:: 2017 FALL TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Mareshas, rock-hewn churches, Axum, Saint George’s horse, bonfires, papyrus boats, Noah’s Ark, buna, chanting rooms, teff, waterfalls, Meskel, good harvests, fossils & the Festival of the Finding of the True Cross.
through the darkness
N ine hundred years ago, King Lalibela had a dream. God told him to build a new Jerusalem for Ethiopia’s Christians. Pilgrimage to the real Jerusalem was impossible, because it was under Muslim control. Lalibela did. Eleven great rock-hewn monolithic and semi-monolithic churches, carved into and under a cumin-coloured landscape. Invisible. Excavated from the top down and the inside out. Solid stone, connected by a labyrinth of underground passages. Construction was rapid because God’s angels picked up the stonemasons’ chisels each night, carried on working through the darkness. We cross the small, muddy creek that Lalibela named the Jordan River. Earthly city on one side, celestial Jerusalem on the other. Walk to the House of Saint George, Biet Gyorgis. Our guide tells us it represents Noah’s Ark, points to the lower-level windows, which are sealed, and says, “Because it has to be watertight.” Behind the church a rocky mound signifies Mount Ararat and a recessed pool, the water that carried the Ark. We hear another story. Saint George appeared on his white horse as workers completed the tenth church. “Where is my church?” he asked. “Yours will be next and it will be the last and the finest,” he was told. As we turn to leave, I see cup-shaped indentations on a wall, hoof prints of Saint George’s horse.
chains and fire
W e cross Lake Tana to the island monasteries of Bahir Dar. Pass traditional fishermen in papyrus boats, a pair of half-submerged hippos and a flock of white pelicans. The morning is low cloud. Distant cliffs slip into water. Follow a muddy track to the circular monastery of Ura Kidane Mihret. In the chanting room there are drums against walls. Mary, the mother, holds Jesus. She is draped in fabric the colour of lapis lazuli, dotted with stars. The Egyptians sink in the Red Sea beside Pharaoh. Moses, safely on higher ground. Beside a camel, a merchant holds a needle, the eye clearly visible. The devil consumes the wicked. Chains and fire. Saint George slays the dragon, and on the ceiling, disciples fish on calm Galilee waters. We walk to a small museum beside the church. The priest brings out an ancient manuscript. Saint Yared, taking the voices of three birds, their intermingled song, creating a system of music still in use. His picture on one side of the page. Music on the other.
Along the road to Gondar, women walk to market bowed under bundles of vegetables and grain. Men, barefooted, shoulders draped with white cotton shawls, carry a figure on a wooden stretcher to a health clinic. Our SUV vies with donkeys for space on the potholed road. We pass fields of teff, wheat, chickpeas. See farmers tilling the earth with traditional wooden ploughs, pulled by oxen and mules. Mareshas. When there’s a brief stop to check a tyre, children run through fields from all directions to see us. A collection of tukul huts, goats, chickens, washing on makeshift lines. Adeba stands in her doorway. A red scarf twists ’round her head. Orange plastic bucket on the ground. She scoops a cupful of batter, pours it onto a hot plate. Bends, adjusting the logs, then waits. Eyes full of smoke. Edges a paper-thin injera off the plate. One more to go on the pile to sell later at the market. She smiles, hands me the cup, points to the orange bucket.
in the dust
“So, do you like your African massage?” I nod to the back of Tassew’s head. He continues driving and we hit another pothole. Limalimo Road, from the Simien Mountains to Axum. “There’s a story about this road,” he says. “Once Haile Selassie was travelling here. But then he said to his driver, “Stop, I want to get out and walk. I like walking.” He pauses to laugh. “But really, he was frightened.” I look through the window at the steepness of our descent, the closeness of the edge and sheer drop. We pass a waterfall on our right and stop for a photograph because it reminds us of home. Further on we spot a vervet monkey. It’s small, gray-faced and moves too quickly for a photo. We bump our way down the twisting road. An Abyssinian rose flowers in the dust. Distant mountains are yellow with meskel flowers.
