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     Volume 8 Issue 53 | January 16, 2009 |

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Churches and Frescoes from the Heart of Africa

Fareha Zeba

The travel agents back home, at first, discouraged us from going to Ethiopia as it is a poor and problem-racked country. Yet we insisted on surging ahead, determined to find new and amazing flora and object d'art in places like riverbanks and churches of antiquity. Landing at the airport, we my husband Saidul Haque Juise and I, were surrounded by fields of mustard colour. With us was Zuleikha Haque, a renowned historian, who had been to Ethiopia four times, earlier, and Shamim Hussain, a well-known English teacher, who had been to Ethiopia 40 years earlier for honeymooning. Our group was thrilled, in particular, at the prospect of being with untrammelled nature. -- with waterfalls, hippopotamus and birds of paradise.

We landed at Addis Ababa on the last day of the |Ethiopian monsoon, when the "muskel" festival was being celebrated. Christians and Muslims populated the place and they celebrate this feast with more fervour than even Christmas. This is something like the Muslim Eid-ul-Adha, characterised by the sacrifice of animals. The women had decked themselves with bright, yellow flowers, and wore pristine white flowing dresses, that came billowing down to their feet, as they came out into the streets with joyous fervour. Drums, flute, tambourines and other local traditional musical instruments accompanied the spirited singing. They sang, danced and clapped with unfettered glee.

Next, we proceeded to the national museum, where we came across the world-famous skeleton Lucy, which traces back to over three million years old. Other fascinating centuries- old artefacts, like cooking utensils, crockery, dolls, dresses and weapons, were to be seen here too. We rounded up our visit to this place with a sumptuous lunch at an art gallery cum restaurant called “Makuse”, which served mouth-watering local and Continental cuisine. Fish and beef curries were served on flat bread, “injira”, as a traditional speciality. The unique furniture, painting and sculpture of the local artists found there lent an unusual ambiance to this eating place. Meanwhile, delicious Ethiopian coffee, sold in bags, was being sold by kilos to tourists. The price was minimal and the taste was something to remember all one's life

Faslidas castle
Chanting at Lalibala church

Later on, we moved on to the out -of -town famous rock cave church of Entoto, which is situated in the heart of a valley. From this spot one could view the whole of Addis Ababa. The church is 600 years old. This contained frescos which had still to be restored. Next to this was a more recent, two-century old church, painted white and outlined with primary colours of bright red and yellow. It bore an octagonal shape-- this particular design being popular in Ethiopia. This contained many frescoes taken from the pages of the Bible, featuring saints and their miracles, painted by the occupants of the church centuries back.

From Addis Ababa we went by air, travelling for three hours, to Lalibela, a rocky place renowned for its many churches, built in the 12th century. What I liked best about this place was the Beta Marium Church, Beta Debra Church and Salmon Chapel. A designated and anointed priest of each church remains in charge of his church, where he serves, until his death. Stone houses, study rooms and altars were all carved out of a single piece of massive rocks, which were later lined with stones and designated for particular purposes of the different parts of the church. Steps, niches, dining rooms, study halls were all carved out. If compared to the temples of India, they contained less art works in the form of figures and motifs. Beta Marium, in contrast, was very decorative with its Greco-Roman frescos, although one cannot prove that Greek or Roman priests were there when it was being built and decorated. It was reported that four thousand hands worked on these 13 Lalibela churches for three years. Don't miss St George's Church, which is dug into the cave below, and still has perfect geometrical shapes and designs that can be admired centuries after it was built. The visit to the Lalibela churches took us an entire day, but the experience was worth it. Different churches of this place, incidentally, had crosses of different shapes and sizes, originating from orthodox belief of Christianity.

We then proceeded to Bahir Dar, which is famous for being the source of the River Nile. The high point of our trip was to see it. We walked for two kilometres, leaving the microbus, crossing volcanic boulders -- which was not easy, even though we had gone prepared to face the different elements of nature. We could hear the sound of the waterfall of the Nile but not view it -- and so remained in suspense about this legendary source of the Nile. It is said that its fountain is the largest, after Victoria. The following day we went to Lake Tana, Africa's second largest lake, which contains many islands. As we hadn't the time to visit all the islands, we chose Entos, which contained a beautifully decorated church, 1030 kilometres high above the sea-level. We saw many more fascinating churches after this. Later we proceeded to the outlet of the Nile, where the water is a shade of pure turquoise blue in contrast to the Lake Tana water which is golden-brown. The lake covered an area of 3,673 kilometres and contained light boats made from papyrus tied together, and that transported people and their collections of wood from the nearby forests.

One of the islands, containing everyday elements of civilisation -- such as houses, places of worship and trodden paths -- contained a church Ura-Kidane Mehet, placed right in its centre. This had more frescos than most other Ethiopian churches that we had viewed so far, and its walls pulsated with colours and forms of numerous figures of the Holy Family, Christian saints and accompanying angels, in bold and beautiful blues, reds and yellows.

The effect of Lake Tana was breathtaking and magnificent-- as if it were some heavenly spot created for the four of us alone. The incredible clear water, ethereal azure sky and the exotic golden-coloured “muskel” flowers was accompanied by a group of bathing hippopotamus .One of these giant creatures suddenly raised its head -- as if to say,' Why are you disturbing my repose?' The gliding and flitting birds of numerous shapes, sizes and colours also appeared as if out of some dream of paradise. The hotel, where we stayed in, was in the middle of Lake Tana.

As Ethiopia does not have good roads, to speak of, we went ahead by plane. The place is hilly and inundated --- because of economic, social or political reasons. From Addis we then proceeded to Lalibela and next flew on to Dahirabar. We went by road to the old capital, Gonder, travelling for hours, determined not to miss the picturesque and historically rich spots.

Source of Nile at Bahir Dar

This place is famous for the highly decorative old palace, as this was the old capital of Ethiopia. King Fasilids established this well-planned city in 1635, and it withstood a number of man-made and natural calamities. In the same century King Fasilids built a wonderfully planned castle. During World War -11, however, the invading Italians had reportedly attacked it. The British in turn -- as a reciprocal action -- reduced it to rubbles and dust with their heavy shelling. Due to present day lack of funds, this historical place has not been renovated. Nevertheless, even in its battered form, this remnant of the 17th century architectural feat was interesting to visit for its historical importance. It was a pity, though, that warfare touched this symbol of culture, and reduced it to sand and pebbles.

An hour's drive from this location takes one to a beautiful swimming pool. Reportedly the splendidly- attired king of Ethiopia, many centuries back, sat on his lofty throne, surrounded by his magnificent court. All around was the rippling water. Even though there is a critical water crisis, yet there are a number of water-based activities around this place, in Gonder, today. This, interestingly, had been constructed in a careful, scientific manner. Those who visit Gonder should visit the City Centre Piazza, noted for its cafes -- which serve coffee and pastry that speak of Italian influence, before World War 11. This city, along with Addis Ababa, are well-known for its boutiques that sell silver jewellery and painted wooden masks that are no less than their counterparts in other places of rich ethnic origin.

We then moved on to enjoy the wealth of pictorial details of many more Ethiopian churches with their varied presentations of profiles and narrations of religious importance. For the four of us the trip was indeed a memorable and unusual one.

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