Thursday 31 October 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Yemrehanna Kristos Church

After Queen Gudit ruled some time passed and then the Zagwe dynasty, also ethnically Agaw, took control, with their capital in Roha (now called Lalibela). The Axumites were predominately Amharic in ethnicity. Records differ regarding how many years the Zagwe were in power starting in the early 1100s. Either 5 kings ruled for a total of 169 years, or 10 kings ruled over 314 years. The Solomonic dynasty that took over after them seems to have destroyed records of prior rulers so very little is known for sure about this period of Ethiopia’s history.

Some believe that the first Zagwe king married the daughter of the last Axumite king, thereby making their rule ‘legitimate’ (and part of the Solomonic line). There’s another legend that states the ancestor of the Zagwe line was the serving woman of the Queen of Sheeba who also (maybe even before the Queen) bore Solomon’s child.

We do know that three kings of this line were named Yemrehanne Kristos, Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, and Naakuto Laab because all three left churches behind and were sainted by the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox church.

It seems the Zagwe were trying to recapture the greatness of the Axumite Empire (or maybe just enhance their legitimacy) because they patterned a lot of their buildings off of Axumite building techniques. The church of Yemrehanna Kristos is the closest thing we have to an authentic Axumite building. 

The church was built inside a cave. There's a small waterfall outside with holy water and a new gate/wall to protect the church. Due to the wet ground, the church is actually raised up a bit on a wooden platform.

Yemrehanna Kristos is a remarkably well preserved building that dates from the mid 12th century. It was built of alternating bands of wood and stone (not cut stones, small stones with a covering overtop). The windows and door have beams jutting out a bit called monkey heads. 

Inside it is dark and hard to photograph, but each section of the ceiling has a different wooden inlay pattern. There’s a wooden saddleback ceiling in the nave before the altar.

There are a few faint paintings on the South side above the door you enter. I didn't have the right equipment to get good photos, so here's a clear - if dark - photo of some equestrian saints.

Behind the church at the back of the cave is the 'graveyard' where the exposed bones of former priests and pilgrims lay haphazardly.

The church lies roughly 1 1/2 hours from Lalibela down unpaved roads. Then it's a 10-15 minute walk up a pretty path with some nice trees and flowers. The price recently rose from US $15 to 30, which our guide said their organization is trying to reduce as it will greatly affect the number of tourists willing to visit (and how many guides are needed to escort them). The church is worth visiting for both its historical and artistic value.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Tigray's Rock-Hewn Churches

Tigray is in the Northern highland region of Ethiopia.

I mentioned in yesterday's post that the Axumite King Ezana converted to Christianity in the mid 300s. At that time when the ruler converted the nation was considered to have converted with them. The reality is that only the royal family and important nobility likely converted at this time. In the 4th - 5th century CE there was a schism in the Christian church over the nature of Christ. The Ethiopian Tweahedo church believes Christ had a single nature that was perfectly human and divine, and are called miaphysites. This belief was shared by the Egyptian Coptic church, Armenian Apostolic Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch (I'm using their modern names here). Meanwhile, what came to be known as the Catholic and East Orthodox churches believed Christ had two natures, divine through His father, and human thanks to Mary. Called dyphysites they persecuted the miaphysites and tried to end what they saw as heresy.

To escape persecution some holy men fled Syria in the 6th century and started monasteries in the Axumite Empire. These nine saints are credited with the spread of Christianity to the people. Several monasteries in use today credit one of these saints with their founding.

One of the Saints, Aregawi, is said to have been lifted up the side of a cliff by a snake so he could found the monastery at Debre Damo. As it's a working monastery women aren't allowed, so we didn't go there. Today, people access it by climbing up a rope. The saint is depicted in paintings being lifted up in the snake's coils. Here's an image of him from the Azwa Maryam church at Lake Tana.

There is a cluster of three churches within easy walking distance of each other, which we got to see. The first of these is Medhane Alem Kesho. Dated from the 10th to the 12th centuries, depending on the book, it is carved from a 15m high cliff. To get there you have to walk up this rather steep stone shelf with the 'hoofprints of St George's horse' imbedded in the stone.

Axumite building techniques alternated stone layers with wood, creating a distinctive look that carried on after their decline. You'll see a good example of this in tomorrow's post on Ymrehanna Kristos church. Wooden posts were used at doorways and windows. The ends sticking out were called 'monkey heads' and are replicated in stone at a lot of the rock-hewn churches in the area. Many of them also have 'blind windows' (ie, carved windows that aren't functional) as friezes (carved decorations) around the nave (central aisle of the church).

