Churches and Monasteries

Story: Norman Sung
Photography: Norman Sung
Thursday, November 8, 2018

While these are not strictly museums, they hold some of the most beautiful art and treasured objects in the country. It is here that you really see many of the iconic and uniquely Ethiopian style of paintings – on the walls, on the ceilings, or in the goatskin illustrated Bibles. These are located mostly in Highlands of the North, on the historical circuit as the travel literature would describe it.

Lake Tana, the headwaters of the Blue Nile with city of Bahir Dar hosts some very interesting ones that you can get to by boat. There are many of them, but the group most easily visited are in the Zege Peninsula. Most are built around 12 – 14th Century AD, and they have typical African-style rounded rounded roofs (thatched or tin) while building underneath is square oriented to the cardinal directions. Reaching them is half the fun: a pleasant cruise on Lake Tana in a motorized boat, then walking through a narrow hiking trail-like path through a thick forest until suddenly, we see a manicured garden where coffee and lemons are grown, and the church in the middle. Not too many objects inside (or at least I wasn't shown them), but the painted walls and ceilings depicting the saints, Jesus, Mary, Biblical scenes in vivid colours throughout are spectacular.

Next, I went to a monastery located on the hilltop, and while the church part itself was not very interesting, they have another building behind the stone wall that functions as a museum, with many crosses, Bibles and religious objects behind glass cases. The priest was proud to show off and explain these objects, and he even got some of the Ethiopian pilgrims who were also visiting and told the ones who could speak some English to translate what he was saying. I managed to catch a few of his words in Amharic, and was able to sound out some of the Ge'ez letters, and he pointed to me with a big grin on his face, “Amarenya” (meaning you understand a bit of Amharic).

There are dozens of these churches and monasteries all around the shores and islands of Lake Tana, the largest in Ethiopia about 90 km long and 70 km wide..

In Gondar, Debre Berhan Selassie is a must-see. About 2 km north east of the Royal Enclosure (where the fabulous 15th Century castle of Fasiladas and those his descendants are located), it is on a slight hill in a well-manicured compound with beautiful old trees that was serene and in some ways similar to some of the Japanese temples I have visited. Here is the iconic Ethiopian painting – besides many of the Biblical scenes depicted on the wall, the ceiling has more than a hundred faces, representing angels, staring down at you – on the beams and on the roof behind the beams. A stunning effect. And the church itself is architecturally interesting. No objects were shown to me, other than a bunch of prayer sticks on the floor – since Ethiopian masses tend to be very long, and one must stand (except for very old people), they provide the sticks so you can lean on during mass.

The Tigray Rock-Hewn Churches are perhaps some of the most beautiful and dramatic yet the most physically challenging ones to get to. There are over a hundred of them, though they are clustered around four or five areas (Gheralta, Tekastifai...). They have all been dug out from the mountain, and each of the ones I saw displayed a very different style – of space (domed vault, cathedral-style with pillars, or cave-like), or paintings (different colours and styles). There usually is a drum set which are used for special important occasions, and there are often Bibles and other objects that some of the priests will show you. Abune Yemata Guh is my favourite – the paintings on the walls and ceilings are very fine, and the priest was proud to show off the illustrated Bible. But that is also the one that is the most challenging to get to – one must not be afraid of heights (since you have to cross a narrow ledge about 50 metres long holding onto the hand holds with no other safety barrier and a 200m drop straight down), and there is a 7 meter straight rock climb using dug out hand and foot holds that must be followed in the exact sequence. Debre Damo, while not strictly a rock-hewn church since it is a monastery community built on a flat top mountain, is also quite dramatic and has quite a few treasures in it, and you have to climb up a 15m sheer cliff with ropes.

The Lalibela rock churches are dug out from the ground on top, so the church buildings are free-standing rocks in the middle. Access is through a series of trenches, and the main clusters (northwest, southeast) have interconnecting trenches and tunnels between the churches. They exhibit different styles. For me, the most beautifully carved and painted one inside by far is Bet Maryam, but the facades, constructions are varied and interesting – Bet Medhane Alem looks more like a Greek temple, Bet Gabriel-Rufael has a deep moat-like structure in front of it, and Abba Liqanos is carved so that it is a free standing structure inside a bigger cave-like structure. The poster child of the Lalibela rock churches, Bet Giorgis, with the main church cut in the shape of a cross and a cross etched on top of the roof, is separate from the clusters. As I was approaching it early Sunday morning before 9, many people were already there and were leaving – I surmise that there was a mass held there, and it just finished. These are not just museums – these function as real working churches and pilgrimage sites.

There is a museum at the ticket office entrance where there are all sorts of religious objects on display – no photo, and very little in the way of explanations, but some interesting stuff (like a book that seems to be a combined Koran and Bible with both Arabic an Ge'ez writings).

Ethiopian Museums – Overall Summary

Many places that offer a lot less riches and treasures than Ethiopia often have fancier museum buildings with better displays, lighting and explanations. While better displays / lighting would be welcome (especially for photography), my request is for better signage and explanatory panels that would help me appreciate the experience even more. Still, the treasures are stunning and there is already so much of them that the drawbacks of the facilities can be overlooked.

I also think that a museum should not be thought of as just an isolated building housing a bunch of objects statically displayed and frozen in time. I think this is particularly true in Ethiopia where the past pervades into the present, where we can genuinely meet and interact with the real people represented in the ethnographic photos and descriptions, and where the finest art and designs are to be found not hanging on a wall with a spotlight but inside a dug out cave where people go during every day religious ceremonies and be awed and inspired.

I will close with a sentence I memorized while reading an English newspaper while drinking an espresso due to its distinctly Ethiopian style, but it is most applicable and captures my sentiment here.

The author would like to humbly reiterate that the viewpoint is his personal reflection.

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