Sacred Highlands

I think there is no place on Earth other than the Northern highlands of Ethiopia where Christianity is so deeply rooted into the soul of the people.

Eager to witness the rich cultural heritage and the mythological ties between Jerusalem and Ethiopian religious beliefs, I had been planning a trip to Ethiopia for a few years. And I have not been disappointed; but I have also found a land full of contradictions.

My journey began in the Tembien mountains, a remote region in the Eastern part of Tigray that host some remarkable rock-hewn churches. Despite a soon to be finished surfaced road that will connect the Tembien to both Axum and Hawzien, the place is hard to access without a private vehicle and local communities are still slightly amused by the sight of a foreigner.

In the rural countryside of Tembien, most people live in traditional stone-house farms, consisting of an animal compound and one or more single-storey buildings covered by a straw roof. On the way to some rock-hewn churches between Adwa and Abi Aday, we stopped for directions in one of these villages and ended up spending almost an hour to chat with the family of a friendly shepherd.

Traditional stone-house village at the base of Gebriel Wukien church

Traditional stone-house village at the base of Gebriel Wukien church

 

Entrance to the churches can be hit and miss, as it often depends on your luck in finding the priest with the key and his willingness to let you in. While this was straightforward in Gebriel Wukien, a monastic complex where we were invited by the slightly euphoric monks to drink some tella, a locally home-brewed beer, in Maryam Hibeti we had our faith questioned before finally gaining access to the church itself.

Maryam Hibeti looks more like an hermit place than a church, partially hidden on the side of a gorge and only accessible after an exhausting hike. The gloomy, cathedral-like interior is cut free from the rock behind and consist of a cloister, a main chamber and a holy spring.

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 When the deacon started to murmur some passages from the bible beside the priest on his side, we moved outside to take shelter in the shadow before setting out for the way back. There we noticed two old women sitting by the church’s door. They explained they came from the village beyond the gorge and were here to help the partially blind priest with his daily routine.

This strong link between the clergy and local communities was a recurrent theme of our experience in the highlands

Later in the afternoon we arrived at Abuna Yohanni, a monastery carved into the side of a sandstone cliff and accessible through a system of steps and nooks. The chatty monks living around were among the friendliest folks we met during our trip and they didn’t mind to have some pictures taken in the labyrinth of tunnels or while reading a prayers book.What we didn’t enjoy was the attitude of the youngsters living at the base of the cliff, spoiled by the large tips handed over by unaware tourist groups (as our guide explained on the way back). This didn’t ruin our visit and it was nothing compared to the most visited places, nevertheless we were startled at how quickly the effects of “mass” tourism are reaching this remote part of Tigray.

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Abba Yohanni

 

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Abba Yohanni priest reading a goat skin prayer’s book

On the other hand, monks are trying to do some good with the tourist bucks and the money collected thanks to the standard 150 Birr entrance fee was recently used to bring electricity, paint the facade in questionable colors and build a new railing on the cliff face. While as a result of the renovation works one of the most photogenic facades in Ethiopia is arguably less atmospheric than it was before, the church is now more easily approached by the elderly and people with a bad head for the heights.

What should be remembered is that rock-hewn churches are primarily active sites of worship and not tourist attractions; this is what sets them apart from other man made wonders.

A couple of days later we arrived in Lalibela for the forthcoming Easter celebrations. We were introduced to Destawu, a local guide recommended by a friend in Addis that would have been a valuable and knowledgeable friend for the coming days.

Lalibela consist of monolithic and semi-monolithic churches holding strong symbolic connections with Jerusalem. The complex is divided into a northwest cluster, representing earthly Jerusalem, and a southeast cluster, representing heavenly Jerusalem, separated by the Jordan river. Bet Giyorgis, a stand alone, cross-shaped church, lies apart from the others and symbolize the Ark of Noah.

