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

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Last Day in Bahir Dar - our pilgrimage draws to a close

the boat display on Lake Tana outside our hotel
This is our last day and we fly back to Addis Ababa at lunchtime. But first we have the morning for a little last minute savouring of the culture of Bahir Dar.

It is a big day in Bahir Dar. The Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) are celebrating the 35th anniversary of their foundation with a variety of proceedings and celebrations and the closing ceremony will be held in this town, capital of the Amhara region.

the kingfisher we rescued that flew into the
hotel window
We noticed some of the preparations in the hotel last night and the high security all around town and in the hotel gardens this morning - soldiers and police. There was also a crazy display on the lake early this morning of boats, of all sizes, circling around with increasing speed in ever decreasing circles - quite a stir on the water and quite fun to watch! Perhaps this is also for the benefit of the ANDM. There is also the unveiling of a new statue on a roundabout near the hotel - perhaps part of the same celebrations I suspect. There are crowds of people all around it as we drive by - with all the photographic paraphernalia of the media. On our return it has been unveiled and the crowds gone.

Before going to the market, said to be one of the best in Ethiopia, we drive up to the top of Bezawit Hill, about 2.5km out of town, for the view of the town and the Blue Nile below. Here we see the hilltop palace which was built for Haile Selassie, heavily guarded with no entrance allowed. We can pick out hippos wallowing in the shallows of the river near a sand spit.

the Martyrs Memorial Monument
On our way down we see massive plastic sheets laid out by the side of the road on which seeds, pulses and spices are being dried in the sun. Just past the bridge over the Blue Nile we see the large Martyrs Memorial Monument that is dedicated to those who died fighting the Derg.

panoramic view of the Blue Nile below Bahir Dar
We spot hippos wallowing in the shallows
After a stop for a coffee and cake in a local cafĂ© we are soon heading for the airport for our flight back to Addis Ababa, where after a rest and supper at the hotel we head back to London.  

Lasting impressions of our trip:

There is much poverty but also much happiness.
Bahir Dar market
Lives in rural areas at least are simple but the diet seems nutritious, making for lovely teeth and smiles. There is a very strong Christian faith - the people often walking miles and miles to attend churches and festivals, often barefoot. Children can walk for many miles to school each day. They invariably want money and pens from us. But such begging, we are told, can divert them from education which is becoming much more widely available and so very important. There seems to be very little obesity. They are very friendly. The strong faith underpins strong moral values and mutually supportive communities and families. It seems to me that there are so many lessons for us to learn here.
spices for sale in Bahir Dar market
And the countryside: sometimes words seem inadequate to describe some of the views. Dramatic, spectacular, beautiful, stunning, breathtaking, awesome…so many superlatives are appropriate.

Of course the country has its own problems to find if we scratch below the tourist veneer. No place can be perfect. But we had a wonderful time and I feel sure that given the opportunity many of us would wish to return.   

My blog for Ethiopia has come to an end. Thank you for staying with me to the end and I would love any comments.   

view of Addis Ababa from my hotel balcony
Before taking a break for a while from posting here - until the next pilgrimage perhaps - I would like to thank Rosemary and McCabe Pilgrimages for such a well organised trip, The Revd. Canon Adrian Slade who with his wife made such a good job of leading and spiritually guiding us, our excellent guide Johannes with his encyclopaedic knowledge of just about anything we wanted to know, and our drivers who transported us safely and cheerfully throughout the journey, always there to meet us and look after us. And thank you to all my fellow pilgrims for being such good company. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Bahir Dar and the Blue Nile Falls

early morning on Lake Tana Bahir Dar
Bahir Dar is a beautiful town, and very different from anywhere else we have stayed during our trip. The streets are lined with palm trees, there are many tulip trees with their flamboyant red blossoms, and it is very busy, with traffic chaos and tuk tuks everywhere. There are also many Jacaranda trees, sadly not yet in bloom but they must be a beautiful sight later. The lakeside hotel affords splendid views and pleasant strolling in the gardens down to the water's edge.

