Archive for January, 2013


TimkatAt 4 PM a crowd of old men, some women and a bevy of small boys gathers at a church with a walled courtyard outside Hawzien in Tigray, the northern province of Ethiopia tucked in the mountains near Eritrea. It’s desert here, goats forage in the sand and birds rise and fall under intense blue sky. And it’s the drowsiest time of a hot day, when the sun and the buzzing of the insects conspire to make me want to simply go indoors, anywhere, and take a nap.

But clearly, the crowd around the church means that something is going to happen. It’s the eve of Timkat, Ethiopian Epiphany, and the people are excited. The boys circle around the few westerners, maybe ten of us, all in travel gear carrying cameras, “What is your name?” “Can I have money?” as the men and women haunch in separate groups watching the church – where nothing appears to be happening! A few minutes before 5 PM we hear drums from behind the wall, the women ululate in response and the boys’ running becomes more animated.

This continues in the same manner for a half hour or so. Festivals in Ethiopia unfold slowly, the promise of an event fighting with the boredom of nothing happening for long periods of time.  An umbrella, red, decorated with gold spangles and fringe, is sighted above the wall. The ululation increases in volume and all cameras swing in that direction. Then finally, just as the sun begins to set and the light becomes lovely, the courtyard door swings open and a procession begins.


And it’s worth the wait.  Forty young people – teens to twenties, robed in white scarves and simple vestments – parade toward us, led by two drummers who strut and gesture like drum majors. The youths sing and clap and the crowd joins in, the beat increasing a bit with each repetition.  Behind them are the priests, a snaking line of thirteen robed in mix of red, green and yellow vestments, each with umbrellas, each umbrella more magnificent than the last. And that last is truly the best. It is large and square, and it is held over what must be at least a bishop – a man with a handsome black face, a balding head, and the white beard of a prophet. He carries a large box covered with a gold cloth. We realize that this is the church’s replica of the Ark of the Covenant, the focal point of the ceremony, that will be transferred to a tent on a river a few hundred yards away, that will be guarded by the people of the village who will celebrate all night around it. Jim and Maynard run to get photos of the priests, who seem unperturbed by the attention, but who mostly just drop their umbrellas to forestall close-ups.

Not a problem, since the two groups continue to stand in that position for another 30 minutes giving our photographers plenty of time to find willing subjects and get their shots. The wait is for a similar line from another church which comes over the hill and joins our group. Then the march to the river begins, the crowd joins the official celebrants, and we walk a few hundred yards to the waiting tent.

Timkat has been celebrated in the same way at every church in Ethiopia for at least 700 years, commemorating the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. There is always a body of water, referred to as the River Jordan during the mass held on its banks, although the water may be only a small pool constructed for the occasion. At the end of a day of celebration, the replica of the Ark is returned to its church.

Timkat is a combination of a religious aspect for a devout group of people and a chance to gather, sing and dance, and take a day off from working. Just like Christmas, just like Easter, in the West.

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Laliabel_Panorama1I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but I swear by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is the truth, and there is much more than what I have written.”  Francisco Alvarez (early sixteenth century Portuguese writer.)

In the twelfth century King Lalibela of Roha was poisoned by his brother-in-law. He was taken to heaven by God where he saw a grouping of rock-hewn churches which God commanded him to recreate as a new Jerusalem in Roha. When he recovered, Lalibela did just that, excavating directly from the rock a cluster of monolithic structures.

The churches of Lalibela are set in the stunning high desert of northern Ethiopia. We visited the main eight of them in one day, climbing up to the site, then down to each church where we took off our shoes and walked around interiors that were almost one thousand years old yet still in active use, populated by Orthodox priests and pilgrims. They were all built in the three-part Orthodox arrangement. The first area is for the drummer. Drumming is central to the service: the two sides of the drum represent the old and new testament.

Jim taking pixThe drummer sways as he plays to imitate the walking of Christ carrying the cross, and inside the drum a pebble rolls back and forth as he sways, representing the casting of lots by the soldiers at the Passion. The central portion of the church is for the worshipers, and the third is the sanctuary. The frescoes, windows and paintings of each church were different, each the story of the saint for which it was named.

