My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

The Yemrehane Christos monastery Ethiopia

the church
This is the continuing story of our pilgrimage to Ethiopia in search of the Ark of the Covenant
It has been organised by McCabe Pilgrimages who do this kind of thing rather well.

Today we have driven out from Lalibela to take time out from visiting the incredible rock hewn churches there, to visit instead the free standing church of the monastery of Yemrehane Christos.

shopping for Lalibela crosses
There are 195 steps up to the Yemrehane Christos monastery - set high up in the most incredible isolation. Some of the steps are very steep - many are shallow - and the walk up is really not too bad if you are reasonably fit and take it steadily. And it takes us through very beautiful Juniper forest - alive with a great variety of birds. 

It was a little too hot for some (take plenty of water) and at this high altitude - 2700 metres - some with breathing problems could not make it and have to take time out under the shade of a large tree near the bottom of the trek.

always beautiful scenery
But the charming little village settlement just below is a friendly place to linger, with plenty of shopping opportunities for souvenirs and places where the traditional coffee ceremony can be enjoyed. And the scenery as ever is stunning.

cheerful shop keeper - beautiful woven scarves
Once we are inside the rather ugly modern outer wall at the cave entrance, we are astonished by the Axumite style church building, of alternate layers of wood and granite, with white gypsum, giving the appearance as described by Bradt of "a gigantic layered chocolate cream cake." This is more than a century older than the Lalibela rock hewn churches

It has some fine architectural features and was an important place for pilgrimage in medieval times - they came from as far afield as Syria, Egypt and Jerusalem for the curative water and to die here and there is an enormous pile of bones at the back of the cave - said to represent more than 10,000 of these Christian pilgrims.
I receive a blessing from the priest in the church - a rather special experience...

See also the World Monuments Fund write up for this site. 

note cave setting of monastery buildings

priest at Yemrehane

There are so many medieval monasteries and churches that can be visited around this area East of Lalibela including a trio of rock hewn churches around Bilbilla, well worth a visit and at least for the time being, said to be much quieter than the much better known Lalibela churches. The road improvement schemes we saw all around us on our travels are likely to change all this I guess.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The road to Yemrehane Monastery Ethiopia

Carrying firewood
The morning finds us driving through stunning mountainous scenery on our way to the Yemrehane Monastery, in a beautiful isolated location.
Words, even photos, cannot adequately do justice to the views, the huge skies, the sheer unspoilt vastness of this amazing landscape. Not to mention the fascination of a different culture being played out in front of our eyes through the coach windows. 
sorghum growing in foreground
As we travel our fabulous guide Johannes tells us about Ethiopian culture. We learn that the historic culture required the boys to be tough and the females to do all the work!! But education, he says, has changed all that. And he admits that education was, for him, a yeast which has enabled him to rise to what he is today, an extremely knowledgeable and personable tour guide. Education has also achieved much to reduce the dreadful abuse and suffering of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), much discussed these days, but it is still going on, particularly in more remote rural regions of Ethiopia. He tells us that the 2009 German film Desert Flower served as useful publicity against the practice. It is based on the autobiography of Waris Dirie, the Somali born nomadic pastoralist who became a model and activist against female circumcision. Now the "harmful aspects of cultures" is taught through the school textbooks there. HIV/AIDS is also still a serious problem, more so in the country than in the cities, but again education is beginning to show results.
everywhere children follow us - friendly and smiling
but they always want pens and money!
We see young boys in charge of small flocks and herds of goats, sheep and cattle. These animals are moved around during the day to seek best grazing, and at night they are kept for safety in barns where they are fed hay and straw. The dung produced in the barns is a valuable currency in its own right, bartered for food.
We pass fields of Sorghum from which the local "firewater" is made.
We are driving along a tarmac road, very good in stretches, sometimes in the process of being laid. Johannes tells us this is being built by the Chinese and that this for various reasons brings resentment from the local populace.
Our driver spots a crane on a rock by a river as we drive across, but he has flown away by the time we stop.  
harvesting the tef

