Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Living Stones, Praying within Hewn Living Stone

My driver, Alex and local tour guide invited me to attend morning prayer with them at Golgotha chapel in the church complex I toured the day before. The Ethiopians do not follow the Gregorian calendar when setting the dates of feasts. Today was the Solemnity of the Annunciation in our calendar but in their calendar it was the Feast of Mary: Promise of Mercy. The Ethiopians have a deep veneration of the Virgin Mary.



As we approached the complex it was so different. This morning the dusty hillside was covered in white.

We entered through this tunnel that gives access to the church.

There was an excitement in the air however I keep saying to my guide: “Do not lose me.” There was a crush of people; however everyone was respectful.

We were working our way to the chapel to the church where there were continual prayers being offered and chanted in different locations.

The sound of these ancient chants was mesmerizing and I was caught in prayer even though I understood no word. The ancient chants of the church whether they are Greek, Ethiopic or Latin move my soul.

The priest came towards me with the cross and was not sure if he should extend it to me for veneration. My driver spoke to him and with a smile he extended the cross for me to venerate. He then returned with a book wrapped in silk on his head. I asked what is that. My local guide said: The Miracles of Mary and he is taking them to be read to the people outside. So we followed him.

The priest read followed by energetic preaching then all of a sudden we turned our attention away from the preacher. Once again I asked: What are we doing? to which he responded we are facing east because we are praying and we always pray facing the east, ad orientem. That made my spirit soar. To pray ad orientem as the early Christians prayed.

Priests are everywhere extending the cross for veneration.

Then I saw people with bowls of ash which I found out was the ash from the incense burnt at morning Mass from which people impose ashes on their foreheads.

Notice that my local guide on the right has ashes on his forehead.

We then began a 40-minute drive to Yemrehanna Kristos. This is different in that it is not hewn out of rock but rather built more than 60 years earlier than the churches of Lalibela. My guide pointed out that in many ways this church which is an excellent example of late Aksumite style, is the blueprint for Lalibela.

Some tracery of saints on the exterior.

The windows alternate between marble and wood with multiple cross designs: Greek, Latin, Maltese, Saint Andrew, which teach the people there are Christians outside Ethiopia.

The priest proudly displayed the church cross.

On our return we began the exploration of what is called the southeastern cluster.

My guide pointed out the the thin sloping path of hewn rock is the path to heaven. If you can walk without falling it means you have no sin. I asked, have you tried this, to which responded with a smiled: as a boy.

I decided not to try.


We entered the church of Bet Gabriel and Rafael.

The original door is of olive wood.

Going through a series of dark tunnels we emerged at Bet Merkurios. In fact it is pitch black. My guide said keep your right hand on the wall and left on the ceiling. He called it the descent into hell to which I responded: a people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. [Is. 9:2] Perhaps this was the most delightful in that every facet of architecture led to theological discussion.

This is so faded but these are beautiful 16th century paintings on canvas.

Our journey through tunnels continued until we reached Bet Emanuel which is a finely carved church.

Notice the rock on the left. This is the rock from which the church was hewn.

More steps…

And more tunnels!

To reach Bet Abba Libanos. Notice from this side view only floor and roof remain attached to the rock.

My guide pointed out the angel eyes on the corner of the capital

We climbed out of the complex to see Golgotha.

And Transfiguration. Remember the whole complex was designed to be a place to pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

We made our way to Bet Giyorgis, the masterpiece of rock hewn churches. The structure is a perfect Greek cross with no internal pillars as my guide pointed out. I was awestruck.

We began our journey this way to the church.

This is a view of saint George church from a hill. This gives a good perspective of how the church was hewn from the rock.

My guide said the church is like Noah’s ark with three stories.

Notice he said the trench symbolizes the flight of the dove and the rock in the corner of Mount Ararat where the ark came to rest. I told him when I am in Turkey I will send him a picture of Mount Ararat.

