While I was out of town, the New York Times ran a long and fascinating travel piece on Christian Ethiopia, “Ethiopia Opens Its Doors, Slowly,” by Joshua Hammer. It ran on September 17, so it will only be free for a couple more days. Check it out.
Hammer takes us on “what Ethiopians call ‘the historic tour’ — a several-day circuit through ancient Christian kingdoms that flourished in the northern highlands beginning in the fourth century A.D. According to legend, Syrian monks crossed the Red Sea then and converted the Aksumite king, Ezana, from paganism to Christianity.”
He visits sites whose religious significance goes back even further than that. Ethiopia’s Jewish community traces its origins to Solomon’s philosophical dalliance with the Queen of Sheba. And that was a full millennium before the Ethiopian eunuch made his remarkable appearance in the Acts of the Apostles.
Our guide treks to sixth-century monasteries as well as the country’s famous monolithic churches — carved out of a single mass of rock. He even hovers near “The Treasury,” where Ethiopian monks claim to house the real Ark of the Covenant (pace Indiana Jones). “No one but a single monk is allowed to see the sacred artifact — and few people are permitted to see him — though replicas, known as tabots, are brought out once a year for the Timkat celebration of Christ’s baptism on Jan. 19.”
Hammer describes the liturgy and architecture with respect, if not quite reverence. Do you remember Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”? Well, Hammer’s tone reminded me, just a little, of Marlin Perkins’ voice-over explanation of the mating rituals of caribou. But, for the New York Times on religion, that’s pretty good. I found only one real groaner, in the author’s description of “Ethiopian Christianity, which combines belief in the Holy Trinity with some of the myths and the symbols of the Old Testament.” I mean, don’t all Christians do that? (Pace Marcion.)
The story‘s worth the trip. A pilgrimage would be even better.