our group "enjoying" the local brew! 
We also stop where we see farmers cutting tef which is the grain used in making the traditional injera bread - a large pancake-shaped "bread", highly nutritious and used as the basis of many meals. Portions of various dishes are piled around its edges and the diners will communally break off portions of the injera to scoop up the food. I loved it - when well made - and it is great for a gluten free diet - but not to everyone's taste. We are invited over to watch the harvesters and take photos and are offered the local alcoholic brew, frothily overflowing out of a big plastic jug, and poured into filthy plastic beakers for us. I bravely tasted it but thought it was pretty disgusting personally! We offer the headman 100 Birr which he graciously declines - he tell us via the guide that he feels privileged to be allowed to show us his crop and his means of livelihood, but on being pressed he is pleased to accept the money to spend "on his family."
To get to the tef field we walk carefully around fields of the Ethiopian sunflower - it is much smaller than the European variety, and very prickly, but still an important source of oil and seeds. The crop looks scant, the earth parched, but the tef seems to be thriving better. This area has to contend with serious soil erosion in the rainy season when the water turns brown with the silt, much of which ends up in Egypt and the Mediterranean.
see the woman collecting water from a
scant river supply
Even at the end of the latest rainy season some of the rivers seem pitifully low.

It's a one and a half hour drive followed by a long walk and climb - 195 steps in all - up to the Yemrehane Monastery - but a visit not to be missed...

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Eighth wonder of the world - Lalibela Rock Hewn churches

 Eighth wonder of the world - UNESCO world heritage site since 1978 - created as the New Jerusalem by King Lalibela more than 800 years ago 
House of the Saviour of the World
Bet Medhane Alem
Reputedly the world's largest rock hewn church

pilgrims coming away from Bet Medhane Adem

impressive outside of Bet Medhane Alem

inside Bet Medhane Alem

Church of St Mary windows symbolizing the three crosses
at Golgotha 

Inside Church of St Mary

Church of St Mary veiled pillar inscribed
with Ten Commandments and description of how
churches built - access denied!
Ethiopian embroidering his white robe
the eleven rock hewn churches of Lalibela are thought by many to be the most impressive historical sites anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa.
Imagine a solid volcanic mountain, and then imagine boring down into that rock to carve out a free standing subterranean block, 
then imagine this block being further bored out from the inside to create a church, with pillars, arches, carvings - so that it is left standing with its roof at ground level, surrounded on all sides by a deep trench. Furthermore, this church is connected to the other churches cut into the same rock by a series of further trenches and underground tunnels. 
These are the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela.
priest with processional cross 

This is a Holy site, spread over about 15 hectares to the south of the small town of Lalibela, the churches split into three groups. From their original construction, the churches in this group (some have arguably been royal palaces or prisons) have been at the centre of Lalibela's spiritual Christian life, where something like 10% of the population are priests.
And now the tourists have arrived, conspiring, along with the weather, to destroy these wonderful sites. 

navigating the ledges between House of the
Cross and Mikael-Golgotha
Tourists must be a mixed blessing 
they do after all bring cash into the region. But the weather is a different matter, and in an attempt to protect the churches from further erosion, most are covered by fairly hideous canopies, practical indeed, but doing nothing for the appearance of the places they seek to protect.
Cruciform pillars in Bet Mikael
note "angel eye" carvings either side of
the cross
Prepare for some tough walking between the churches, with some steep and rough steps and one dark tunnel (there is an alternative route if you must) - so wear good strong shoes with adequate grip, and prepare to leave these at the door to each church as you enter. When you come out of a different exit, there you will find your shoes again, beautifully lined up by the "shoe keepers", and ready to put on until the next church.   
Tomb of Adam at exit of Mikael/Golgotha
the distinctive traditional two storey circular
stone houses of the area around the
There is a very biblical atmosphere to the place. King Lalibela is also now regarded as one of Ethiopia's most important saints. The day we visited was his feast day and we were rewarded by the sight of many priests and others making their pilgrimage to the churches for a blessing. Many people will walk miles, sometimes for days, sometimes across the mountains, and barefoot, to come to churches for important feast days. We experience this for ourselves in an amazing way in a couple of days time...

To all my readers have a very joyous and peaceful Christmas and read more about this incredible trip as my story continues over the next few weeks into the New Year... 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Axum - home of the Ark of the Covenant