The grass is floating over holy water. On the final fast day of Lent the priest will bring you a piece of grass like this and you tie it around your head.

My guide invited me to come back because there are many more churches and monasteries to discover. Late in the evening I said goodbye to two traveling companions who have been with me a through the Middle East and the Holy Land. They have found their final resting place. And then to my multiple pairs of socks are worn out.

I must admit I am worn out a bit too. However coming home to Ethiopia 40 years later has been for me a journey that will only lead to further journeys to Ethiopia to discover our rich Christian heritage.

I am flying on to Budapest for Holy Week and then on to Vienna to spend Easter with my family. After that I will continue on to Romania to explore the painted monasteries and churches and then on to the Silk Road in Central Asia.

Lalibela: The Mystery of Faith Hewn from Living Stone

King Lalibela (1181-1221) moved the capital from Aksum to here. When he was born his mother saw a swarm of honey bees around his mouth revealing that he would be a holy man so named him “Honey Eater” that is Lalibela. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and so on his return he decided to carve churches out of living stone and create a Holy Land in his Kingdom where his people could pilgrimage. The site is impressive and has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage site http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/18 so UNESCO built roofs over the structures to prevent further deterioration and continue to finance its restoration. These churches continue to be the center of Ethiopian spiritual life. My guide is excellent.

The best way to unfold this mystery in stone is to have you walk with me through the wonder of creativity and imagination.

I entered the northwestern complex of churches and encountered Bet Medhane Alem, House of the Savior of the World. The massive structure is overwhelming
when you realize these are not constructed but hewn out of rock.

Descending to the church of the Savior of all Nations. This is a monolithc church carved out of stone. He traced out the design on the stone ground then excavated. Then he excavated by carving a door then worked from bottom up to carve out the interior.

This is the rock from which the church was hewn. The fallen column is original. Some columns have been replaced. The guide pointed out there are 72 columns that represented the 72 disciples the Lord sent out: 34 outside and 38 inside that support a central barrel vault and four flat roofed side aisles.

This is rock from which the structure was carved out.

The door and window were hewn and modeled after Aksumite architecture. Good detail of door; columns are not original. They collapsed during an earthquake.


CarvedChurches1-7A collapsed original column.

Another view of the stone from which the church was hewn.

These are original columns. On each corner are three columns representing the Trinity. Each corner represents an evangelist.


This gives a good contrast of an old column on right and new on left. Notice that the windows are hewn out of rock. Good detail of windows carved out from within.

Entry into church.

Good view of the hewn capitals.


The flat vault.


The three carved tombs representing the tombs of of abraham issac and jacob.

This is the tunnel that leads to Bet Maryam which is a perfectly proportioned church.

On the eastern wall are three windows representing the Trinity. In the middle series of windows you see a cross which represents the descent of the Word into the womb of Mary represented by the third window, and the final window symbolizing the cross of crucifixion. Now to the left is the cross of the good thief.

And to the left the cross of the bad thief. Can you see the detail that makes this distinction?

Right cross.

To the north is the very small chapel Bet Meskel dedicated to the Holy Cross. Notice 12 arcades representing the 12 apostles; and the large stone represents Sinai.

In the flat vault is the cross.

CarvedChurches1-24A priest proudly displays a blessing cross in the chapel.

I am leaving Bet Maryam to cross over to Bet Danaghel which commemorates the martyrdom of nuns at Edessa in the 3rd century by Julian.

 In the interior of Bet Maryam is column that is wrapped in white. This represents the pillar of fire in the desert. There are Greek, Hebrew and Geez inscriptions.

 Interior of Bet Danaghel.

CarvedChurches1-30I entered Bet Golgotha. Notice the unique cruciform columns.


CarvedChurches1-32 A carved apostle.

CarvedChurches1-34Tomb of Adam

The tomb of Adam under Golgotha.

This is the original entrance to King Lalibela’s New Jerusalem. He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and came back and created a place of pilgrimage modelled on Jerusalem.