It was a difficult day. We were all still in the grip of jet lag, out of breath from the altitude climbing, and in pain from sore feet, Maynard, Jim and Ginny struggled to find enough light to take photos of the beautiful priests and enough distance to capture the church exteriors, often adopting creative positioning. Maynard’s patience with churches is limited at best, and he began to pine for some baskets he had seen on the drive into town. We had a challenge to keep him to the program, but he found his reward the next day as we left town to fly to Axum. He saw his basket shop and bought a beautiful multi-colored treasure for Ginny to carry for the next twenty days.

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Addis Ababa, though only nine degrees north of the equator, is cool and sunny and meant to be our ‘resting place’ before we hit the mountain monasteries of the north and the bull-jumping and lip-plated Mursis of the south. We have only one day here, and our guide, the very young and very adorable Jermias, has set up an easy day of museums and churches. Instead we opt for the market.

The market of any city is the place to see the most activity, and the biggest mix of people.  Addis’s Mercato is huge – and a notorious home for pickpockets. Jermias arranges for two armed men in uniform (I don’t think they are quite police) to go with us as we prowl. It’s chaotic and confusing, street after street of little tin structures. One whole street is dedicated to shoes, one to women’s underwear and a whole block to spices.  By far the most interesting area is one corner consisting of several blocks that sells recycled goods.recycle

Now, we do recycle in the US. That means separating paper, plastic and metal from the rest of our trash and putting it in a blue box every week. What happens to it? Who knows? A truck takes it and we feel a bit smug that we have not just thrown something away.

In Addis, they are serious. The captains of the local recycling industry collect everything from everywhere, dismantle into components, and make something different that is sold into another generation of usefulness. The breadth of items is daunting: best to list a few.

  • Coffee Roasters. Some of the best coffee in the world is grown here and Ethiopians drink it strong. The beans are sold raw then roasted over charcoal just before brewing, often in elaborate coffee ceremonies. The double-funnel shaped roasters are sold in many sizes. Large roasters are made from used satellite dishes, and smaller ones to be used in homes from old cans. The labels are often just left on; I saw one marked “Strong Adhesive,” and one still labeled “Roach Killer!”
  • Sandals. From old tires, of course! This was the work of a whole street. The tires come in by ‘hand,’ either rolled two at a time, or carried in a variety of arrangements. For example, I saw one man with a tire over each shoulder and two stacked around his neck. It wasn’t at all clear if or how he saw where he was walking.  The treads are stripped off, the sandal cut into shape, and then sliced around the edge to insert the straps which are colorful nylon ribbons from some other source. Then the edges are nailed together.
  • Laptop Computers. From old laptops. The components are ‘harvested’ and then reassembled into working computers.
  • Saddles from animal skins, used wood and used sponges
  • Drums from oilcans, book covers from animal skins, dipsticks from old cans of perfume, freeweights made from old gears mounted on a rod, funnels that still say ‘insecticide,’ and so on. Everything is collected, often purchased from villages for a few birr (nickels) and then repurposed.

In the midst of the afternoon was a call to Islam prayer. Ethiopia is 45% Muslim and 51% Christian. Although people of both religions appear quite devout, there seems little animosity compared to other countries we have visited. Jermias just walked us through the men at prayer, and a couple of them even moved the edges of their mats aside to make it easier for us to pass. That would never have happened in Iran!!

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Ready for Ethiopia


I think. Travel clothes limp from years of use, buckets of DEET for the fleas and mosquitoes of Africa, power bars for a break from Injera, all lie in piles around our duffels. Jim’s cameras, lenses, and tripods weigh too much – is it possible he will make me leave my shampoo to get in an extra lens? I have only my notebook and pen as we go in search of the Ark of the Covenant, the palace of the Queen of Sheba, the Rift Valley, and Missing Hospital, home of Marion and Shiva Stone.

I will update the blog every few days. Hope you enjoy reading it!

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