In Axum the market is dusty. Women sit cross-legged on the ground, braid garlic. Spices spill out of hemp sacks. Lentils, teff, mustard seed, barley, powdered chili and berbere. Small girls carry babies on their backs. Camels, cows, goats and sheep wander freely. A wooden cart followed by a blue tuk-tuk cuts through the crowd. “Blue virus,” mutters Tassew as we jump aside. A young boy and girl pass holding live chickens, strung upside down and squawking. I try to count, but they move too quickly. One shop sells brightly coloured plastic sandals. Outside, a young boy threads a needle with red cotton, ready to mend a large umbrella, open on his lap. Yordanos is nine. She’s in charge of her father’s carpentry shop. She points to a row of bedheads and says the price, speaking in Amharic to Tassew. He laughs and says at that price she needs to also include breakfast. We walk to the women’s basket market. The colours are bold, designs geometric. Sefaed: a large flat basket for cleaning grain. Mesob: a wide basket with a tapering pedestal used for serving injera. One minute they are neat rows. The next, three goats appear from nowhere, trampling, scattering, disappearing. We sit in front of Samara, under an old fig tree. Her son waits a short distance away. She’s just dragged him away from fighting with a friend, cuffing him around the ears. Now he’s close enough to his mother so she can keep an eye on him. Not so close that he’ll receive any more unwanted attention. She begins the ritual of preparing coffee, buna. 1. Over a small charcoal burner, raw coffee beans roast in a flat iron pan. 2. Samara fans the aroma in our direction. 3. The roasted beans are crushed into a fine powder with mortar and pestle. 4. The powder is put into a traditional earthenware coffee pot, jebena, with boiling water. 5. Frankincense is lit. The smoke carries away bad spirits and cleans the air. 6. Samara arranges small cups close together on a tray. 7. She pours the coffee in a single stream from about a foot above the cups, filling each one without breaking the flow. Hands us the cups.
most waited for
M eskel in Adigrat. So far north we can almost see Eritrea in the distance. Meskel is the Festival of the Finding of the True Cross. It’s also the name given to small yellow daisies that appear every spring. Centuries ago, Queen Helena in Jerusalem heard God’s voice in a dream, lit a bonfire. The smoke led her to the cross of Christ. A remnant was brought back to Ethiopia for the Christians there. Nowadays, it’s protected by monks in Gishen Mariam Monastery, on the high, flat-topped mountain of Amba Geshen. We enter Adigrat’s stadium and see the bonfire. Demera. At the top, a cross and meskel flowers. Deacons and bishops wear bright ceremonial robes, hold fringed umbrellas. Gold jeweled crosses. In the distance small boys jump, clap and laugh as they wait to parade. A brass band processes around the stadium. We find a shady place in the food tent beside piles of injera. A woman pokes at logs underneath a bubbling pot of tihlo. In another tent women make the barley dough balls that will be added later. We’re offered buna and sit with the small cups of black coffee, watching. A horse crops grass beside us. Embroidered on its coat is the Lion of Judah. The owner talks to us, says its name is Happy. A young boy approaches selling religious texts. He’s wearing a long green robe and hat decorated with gold crosses. The man beside me takes one. I look over his shoulder at the unfamiliar Amharic script before he hands it back. There’s dancing and singing in another part of the stadium. Bottle caps strung around the shins of dancers jingle and long hollow metal pipes resonate. The lighting of the Meskel bonfire by the Patriarch is next. It’s the moment most waited for. The Patriarch descends from the stand. Cross high in the air, he walks around the bonfire. He gives a blessing, is ready to light the fire. “There’s a problem,” Tassew suddenly whispers in my ear. “They can’t find matches.” This is a non-smoking country. No matches or cigarette lighters hidden in any of these pockets. Minutes later, a young deacon comes running toward the Patriarch. The bonfire leaps into flames. The direction of the smoke and final collapse of the demera is a predictor of good harvests. Tomorrow, charcoal will be collected from the ashes and used to mark crosses on foreheads. We leave Adigrat and drive south towards Mekele. I sit with my camera on my lap, scrolling through photos, glancing out the window at passing villages. Each with its own small bonfire. Each decorated with yellow meskel daisies.
the weighing of souls
In Tigray, we climb to the cave church of Abreha we Atsbeha. From outside, the sound of responsive chanting. Saint Yared’s birdsong. Inside, a basket of sistrums and wooden prayer staffs propped against the doorway. Storytelling walls. Adam and Eve, the Lion of Judah, Judgment Day and the weighing of souls. Text in ancient Ge’ez. “It’s about Thomas,” Tassew says quietly. “He’s reading the part where he says he won’t believe until he sees Christ’s hands and feels the spear marks.” A green-robed priest takes a large hand bell and slowly shakes it backward and forward. Four clergy in an array of colours appear from the Holy of Holies. Hiding place of the Tabot, Ark of the Covenant. Scattered worshippers move forward and wait for the bread and the wine. We walk into the body of the church. Tassew says it’s named after twin brothers, Abreha and Atsbeha, who ruled in the fourth century and, according to story, were the first to bring Christianity to this region. I look for Saint George and the Dragon. “He’s in every church,” I tell Tassew. “He must be here somewhere too.” We both scan the walls, but time’s up, the service is over, the last saffron-clad figure is leaving, and now the priest too is waiting to lock up. We walk to where we’ve left our shoes, slowly down the hill back to our car, past the children holding small fossils crying, “Only forty birr.”
Marjory Woodfield is a writer and teacher of literature. She has returned to Christchurch, New Zealand, after living in Saudi Arabia for the last seven years. Her travel writing has been published by the BBC, Stuff (New Zealand) and various journals in Saudi Arabia.
Lead image: Trevor Cole