St George by the Sea - Bahir Dar with congregation gathered
for funeral
Today, our penultimate full day in this wonderful country, sees us soon in the coach on our way to visit the Blue Nile falls downstream of Lake Tana. The locals call the falls Tis Abay or "smoking water" because of the steam clouds and rainbow created when the falls are in full flow. But since 2003 a hydro-electric station upstream has taken much of the flow out of the falls except during the rainy season and because of this the falls can disappoint the tourist. We were quite lucky but from pictures seen elsewhere it is clear that the falls have lost much of their former drama.  

Saddle billed stork on way to Blue Nile falls
The drive is 35km along a very bumpy road - our guide calls it the "African Massage Service". Along the way we are again treated to much bird life: Sacred ibis, Long Crested Eagle, Saddle billed stork, Heron, Cattle Egrets (peck the seeds out of cattle coats), the Glossy Ibis, kingfishers, silver beaked hornbill, and a huge number of birds of all kinds on a rubbish tip we pass - watched over by many vultures in the surrounding trees.

We pass a farmer carrying his simple wooden ox-drawn plough on his back, boys chew on the sugar cane, an important crop here which grows well in the very fertile black soil.
farmer with ox drawn wooden plough
Finally we arrive at the end of the road, and have a short walk across open land to a small boat which ferries us the short way across the river - weaver bird nests hanging in profusion in the waterside bushes - to another short and very pleasant walk to the Falls. Along the way we see the Sensitive Plant growing wild, along with Khat trees, and crops of Kidney beans and Onions.

Lunch is al fresco in the grounds of the hotel next to ours. We are much bothered by flies! The food is good but served in quantities far too vast for many of us. Asking for smaller portions, we are told to simply leave what we don't want. This goes against our upbringing of leaving empty plates. A white rabbit hops around among us, clearly the restaurant pet!

village scene at beginning of walk to Falls
Soon we are off again to see the Orthodox school for Deacons beside the Abune Hara Monastery, which is apparently an important place of pilgrimage for Ethiopians from all around the country. But this is a disappointment. The church has a service in progress and unusually they will not let us anywhere near. The school is quite a hike through the forest - pleasant enough as a walk with lots of butterflies and birds and plant-life to see, but on arrival at the compound the teacher is away, the pupils are on holiday and there is little to see. Not the finest moment of the trip. Also it is very difficult to find very much on-line about this place. I would welcome any further information. But we do learn that the students have to beg for their injera bread which they dry in the sun and it will last many months in this way. We also see the spring and pool of Holy Water deep in the forest along the path we take to the school. 

view from the boat to the Blue Nile Falls
The day ends with a night club - a real treat to experience the quite unique music and dance skills of these exuberant people - some of us are even invited on stage to dance and make fools of ourselves. There is plenty of the local brew on offer and I think we all sleep well that night.
Our pilgrimage is nearly at an end. I find it hard to believe just how much we have seen and done in our eleven days; and we have really only scratched the surface of a wonderful culture.  

The Blue Nile Falls
There are reports on the internet and in some guide books of an alarming tendency in some areas for children to throw stones at tourists, and for visitors to be threatened for money over and above the standard entrance fees at some sites. 

We met none of this and perhaps did not go to the offending areas. I would say that it is essential to use the official local guides, tip good service and attention, and ensure that by supporting the local street and market vendors, cafes and restaurants then the locals can see that we are only helping them by putting our money into their local economy. 

Abune Hara Monastery church we could not enter

Night club entertainment 
the boat across the Nile to the Falls

Also treat the people with respect, being careful where we point our cameras outside the tourist sites themselves, always seeking permission before taking photos of individuals. Hopefully then such localised aggression can be curbed before it is to get out of hand. It would be a great pity if because of isolated incidents tourists are put off visiting what is surely a very worthwhile and rewarding holiday destination. 

Lake Tana

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Lake Tana's Monastic Churches

scenery on the way to Gorgora
Monday morning at our fabulous Mayleko Lodge hotel and I am again woken by chanting from worshippers making their way to the church on the top of the hill. But this time at 3am! I do not mind. It is for me a satisfyingly spiritual experience. The sound is soon to be joined by an orchestration of bird song better than any dawn chorus I have ever heard at home even in the deepest Kent countryside. I lie for quite a while enjoying the music before drifting off to sleep again.

on way to Gorgora
Today our coach takes us down to the Gorgora peninsular on the North shore of Lake Tana to pick up a boat to take us across the lake to Bahir Dar. It will then double back to the hotel and pick up all our bags for the four hour journey by road. During the day we shall see three of the monastic churches for which the lake is famous, dating back to at least the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. What they lack in architectural interest compared with the Lalibela rock-hewn churches, for example, is more than made up for by the splendid ecclesiastical art.

