“Baby, you know I ain’t no Queen of Sheba” (Thing called Love; Bonnie Raitt). I didn’t go to Ethiopia to discover Sheba but rather to photograph ancient religious ceremonies, unique Gelada baboons and native indigenous tribes. But after engaging our guide Danny, with rudimentary questions about Ethiopia’s history, I was sucked into the quasi-historical tale of Ethiopia’s early Queen traveling to meet Israel’s King Solomon and spawning a son Menelik who Ethiopians regard as the founder and first Emperor of 10th century BC Ethiopia. Menelik is customarily credited for bringing the original Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia where believers say it currently resides in an Aksum church.
As if this wasn’t a dizzying enough historical journey, Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last reigning emperor claimed to be the 225th descendent of King Solomon. Wow!…..my photographic journey had turned into an Indiana Jones script!
These traditional beliefs intertwining the Old Testament and the Solomonic dynasty with the fourth century introduction of Christianity form the basis of today’s Eastern Orthodox Ethiopian Church. Although Ethiopians consider Axsum to be the heart of Christianity in Ethiopia, the modest town of Lalibella is its soul.
For Lalibella is home to eleven rock-hewn churches which are a wondrous testament to what ancient Ethiopians were able to accomplish with a few hand tools and a mission to honor their faith. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the churches were not built… but rather sculpted from top to bottom from huge monolithic red blocks of volcanic rock .
St George’s church is the cleanest example of the task. Built around the turn of the first millennium, laborers working from top to bottom, initially excavated all of the solid rock around the church. This was the easy part. Then they hollowed out the church from bottom to top, created windows, steps, and various other decorative touches inside the church….all with simple hand tools.
The Christmas Eve ceremonial mass held in St. Mary’s church was a stunning cross-pollination of traditional Christian rites and world-class performance art. Attended by thousands of religious pilgrims and performed by hundreds of white-robed priests, the pageantry in the form of singing, chanting, and cavalcades of umbrella toting processionals went on for many hours into the night and culminated in a final regal morning processional by the senior prelates outside the church.
Lalibella is a dusty town of about 20,000 inhabitants in northern Ethiopia. During the church’s Christmas celebrations 50,000 religious pilgrims, many of whom walk long distances, attend the ceremonies. Because of differences between the Ethiopan calendar and the more commonly used Gregorian calendar, Christmas in Ethiopia occured this year on January 7th.
Many of the churches are connected with tunnels and trenches and throngs of pilgrims use these pathways to visit the churches after the ceremonies conclude.
The light flowing through this portal lit up this young girl in a very arresting way.
Most of the pilgrims take advantage of specially designated camping areas around town where large sprawling masses of families alight and whose daily life is on display as we walked through the camping areas. In a short time we saw livestock being slaughtered for the nightly meal, women cooking in large pots over open fires, large prayer groups, and frolicking children everywhere.
This pilgrim climbed onto an elevated perch in a small maintenance building and used it to survey campground life.
This is a common scene as women (and it was all women) prepare meals for their families over open fires. This looks to be a very common Ethiopian dish of meat with shiro and berbere spices.
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