By HOLLAND COTTER
ON the roads through Ethiopia’s highlands traffic raises a brick-red haze that coats your clothes, powders your skin and starts a creaking in your lungs. Despite the dust people wear white. Farmers wrap themselves in bleached cotton. Village funerals look like fields of snow. At churches and shrines white is the pilgrim’s color.
I wear it too, protectively: long-sleeved white shirt, tennis cap, Neutrogena sun block. A pilgrim? Why not?
I’m here for something I’ve longed to see, Ethiopia’s holy cities: Aksum, the spiritual home of this east African country’s Orthodox Christian faith and, especially, the mountain town of Lalibela, with its cluster of 13th-century churches some 200 miles to the south.
Lalibela was conceived as a paradise on earth. And its 11 churches, cut from living volcanic rock, are literally anchored in the earth. In scale, number, and variety of form there’s no architecture or sculpture quite like them anywhere. They’re on the global tourist route now, though barely. To Ethiopian devotees they’ve been spiritual lodestars for eight centuries, and continue to be.
Heaven seekers and art seekers are, in some ways, kindred souls, impelled to spend precious time and travel mad distances in search of places and things that will, somehow, fill them up, complete them. For the religious, pilgrimage is a dress rehearsal for salvation. For the art seeker, it can transform a wish list of experiences into a catalog of permanent, extended, relivable memories. But why do art seekers go to the particular places and things they do? This is a personal matter; complicated, with roots in the past.
As an American teenager in the early 1960s I sensed Africa all around me, secondhand. African independence was on the evening news; names like Lumumba, Nkrumah and Senghor chanted by jubilant crowds. “Civil rights” was turning into “black power,” with preachers in suits replaced by Huey Newton holding a spear in one hand, a shotgun in the other.
In college I took an anthropology course called “Primitive Art.” It met in an ethnological museum that had a collection of masks from West and Central Africa. I loved them instantly, these things made for dancing, healing, telling stories, changing identities. They looked old but felt new. I wanted to go to where they came from.
But not ready yet, I went that first college summer to Europe, where I dashed through countless museums in 15 countries before ending up in Istanbul. Again, love, immediate. One look at Byzantine art — the lifting-off dome of Hagia Sophia, the Buddha-calm saints of the Chora mosaics — confirmed what I had begun to suspect: my compass was not set westward.
At that point I didn’t yet know that Byzantium and sub-Saharan Africa had once fruitfully intersected. I later learned, and that intersection is what I’ve come to Ethiopia to see.
The history of Ethiopian culture is deep, going back — if the national epic, the “Kebra Negast” or “Glory of Kings,” can be believed — to at least the 10th century B.C., when an Ethiopian ruler, the biblical Queen of Sheba, traveled to Jerusalem in search of the wisdom of Solomon. The two monarchs met, bonded and had a son, Menelik, who would become Ethiopia’s first emperor.
Solomon, the story goes, wanted to name Menelik as his heir. But the young prince, with Africa on his mind, left Jerusalem behind. He did not, however, leave empty-handed. Secretly he took with him the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets given by God to Moses, and brought it to Ethiopia, in effect, establishing a new Israel there.
History, if that’s what this is, then fades out for stretch, until around 300 B.C., when a new empire coalesces in northern Ethiopia, with the city of Aksum as its capital and a still-existing group of immense stone stelae, carved with architectural features, as its grand monument. Another fade-out. By the fourth century A.D. Ethiopia has become officially Christian, and the Ark is in Aksum, enshrined in a cathedral named St. Mary of Zion, where it remains.
Its presence makes Aksum the country’s holiest city, and St. Mary of Zion its holiest shrine, though materially both have seen better days. The town is a sketchy, low-rise place perched on a still barely tapped archaeological site. The original cathedral was leveled by a Muslim army in the 16th century. Its modern replacement is a circular domed structure built by Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, in the early 1960s.
It’s a curious thing. Its wide, unbroken interior has the blank, functional ambience of a skating rink. And it doesn’t feel quite finished, as final touches of some kind were still needed. On a day I visited the church was closed to the public.
Benches were roughly lined up. Free-standing paintings of the Virgin and saints, in a melty neo-Romantic style, leaned against walls.
Two men on a scaffold were working on, or perhaps touching up, a mural.
A priest, in white, stood at a lectern and read aloud from an illuminated book as a European video crew fussed with sound checks, then asked him, please, to start again. To an outsider the general impression was confusing, disconcerting. Can this newish, nondescript, somewhat disheveled, in-progress space really be the physical and psychic center of one the world’s oldest versions of Christianity?
The priest at the lectern burst into song, a long, gorgeous melismatic chant that bloomed in the dome. Everyone stopped to listen, enraptured. There was the answer. Yes, it can.