While this church has no paintings (aside from the modern ones on the outside) it does have a carved ceiling. Each section has a somewhat different design.

The church had a very old and rather cool locking mechanism. Here you can see the priest locking the door with one stick, and then unlocking it from the outside using a second stick on a string.

Medhane Alem Kesho lock from Jessica Strider on Vimeo.

We then walked through a small valley and up another hillside to find Mikael Melehayzenghi church. Each of these churches have a small gate demarcating the compound. Inside the wall is generally a small cemetery for the priests and locals.

The church is 8.5m x 7m, with a carved dome 3m high. The dome is meant to look like a local loaf of bread called 'himbasha'. It's called "The Stamp of God". It also has an Axumite frieze around 3 sides of the main church. It has some beautiful modern paintings as well.

The third church in this cluster is Petros Paulos and getting to it is an adventure. A new church was consecrated at the base of the cliff in the 1980s where services are now held. The upper church is no longer consecrated. You have to climb not one but 2 ladders (some of the nails had come out of the steps! so it wasn't the safest) divided by a short stone section that wasn't easy to get on/off of with my short legs. (The church is the white structure in the upper picture.)

The top has a gorgeous view. There's a small unadorned antechamber and then the small, fully painted church.

There's an unusual crucifixion scene that does not contain a cross. Crosses are seen in Ethiopia as implements of hope and healing (using the staff raised by Moses to heal the Israelites as their model). Crucifixes are rare and entered the visual arts with the coming of the Jesuits in the 1500s.

The next day we were able visit Abreha Atsbeha, a church dedicated to King Ezana and his twin brother Saizana (I believe Abreha and Atsbeha are their baptismal names as Ezana and Saizana do not appear on the religious list of Kings, despite the archaeological evidence of their reigns). It was the day before a festival here, so I wasn't able to photograph the entire church (the narthex, where most of the paintings are, was restricted to priests only).

Carved from sandstone with wooden windows and door frames, it is 16m wide, 13m deep, and 6m high. The construction date of the church is considered to be between the 8th and 10th centuries. In the 10th century the Agaw Queen Gudit (or Judith?) attacked and burned it. Her conquering the region is another reason for the decline of the Axumite Empire.

Tuesday 29 October 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Axum

Ethiopia has a large number of ethnicities, each of which have their own languages. The country's official language is Amharic, the written form of which is derived from Sabean script. There is no official romanized (that is 'English') transliteration for words, so the city I'm talking about is written in English as both Axum (used by the first sources I read so it's the form I use) and Aksum (what Google maps and newer sources use).

The end of the Damot Dynasty and Yeha came via the rise of the Axumite Empire. Axum, its capital city, is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in Africa. Locals believe it was the Queen of Sheba's capital in the 10th C BCE. Historians acknowledge it was established from at least 400 BCE. In the 1st century CE Greek merchants knew of the powerful capital and its main Red Sea trading port at Adulis (in what is now Eritrea). At its height, the Axumite Empire ruled what is now Northern Ethiopia, Eritrea, parts of South Sudan, and parts of Yemen across the Red Sea. They minted coinage with Greek writing (the lingua franca of the world at that time), and traded as far as the Byzantine Empire and India. For close to 1000 years they dominated the sea traffic between Africa and Asia. Their influence ended suddenly and the kingdom decreased in power for a variety of reasons: the rise of Islam and the Arab conquering of Adulis, cutting them off from sea trade and local deforestation and reduced crop yields due to over farming, being two of them.

From around the 3rd to 4th centuries CE elaborate burial markers were carved for nobility. These obelisks or stela were carved to look like buildings, with a door and several floors of windows. The number of storeys the stela have indicates the number of burial chambers underneath. There are several fields of stelae in and around Axum, the most notable one having very finely carved statues.

On the right in the picture below, being held up by metal cords, is stela 3, called King Ezana's stela. It is 23.5m tall, 160 tonnes, and 10 storeys. It is the only stela that's never fallen down (the others were raised again in recent times). The tall middle one is #2, the Roman stela because the Italians carried it off to Rome during World War II and only recently returned it. It is 24.6m tall, 170 tonnes, and 11 storeys. The one on the left in pieces on the ground is the Great Stela, Stela 1. It is 33m, 520 tonnes, and 13 storeys. It is believed to be the largest single block of stone attempted to be erected. It's believed it fell and broke when they tried to lift it. It was the last stela carved and erected at this site.