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Bet Giyorgys

Churches are like a labyrinth to me, an 800 years old labyrinth that leave you speechless the more you wander through the system of tunnels and trenches connecting one chamber to the other. The secret pathways, the smell of candles, the light passing through the cross shaped windows and the withe robed priest give a sort of aura, a solemn feeling to these buildings.

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The Holy week is probably the busiest and most colorful period to visit Lalibela, although most of the the celebrations are concentrated on the the three days preceding Easter. After a few days spent to wander among the different clusters, on Holy Thursday a long dark tunnel took us to the little Bet Merkorios, where a few priest were sitting waiting for the afternoon mass.

A tunnel opening at the entrance of Bet Mercorios

A tunnel opening at the entrance of Bet Merkorios

Psalms and prayers were being recited that day and we were lucky enough to assist to a solemn mass that reached its climax with the ritual washing of feet.

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Kedassie

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Ceremony of washing the feet on Holy Thursday

 

The Holy Friday is a day of sorrow. Early in the morning a short walk took us to Bet Maryam, right in time to witness the sight of thousands of pilgrims gather in and around the churches to mourn the death of Jesus.

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Seeing these people praying all day, fasting under the hot sun and sleeping within cracks in the ground, makes you realize their faith is not something to be taken lightly.

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Prayers on Holy Friday

The faithful prostrate themselves at the sound of a little bell from dawn till 3 p.m., when a representation of Christ’s body is carried into the church after a short procession.

A representation of the body of Christ is brought into the sanctuary of Bet Maryam

A representation of the body of Christ is brought into the sanctuary of Bet Maryam

In the yard surrounding Bet Maryam we could assist to a ritual unique to the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition. Several deacons formed a circle surrounding a man in the middle holding a stick with a candle at its tip. At the end of the prayer all men stroke the stick and extinguished the fire, a symbolic ritual to chase the devils and curse Judas and his generation. This marked the end of the day and the beginning of a night of watchful expectation.

On Holy Saturday there wasn’t much going on during the day, with villagers flooding the local market in anticipation of Easter. Churches came back to life at night for the most important of the celebrations: the resurrection of Christ.

We decided to spend the night in the yard surrounding Bet Giyorgis, supposedly more quite and peaceful than the crowded Bet Maryam and Bet Medhane Alem. We entered through a door at the end of the trench and were enveloped by a thick darkness, pierced only by the candles of the priests murmuring passages from the Bible.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday

We waited, until suddenly, at midnight, candles were blown out and the church plunged into a pitch black. In a fever of excitement, pressed by the crowd that was now filling every corner, a light emerged from the sanctuary breaking the surreal silence. “Christ has risen”, was heard everywhere, hundreds of people now lighting their candles with the solitary flame that came out of the blackness. People began walking along the sides of the church and the flames leaped from candle to candle, lighting the most remote corners of the sanctuary.

The rite of resurrection on Holy Saturday around Bet Goyorgys

The rite of resurrection on Holy Saturday around Bet Goyorgys

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In the sense of hospitality and communion that was permeating the place a priest lent me his stick to take some rest amid the standing crowd. I accepted gratefully and stood for a few minutes while watching the light of candles slowly fading away.

That was a great, moving ceremony, one of the moments I want to remember when I’ll think of Africa.

 

The next morning only a few worshippers were left praying around the churches. Easter marks the end of fasting and Destawu invited us for lunch in his place; we had a great meal with him and his family and possibly the best coffee ever!

With the town rapidly going back to its routine, we had time to rationalize what had happened during the last few days. If is unquestionable that Lalibela is a spiritual place, possibly the holiest place in Ethiopia for Orthodox Christians, there’s much going unseen to the casual traveler. Talking to some “educated” people in town, we learned that Lalibela has recently undergone a resettlement project that forcedly relocated villagers from the hills around the religious complex, with little compensation. According to official documents, the scope of the project financed by the world bank, was to “enhance the upkeep of the historic and cultural sites and the promotion of these sites as tourist attractions”. Personally, I think that the identity of a place is given by the nature of the people living around and seeing empty tukuls dotting the area around the “core zone” gave me a weird feeling. If sustainability means turning an active holy place in a tourist playground, which I am afraid might happen in the recent future, the development of the town should probably be reconsidered.