South Stelae Field Axum
off to church - Axum
Axum - or Aksum - is at the very heart of Ethiopian history. Home to the Aksumite empire with a ruling dynasty allegedly descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba - spiritual home of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and home, it is said, of the Ark of the Covenant  - kept closely guarded in the Chapel of the Tablet in the compound of Maryam Tsion (St Mary of Zion church - the Old Cathedral - site of Ethiopia's first church - built on site of a former pagan shrine- and access denied to women - see also below).
Axum is therefore a very old and a very holy city, not immediately apparent as we approached last night in the dark wanting only our hotel, a meal, a drink and a rest.
Street scene Axum
In the mausoleum South Stelae Field
Detail of Remhae's Obelisk
For a start it has the tallest stelae or obelisks dating back to the third and fourth centuries, made of sandstone out of single blocks and curiously carved. What were they for? Probably they marked royal graves. Unique multi storey tower constructions with realistic carved doors and windows could represent their royal palaces or their "symbolic stairway to heaven."? How on earth were they erected into position? Probably by elephants, it is usually thought nowadays. In the South Stelae Park we saw:
Remhai's obelisk - the largest at 33 metres - shattered into five blocks across the ground - some say as it was erected. In total it weighs 520 tonnes. Who knows what skeletons may lie beneath?! Note the carved windows and door at the base.
Tomb of the False Door
Ezana's Stele is 23 metres tall with nine storeys of windows with a door at the base.
Inside the new cathedral Axum
The Roman Stele was taken in bits to Rome in the Italian occupation and was returned back to Axum in 2005. It has to be supported by a very ugly contraption.
Then there was the Tomb of the False Door - where we see blocks held together with metal clamps - and can appreciate the advanced skills of the original engineers.
And the ten funerary chambers off each side of a dark corridor in the underground Mausoleum
Chapel of the Tablet
First we had been to the Mai Shum reservoir - Bath of the Queen of Sheba - a water storage cistern of unknown age - but probably dating back at least to the seventeenth century - used still as a main water supply for the city -
Women going down to collect water at the Bath of
the Queen of Sheba
Funerary chamber within the Mausoleum
and a free swimming pool for all the local children - but of especial significance at the celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Epiphany or Timquat - when the replica Arks of the Covenant from all the local churches are taken in procession to Abuna Aregawi church south of the reservoir. The day after, at the Baptism of Christ, the spring water nearby is sprinkled over the people. Some of these nearby springs are said to have healing properties and have been visited for this purpose by Christians and Muslims alike for a very long time.

Then there is the Ark of the Covenant itself said to be in the Chapel of the Tablet in the cathedral compound across the road from the stelae field. In the same compound are two cathedrals - women are not allowed in the first so we all visit the second more modern one, built in the 1960s by the emperor Haile Selassie who opened it jointly with HM Queen Elizabeth.

We also went in the small Museum in the church compound near the Chapel of the Tablet - we have to leave all belongings in lockers outside the door and really didn't have enough time to examine all the artefacts, including ancient crowns, crosses and other church relics. I could have stayed a little longer than the allocated half hour. But don't confuse this with the Axum Museum near the South Stelae Park which it would seem is a must visit to really fully explain the stelae, but sadly we had no time for it. I did however buy a superb book on Axum - published by Arada Books -A Comprehensive Guide to Aksum and Yeha which I would suggest is a must for anyone who wishes to really make the most of their visit to this incredibly important historical city.

Panoramic view inside the New Cathedral Axum
Scene of Axum from south stelae Field towards 
There are many more sites to visit in Aksum but time presses on and we have to catch our flight to Lalibela - the first turbo-prop I have flown in for many years. Every day brings new and even more amazing experiences - the rock hewn churches of Lalibela we are soon to see are incredible…

Friday, 18 December 2015

Ethiopia - the road to Axum

We continue on our journey after lunch in Wukro - with a long trip in prospect as we head North towards Adigrat where we will turn West to Axum and our next overnight stop…

oxen threshing the grain
We climb even higher into the mountains. The landscape seems softer here, prettier somehow. There are many more cacti now, and farm compounds with families out in force harvesting grain, and threshing it with the help of their cattle. These animals are driven round and round in a small circle, tethered together, trampling the stalks, the women continually brushing the resulting separated grain back into the centre of the pile. There are also simple hand held ploughs drawn by oxen in the surrounding fields - a timat is the area of land that two oxen can plough in a day.

