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Series: Dr Pankhurst
A Tale of Four Churches
Last week the first of four old churches off the China Road in Northern Ethiopia were reviewed at Zuramba and Mujja. Today we continue with the tour of the churches.
My personal favourite of the four churches is Bethlehem – although it is also hard to get to. The turn off from the China road is at the edge of Newfas Mewcha closest to Debra Tabor. From there you proceed to the outskirts of Arb Gebeya (Friday Market), about 23 kilometers south, on a much worse road for a further 27 kilometers. After struggling through some atrocious spots on the road (which is being improved – largely through help from the Germans), I really wondered why I was stupid enough to try to make it.
Fortunately, it turned out I wasn’t that stupid. Bethlehem was more than worth the pain and trouble.
The first thing we encountered was the school for priests at Bethlehem. This is an active center of advanced teaching for Orthodox Ethiopian priests, not just an old church. The students numbered about 40. We were very politely and surprisingly invited in by the Like Mihuran (roughly – head of the intellectual priests) to sit and witness the lesson. Bethlehem specializes in advanced studies on St. Yared, who wrote the sing song praises and music which so characterizes the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. We watched while the whole group chanted out a section of the Yared praises, then as the teacher called out names for solo chanting and offered corrections along the way. It was fascinating, but too much like a really old fashioned school room for comfort. We left after a few moments.
I didn’t think we’d see the inside of the church. As is so often the case in Ethiopia, the guy with the key was off somewhere and everyone seemed extremely doubtful that he could be located. We sat in the shade and asked the Like Mihuran questions, then surprisingly the fellow with the key showed up and we went inside. It was great.
The story told at Bethlehem is that the church dates from the time of Abraha and Atsaba, the brothers who ruled the ancient empire of Axum from about 316-340 AD. They had a vision about this church and built it, along with 6 others that date from that period (only a couple of which survive). It was named Bethlehem because like the Wise Men in the bible, Abraha and Atsaba followed a vision and at the end of it they found Bethlehem.
A charming tale, but the historian Thomas Pakenham, probably the first Westerner to visit the church in 1952, had a slightly different take on it. He felt the church was an interesting combination of Axum and Constantinople styles, likely dating from the 9th – 11th century. That still makes it around 1000 years old. That’s good enough for me.
The church is surrounded by a round wall which supports a huge thatched roof. The original church is a rectangle. It has fabulous thick wooden doorways and window frames – juniper according to Pakenham. Old paintings on deteriorating cloth still survive, with plenty of scenes of the life of Jesus. Interestingly, the guys who are supposed to be the Roman soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross are dressed more like Turks. They were no doubt the bad guys at the time of the painting.
Inside there are fantastic carvings in the wooden beams holding up the roof, two basilica domes with ornate designs, plenty of old bibles in Ge’ez, and some more old paintings on cloth. I was fascinated by the depiction of Jesus on one very old painting – he had braided hair and brown skin – ‘keye’ or red in the Ethiopian lexicon, instead of the more common fair skinned depiction. This makes sense to me. Ethiopian Christians were almost totally isolated from Western Christians for about 800 years by the Moslem take over of the Middle East. No doubt during this period Christians came to be seen as Ethiopians, rather than the fairer skinned Moslems to the North, so naturally Jesus would look like other Christian Ethiopians. This tradition seems to have been overwhelmed by the contact with white skinned Western Christians. Pity.
Just outside the church was a long pillar lying down. Presumably it was standing up at one point. This was pointed to as one of the justifications for dating the church from Axum times – it was an Axum pillar. It was about 7 meters long and 12 centimeters wide, with five sides to it. It is apparently similar to some Axum pillars, and three pillars at Mertule Maryam church in Gojjam, reputedly another of the 7 original churches of Abraha and Atsaba. As always it seems the local stories are disputable, I think that Dr. Pankhurst dates Mertule Maryam to the middle ages – the time of the Empress Eleni. I was interested in these pillars because I had run across about 100 similar pillars, although quite a bit shorter, in a remote spot in South Wollo, which I think is a significant archaeological find.
