Ethiopia: Rituals and relics in land of two halves

By Jim Eagles

Ethiopians are happy to share their traditions, whether it's marriage rituals or the mysteries of churches carved into solid rock, writes Jim Eagles.

A young clan chief from the Konso tribe. Photo / Jim Eagles
A young clan chief from the Konso tribe. Photo / Jim Eagles

I'm scrambling as fast as I can up a rough track, through a wilderness of sand and thorn trees in southern Ethiopia's Omo Valley, trying to keep up with my escort of scantily-clad Hamer women with bright red hair.

We're on our way to the Hamer equivalent of a stag party, to watch a young man prove himself man enough to marry by running naked across a row of semi-wild bulls. Judging from their smiles they're happy for me to join their party, but they're not above shouldering their way past if I'm too slow.

The Hamer take great pride in their appearance, shaving and oiling their bodies, and decorating themselves with beads and pigments. For this occasion the women have also coloured their hair, with what looks to be a mix of red soil and fat, and tied strings of bells around their calves.

Eventually we reach a flat open space to join the tribe's young men, who are guarding a herd of wild-looking bulls with worryingly long, sharp horns.

The women now resume the ritual dance they were performing when we first met.

Some of them produce small brass horns and blow a noisy summons, then lead the way in a circular, bouncy jog, the dancers moving faster and faster, the circle getting tighter and tighter, until they all face inwards and, with a jangling of bells, jump twice in the air. That marks the end of the dance, amid much laughter, until the horns are produced and they're off again.

Occasionally the dancing is interrupted by a gruesome ritual in which women try to persuade men to whip them with long, slender tree branches.

A branch hits with a disturbing crack, cutting open the woman's back, leaving a wound, a mark of honour, into which she will later rub ash in order to create a scar.

Eventually it is time for the main ceremony and a group of young men with bead necklaces and painted faces, clad only in short kilts, plunge into the herd to select seven or eight bulls. When the animals part I see the bridegroom, standing stark naked in their midst, looking remarkably calm considering his vulnerability.

The chosen bulls, eyes rolling in panic, are hauled from the herd, usually with one man grasping the tongue and a horn, another holding the tail, and lined up side by side.

When all is ready the groom appears and, amid encouraging shouts, leaps on to the first bull, runs down the line of backs and jumps down to the ground. Immediately he's up again and running back the other way. And so it continues, apart from one hiccup when he loses his footing and nearly falls and another when a bull runs amok and has to be hauled away, until enthusiastic applause indicates he's proved himself.

The prospective groom takes his chances running across the backs of bulls to prove his manliness. Photo / Jim Eagles
The prospective groom takes his chances running across the backs of bulls to prove his manliness. Photo / Jim Eagles

Tribal experiences like this represent one side of Ethiopia which, as I discovered during a month-long visit, is very much a land of two halves. The south of the country tends to be dry and less developed, with interesting wildlife and several tribes like the Hamer trying, with mixed success, to preserve their traditional ways of life.

I managed to see several of these tribes and not all were as cheerful as my red-headed friends.

When I visited the Mursi, famous for the wooden plates the women insert into their lips, the advice was to arrive early or they'd be drunk. I did and found them sober but sullen, and aggressive in their demands that I take their photos (at 5 birr, or about 20c, a click).

Similarly, visits to the Karo, famous for their body-painting, and the Galeb, who transported me across the Omo River to their village in a dugout canoe that curved like a snake, were fascinating but demanding.

Fortunately, the Konso, where I had an audience with a young clan chief who seemed wise beyond his years, the Dorze, famous weavers, and the Ari, where a 10-year-old blacksmith was making an iron knife with the aid of a charcoal fire, seemed rather better adjusted.

My experience of the north of Ethiopia, by contrast, was of cooler highlands, glowing green from recent rains and unexpectedly beautiful.

The people there overwhelmingly belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the main tourist attractions are the remains of ancient empires which once spread across Africa and Arabia, and the churches carved out of the living rock nearly 1000 years ago.