grain threshing with oxen
We drive through a patch of quite hard rain. The villagers in the small communities we pass through run for cover and seem disconsolate - although they clearly need rain - just not at harvest time! The rain season was too dry this last year which has seriously affected yields.
We approach Adigrat, standing at nearly 2500 metres. Small flocks of sheep and goats guarded by the roadside await sale and slaughter. The road ahead goes on to Eritrea - we turn left towards Axum.
We climb again - it is a dramatic hairpin road but of good quality. Many lorries on the road are carrying quarried rock presumably for more road improvements further ahead. There is much road building in process - much being undertaken by the Chinese, we are told. Some of the quarrying in the small quarries we pass looks manual and extremely hard work but the lads always have time to give us a cheery wave as we drive by. Later along the road we see donkeys with metal buckets strapped across their backs, weighed down with some of these heavy rocks. 
Debre Damo Monastery in the distance
We reach the summit, stopping soon for a stunning view - amazing terraced slopes and sheer drops. We drive for some while along the top of this valley, looking down for many miles on this amazing scenery to our right - the sun coming out from behind the clouds in time for us to fully enjoy the panorama. Many children, some very young, are walking back from school - in this sparsely populated countryside some of them clearly have quite a journey each day. The little ones wave cheerfully as we drive by. We cross a very wide river - the river bed largely dried up - but still a large group of women are finding enough pools of water in which to do their washing - before spreading it all over the nearby bushes to dry in the sun.
stunning scenery
the Adwa mountains
Just past Bizet we spy 
in the far distance Debre Damo Monastery, perched on its 3000 metre high amba, or flat- topped mountain. Founded in the sixth century by one of the monks collectively known as the Nine Saints, (who brought Christianity to Ethiopia from Syria and beyond), it is pretty impregnable. Even after a very long drive by hired vehicle or an arduous hot walk from the main road, the final hurdle is to be hauled up the last 15m high cliff via two leather ropes, one around your waist which is hauled up by the priest at the top, the other you use yourself to assist with the climb. Women are strictly not allowed. Can't say I'm sorry!
Most of the villages seem to have a circular stone wall enclosure within which there is a water pump - children pump water while women gather around no doubt to exchange the local gossip.

sun set behind Adwa mountains near Axum
We are now in the stark granite Adwa mountains - jutting into the sky like teeth - and at Inticho, with just over an hour still to drive, we stop for a panoramic view and for a much needed leg stretch.
early morning hotel view of the renowned Stelae Park

Finally after four tiring but immensely fascinating hours of drive we thankfully arrive at our hotel for the night set high on the outskirts of Axum overlooking the Stelae Field and its famous obelisks. Tomorrow we will explore this further as well as visit the reputed resting place of the Ark of the Covenant in the Cathedral Church of St Mary of Zion. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Ethiopia - Abraha we Atsbeha rock hewn church

locals gathered after worship in traditional
white robes as we approached Abraha we Atsbeha
You have to remember with these rock hewn churches that they are quite literally carved out of the sandstone rock in the cliff faces where they nestle - and it is difficult to imagine the extraordinary skills required of the craftsmen. Why did they do it? Where did they start? How did they choose the sites? What happened to all the rock literally chiselled and hacked out from the inside of the rocks, leaving just the arches and columns and cupolas and sometimes beautifully detailed crosses and other carvings on walls and ceilings?
Abraha we Atsbeha entrance to the courtyard
 And these are not dead and boring artefacts of a bygone age. They are living spiritual homes for hundreds and hundreds of devout worshippers who walk, often many miles, to attend services, as their forefathers have done since the churches were built, most at least by the 16th century, many much earlier even than that. And that is just for an ordinary day - for special feast and other holy days the crowds will be huge - as we experience a little later into our pilgrimage.
the last few steps up to Abraha we Atsbeha
courtyard entrance

once within the courtyard - the more recent white
Italian portico over the original church
porch - note the original church is part of the rock face itself

Adam and Eve

one example of beautiful church murals

the devil in chains - wall mural
note the angels looking in all directions - God looks
at us all wherever we are
 We leave Wukro Chirkos and after a coffee break in Wakru (amazing - the locals seem to quite willingly give up all their seats on the street side patio outside the restaurant to accommodate our group!) we make our way in the coach for 45km along what the guide book describes as a well-maintained and scenic dirt road. Scenic it certainly is - the views are stunning all the way along - but it is very twisty and bumpy and almost more than some of our group can stomach. But wow the destination is worth it.
Mary suckling the baby Jesus
This church is regarded by many to be the finest in Tigrai, simply for its wonderfully exotic and colourful wall and ceiling murals, depicting the complete history of the Ethiopian Christian Church. The church itself is much older than its murals, tradition saying that it was excavated in AD335-40 by the 4th century twin emperors Abraha and Atsbeha to whom the church is dedicated. Their mummified bodies are said to be in a box in the Holy of Holies within the church. Who knows? A priest tried to check the contents of the box and was so severely burnt on his hands that no-one has dared to further investigate!

more wall murals within church
One could study these murals for a very long time but sadly we do not have this luxury - we have to find lunch back in Wakru before a very long drive ahead of us - albeit a fabulously scenic and fascinating one - to reach Axum and our hotel for the night ... to explore Ethiopia's most historically and archaeologically important town - site of its earliest church and spiritual home of its unique Christian tradition.
outside the church a priest studies in the shade
with fabulous view beyond