CarvedChurches1-37That afternoon went to Bet Naakuto Laab, built in a cave by a newphew of Lalibela.

Stone bells


Incense basket


Local priest


A Rocky Ascent to Paradise

Abuna Yemata Guh is located in a cliff half way up a sheer rock pinnacle. The church is located in the V of this rock formation. You begin a walk of a little over an hour. At first it is flat but then quickly becomes rocky and then the ascent begins.

The path becomes rocky and one can lose balance easily. YemataGuh-2

Suddenly I was ascending rapidly.

Looking back to the point of departure on the horizon I was amazed at the distance and the climb so far.

The blue V is getting a little larger.

Climbing over boulders to get to the base of the pinnacle where the difficult ascent begins was challengingly enough…

The ascent is becoming almost perpendicular.

This is the sheer pinnacle I must scale with no security belt. It was daunting to look up thinking there is no place to put hands or feet. I was hesitant but then thought, These folks do this all the time so I can do it. Taking off my shoes as requested I began the ascent in bare feet.

Now I have climb up this sheer rock to get to that tree.

This gives you a good perspective looking down.

When I thought I had arrived, I was mistaken. Now I am looking up to another ascent.

From here I could look down and see the climb so far only thinking I had to go down the pinnacle. I was a bit unsettled thinking about the descent  while anticipating the ledge.

A few steps around the corner to be greeted by a human skull and bones.

A good perspective of the V.

A little now rested  and after some intentional procrastination, I took a deep breath and began to walk the ledge ….. no wider than two feet, over a 200-meter drop. It is very important to go slowly.YemataGuh-16

I was greeted by the priest who has the key to open the door to paradise. A paradise of beautiful frescoes that lift the spirit into heaven itself. We all stretched out on the carpets and rested in the presence of the Lord surrounded by ancient beauty.


YemataGuh-18   YemataGuh-19 YemataGuh-20   YemataGuh-24


I asked the priest if I could hold the drum.

This gives you an idea of how precarious the descent is.

A place to rest before the next descent.

Going down is not as easy as going up

Notice the tree and the sharp descent.

That is a hard descent.

Notice the V looking back.


Looking back at the V.


This was a difficult ascent and descent but well worth it because I saw a paradise of art inspired by early Christian themes and saints. I was delighted that I did not give up but persevered. There were a few times I was fearful however as my guide said “you had determination to attain the goal by setting your mind on things above and not below.” The very arduous climb is a symbol of our earthly pilgrimage. We must set our minds on what we hope to attain: eternal life. Then methodically plan to attain it. Then persevere and not give into fear that diminishes confidence but rather be bold but humble, and embrace the unknown. Such confidence is the power of grace that strengthens us to persevere on the rocky path of life so we attain heaven.


More on Yemata Guh:

Rock, Stairs, Rope, and Monk

My journey to the monastery Debre Damo was a dream come true. It was like approaching an island in the heavens.

The monastery sits atop a sheer-sided flat top mountain. Abuna Aregawi  was one of the Nine Saints who established Debre Damo. Ethiopic hagiography relates that a snake lowered his tail down a 15-meter cliff and he climbed up. Today a rope is lowered and you begin an ascent.

The Rock: Debre Damo is on the top of this rock, a flat topped mountain called an amba

The Stairs: You climb almost 300 stairs to get to the base of the monastery.

DebreDamo-340 years ago when I came to Ethiopia I wanted to visit Debro Damo. At that time it was in a war zone. Today I did visit. The only access is to climb this cliff with a rope.

The Rope: As I approached and saw folks struggling I had second thoughts. Then I thought “I have come this far and it is the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel in Ethiopia today so I will do this.”

This is a closeup of the previous picture, showing a young man partway through the ascent.


The first third of the climb was frightening because I could not get my balance but once I did that it was fine; however the last pull up was hard. Everyone was cheering and applauded when I made it. It is all young people. The monk said you are among the few of the older folks that tried and fewer that made it. One boy said “you are older than my grandfather and he could not do what you did.”

