Art and iconography — both ancient and modern — from Ethiopian Orthodoxy (also known as Tawahedo or "being made one" in the Ge'ez language that remains the official language of the Orthodox liturgy here) were ever-present — in shops, restaurants, and hotel lobbies as well as in the myriad churches and monasteries, and the sounds of ancient Christian prayers and the chants of monks filled the air from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the kebeles (or neighborhoods) on the outskirts of Bahir Dar, another major city about 60 km from the Sudanese border.
The religious population of Ethiopia today is about 63 percent Christian (the vast majority of those adherents members of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition) and 34 percent Muslim. There is also a tiny, but historic, Jewish population, the Beta Israel, who live in northwestern Ethiopia. In the 1990s, however, most Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel through diaspora relocation programs run by the Israeli government known as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.
Each morning in Addis and Bahir Dar, I'd awoke to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, or azan, emanating from the minaret of a nearby masjid and, often, soon after (and sometimes at the same time) the ancient prayers from an Orthodox church or monastery, mixed with the cock-a-doodle-doo of the occasional rooster and the omnipresent barking of dogs. You can hear a snippet of that intoxicating, otherwordly chorus of sound, recorded from the balcony of my hotel room in Addis, here below.
While visiting Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region or kilil, which boasts a population that is more than 87 percent Ethiopian Orthodox, my traveling companions from ONE Moms and ONE Mums (our British sisters) — 14 of us in all — boarded two small pontoon boats docked on Lake Tana for what was described as a "three hour a tour" ("a three hour tour..." a la Gilligan's Island) of one of the 20 medieval monasteries built on some 37 small islands in and around the lake.
After a 40-minute journey (where the weather did not start getting rough and our tiny ships were not rocked) we alighted at a rocky inlet, surrounded by a canopy of bowing mulberry trees, on a small island, Entos Eyesu, home to a monastery that is, as I understand it, reserved only for women. The adjacent island, Kebran Gabriel, houses a much larger monastery, church, and compound, but alas ... no girls allowed.
Several academic sources date the Entos Eyesu monastery and church to the 17th century, with some attributing its construction to the Portuguese under the auspices of Emperor Fasilades, and more recently renovated (perhaps by an Egyptian monk), which explained why some of the elaborate paintings and frescoes that decorated the interior of the monastery looked so freshly painted.
Entos Eyesu is beautiful, but perhaps not quite as historically "important" as some of the other island monasteries, each established somewhere between the 13th and 17th centuries as a kind of hermitage for Christian contemplative monks, but later used as refuges to protect important artifacts of Christendom — including the a number of ancient sacred texts, the mummified remains of several Ethiopian emperors and, reportedly, the Ark of the Covenant (which, according to the Bible, contains the stone tablets upon which are written the Ten Commandments), which Ethiopians now believe to be housed inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.
Whether Entos Eyesu was less "important" in an historic sense didn't seem to matter to our motley band of would-be pilgrims, among us a couple of nonreligious Jews, several renegade Evangelical Christians, a lapsed Catholic or two, a Latter-day Saint, and a handful of what sociologists of religion might call "nones" these days.
Setting foot on the island, a reverent hush descended on our normally chatty lot as we walked along rocky paths through the lush jungle of mango and banana trees, up a steep set of stone steps to the monastery/church itself.
A round domicile with a pitched, metal roof topped by a stylized Coptic cross, we stopped outside its stone and cement walls to take off our shoes and cover our heads with scarves. Once inside, though dimly lit, the round room — built around a small "holy of holies" room that houses a tabot, or replica of the Ark of the Covenant secreted behind banana-yellow locked doors — the paintings covering the walls, depicting biblical and historical scenes from Ethiopian Orthodox history and lore, exploded in a riot of colors.
Jesus is featured, as he would be, in many of the paintings. He's depicted as mixed-race, appearing much like a modern-day Ethiopian. There were scenes from Hebrew Scripture, such as Abraham being interrupted by an angel (and a ram caught in a thicket) as he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac; the massacre of the infants by the order of Herod (who'd hoped to kill the newborn King of the Jews in the process, but was thwarted when Mary and Joseph took their infant son to Egypt); Jesus ordering a servant boy to pour water into jugs (which the Lord then turned into a very good vintage wine) in his first miracle; the healing of a leper; Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey for what we call Palm Sunday; the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the last judgment.
Ever present — alongside Jesus, Noah, and other biblical figures — is St. George (patron of Ethiopia, always shown decked out in royal regalia atop his white steed, slaying a dragon) and the Archangel Michael.
Everyone in the group solemnly snapped pictures of the artwork and various religious artifacts, before putting our shoes back on and heading down the hill to our boats. On the way down, a few of us stopped in a small museum (about the size of an average American walk-in closet) where a monk showed us a few manuscripts — some of them brilliantly illuminated with hand paintings — that he claimed were from the 7th century. I lingered in the small space as three young Ethiopian women from the hotel where our group was staying in Bahir Dar who had accompanied us on our lake adventure, stood rapt, hanging on the young monk's every word (all of which were spoken in Amharic.) Maya, one of our ONE Moms who is a native of Ethiopia, translated bits and pieces for me.
But I didn't really need to know what the monk was saying. I was struck far more by the posture and reverence the young women, including Maya, had for the obviously sacred space in which we were standing.
We finally returned to the boats, where the rest of our group was waiting patiently, and on our journey back to Bahir Dar, I began thinking about pilgrimage and how, perhaps, what you believe (or don’t) actually doesn’t matter. It’s the journey itself that makes it sacred.
Tewahedo, the name of the the Ethiopian Orthodox church, means "being made one." How appropriate for our group — ONE Moms and Mums from the ONE Campaign, an organization co-founded by Bono of U2 who wrote a song years ago, also called "One," with the lyric:
We're one, but we're not the same, we get to carry each other.
That's what our trip to Ethiopia was all about. That's what the ONE Campaign and ONE Moms are all about. We — all of us humans — are in most ways the same, and it is our responsibility (and our blessed vocation) to carry, care for, and mind each other. We may look, sound, think, eat, walk, talk, dress, worship, and believe differently, but we are, essentially, the same.
My story is your story. Your story is my story. Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of reminding us, there is another word for this idea: Ubuntu. It's an African word (that I have tattooed on my back), which means, "I am because you are."
We are one.
Cathleen is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
All photos by Cathleen Falsani for Sojourners. Music in the slideshow video is the "Our Father" sung in Ge'ez.
Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.