Ethiopia’s New Jerusalem
Since Ethiopians became Christianized in 324 CE, the spirit of Jesus continues alive and well in the twelve Holy Churches found in the town of Lalibela.
By Chester Higgins Jr.
In 1973, on my first visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I photographed the Emperor His Majesty Haile Selassie. Pulled back to the country by the legend of Lalibela and the piety of its people, I returned there the next year to broaden my knowledge by photographing the countryside and its people. I have been back a dozen times since, most recently in December 2007; my next trip to this special, sacred country is slated for December 2008.
A Millenium after the birth of Jesus Christ, Arab armies from Sudan descended into Ethiopia, destroyed their churches and forced the conquered to convert to Islam. Cut off from their northern pilgrimage route to Jerusalem through what was now Arab territory, the Ethiopian Christians were determined to construct a "New Jerusalem". They renamed a nearby river, Jordan, and built twelve churches in a village they called Lalibela. Those monuments stand today as a testament to their faith and resolve.
To protect the churches from invading Arab armies, the people built the churches underground, carving them from the bedrock so that they could not be seen from afar. It is said that construction of the "New Jerusalem’ churches took 100 years to complete. Completed in the thirteenth century, the structures are more than holy buildings. They are sacred sculptures.
Each day, a procession of priests in colorful vestments enter church carrying large ceremonial silver and gold crosses, singing liturgical chants in the sacred language of Ge’ez, to the beating of drums and the clanking of silver sistrums. A fog of incense fills the sanctuary. The faithful, separated by sex, sit and stand on the stone floor for the two-hour service, chanting and witnessing as the priests prepare the holy offering on their behalf. When the pilgrims emerge from the sunrise mass held inside one of the 12 churches, they pour into 30-foot courtyards and face sheer walls 40 feet high on all sides. Above them, there is no ceiling, only brilliant, open sky. The feeling is that of being lifted to heaven.
Lalibela, in the highlands of Ethiopia, is the most sacred pilgrimage site in the country. During Timqat (Epiphany), Fasilka (Easter) and Genna (Christmas), the town becomes host to some 200,000 pilgrims who arrive to worship in the churches.
Traveling the road of a distant mountain just hours away from Lalibela, I can look beyond the valleys and see the isolated upper reaches of the Lasta Mountain range, home to the extraordinary subterranean structures. Everywhere the land is covered with crops. The people here are farmers. Blessed with two rainy seasons, a variety of produce. I have found that they are generally very friendly and open to conversation.
Ethiopians are a highly religious people; Ritual permeates their daily life well beyond the confines of church walls. When people meet, they kiss the cheeks side to side three times, representing the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Following ancient custom, the Ethiopian calendar year commences September 11 and has 13 months, 12 of which have 30 days. The thirteenth and holiest month, Pagume, has only five days, one each for the worship of the Holy Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Just Ones, Saint Raphael and John the Baptist. Within each week there are two fasting days — Wednesday and Friday ± to purify the body.
The Old Testament mentions Ethiopia 20 times, the last reference being Acts 8:27: "And he rose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship."
According to church lore, Kandake (Candace), or the queen of Ethiopia bore a child by King Solomon during her royal visit to his court at Jerusalem in 1000 B.C.E. When her son came of age, he traveled from Aksum to visit his father in Jerasulem. Church legend has it that he returned to his mother with the Holy Ark of the Covenant, the same one that was built at the command of God and in compliance with a vision of the prophet Moses on Mount Sinai, and which had rested in the Temple of Jerusalem. Since then, the home of the Ark remains in the Treasury of the holy precinct of the most ancient Tsion (Zion) Church in the former royal city of Aksum. The Patriarch (Pope) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church visits the holy shrine annually for spiritual renewal. Travel by car between Lalibela and Aksum is a two-day journey.
Because of this Old Testament history, Ethiopians believe they hold a special place in the bosom of God. They live and worship in their rock-hewn sanctuaries on the high mountains of Africa, below the sparkling floor of heaven.
Chester Higgins Jr., is a staff photographer for The New York Times. For the past three decades he has documented sites of ancient sacred history along the Nile River. His new website is chesterhiggins.com.