DebreDamo-5The Monk: He greeted me like a brother and the young guys were delighted and were talkative and were as amazed as I that I made it. If I had not my sabbatical would have been cut short.

More steps

The View

DebreDamo-9The monastic church. The church dates to the 6th century and is a good example of Aksumite architecture.

The bell tower of the monastery church

I wanted to pick up a drum however was hesitant. The priest smiled and invited me to pick up the drum.

DebreDamo-12The 200 monks are self-sufficient and collect their water in these cisterns.

DebreDamo-13The monastic enclosure.

Getting ready for the descent.

My love for Ethiopia began over 40 years ago in my first Church History course in Rome. We are so deprived of the riches of our exceptional Christian culture! These early monks went to such extremes in asceticism in a place that was barren but then was filled with beauty. Early Christianity is a mystery that is thick in meaning whereas today Christianity in most people’s minds is very thin and flat but in reality is so rich; however that richness is hidden from their eyes. My blog this year is to share my love and fascination with an aspect of Christianity that has captured my heart and leads me to a deeper love for Jesus. As for me because my mind lives in this ancient world, the modern world for me is very flat and thin whereas the Christian world is so thick with meaning.

The Ancient Temple at Yeha

The temple at Yeha from the first millennium BC demonstrates that this was a political and religious center.

There was a migration of the Semitic Sabeans from what is today Yemen on the Arabian penisula. They intermarried with the local Cushite people. So our guide said with a smile that the new population was neither black nor white but habesha that is chocolate.  This merging of cultures created a new culture of the Dimant Kingdom.

Ethiopia-Yeha-18 Ethiopia-Yeha-1

Today the walls are 14 meters high. They have not been reconstructed however they are injecting epoxy to strengthen this structure that has no mortar. The original was 25 meters high. It was a rectangle of 18.5 by 15 meters.





Ethiopia-Yeha-2This would have been a purificatory bathing pool to prepare for the sacrifice. They would have worshipped the sun god and the cresent-shaped moon goddess.






This gives you some sense of the magnitude of this 8th century BC structure.


The limestone for this structure of perfect lines and geometry was quarried from about 90 miles away. The roof would have been flat of alabaster. This is a remarkable structure in that the limestone blocks are perfectly dressed and fitted with no mortar.



The church of Abuna Aftse was built in 1940 over the remains of a 6th century church.  Notice the incorporation of stone elements from the temple, especially the ibex relief. The ibex was sacred in south Arabia.

An ancient Sabean inscription.

An ancient Sabean inscription.


A small sacrifical altar. Notice the symbols: the crescent moon for the goddess and the solar disk for the god.

A small sacrifical altar. Notice the symbols: the crescent moon for the goddess and the solar disk for the god.

Ethiopia-Yeha-9A Mass book of about 300 years old.

The priest said to me: you are a priest and then with a smile said: good. He was so welcoming and delighted to share the treasures of his church.  The red over the black is musical notation and he demonstrated for me by chant.

A real treasure is an illuminated manuscript of the Life of Mary.



The excavation of the palace of Sabaen era. It is only 10% excavated.

Daniel who is a local guide invited us into his family compound so we could see his new baby.







We enjoyed local beer.

The courtyard which is the center of family life.

The kitchen.

From Crescent to Cross

This morning my tour guide began to explore Aksum with me as a great riddle to be solved or a mystery of lore to lead to truth. Was Aksum home of the Queen of Sheba? Could Aksum be the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant? So much is yet to be excavated. Will further excavation yield hidden treasures?

The exploration began at the northern stelae field. A stela is a monolithic monumental tombstone. The number of registers indicate the number of horizontal burial chambers. Notice the half moon, the crescent and under it a circular metal plate was placed facing the east. The sun and moon were gods worshiped at Aksum before the arrival of Christianity.