These old churches are not like the light and airy cathedrals seen in the West. They are dark, mysterious places with small doors and few windows, the walls decorated with paintings fading with age or hung with drapes.

They are usually guarded by white-robed deacons, often slumped in seeming sleep in darkened alcoves, but reviving quickly enough when visitors arrive. For a donation of a few birr most are happy to show holy relics: an ornate cross or an illustrated manuscript yellowed with age.

Of all the northern sites the most remarkable is the town of Lalibela, named for a 12th-century emperor who was told in a dream that God wanted him to create a new Jerusalem.

This he did, building 11 churches and even a channel for an artificial River Jordan, all cut into the bedrock on which the town sits.

The finest of these is Bet Giyorgis, the church of St George, patron saint of Ethiopia. When I first saw it I could hardly believe my eyes. To build it, Lalibela's masons had to hack trenches 30m deep into a great dome of red volcanic rock, leaving a block of stone in the shape of a cross standing in the middle. Then they hollowed out the block to make it into a spectacular church. It's an extraordinary piece of work.

Looking down from the top of the dome it was hard to believe that the structure below was a working church and not just a lump of stone. And when I climbed down a narrow staircase to the base of the church it was equally hard to believe that it had been carved out of rock, not built with blocks of stone like may Western churches.

But, amazing though those rock-hewn churches were, my northern highlight came in another ancient capital, Axum, Ethiopia's holy city.

Its sacred status was apparent as my bus approached along a road lined with countless white-robed pilgrims, walking from their far-flung villages to join in one of the country's great religious occasions, the Festival of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

When I arrived in the city my eyes were drawn to a park full of huge stelae, carved stone monoliths more than 2000 years old. The biggest, lying in pieces, would have been 33m high, making it the largest single block of stone humans have ever attempted to erect. But these monuments were erected by pagan kings to mark their tombs - one legend has it that the fallen giant crashed to earth when Ethiopia converted to Christianity in the 4th century AD - and so were of no interest to the pilgrims.

Their focal point was a compound over the road where, on the site where the first Christian church in Ethiopia was built, sat a group of holy buildings including a museum of religious treasures, a closed chapel which according to Ethiopian tradition houses the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and the huge, gaudy, modern Church of Mariam Tsion (Mary of Zion).

The festival is said to draw 250,000 pilgrims so admission to the compound was through a ticket system designed to ensure things didn't get too crowded, although it was still pretty packed. Every so often the doors to the church would open, the congregation would pour out and be replaced by some of the horde waiting outside.

After several hours the service ended and tourists were allowed in to see the brightly coloured religious paintings with which the church is decorated, pay our respects to the altar and be shown some of the church's holy books. But what amazed me even more was the friendly atmosphere, underlined by the fact that when I absentmindedly left my backpack inside the church I returned in a panic to find it untouched.

It was much the same the next day when I joined in more festivities in the great square outside the church compound. The crowd was simply enormous - it was easy to imagine there were a couple of hundred thousand people - but when I followed my guide in forcing a way through the pilgrims to see lines of dancing deacons, ornately robed bishops receiving homage, elderly swordsmen displaying their skills or musicians blowing their trumpets in triumph, no one seemed to mind the intrusion.

If this was happening in New Zealand, I thought, I'd expect to get abused for pushing in. Instead the packed multitudes parted smilingly so I could get to the front.

The ceremonies I saw as a result were fascinating. But the obvious pleasure these Ethiopian pilgrims took in sharing their traditions with outsiders was even more remarkable.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates has several flights a day from Auckland to Dubai (via Australia) with connections to Addis Ababa.

Getting around: Auckland-based Grassroots Travel is offering a month-long small group expedition to Ethiopia from November 19 to December 20 for an estimated $12,232, including airfares and taxes.

Jim Eagles paid his own way to Ethiopia.

- NZ Herald

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