited.com.
TRAVEL TIPS - Keeping the Faith in ETHIOPIA
• On November 7, 2005, a major gathering, “The First International Conference on the Bible and Its African Roots,” will be held in Addis Ababa. This conference, which will draw many African American Christians, will cover such issues as Ethiopia in the Old and New Testament. Journeys Unlimited will offer pre- and post-conference tours. For further information, call 800-486-8359, or visit www.journeys-unlimited.com.
• Ethiopia is one of the world’s poorest countries, yet almost everyone is helpful and honest to a fault. It is, however, wise to guard against pickpockets in Addis Ababa, especially in the Mercado (market).
• Boys and young men often volunteer to serve as guides or “helpers.” They can prove invaluable in navigating the steep steps and narrow passageways around the Lalibela churches, and will, of course, expect a tip.
• Bring cash, bearing in mind that everything in Ethiopia is quite inexpensive. You won’t find ATMs, and credit cards are almost never accepted outside the capital, even in hotel gift shops.
• Visitors should bring all the gently used sneakers, children’s clothes, and even their own clothes that they don’t mind leaving behind, as there is a real, pressing need — especially for shoes. Gifts are always greeted with wide smiles, and kids — like kids everywhere in the world — also love getting pads, pens and crayons.