Some of the stela have what might have been sacrificial altars at their base. The circular depressions may have been used to hold blood or incense for ceremonies. The belief is these were pre-Christian burial markers as a few of the stela have semi-circular carvings that may have held metal crescent plates, to mark them for the moon god.

A few of the tombs underneath have been excavated. The mausoleum had several tombs on either side of a long corridor.

The tomb of the false door was uncovered by accident when soil erosion allowed some of the stone to peek out. At the front of the photo below you can see a measuring block used to cut stones to size so they would fit together without mortar.

Because they minted coins, and because those coins have been recovered, historians have a firm grasp of some of their royal lineage. We know that Ezana was king of Axum from the 320s to 360 CE. We also know that during his reign he went from being a moon god worshipper, using the crescent moon on his coins, to being Christian, and using a cross. Rufinus, continuing the history of the Christian church that Eusebius wrote, tells that as a boy the Christian Frumentius and a friend were captured by Axumites and put to work in the palace. They converted Ezana who later let them leave. Frumentius went to Alexandria and asked the Patriarch there to assign a bishop to go to Axum and preach the gospel. The Patriarch decided there was no one better prepared for the task and ordained Frumentius, who became the first Bishop of Ethiopia. The church museum also has several stone tablets with inscriptions from this period, one of which begins with "In the faith of God and the power of the Father, son and Holy Spirit, who saved for me the kingdom, by the faith of his son Jesus Christ, who helped me and will always help me, I Azanas king of the Aksumites... " (A Comprehensive Guide to Aksum and Yeha by Gian Paolo Chiara, 2014  page 134). So there is no doubt regarding the king's conversion.

We also know some of King Ezana's exploits due to another stone inscription that was found by some farmers a while back. Written in Greek, Sabean, and Ge'ez, it talks about a battle the king won and his spoils of war.

A later dynasty that will be discussed with Gondar, utilized the people's religious beliefs and complied the Kebra Nagast (Glory of Kings, translated into English and available for free here) which basically acts as a royal origin story. It teaches that the Queen of Sheba (or Saba) was the Ethiopian Queen Makeda. Hearing of his great wisdom she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem and bore his son, Menelik I. While there's no archaeological basis for this story, many Ethiopian's today believe their royal lineage descends from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. (Some more fanciful stories in the country state that the Queen was the daughter of a dragon or simply cursed with a hairy body or club foot and that she was healed of these afflictions when she went to see King Solomon.)

This is why one ancient palace ruin in Axum, Dundur, is considered by some to be the Queen of Sheba's palace.

It's also why many believe that this chapel at the heart of the church complex in Axum houses the Ark of the Covenants. After visiting his father, Menelik I stole the ark from the temple, realizing that Solomon was becoming corrupted, and that it has been in Ethiopia ever since. There are several stories of the ark being hidden in various places in the country over the years during times of tribulation. But its main home has been Axum. Every consecrated church in Ethiopia has a replica of the ark - the stone tablets containing the 10 commandments. These are only seen by priests, but are paraded during festivals.

For the first seven days of each Ethiopian month (they don't use the Gregorian calendar) there is the Mehelela Procession around the church complex with the ark replica. It traces the path Menelik I took when he originally brought the ark to the city. It starts at the giant tree near the church entrance, goes to the central square, and then loops back around to the church. The priests cover the ark and parade it under an umbrella. Following it are first the men, then the women, dressed in white, holding lit candles. It's an amazing sight and an incredible experience to walk with them. Back at the church there is a sermon and the ark is returned to the church.

 Some also believe that the Ethiopian king at the time of Christ's birth was Bazen, and that his tomb is in Axum. Also called Balthazar, there's another belief that he was one of the three kings who visited Christ as a child, bringing frankincense, an incense still produced in Ethiopia.

Axum is an amazing city with so much historical and mythological importance. Only a few tombs have been excavated and most there's a lot of archaeological work that needs to be done here.

Monday 28 October 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Yeha and Meqaber Gaewa

The oldest civilization there are records for that inhabited what is now Ethiopia is known as DMT or Damot. They originally came from Southern Arabia and intermarried with the local population. They wrote in a Sabean script, which has no vowels, from with Ge'ez, the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox church derives, which was in turn modified to create the Amharic and Tigrigna written languages. Their capital was at Yeha, about an hour East of Aksum, and their kingdom lasted from roughly the 8th Century BCE to about 150 BCE when they were conquered by the Axumite Empire.

