This morning I began my journey to Gonder which was the third capital of the Ethiopian kingdom. Gonder was the capital established by Emperor Fasilides (1632 – 67) His kingdom was enriched by the export of ivory and gold and thus he built a castle. And of course I wanted to see the site of where the Solemnity of Epiphany is celebrated.
The day before yesterday Alex told me that formerly Ethiopia was called Abyssinia which derives from the word HABESHA which means “land of the burnt faces.” When we got out of the car for a coffee break at a local coffee shop, I was feeling a little self-conscious that I was the only unburnt face. I said to Alex “Maybe if I stay here long enough my face might get burnt I would then blend in” as we walked to the coffee shop.
Every morning we take a coffee break at a local shop.
With our coffee we had ingera with spicy wat.
Our hostess is preparing ingera and wat to go with our coffee.
I tasted it and said Turu which means good. The young women giggled and Alex responded: “You know he is an Ethiopian.” When Alex said that it reminded of an email I read earlier in the morning which said “We are fascinated by your experience, inspired by your ability to be comfortable wherever you go. You sound so happy in Ethiopia.” Sitting in the roadside coffee I thought why am I happy? When I am with believers I am happy and I feel at home. Nationality is an accident of birth or a choice through naturalization so Alex may be Ethiopian and I am an American but there is a deeper bond that transcends nationality and that is faith. To paraphrase Saint Paul: in Christ there is no Greek or Jew, slave or free Ethiopian or American but only one in Christ. Sitting there in the roadside coffee house I felt I was with my tribe, the Christian tribe.
This is a priest next to his roadside shrine.
Onward on our journey to Gonder: roadside shrine after roadside shrine.
And new church after new church.
And a forest where, Alex pointed out, monks and nuns live among the trees. And then we shared some Kollo which is roasted peas and corn which our guide pointed out yesterday is the perfect Lenten snack.
We arrived at the hotel with a spectacular view for lunch before we set out again. What made lunch so enchanting is that the cacophony of multiple churches broadcasting the chants of the Mass blended into a symphony of praise enveloping the city.
I did attempt my Amharic to compliment the waitress for food so i said Turu meaning good however she giggled because my pronunciation of Turu sounded like Duro which means chicken.
Emperor Fasiliades (1633-67) made Gonder his capital and it is easy to understand why. Look at the map. He had rich exports such as gold and ivory. To the northeast of his capital lay Sudan and Egypt who would desire such goods and then to the east lay Massawa on Red Sea so he had access to India. He had prime real estate to develop his lead in commerce and so he did. The splendor of his court enjoyed international renown.
The palace complex which encompasses 70,000 square meters was begun by Emperor Fasilides who reigned from 1632 to -67. It sustained severe damage until 1880 when it was looted by the Muslim Sudanese Dervishes who destroyed over 40 churches in the city.
The banquet hall in the palace.
The doors are original.
This was the music hall however there was a wall that divided it: one side for sacred and one secular.
This was the banquet hall of Emperor Bakaffa (1721-30). It was used by the italians as a hospital during the occupation.
And across from the hall was the stables.
The palace is impressive with its four domed towers. In the banquet my guide pointed out that the architect was from India and then pointed out the architectural synthesis of Aksumite, Indian, Portuguese and Islamic motifs. He also pointed out the Star of David that linked Fasilides to the Solomonic dynasty.
We proceeded to the palace of Iyasu (1682-1706) with an intact vaulted ceiling. He indicated the walls would have been covered with jewels, ivory and gold. Ethiopia attained great wealth with its export of gold, ivory and frankincense through its trade on the Red Sea to India, the Mediterranean and Asia.
The Turkish bath was most interesting. The royal family had a skin condition so a french physician recommended this be built and it worked.
The complex is impressive as the pictures show.
From there we proceeded to Debre Berhan Selassie Church. Debre means mountain so the Ethiopians built their churches on mountains since God gave Moses the Law on a mountain, Our Lord was tempted and crucified on a mountain and transfigured as well.
This is the church that was saved from the destruction of the Sudanese a hundred years ago. When they showed up to destroy this church a huge swarm of bees chased them away and so a historic treasure was saved. This is one of the most beautiful churches in Ethiopia.
When I entered I saw the church which is the traditional Gonder style which is rectangular. Each point represents an evangelist.
My local guide, Bantalem, said notice there are 12 towers each representing an apostle and there is 13th tower representing Christ. The Lion of Judah.
Notice the Trinity with evangelists at each corner. And notice the profusion of angel eyes that represent the omnipresence of God but the he pointed to the ceiling and said: there 99 eyes (on the ceiling) representing the 99 sheep the good shepherd left to seek out the lost.
. As we entered the church he told me there are three parts to the church: the nave where people stand, the Holy which is behind the two arches. Why two? The men enter the holy through the north door and the women enter the holy through the south door to receive communion and there is even a walk in the Holy separating them. Then there is the Holy of Holies where only the priest and deacon may enter. He then remarked that there are three priests who represent the Trinity and two deacons who represent the two natures of Christ in one person.
On the south wall are paintings about the life of Jesus.
This is the west wall that has an image of Mary for whom ethiopians have great devotion. You can see under her is the old map of the kingdom to show she is their patron.
This is the north wall dedicated to warriors saints and martyrs and in the upper registry in the left hand corner is the life of Mary.
There are three Ethiopian instruments for liturgical worship: the drum, the prayer stick and the sistrum.
Here Bantalem holds a drum. The symbolism was explained in the previous post however this is a great photo of a drum.
The second is the prayer stick. Now at the top of the stick is a ram’s horn reminding us of the story of Abraham and Issac.
Finally the sistrum which has two ends representing the Old and New Testament joined together in the handle representing Christ. Then notice how it looks like a ladder like Jacob’s ladder. Then three rings on the top rung representing the Trinity and the three priests at Mass and two on the second ring representing the two natures in the one Christ and the two deacons at Mass.
We proceeded on to Fasilidas Bath.
Each year at Epiphany that is Timkat it is filled with water. There is a big mass that begins on the vigil and goes through the night till morning. Then the water is blessed and all the young men and women dive in. If a young man sees a young womam he likes he tosses her a lemon and if she holds it to her heart it means she is interested in getting to know him.
Notice the banyan tree that is beloved by the Ethiopian people.
This gives a scope of the magnitude of the pool.
I was impressed not only by Bantalem’s knowledge that kept me engaged but his evident love for Christ and his Church. I told him one day i will return and experience Epiphany in Gonder.
On my return I was very pensive. I saw a church and as I always say: Look, a church. My guide said they plan to build a new church. To which I said: Who pays for the church. He responded: the people. I was stunned for a minute. The Ethiopian farmers work hard and can only attain a low standard of living yet sacrifice to build a church.
This trip so far has become a pilgrimage into ancient Christian treasures of an African people and a delving into the esoteric symbolism that is becoming less and less esoteric as I move closer to Lalibela, the center of Orthodox Ethiopian Christianity. Yet this afternoon it is becoming for me a deepening of my conscience as I encounter them. It is all unfolding in my heart and conscience.