Old Tukuls dotting the hills around the Core Zone of Lalibela

Old Tukuls dotting the hills around the Core Zone of Lalibela

The relocation also gave some extra power to the clergy, which is in charge to manage (part of) the tourist money flooding into the monolithic complex. While this money was supposed to be used for some public utility projects, the 800+ priests living in Lalibela have apparently different ideas and are in the process of building their third hotel in town. Again, I could touch with my hands the faith of both priests and worshippers, but coming from a country where the business side of the clergy is so plain obvious, I found all of this disturbing to say the least.

With the end of the Easter celebrations, a very long drive took us to Mekele and then forward to the Gheralta region, home of the most stunning and inaccessible rock-hewn churches of Tigray. It’s anybody’s guess why these churches were built in hard to get cliffs; was it for protection from the Jews or the Muslims? Were they hermitages, spiritual places where to pray a step closer to God, the wind as your only comrade? People gave us different versions, but what’s certain, these churches maintain an aura and a spiritual integrity that you won’t find anywhere else in the Christian world.

After a stop at the architectural masterpiece called Abreha we Atsbeha, in the early afternoon we reached the base of the Kororo massif, a red stained vertical wall standing fierce near the village of Megab. Our guide took us through a scar-looking path in the mountain, the same path climbed by countless faithfuls over the centuries and apparently the only way to get on top. We pulled hard on our legs until we finally reached the church of Maryam Korkor; the scenery was astonishing.

Panorama of Gheralta from Maryam korkor

Panorama of Gheralta from Maryam korkor

A priest took us to a small complex of nooks and caves where he was living with other monks. They offered some food and tella and we spent a good 30 minutes to chat with them.

He didn’t speak of the hardship of life, but he couldn’t hide it. We realized that these men couldn’t escape into open solitude without a strong faith, without something to believe in.

We paid a visit to Maryam Korkor and then walked to the nearby Daniel Korkor, a very small church fell in disuse sitting above a precipice, with great views over the valley below. As with other monastic complexes in the region, women were not admitted in the room holding the Tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant hidden behind a thick layer of curtains and only visible to the clergy.

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We enjoyed so much walking around that we didn’t realize it was getting dark. After a few more photographs right before sunset, we rushed down the mountain, and luckily we were caught by the night just a few hundreds meter before the car.

One of the highlights in my plan was the church of Abuna Gebre Mikael. After crossing fields of euphorbia and acacia trees we failed once to locate the priest with the key, but we could finally find him in the village at the base of the escarpment on a second attempt, thanks to the help of kids leaving around. Father Rufael guided us through the “men’s route”, a steep ascent requiring some clambering and a good head for the heights; his sure-footedness was astounding. Father Rufael was attended elsewhere for a wedding and he didn’t make it easy for us, but to our shame we had to stop a couple of times to catch breath before getting on top. The church is a little jewel, one of the few I have seen with no signs of the modern world. The light filtering from the only door and the little windows gives a very special mood to the ornate interior.

Father Rufael inside Abuna Gebre Mikael

Father Rufael inside Abuna Gebre Mikael

Before setting out for the descent, Father Rufael told us about his life. He had been appointed as the new priest of Gebre Mikael the month before, to relieve the previous, old priest from the burden of a daily climb to the peak. There wasn’t much time to talk and we quickly moved on the way back, this time taking the less vertiginous “women’s route”.

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We ended up close to the house where Father Rufael was attended, right in time to partake in the wedding celebrations. We were welcomed as guests, offered food and tella, asked to take a picture of every person for the amusement of the crowd.

