Date of Visit: November 2014
Numerous Churches in Aksum and Lalibela
According to the ancient Julian calendar Christmas (Ganna) will arrive in Ethiopia on Wednesday, January 7th, 2015. The holiday will begin with a day of fasting followed by a 4 am church service the next day. No special events happen until January 19th when a 3-day celebration (Timkat) commemorates the baptism of Christ. There is no exchange of presents, instead a traditional feast, music and games are enjoyed after religious ceremonies. Clearly not part of the Christian world’s Christmas frenzy, Ethiopia enjoys its own treasures of early Christian architecture, artifacts and Bibles. In November 2014, Designtraveler photographer, Eric Allen, visited the country for a humanitarian mission but took time off to visit ancient churches and photograph the Byzantine illustration in early Bibles.
Ethiopia is the only African nation never colonized by another country therefore no crusading army or missionary ever imposed its religion on the populace. Christianity came peacefully in the 1st century when a prisoner from Tyre, Frumentius, converted a ruler of the Aksumite kingdom; by the 4th century it was adopted as the official state religion, making Ethiopia the second Christian nation in the world (after Armenia).
Moslems conquered neighboring Egypt in 640, leaving Ethiopia cut off from the rest of the Christian world (except for a weak link to the surviving Coptic Church in Egypt). This separation along with the blending of the spirits and devils of the established African traditional faiths made for a unique form of Christianity.
The Churches and Bibles of Lalibela
The mountain town of Lalibela, one of the holiest sites in Ethiopia, is home to eleven churches hewn from living volcanic rock. The edifices, constructed in the 12th century, are positioned in a manner that replicates Jerusalem. The churches in the Lalibela area are entirely hand hewn from rock, beginning at the earth’s surface and continuing underground.
The Holy City of Aksum
About 300 BC the Aksumite empire, a civilization that, in its heyday, rivaled Rome and Persia, established a capital in Aksum. One can still visit a number of inscribed stone stelae from that period.
Erected in the 4th century Aksum’s holiest church, St. Mary of Zion, is reportedly the home to the Ark of the Covenant. During the 10th century the ruling power shifted to the Zagwe Dynasty, practitioners of a Judaic form of Christianity. The capital moved to Lalibela, 200 miles to the south.
All photographs Eric Allen
Additional Content Sources:
Cotter, Holland. Bedrock of Art and Faith, April 20, 2012, New York Times.