Notice the wild ibex motif.

In 340 Emperor Ezana  invited missionaries from Byzantium to preach the Gospel so the symbol changed from crescent moon to cross.

Underground burial chambers


The stelae field

Ethiopia-Axum-6 Ethiopia-Axum-5This can be called the Ethiopian Rosetta stone. This was discovered in 1980 when a farmer was plowing his field. It is a monolithic recording of the extent of his kingdom in three languages: Sabean (5-2 century BC), Geez (a language only used in the liturgy), and Greek.




Ethiopia-Axum-7 We continued to the palace to the tombs of Kings Kaleb and his son Gebre Meskel. As we approached you have a great view of Adwa where the battle was fought by Menelik against italian aggression.

A view of the way the dressed stone is set.

In Gebre Meskel there are crosses craved into the stone


And an elephant too!

And an elephant too!

Notice the beautiful stone.

Now for a personal experience. Two days ago after lunch when I stepped out of the car a man who was deaf requested alms. I did not have my wallet so I could not give alms. The next day his face haunted me and I prayed the Lord would send another person with a disability to me in Aksum requesting alms. The deaf man’s face and the door of the Promise of Mercy were haunting me. Today as I was ready to get in the car a little boy brought me a man who was blind and requested alms. Thank you Lord for sending him to me so I could offer a token of mercy and compassion.



(The bath is not at the palace).

Is this the bath of the Queen of Sheba? Most likely not since it is only 1000 years old.


Ethiopia-Axum-14 Ethiopia-Axum-13

We went to the Dungar Palace that some allege is the palace of the Queen of Sheba. However it dates to the 6th century AD. The most intriguing is that they have excavated and there is a large palace complex from 1000 BC. What is your judgement?


Ethiopia-Axum-15Then on to the center of the Ethiopian religious world whose compound houses a church they claim houses the Ark of the Covenant. And it was the site of the first church built after Ezana’s conversion. We first visited the oldest church in Aksum built in 1665. I sat there and watched a procession that occurs after mass. They process three times around the church imploring the mercy of God. A deacon gave me a personal tour of the church. It contains beautiful icons and wall paintings. And next to the chapel housing the ark are the ruins of the first church built by emperor Ezana. In front of the church is the circular stone where the emperor was crowned before he was lead into the church. The last emperor to be crowned there was Haile Selassie.


Ethiopia-Axum-22     Ethiopia-Axum-21  Ethiopia-Axum-23      Ethiopia-Axum-24


Ethiopia-Axum-18 Ethiopia-Axum-19This church is restricted to men because behind it is a hermitage of monks who are cloistered. They vote who will be the monk to approach the Ark of the Covenant housed in a shrine to the north of the church. It is a life long position. Each day he enters and prays while offering incense.

This is the photo of the shrine.

Then the procession moves to the modern church so the women can join the litany imploring the mercy of God. I sat there mesmerized by the beauty in an attitude of thanksgiving that the Lord answered my prayer and sent a blind man to me requesting alms.

As the afternoon moved on I lingered and was caught up in the fact I was really at the heart of Ethiopian orthodoxy. I looked and saw this man caught up in prayer as he moved his fingers over his rosary.

Ethiopia-Axum-25I went back into the courtyard in front of the church and there you the king was crowned before entry into the church.

And then saw this monk approaching the presence of God in order to pray. When I saw the monk walking to the church I knew I was at the heart and center of the Christian life: prayer. “Pray without ceasing.” [1 Thessalonians 5:17].

Jouney to Aksum

Aksum has a history that stretches back to pre-Christian times and was a high civilization as far back as 400 BC. The Greeks remarked about the power of Aksum and her large empire whose commerce dominated trade between Africa and Asia. And then the Ethiopians claim this was the home of the Queen of Sheba and is the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant.