A Woman preparing injera in a village at the base of the Kororo massif

A Woman preparing injera in a village at the base of the Kororo massif

A woman shown me how to prepare injera. Nobody asked money, we were just friends among friends. That was the real Ethiopia.

Seven days to Pasola

Horsemen roam the battlefield, spears are flying and hopefully there will be blood soaking the ground, a necessary toll to guarantee a bountiful harvest: this is Pasola, an astonishing joust that marks the end of a ceremonial ritual taking place after the February and March full moon, when sea worms called Bau Nyale flood the coast of South-West Sumba.

Sumba is a hilly island off the tourists’ radar that lies on the southern end of Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia. Due to its geographical isolation, Sumba is one of the poorest and most untouched Indonesian destinations, still too wild and underdeveloped to attract the casual tourist. If you can’t live without electricity, wi-fi or running water, you’d better stop in neighbouring islands; but if you’ll manage to break the shield of diffidence, you’ll discover a world of genuine smiles, postcard-like natural wonders and  witness century old animistic rituals that set Sumbanese apart from the rest of the archipelago.This sounds plain obvious, but spending some time to “get known” in the village will make the whole difference between being asked for money by a greedy villager for taking a shot and getting invited for lunch in his hut.

Weekuri lake, Kodi area, West Sumba

Weekuri lake, Kodi area, West Sumba

Getting to Sumba is now a relatively easy task, but much harder was to time our international flight to witness Pasola and the week-long ceremony preceding the battle. We tentatively arranged our schedule to be on the island during the March full moon, as Bau Nyale are supposed to arrive from the sea 5-7 days later, with Pasola taking place immediately afterwards. Our plan was to assist at the Wanokaka Pasola, which according to the sparse information we were able to gather beforehand, was supposed to happen at the end of March. After the 1h30′ flight from Bali to Tambolaka came the first surprise. Our hosts, Lucas and Siska, regrettably told us that we were about a month late for the Wanokaka Pasola; that was apparently a big mistake by the local priest, but there wasn’t much we could do at that point. Then two things happened. First, Siska told us that three other Pasola were scheduled in South West Sumba; that was disappointing as I had already a well organized photographic plan for the Wanokaka area, but nevertheless I felt amused by the new challenge of exploring a relatively unspoiled area. Second, Siska introduced us to Ansel, an English teacher in the Kodi area that would have been our tireless guide and translator for the coming days.

Enough chat for now, let’s the picture tell the rest of the story.

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Betel nuts and Limestone powder

Before heading to the village, our new friend suggested to stop at some ramshackle market stalls to stock up on betel nuts and cigarettes for our host family and the Ratus. Betel nuts are some sort of mild stimulant customarily offered before any talking is done; chewed together with limestone powder they give saliva a deep red colour that stains most of villagers’ teeth.

After about three hours drive we reached the traditional village of Wainyapu where we where welcomed on a front porch lined with pig jaws by Thomas, the Kepala Kampung. Thomas, his wife and the six kids turned out to be incredibly genuine and hospitable folks and we felt as part of their family for the whole length of our stay.

Traditional house in the village of Wainyapu

Traditional house in the village of Wainyapu

Living in Wainyapu is like stepping back 100 years. There’s no electricity, no running water, cooking is done outside or in a big fire lit in the middle of the “rumah”. The traditional house is a wooden structure built around four pillars that support a high roof covered in Alang grass, while a bamboo floor separate the living part from the underground stable. Houses are often aligned around a yard dotted with tombstones and sacrificial altars where ceremonies are carried out.

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

Man with Parang, Wainyapu

In a house we found this elderly man holding his parang, the traditional Sumbanese knife made by a buffalo horn hilt and encased in a wooden scabbard. As the room was dimly lit, I got some extra light from a softbox holding an off-camera flash, gelled with a pale gold filter, fired through a TTL trigger.