Debre Sina Mariam church

It is an hour long drive to Gorgora but endlessly fascinating: here is a very different and largely arable landscape; and quite green 
Inside Debre Sina Mariam
and lush. We see sorghum, maize stacked to dry, prickly cacti used as fence boundaries; children walking to school along the road at 7.30am, the boys in pink uniform; ladies making the injera bread for the day in the dust by the side of the busy road; cattle shackled together in the village to prevent them wandering presumably; a field of what looked like asparagus pea, the first I have seen here; children always waving and chanting "money money" as we drive past; rough platforms built in the middle of the arable crops where children stand swinging a stone around their heads on the end of a rope to keep the birds away; and there are very many birds, including the Northern Carmine Bee-Eater, a beautiful red bird flying overhead, White Egrets, Red billed Fire Finch, Hooded Vultures, Plantain Eaters, Laughing Dove and many more. Our guide has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bird population here.

So the lake eventually comes into view ahead of us, shimmering in the heat haze.  
Before boarding the boat we visit the typical round church of Debre Sina Mariam with its many wall paintings - a little more faded than in some other churches but still amazing. We wait for someone to come to unlock the church for us. A monk arrives in the traditional saffron yellow robes.
inside Debre Sina Mariam
As we leave the church compound an old lady shakes all our hands with a lovely warm smile and goodbye. This is the very first place where we have not been harangued by children. They are all busy with the butchering of the cow for another "swarming" or killing, which we have to walk past, this time especially for the festival on this day of Mary's Flight into Egypt. As we have seen before, the carcase is being divided up, and a woman is fetching basins of water from the lake to help in the cleaning process. It all seems rather grisly to our sanitised view of butchering, but I am willing to bet this cow had a very much happier and healthier life than many that end up plastic-wrapped on our supermarket shelves, and the end would have been swift.

Our boat is called Nigat, meaning "Dawn," and will be our transport across Lake Tana for the next few hours. This is a huge lake, the farthest shores not easily visible to us as we make our way across, and it is very muddy silted looking water, nothing like the shimmering blue of the beautiful Italian lakes for example. But the interest of what we will visit makes up for that and I find it a relaxing trip, giving the opportunity to read, meditate and consolidate all our experiences up to this moment.
Tankwa stored in the boat house at Gorgora

Boy in his Tankwa
We do see a few of the flimsy papyrus canoes or Tankwa out on the water, the occupants fishing, and we pass a few small inhabited islands. Life here must be very simple and harsh. The lake can apparently be a very hostile environment where bad weather can whip up the water dangerously and quite quickly.  

We are served coffee on the boat, brewed in the traditional way on the lower deck, with hot charcoal, incense, everything as it would be made on dry land. Health and safety? The cups are all washed up between times with water scooped from the lake!

Our next stop is the island of Dek - and the Narga Selassie Monastery. The church is near to the landing place, within its stone compound, which reminds me of the Gondar Royal Enclosure - not surprising - I learn that it was built for the Empress Mentewab

Entrance to Narga Selassie Monastery
our boat
As we landed lads rushed towards us across the water in their papyrus canoes to sell us their neat little papyrus canoe replicas. These are all handmade and different in size, shape and detail. They also try to sell us two very alive fish which they have just caught, although what we would do with them I am not sure!

Narga Selassie paintings- St George and the

inside Narga Selassie church - note yellow
candles and drum 
church at Narga Selassie Monastery
Monasteries are very attractive for people in Ethiopia as a way to find support into old age without the availability of pensions. 10,000 people live on this island of Dek and very many more come once a year to the main religious festival - it must be quite a sight with all the boats, I think. 

The pictures here in the church of are incredible, the colours vivid. 