This morning I was awakened by the imam chanting from the mosque. Muslims are a minority in northern Ethiopia where over 90% are Christians. Listening to the imam as brief as the morning call to prayer is and then quickly followed by the chanting of Christian prayer that is quite lengthy I began to ponder the conversation yesterday, about Muslim-Christian relations in predominately Christian northern Ethiopia. They live in peace and mutual respect. What a model for the world to witness.

We began a climb up the mountain which offered a great view of Gonder.
This would be an almost 8 hour drive to Aksum first through more farmland. 85% of the population is rural. On the way we passed through a village inhabited by Ethiopian Jews called the Falashas whose presence in Ethiopia predates Christianity. Notice the Star of David. During the days of Communism after the fall of Haile Selassie many of them fled to Israel by way of Sudan. Some still remain north of Lake Tana.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-2Along the way we saw lots of new church construction there were also a few mosques. Although northern Ethiopia is over 95% Christian, Muslims are welcomed as a religious minority to practice their religion and build mosques. However my guide told me the Muslim leadership wants to build a mosque in Aksum which is a holy place to Ethiopians like Mecca is to Muslims. So they said if we can build a church in Mecca you can build a mosque in Aksum.




After we climbed the terrain leveled out for a while before we began the next ascent into the mountains and this would be when the asphalt leaves off.



Of course before the bumpy ride began we stopped for coffee at a coffee shop. The exterior is deceiving.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-4 Ethiopia-ToAksum-5


Ethiopia-ToAksum-6     Ethiopia-ToAksum-7  The interior was very colorful.

When we arrived the barista was busy opening up. She was a little late because my guide said she was at Mass. There is green grass strewn around which is a sign of happiness.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-9She prepared a great cup of coffee.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-10 Soon the terrain changed and was becoming mountainous. We would soon be able to see the awesome Simien mountains.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-11 We are off asphalt and what a ride. Hairpin curves one right after another with no guard rail.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-15    Ethiopia-ToAksum-14    Ethiopia-ToAksum-13

However this bumpy ride afforded spectacular views.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-12   Ethiopia-ToAksum-16 And I have a great driver, Alex who knows how to navigate.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-17 Ethiopia-ToAksum-18 And on the way we were driving through construction sites.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-25 After lunch we stopped at a local establishment for local beer.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-21   Ethiopia-ToAksum-20There lots of smiles and laughter as I tried the local beer. And when Alex told them I was a priest that delighted them even more. And in a few minutes there priest walked in.


This is the woman who owns the establishment and she showed me they prepare ingera.


And her ingera is delicious



Ethiopia-ToAksum-26We continued on our way and Alex pointed out incense trees.

Ethiopia-ToAksum-27You simply pull off the secretion and


…you have incense.

The Palace at Gonder

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.

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.

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 banquet hall in the palace.

This was the music hall however there was a wall that divided it: one side for sacred and one secular. The doors are original.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 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.


Ethiopia-Gonder-28Each 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.

Promise of Mercy Monastery

This morning (Tuesday) I was awakened with the beautiful chanting of morning prayer broadcasted from the local church. I was thrilled because the whole city of Bahir Dar was being inspired to open their lips in the praise of the Lord.

This morning began with a boat trip on Lake Tana.

To visit the 16th century Monastery of the Promise of Mercy. The local guide theologically briefed me for the tourist attraction of the city.

He explained the three forms of Ethiopian church architecture: the round church of Gonder, the rectangular church of Axum and the basilica church of Lalibela. All share a common feature of square structure called the Mekides, the Holy of Holies which houses the 10 Commandments and the altar and reserved Sacrament.

He then asked: Do you know about the ostrich egg? He read the puzzlement on my face so he explained. The mother lays her eggs and flies away for nourishment however the father must keep his eyes fixed on the eggs. He must not for a moment lose focus or the eggs will be harmed. So too Our Lord keeps his eyes focused on each one of us with a particular providential love. Thus on the roof there is a cross with seven ostrich eggs also symbolizing the seven days of creation. All the tourist sites in Ethiopia are theology lessons!

