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Ethiopia: churches inside the mountains.

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Inside the rock hewn church of Beta Mariam in Lalibela, the first Mass for the Feast of the Ascension of the Virgin begins at 9 pm on the 16th day of Hidar, the third month of the Ethiopian year. Lalibela is the place named for the emperor who ruled the Horn of Africa and beyond from 1190 until 1225 A.D. The emperor was instructed in a dream to build eleven churches and did so. A spiritual leader as well, he was consecrated a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church soon after his death. Many of these astounding churches he caused to be chiselled right out of the mountains are still in daily sacramental usage and are found around Lalibda. Another four were discovered in recent times and it is expected that there are many still to be found.

Here in the Simien Mountains of northern Ethiopia, everything is unexpected and different. To translate for the rest of the world, the first Mass began at 3 am on Sunday, November 28, 2011 in the Gregorian calendar. Hidar is the third month of thirteen, each of thirty days with an extra month, Pangumiene of five days, six in Leap Year. The first month in this version of the Julian calendar is Meskerem and it begins on our 11th of September. Each day's hour zero begins at our 6 am and the beginning of night begins at our 6 pm. It all makes sense when you think about it because Ethiopia is close enough to the equator that 12 hours, more or less, of light and dark occur each day and clocks were never a necessity, completely unknown for many a century. It makes perfect sense to the Ethiopians, proud of their country's long history and the fact that Christianity was introduced into the country in the second century by no less an authority than the Apostle St. Philip himself.

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It was Queen Candace's treasurer, travelling on business for her, who met St. Philip on the road somewhere in Asia Minor. So convinced was he by the Apostle's teaching that he asked to be baptized in the first waterhole they came upon. He in turn spread the word to the queen and her court. Chapter VIII of the Acts of the Apostles supports this Ethiopian tradition.

So it was that around 2 am Ethiopian time, that's 8 am our time, on the 17th of Hidar, our guide and mentor, Habramu, picked us up at the Lal Hotel for the High Mass, wearing his shamma, the draped piece of white cloth of a churchgoer. He had already been to the first Mass at 3 am, he told me.

On the previous afternoon, we had made our way up the steep incline to Beta Maryam and its two connected churches, marvelling at the structures, not built but excavated. You start by taking a bus up hairpin curves on a very narrow road, do some mountain climbing and then at the top, you clamber and negotiate as best you can down rock walls-steps is too formal a word for the age old pathways. Next, it is shoes off and entry into a high arched space, walls, pillars, twelve and fourteen feet high, vaulted ceilings, all painted with vivid images dating from the earliest years of the Church to the fourteenth century. Walls, pillars, arches, ceilings have been chiseled out of the mountain with hand tools to form smooth, even surfaces for these inspiring frescoes. The stonemasons never got around to the floors, now covered with thin matting, which hides the sharp and uneven ankle turners. We look up constantly at the bible stories and the saints, unknown to us from the West but an important part of the faith of the Ethiopians with symbols of the earlier beliefs from the Jewish tradition, the Star of David emphasizing the earliest belief coming centuries before the teaching of St. Philip. It is easy to forget we are not on level ground.

Habramu led me to a good spot in the space outside Beta Maryam for the four hour, and more, High Mass. There was even a handy ledge, a perch for the periods when the archbishop and senior clergy were inside the church for the most sacred parts of the service. By 8.30 am the narthex was full of priests. Habramu said 1400 were expected at this special church and that there would be services in every church conducted by one or two priests. In the space between the churches, St. Mary and St. Anne, and with a wall some sixty or seventy feet high as a backdrop, the event began with three or four nimble young acolytes stretching a red fabric across the open space, securing it eight feet high to shelter the priests taking part in the ceremony. It took a few attempts with their bare feet clinging to the church walls, flinging the guy ropes into small hooks above their heads. Most visitors stayed up at ground level for a bird's eye view.