The Like Mihuran, chief priest, Mulu Gelaw, had been very kind in showing and explaining everything to us. There had been an awkward moment when he asked for one hundred birr to go inside the church, and I realized I only had 120 birr on me to last for another day. After a timely and effective intervention by Mekuria, I was told I could give what I wanted, which was in fact 20 birr.
We had quite a chat about Thomas Pakenham, who had visited the church three times according to Abba Mulu. Pakenham is a personal hero of mine – I’ve studied African history and his ‘Scramble for Africa’ and ‘The Boer War’ are both classics. Abba Mulu had a copy of the 1959 book which Pakenham published on his tours of Ethiopia. I told the Abba that I had a copy of the 1998 version of the book, which included Pakenhams’ 1997 trip to Ethiopia where he travelled by helicopter to various places he had visited by mule in the 1950’s. He was eager to see it.
The 1998 book is in a big coffee table format with lots of photos. The Abba looked at the Bethlehem section, which had various photos from the 1950’s which did not appear in his 1959 book. He called over an old man, who recognized the Mamre, or head priest, from the time. They called out and cried over the photos. I had no choice. I gave them the book. They deserved it more than me. I hope Pakenham gives me another to compensate!
The last of the four churches is Wukro Medhane Alem – a rock hewn church which is also spectacular. It is about 20 kilometers from Debre Tabor towards Weldiya to the turnoff at Kimer Dingay (pile of rocks). There is a sign. This is unusual. It should be rewarded by a visit by you.
From the sign you proceed for 300 meters, from where you have to turn left (unmarked) across a fairly daunting ditch onto a sparkling white road. Unfortunately the nice road disappears into rough rock after a few hundred meters, although there was a major effort to get the road into good shape (funded by the Germans) so it will likely improve. After 4 kilometers the road became impassable, and we walked the remaining 4 kilometers to the church.
We had thought that the church was 5 kilometers off the main road, accessible by car, so we thought nothing of heading off to it at 4:30 in the afternoon. By the time we had negotiated the rough track and walked for 45 minutes into the church, it was late. We had a quick visit of 15 minutes to the church, then headed back. We were lucky to arrive safely back in Debre Tabor at 7:30, only about 15 minutes after dusk.
The church appears in the distance as a cluster of buildings, several with corrugated metal roofs. When you get closer you can see there is a wonderful stone fence which surrounds a large compound. There is a gate, which was naturally shut, but a bit of shouting drew a guard running out, mysteriously pulling on his clothes. I’m not sure what he was up to when we called. Inside I was disappointed, there were a couple of relatively recent stone buildings standing up. Is this the rock hewn church?
Fortunately I was wrong. Inside, we saw what looked like a low wall around a cemetery. I started to walk out to it, but was stopped by a priest who got me to take off my shoes to go on the holy ground. The fence turned out to be the rim around the roof of the rock hewn church. There was no cemetery, only a raised cross in the middle. The cut down to form the church was so narrow it wasn’t noticeable from a few feet away.
The church was cut from soft limestone. It was perfectly preserved, despite the fact that they claimed it was pre-Lalibela churches. In typical fashion (this is the story of all the non-Lalibela churches outside of Tigray) the church was built by Lalibela before he built the Lalibela churches. It was certainly a meticulous cut, much better than the crude Adadi Maryam about 50 kilometers south of Addis.
It was late, almost 6 PM by the time we arrived, so the church had been shut and prayed over for the night and couldn’t be reopened. We were allowed to go down the entrance stairs into an ante-chamber at the main entrance, but no further. Lining the stairway were a series of carved out ledges, which I correctly identified as graves, although there were no human bones visible. Inside we were tantalizingly told that there was a fantastic collection of crosses, bibles and other relics. Thanks a lot.
The church had survived unscathed through various invaders, including Mohammed Gran, the Moslem leader of the 16th century. The Italians had apparently occupied and burned a number of houses nearby in the 30’s, but wreaked no damage on the church. A piece of an airplane wing adorned one of the ditches in the compound, which was attributed to a Derg plane brought down by the EPRDF in fighting in the area (@ 1989). The beauty of rock hewn churches is that they survive all these depredations.
The walks to these churches were great, the drive was a bit tedious, but the end result more than compensated. Go see them all!