Before our conversation turned to fasting, he stated I would find the architecture of the church cosmological.

Then proceeded to tell me there are two types of monks: the virgin monk and the non virgin monk. Virgin monks are men who have never married and may impart blessings whereas non virgin monks are men who once were married and whose wives are deceased and while they may join the monastery they there to assists the monks but may not impart the blessing.

Then he said: did you know there are 15 extra days to the 40 day fast because the weekend are not fast days but days to abstain from meat and all dairy products. Fasting means no food not even water until mid afternoon. I can abstain which is easy with all these wonderfully spiced vegetables in abundance, but no food or water until mid afternoon would be a challenge. By the way Ethiopian orthodox christians do not eat pork.

When we arrived at the peninsula another guide, Mengistu welcomed us to this monastery of several hundred monks.

He pointed out the organic coffee and said that is the major cash crop in addition to papaya and other fruits.

As we approached the church I immediately notice the circular church with the seven eggs representing the seven days of creation and the seven sacraments.

My driver demonstrated the wooden bell that invites people to worship.

The symbolism of the round church is more profound than I realized. Alpha, the first letter of the alphabet and Omega, the last letter of the alphabet, join, that is the beginning and end join in a circle without end but is eternal.

Although originally it had a thatched roof today it has been replaced with a metal roof to protect this Ura Kidane Meret church. There are twelve doors on the outer ring symbolizing the twelve apostles. We took off our shoes and entered the first ambulatory, then passed onto the second ambulatory through the original fig tree wooden doors and begain to walk around the maqdas, the Holy of Holies.

The Maqdas is a square structure that houses the altar, the Holy Sacrament and the ark, that is the 10 Commandments. There is a set of double doors on the north, the west and the south however since the priest faces east when says the mass there are three windows that are open only during mass.

Everyone faces east with the priest which delighted me since they have preserved this ancient posture of early Christian prayer.

On this pilgrimage I am coming to realize that the Ethiopian church is thick with symbolism. In the Ethiopian church men do not sit with women: men on the north, women on the south and children on the west. This at first appeared to be a social convention however I am coming to realize its profound theological significance.

The north side is dedicated to the martyrs since all the martyrs came from the north and must have the courage of martyrs to witness to the faith. My thoughts turn to the Coptic Christians recently martyred by ISIS on February 15. They demonstrated courage.
Notice in the north soldier saints slaying enemies. Believers are shown full-face. Non-believers are shown in profile.

The north door is also called the Bethlehem door since Jesus was born in the northeast and so the bread for consecration is transferred from the Bethlehem door to the altar.

The south of the Maqdas is dedicated to the Virgin Mary since she fled to Egypt in a southwest direction. And so women are given the honor to stand close to the Mother of God.


And children may stand directly facing the east and in front of the priest who
proclaims the scriptures facing the west.

The east side has three windows that are closed but are opened during Mass so the priest may face east. The orientation of the entire structure is heavily laden wirh cosmic symbolism.

The drums on the west side are higly symbolic as well. Inside the drum is a rock symbolizing the tomb and a piece of cloth symbolizing the shroud. The wood of the drum symbolizes the body of Christ, the cloth on the drum his shroud, the straps on the drum the stripes by which we are healed, the large skin or the drum the New Testament while the smaller, the Old Testament.

Mengistu then explained reception of Holy Communion. The priest places his hand above your mouth so the sacrament is hidden from your eyes then immediately you place your hand over your mouth until after Mass the deacon gives you blessed water to drink.

Now to the south door on which is an image of the Virgin Mary that gives the church its name: Church of the Promise of Mercy.

The Virgin Mary is seen placing her hands over the scale held by Saint Michael who holds the scales of justice in judgement of a man guilty of the most heinous crime against humanity: cannibalism. Then to the left that same man works one act of mercy when he acts with charity to a leper. So on account of that act of mercy the Virgin’s hand lightens the weight of the multitude of these heinous sins and tips the scales of justice in favor of the man on account of this act of charity.