The evidence was even stronger outside. I was in Aksum just before an important holy day dedicated to Mary, the object of acute devotional focus in Ethiopian Orthodoxy. Pilgrims from far and near were already gathering, camping out in the park around the cathedral, prostrating themselves on its steps. A day later the city would be a sea of white, and St. Mary of Zion would be open, full and finished. People were the completing ingredient.
By the 10th century A.D. the long-lived Aksumite empire, once a rival to Persia and Rome, was out of steam, and the city itself a backwater. New rulers, known now as the Zagwe dynasty, appeared. They retained the distinctively Judaic form of Ethiopian Christianity, with its Saturday Sabbath and practice of circumcision, and further promoted the concept of an African Zion by giving it physical manifestation in a new capital city to the south of Aksum.
The force behind the new city was the 13th-century Zagwe emperor Lalibela, for whom the new capital eventually came to be named. He is credited — and here we are again in a tangle of fact, fantasy and informed surmise — with planning and creating the extraordinary group of 11 churches there, all chiseled directly from sandstone cliffs and gorges, that exist at Lalibela today.
According to legend the emperor himself, spelled by angels on night shifts, did the work, wrapping the whole job up in 20-some years. Whether or not the results can justifiably be called, as they often are, the eighth wonder of the world, they are certainly wondrous. And sharing, as they do, in a tradition of sculptured architecture that extends from Turkey to China, they are indeed world-spanning.
They are also, however, a phenomenon apart. Although no confirming scholarly study of Lalibela has yet appeared, there is reason to think that the complex, which is divided into two groups of churches, was envisioned as a mystical model of the holy city of Jerusalem in both its earthly and heavenly forms, with each church filling a very specific symbolic role within that topography.
One church, dedicated to St. George, Ethiopia’s patron saint, stands apart from the others. Probably the latest of them, it is meticulously executed and gives a clear sense of the labor-intense strangeness of the whole endeavor.
Basically a monolithic, walk-in Greek cross, it’s free-standing but set in a deep, square pit, so that your first view is, angelically, from above looking down on a relief of three nested crosses cut into the church’s flat roof. To reach the entrance, you descend into the canyonlike excavation, into the earth. The church interior, dimly lighted by high windows, has an organic, hand-molded texture. It’s as if it were shaped from loam and you were a seed being planted.
Here too the impression of the interiors coming to life is especially strong when they’re crowded with people.
On St. Gabriel’s day the Lalibela church dedicated to the archangel who announced the birth of Jesus to Mary is open before dawn. The sound of chanting, amplified by loudspeakers, pours out. Following a stream of pilgrims, I go in.
The interior is tight. Lay worshippers are permitted only in one section of it; a second area, closed off by a curtain, is reserved for clergy members. A third, inner compartment holds, as all churches do, a version of the Ark of the Covenant, and is off limits to almost everyone.
The service, continuous for hours, is diffuse but enfolding. Priests and deacons are in a huddle in an alcove, beating drums, rattling sistrums, doing a small-step, hopping dance, and breaking, now and then, into Arabic-sounding ululation.
They face one another rather than the church or worshippers. It’s as if, like certain rock bands, they’re jamming.
Nearby a single priest massages worshippers with a hand-held brass cross; one bent-over man gets a full-body rubdown, one palsied woman a prolonged pacifying touch. Another priest charges out from behind the sanctuary holding flaming tapers straight out in front of him like wands or prods. A third swings a silver censer in hazardous arcs in front of a painting: a modern icon in an old style, of St. Gabriel with European features, Ethiopian skin, and pooling Byzantine eyes.
The ceremonial choreography is all-over, ecstatic, sensually overpowering. It’s the opposite of the face-the-altar focus of most western Christian services, closer to the dynamic of masquerade dances in other parts of Africa, performances that effortlessly combine spiritual efficacy and spectacular entertainment.
To be in the middle of this is discomfiting — What’s my role? What do I do? — then a release. Just stand there.
Time dissolves. There’s no reason to leave. Isn’t this what you came here for? Then, some commotion, a fresh wave of pilgrims pushes in, nudging the priests further into their alcove.
But these pilgrims are wearing slacks, and sport shirts and sunhats. They’re middle-aged Europeans on tour. They were at the hotel last night having dinner at a long table and watching the news in the lobby. There must be close to 20 of them shouldering into what’s little more than a scooped-out monk’s cell. They blink, bunch up, hesitate, not sure what’s going on, where to look first. When in doubt, take a picture. Flash, flash.
They’re part of the Ethiopian present, which is part of the African present, which, along with pilgrims, priests and video teams, is now, at last, part of my present, just as it has always been, twice-removed; part of my past. It’s reality, and it doesn’t stay still, any more than the pilgrim’s desire stays still. I inch through the throng, out the narrow door and head back down the red-dust road. The sound of chanting, ancient, amplified, follows me to a waiting car.