A ritual speech is performed in the Rato's house

A ritual speech is performed in the Rato’s house

At night we heard some voices coming from the house of the Rato, the spiritual leader of the village. Ansel offered to take us there and explained that every night during the week preceding Pasola, the Rato is performing a ritual speech about Nyale and, ultimately, Pasola itself. Not long ago, this Nyale ritual was meant to bring together far away communities and find a partner from a different village; young men and women, dressed to their best, formed separate groups and flirted by the mean of poetic songs and subtle word games. Nowadays, mostly kids sit around the Rato and respond to his speech in a sort of loud choir; nevertheless, the whole ritual is still touching and extremely meaningful to the people in the village, that learn about their ancestors through the memories of the Rato.

Horses at Wainyapu beach

Horses at Wainyapu beach

After photographing in and around the village for a few days, I paid a visit to the beach close by. The news of a foreigner wandering around summoned hordes of kids longing to show their riding skills, so finding a subject for my camera was far from difficult. The horses fighting in Pasola are surprisingly small for European standards, yet well suited for the battle due to their strength and resistance.

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The night before Pasola every person in the village takes part in a ceremonial ritual aimed at maintaining a peaceful relationship with the Marapu, a term that indicates the whole of the ancestral spirits.

War dance during the procession to honor the dead

War dance during the procession to honor the dead

Women bring small offerings to the Marapu in the form of betel leaves, betel nuts and lime, while men perform ritual dances in a crescendo of sounds and participation. The procession rapidly moves to the outskirts of the village and terminates at the megalithic tombstones surrounding the Pasola field.

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People in the village light votive candle on a grave to honour the memory of their ancestors and reconcile with the Marapu

As the sun sets and the moonlight grows stronger, candles are lit on the graves and the whole village turns into a scene that seems to come straight from a tale. As following the procession with a flash and a softbox was extremely inconvenient, I took this shot with the little artificial light coming from the candles: the high ISO capability and extended dynamic range of most recent cameras made possible this kind of shot, which I couldn’t have taken a couple of years ago with my old camera.

By the time the night approached, the village was buzzing with the sound of hundred peoples from the neighbourhood and “our” house was now sheltering 50+ member of the extended family in a joyful atmosphere. If it is unquestionable that celebrations hold a strong symbolic meaning, they are also an occasion for distant member of the family to come together, have some chat over a clove cigarette and ultimately strengthen their bonds.

With the last light from the candles slowly fading away, the women had already gathered around the collective firewood to start the preparations for the coming feast. There wasn’t much sleep that night; I felt excited for the soon to come Pasola and honored I could partake in the celebrations.

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Pigs and dogs are smoked with burning straw in one of the numerous fires lit in the yards of Wainyapu

The day has finally come. With the sun rising above the grass roofs, dozens of fires arise in the yards and the village start bustling in a frisky atmosphere.

Pigs are commonly sacrificed on the day of Pasola

Pigs are commonly sacrificed on the day of Pasola

I’m suddenly drawn by the screams of a pig about to meet his end by the hand of the Rato. It’s supposed to be killed by a single, sharp blow through the heart. It misses. Once. Twice. Again. Among shivering screams, the pig is now spilling blood from the lungs. Patches of blood start soaking the soil, mixing up with the red dye from the betel nuts. A few meters away dogs have their head chopped and chicken their throat cut. It’s a crude scene, but today is all about blood. In the ancient Marapu tradition blood is a symbol of life and rebirth and animal sacrifices play a meaningful role in the daily life of Sumbanese people.

Rato reading the omens in the entrails of a chicken

Rato reading the omens in the entrails of a chicken

Before Pasola can begin, each family hands out a chicken to the Rato to read the omens in its entrails. Gods are consulted and, if the signs are right, spears can fly.

Horsemen perform a last ritual before the battle begins.

Horsemen perform a last ritual before the battle begins.