Two major sites remain at Yeha, the great Temple of Almaqah, a S. Arabian moon god, and the ruins of what may have been a palace (due to its size). The temple fared better and is still mostly standing, likely due to a 6th C saint who Christianized the site and built a church either next to or inside the temple. (Sorry. We were there in the morning so my photos from this angle are all backlit. Here you can see a stela - grave marker with what might have been an altar base - in front of the Temple.)

While a few of the temple stones were repurposed (most notably the two ibex carved stones that adorn the modern church) it prevented stones from the entire building from being used in local construction. Ibex were used as sacrificial animals.

The temple itself is (according to the books I read about it) 18.6 m x 15 m x 13 (or more) meters tall. It was made up of large, finely dressed blocks of silicified sandstone, up to 3m squared interlocked without mortar. It is similar to Southern Arabian temples of the 7th Century BCE, and contained an inscription to their moon god. The building was likely originally two storeys tall with the interior of the temple was split into 5 aisles by rows of pillars. The side aisles would have been roofed, while the central aisle was left open to the sky.

Entered from the West, the East end was divided into three rooms: the rightmost being a small bath or cleansing pool, the centre being where the altar sat, and the left being for storage.

There are fragments of the drainage system in the floor leading out the right side (South) wall.

The treasury here had several inscription fragments and a few stone incense burners with crescent moon shapes carved into them. (Note: The Davison carving on the bottom left is modern.)

A similar Ethio-Sabean temple was found much more recently near the village of Meqaber Gaewa, near Wukro (whose museum houses the original finds). There they found a fully intact and remarkably well preserved libation altar. Notice the ox head used as a spout. Next to the inner spout at the top was a slightly lowered stone where the sacrificial animal's head would have been set.

Around this time I started noticing the oxen we passed on the streets had significantly larger horns. Like HUGE horns. Huge, crescent moon shaped horns.

Later, back in Addis Ababa, we saw some of the Yeha artefacts at the National Museum, including this statue of a seated woman and several incense burners. The inscription on the statue reads, "for he (god) grants a child to yamanat". [Sounds to me like the statue was a gift from a wealthy woman who became pregnant after prayers/sacrifices were held here on her behalf.] They also had some bronze identity marks, used to brand cattle, located in graves. This one identifies animals belonging to "MATS".

Sunday 27 October 2019

Ethiopia Trip: Simien Mountains

I was going to do the trip geographically, in the order I travelled, but it occurred to me that most of the places remaining have a lot of history behind them and it would make more sense to do them in historical order instead. So I'm adding the Simien Mountains in here. They'd geographically come after Gondar and before Axum. And then I'll start the historical places with Yeha tomorrow.

The Simien Mountains have been a national park since 1966 and became a World Heritage Site in 1978. Over 10,000 people live within its boundaries. On the way there you pass through Dubark, a small town that was having an animal market the day we were there. To enter the park you need to hire a mandatory guide and (armed) scout. Again, this is to help increase employment for locals.

Our guide knew of a waterfall just off the road heading to the mountains. We walked about 15 minutes through a field to find it. I love the golden teff waving in the wind. On the way back we found and ate some wild sweet peas growing there.

Once in the mountains we went for a 2 hour hike to see the gelada 'baboons', also called the bleeding heart monkey for the red heart shaped symbol on the chests of dominant males. They're only found in Northern Ethiopia and are the only primates that eat mostly grass and roots. The males have harems, but if they don't groom their troop members enough they can be replaced. They're fairly cool with humans, allowing us to get within a metre of them. We found two large troops and were able to get some great pictures of them.

It was misty in the afternoon so we didn't get to see the amazing views and cliffs, but we got some awesome atmospheric shots, like our scout in the mist.

We stayed at the Simien Lodge, high up in the mountains. They have the highest bar in Africa, at 3260m (10,700 feet). It's a great place to relax in the evening.

The next day, driving to Axum/Aksum we got to see some of the promised views as we navigated a wet, windy canyon road. We also got stuck behind a van and a truck trying to pass each other on the narrow road. With no guard rails it's quite a drop should you get into an accident.

We'd gone through several checkpoints where army personnel either waved us through or looked through our stuff. In the highlands we encountered these ropes pulled across the road forcing you to stop.

We passed a refugee camp later that day housing people from Eritrea, South Sudan and some displaced from within Ethiopia. A reminder that war is never far away in some countries and foreign aid is necessary.