Mengistu and I spend time walking around the Maqdas savoring the beauty of its theological insight and I prayed the ancient Coptic prayer to the Virgin at the south door: “Never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection was left unaided.” Mengistu hopes to study theology in Addis. We walked back to the boat and proceeded to the next monastery.



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Journey to Lake Tana

Once again we departed early because we had many miles to journey to enter into the mystery of Lalibela where the ancient rites and rituals of early Christianity are frozen in time.

We travelled traveled through roadside villages that like yesterday were thronged with people but with a difference. Today everyone was hard at work. Yesterday everyone was at rest and delighting in each other’s company. My guide Alex said Sunday is a holiday and everyone goes to church then enjoys coffee with one another and walks from village to village to visit. Such an experience to me as an American is so foreign. Sunday has become like every other day with stores open, school athletic events and such activities taking precedence over Sunday as a day of rest and worship. It is refreshing to be immersed in a Christian culture that values the Day of the Lord.

And people work and work hard as seen from these photos.
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And Monday morning is the day to do laundry.
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The terrain this time of year appears to dry, dusty and brown and indeed it is after harvest.

However in the fall it will be lush green with carpets of a yellow flower called Meskel daisies named after Meskel, the Solemnity of the Finding of the Holy Cross which is a major festival for Ethiopian Christians.

I was also surprised by all the construction of new churches along the way they are being built in the traditional style of circular churches just like the traditional domestic architecture with wood and grass roofs.

And along the way are places where you can get holy water blessed by the local priest.

We stopped by a Monday market along the way as well. EthiopiaDay5-13


EthiopiaDay5-12And then we had a coffee break. Not exactly Starbucks or Panera however the Ethiopian coffee is even better.

Our Ethiopian barrista has great poise and she pours.

The table is prepared for coffee accompanied by the fragrance of local incense.

Alex is my guide with whom I feel a close bond because his uncle, recently deceased, was a priest at the Church of Saint Michael at Lalibela.

When we arrived at the hotel it was late afternoon so I had lunch before we went out again. The hotel is set on beautiful grounds and the rooms are little cottages modelled after the traditional round wooden homes with grass roofs in the countryside.

While having lunch, i was surronded by the constant chirping of birds. Then the midday prayers from the church began to fill the air. Nature and the human person were united in one chorus of praise.

Off once again to the market which is huge and a bit daunting in that ond could easily get lost. Alex led the way. The Ethiopians are resourceful in that everything is recycled.

Old tires are recycled into sandals.

All garlic

Spices that make lenten fasting so delightful.

This evening concluded with a wonderful view of the Blue Nile which flows from Lake Tana. Not only is the view stunning, it is also heart-wrenching for me as well. Mohammed’s daughter and successor were given political asylum by the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia were they were persecuted. Then in the early 16th century Manfuz declares jihad on Christian Ethiopia and this jihad was the most costly in her history to preserve her freedom. The Portuguese came to help but were unable to reinforce the Ethiopian troops to resist the jihad. When I stood and looked down on Lake Tana I called to mind that the battle where they were decimated by the Muslims occurred here. One year later in 1543 the Christian emperor of Ethiopia joined ranks with the remaining Portuguese and pushed back the Muslim aggression and thus safeguarded the freedom of his people. Today it is all so peaceful however that battle was decisive.

To gaze at the lake at a distance and reflect on a decisive moment in history is important to me. To gaze at Lake Tana summons within my soul gratitude for the exceptional courage of the Ethiopians to safeguard their freedom when threatened by aggression. My thoughts then turned to Abuna Petros who summoned his people to resist Italian fascism even to the point of giving his life. He was truly an man of exceptional courage to resist a fascist ideology that degrades humanity. Such exceptionalism is a sign of God’s providence.