With the crowd now getting louder, horsemen gather in the centre of the village at a yard surrounded by ancient tombstones. Dressed in their best ikat fabric, they perform a last propitiating war dance, collect their spears and head to the battlefield. (Some of the following pictures were taken both in Wainyapu and Ratenggaro, a few days earlier).

Pasola dates back several centuries. Wrapped in legend, its origins are uncertain and talking to people in Kodi, Waigalli and Wainyapu we got slightly different versions that would deserve a whole section by themselves. In an island where tribal skirmishes and headhunting were (and still are..) commonplace, Pasola was probably meant as an all-in-one-day fight, for communities to leave peacefully through the rest of the year.

In the old days, metal tipped spears were thrown at the opponents and fields rapidly turned red by the slaughter. Nowadays, on the order of authorities bamboo spears are blunted at the ends in an attempt to make the quest less dangerous. While this can actually avoid excessive bloodshed, spears still regularly fly among the crowd and, as we were warned twice, a couple of years ago a spectator had his skull passed side to side and died within seconds.

Horseman at Pasola

Horseman at Pasola

We move to a nearby field as riders slowly arrive, their horses also decorated with fanciful garbs in preparation for the battle. They ride bareback and barefoot, moving at a faster pace as the crowd self assemble in a circle surrounding the battleground. Suddenly the Rato responsible for the ritual makes an announcement and the game can start.

Horsemen throwing their spears amid the Pasola ground

Horsemen throwing their spears amid the Pasola ground

The clans from Kodi and Bukomani on one end, Wainyapu and Ratenggaro on the other end, divide on the two side of the field and charge forth in circles hurling their spears at the opponents.

A warrior screaming in joy after hitting his opponent

A warrior screaming in joy after hitting a member of the other clan

As the longest lens in my bag was a 85mm, I had reluctantly to stand my feet at the front line to take some decent shots, getting closer and closer to the flying spears as more people were eagerly pressing and shrinking the circle for a better view. Luckily I was in a good spot to witness this warrior screaming victoriously and shaking his spear up in the air after hitting and throwing down the horse his opponent.

A rider is surrounded by opponents of the other clan in the middle of the battle.

A rider is surrounded by opponents of the other clan in the middle of the battle.

At some point I had to take a break in the shade. Around midday the heat is unbearable, but the warriors seem to take little notice and keep hurling their spears completely fearless. The battle unfolds for several hours. Each clan try a game of baits and faints and sometimes eventually manage to lure an opponent into a vulnerable position.

Pasola often ends in a mayhem between opposing clans

Pasola often ends in a mayhem between opposing clans

We were warned that Pasola often ends in a riot, with people getting crazy and throwing stones at each other. I didn’t give much credit to those words until I realized the surrounding crowd was holding stones in their hands and swords on their belts. There were only minor wounds that day and the people were growing blood thirsty; it didn’t take long before the crowd erupted in an all-out chaos. Not that I felt like joining this mess, but Andreas, a young villager I had met a few days before, eventually recognized and escorted me in the middle of the mayhem, as to make a favour. The shot above is from the first clash between the two clans.

Military fire machine guns to scatter the crowd

Military fire machine guns to scatter the crowd

To stop things from getting worse, police charged into the chaos, firing machine guns in the air and scattering the crowd. I felt it was time to go. It didn’t take long for the Rato to give his final speech and Pasola was over. There were no winners and losers in the end. But blood has been shed and the harvest will be bountiful.

After the game horsemen and clan members return to their villages. Peacefully, as nothing had happened; overall, Pasola has more to do with restoring peace than foster aggression.

Thanksgiving ceremony at the village head house

Thanksgiving ceremony at the village head house

The day ends with a thanksgiving ceremony. We were invited for lunch at the house of the village head. Grateful, we accepted. While being served chopped pork, dog and chicken among the laughter of genuine people, I dwelt upon the day; once overcame the fear of being hit by a flying spear, Pasola is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a memento of an ancient culture that doesn’t want to die to the modern world.