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Sundays in Addis

July 8, 2012

Last Sunday I had my first religious experience here in Ethiopia.  I got up “early” with my friend T. to attend a traditional Ethiopian Orthodox mass. Now I say “early” because although we arrived just after 7 a.m., the mass actually started at 5 a.m. (and went until 11 a.m.).

Ethiopia may not be one of the countries that jumps to mind when you think of Christianity, but it is in fact a very Christian and religious country. Approximately 50% of Ethiopians follow the traditional Ethiopian Orthodox church. This faith is said to have many connections to and  actually fell under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church until 1955 when it officially became its own faith, the Ethiopia Orthodox Church with its own seat on the World Council of Churches.

We headed out as early as we could bear to one of the biggest orthodox churches in Addis, Medlane Alem. As we are now officially in the rainy season, it was of course pouring rain. And although usually it’s difficult to maneuver around all of the taxis following me yelling taxi taxi taxi to the point that I’ve started saying under my breath, My name is not “Taxi”, of course this morning there were none to be found.

Medhane Alem Church, Addis. Photo courtesy of googleimages.

Eventually we made our way there and were surprised to see a large group of women all waiting outside the door; it’s only 7:15, it can’t be that full already…can it? So we wandered around a bit lost outside the church until we realized that we’d wandered right into the men’s section and wandered back. Still a bit lost, we waited outside at the back of the crowd.

Then all of the sudden there was a bit of a rush to the door and 2 priests appeared; one holding a traditional umbrella over the other who held the church’s tabot. Each church has a tabot, a replica of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark of the Covenant is the tablet that God gave to Moses containing the 10 Commandments. The original is said to be kept in a small chapel in Axum in Northern Ethiopia. When I travel to Northern Ethiopia later this month I plan to follow the steps of such great explorers as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and head to Axum to try and catch a glimpse.

Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark carrying the “Ark of the Covenant”. Photo from the Daily Mail.

We realized that the church wasn’t full; people had been waiting to be blessed by the Tabot before they entered the church. We knew it was now or never if we were going to actually go in. We thought it safest for me to go in first as we weren’t completely certain they were going to let me in at all. We took off our shoes and made our way to the front and when the priest saw me he smiled, we were in! He blessed us with the tabot and we were on our way.

When I stepped in I was kind of awestruck and just stood there until T. pushed me in the right direction; I had stepped into a world of incense, chanting, and apparent mysticism and for a moment just had no idea where to go. We made our way to the back and quickly realized there was one crucial thing we had forgotten…Everyone was wearing white. Now we had been careful to be culturally sensitive, we wore head scarves and clothes that covered everything and taken off our shoes…but one crucial piece we had forgotten was Colour.  I was dressed (not shockingly) in head-to-toe dark green. T. in black. Everyone else in white. We might as well have been wearing white to a funeral.

Women in traditional Netelas. Photo from Google Images.

Anyway our embarrassment didn’t last long as out of nowhere a MAN came and stood on the ladies’ side. The women all worship on the right side of the church and the men on the left. I have to say I was pretty happy to be on the lady-side. There was lots of action, kids escaping up the aisles, babies everywhere, it made the men’s side look pretty boring. The women around us were not impressed with this intruder and were giving him piercing looks, to which he remained oblivious. Then, as if his presence wasn’t enough – his CELL PHONE rang! Seriously. At that point I knew we were in the clear, no one cared about our unfortunate colour choice with Mr. Cell phone hanging out on the ladies’ side.

Another thing that hit me was the children. No Sunday school here. Just a 6 hour mass. And save the few that escaped running down the aisles, for the most part they were well behaved. Most women had them tied to their backs in their Netelas, traditional white scarves (that I will be purchasing before my next mass).

The inside of the church was very beautiful. One thing that struck me was that the figures depicted were the same white figures you see in a western church, they were not the traditional black faces associated with Ethiopian religious paintings. One of the most interesting things I find about visiting churches around the world is how they depict Jesus and/or God, the black faces of St. George here, in Mexico mixing Catholic and traditional depictions, and once in a tiny church in Iceland I saw a huge painting of Jesus wearing an Icelandic fisherman’s sweater.  The one decorative touch I noticed in Medhane Alem was that the colours of the Ethiopian flag were painted around the dome on the ceiling of the church.

Traditional Ethiopian religious art with the face of St. George. I purchased these last weekend at the NGO market here in Addis.

The mass was a very meditative experience for me, with all of the incense and chanting, and togetherness it is easy to be taken away from your worries.  Although I realized that likely one of the reasons I found it so calming was that I didn’t understand what was being said. A suspicion I confirmed afterwards when I talked to Ethiopian friends who mentioned their frustration with corruption and discrimination of women in the church.

After so many trips walking around town guarding my bag, being grabbed at and yelled after, being in such a calm environment with so many locals renewed my faith a bit and brought me some much-needed calm. Something that is often lacking in solitary travel; excitement, invigoration, and inspiration, yes. But calm, not so much.

All in all, attending the Ethiopian Orthodox mass was a very moving experience and made me fall in love with Ethiopia a little bit. It opened a window for me to see that Ethiopia might just become one of my favourite countries yet.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Alanna permalink
    July 8, 2012 6:03 am

    Such a great experience Allie! I participated in a Sikh ceremony once and it was awesome (my fav was the food after… It was the best food and great community spirit/joy. Great to hear that all is good and well! – Alanna

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