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By 9 am, our time, all was ready, the red carpets laid down for the priests' area and the pathway into the church. Two rows of priests in black shammas began to dance, advancing and retreating in a sort of two step in time to two gaboro, goat hide drums. The priests in white shammas shook their sistra, a tinkling instrument with little circular metal discs, held across the knuckles and shaken. A young worshipper offered his sistrum to me to try later on in the Mass and it is much harder than it looks. The priests in white all had prayer sticks, as did Habramu, very useful in a Mass that lasts for four hours and more. A long wooden pole with a slightly curved metal top about five inches long and an inch wide, it is placed under the armpit and relieves the tension of standing still immediately. Habramu lent me his to try. The only people who sat were the drummers hunched over their large instruments. The priests chanted most of the time and one word in Amharic was dearly recognizable, 'Alleluia!' When we were waiting for the archbishop to process again and again under the red shelter, a few of the young priests greeted one another quietly, a reunion it seemed of their student days. The archbishop and his staff of five or six wore beautifully designed and embroidered cloaks, acolytes behind each one holding an ornamental fringed umbrella, dearly a mark of rank, with the archbishop's by far the most eye catching as they swept out into the main space every hour or so to bless us all.

To see these frescoes and in so many more churches leaves one with a sense of awe and wonder. How much human energy it must have taken to hollow out the side and the top of a mountain. Then to gather plants and roots to make a whole palette of colours and to paint these remarkable picture stories, celebrating faith and devotion, leaves a sense of what is meant by determination to finish an unbelievably difficult task. To be present at a service surrounded by sight and sound so ancient is to take the experience to a different level. All these churches, so old and so beautiful, are in daily use. It is believed some actually date from the fourth century.

The Queen of Sheba's capital is now Axum, the Holy City, where it is believed that Menelik, her son, deposited the Ark of the Covenant in a temple. Now it is stored in St. Mary of Sion Church and only men are allowed inside the church for a glimpse of the ancient wooden casket within which the Ark or Tabat is said to be encased in gold and is not to be opened. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrates the promise made by God to Mary to accept her Intercession on behalf of anybody devoted to her. According to Ethiopic Syanaxarium, anyone who performs a good deed in her name will be forgiven all sins.

While Candace and her treasurer spread the teachings of Philip, the real conversion of the entire country, an empire of some importance around the Horn of Africa and beyond, took place around 330 A.D. according to Rufinus, a contemporary Roman historian. He wrote that a Christian merchant stopped at a port on the Red Sea, possibly Djibouti, then as now, known for the salt trade.

Everyone on board was slain except two Syrian lads, Frumentius and Aedesius, found reading their bible under a tree. Taken to King Ella Ameda's court, they were welcomed. It seemed that Christianity had lapsed a bit after a couple of centuries, but Frumentius changed that, became regent upon the king's death and eventually went to Alexandria to ask Athanasius to send a bishop to Axum. Athanasius promptly consecrated Frumentius the first bishop, starting a long tradition.

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The only square rock hewn church is devoted to St. George, the dragon slayer, Bete Girogis, hewn out of another mountain top near Lalibela. Habramu has a special attachment to this church. He produced a documentary on the astounding structure which has been aired on PBS. The cross of St. George is deeply carved on its roof, or top side, the only church to be so marked. To enter it is the easiest climb down and up of all the churches that we visited. It stands alone unlike the other churches and monasteries. Inside are cross patterns on the walls, befitting the emblem of the patron saint. An icon painter, a real traditionalist, met us out on the mountainside. He uses local plants for his colours and goatskin for his canvas. Habramu pointed out that in the Ethiopian tradition, a full face means a righteous person, a person in profile is a sinner or an enemy.

To stand at the top of St. George's Church after the climb down and up and then to watch the evening shadows slowly lengthen down the walls and to think of this happening for at least eight hundred years every single night is profoundly moving. Those craftsmen knew they were making a temple to God that would outlast time itself, and its purpose as well, a Christian place of worship.

Mary Willan Mason was born and raised in Toronto and graduated from the University of Toronto. Her father Healey Willan wrote many an anthem and motet and she grew up surrounded by music and musical people. After graduation Mary was asked to be a music, art and drama critic on the Hamilton Spectator and has been writing about beautiful things and above all the way we humans respond to the beauties and mysteries of this world ever since.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Mason, Mary Willan
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1818
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