The sun now is very hot on the lake, the metal boat deck far too hot for bare feet. Even the wooden seats in the sun burn the skin through my trousers. Soon we land again, this time to walk to the Azewa Mariam Monastery, We have to run the gauntlet of the dozens and dozens of stalls lining the rough footpath on the way. "Faranje, to look is free", they call out. But they pester to compete with each other to sell something, and I feel I would be happier to look and buy without so much harassment because there is some beautiful jewellery for example.

the Student accommodation at Azewa Mariam

Azewa Mariam church
Once at the monastery we see inside the school for priests and deacons. Because it is the festival day remembering the Flight into Egypt, the lads have the day off, so they are relaxing and drinking their home brewed tala. But they treat us to a reading, chanting from the story of the Flight, out of a Holy Book resting on a bamboo lectern which they have made for themselves. In fact the students have to make all their own huts for their accommodation as well as any furniture needed. They take some training here before going on to ordinary schools, ultimately destined to be priests. Many are already deacons. The church roof is untypically thatched making it more attractive than some of the others. Inside the church the paintings are again incredible, all very colourful but quite Chaucerian here in their crudity. 
Last Supper at Azewa Mariam
There is a striking picture which we have seen elsewhere as well - and very symbolic - of a tree full of fruit. Down at its base are two rats, one white and one black, eating the tree. A python opening his mouth represents the grave waiting for us - to the left is a man with a gun, aimed at someone picking the fruit who is not paying attention to the next life, and ignoring when this life will come to an end. In secular life, we are told, time goes faster.
Azewa Mariam - George and the Dragon
and see the Tree in bottom left hand corner
I have not fully remembered all the symbolism of this I fear, for example the significance of the white and black rats. If any one can fill in the detail please let me know. There are two interesting links I have found, where much more information can be found on Ethiopian iconography and with some tremendous photos. Here and here

at Azewa Mariam church
Back in the boat we have 40 minutes to Bahir Dar. We pass Kibran Gabriel monastery, on its island, open only to male visitors. As we approach Bahir Dar we see where the Blue Nile starts its journey to join the White Nile at Khartoum and so to the Mediterranean Soon we are at the landing stage at Bahir Dar - our coach is waiting for us and it is just a few minutes to the hotel. We will have time to unpack and rest, before meeting for evening prayers and a reflection on the day's experiences. 

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Sunday service at Debre Birhan Selassie - then scrambling, coffee and injera

All Age worship Ethiopian Orthodox style
on their way to church
It's Sunday. We are to go back to Debre Birhan Selassie (or Mountain of the Enlightened Trinity) - the church we visited yesterday in Gondar, with the fabulous wall and ceiling painted panels; this time to experience the Sunday service as it happens. As we sit in the coach at the hotel waiting to go, and giving our orders for lunch in their restaurant, I watch dozens, possibly hundreds, of white-clad figures zigzagging up the path behind the hotel compound towards a green domed church on the top of the distant hill. The sun is still rising up over the mountains behind us, shrouded in mist and forming ghostly silhouettes.
Along the road we see a dead donkey, a sad sight, with vultures hanging around waiting for their chance to pick the carcass down to dry bones, which will eventually bleach in the strong sun. The roads are full of people dressed in their white, walking to or from church, many of them students pouring through the University campus gate.

When we arrive at the church there are crowds gathered within the outer gate, but outside the church itself. Here we ladies must all cover our heads with scarves. Hats will not do. And females gather to the right of the church building, men to the left. And everywhere children quietly play or sit with their carers, girls suitably attired with pretty scarves.

the priest delivers his sermon from the steps
As we arrive the priest is preaching from the steps to the assembled crowd. He is passionate and charismatic and the people are very attentive albeit relaxed. He is telling us apparently about good versus evil: that good will benefit in the end even if evil behaviour seems to give immediate gains - these are short-lived and not worth it. He cites many bible stories to illustrate his point - a good message for us all I think.

In the Felasha village
a market stall Gondar - free range chickens being fed! 
This Sunday service could last for 4 hours, and worshippers attend for whatever period they want to. The formal time apparently extends over 3 of those hours, and a bell rings at the beginning of that formal period so that those who want to stay make sure they are within the church, and others come outside into the surrounding grounds. The bell also rings half way through, and again for the start of the Communion. Some will only go into the church  at that time, to be sprinkled with the Holy Water. Incense is also burnt at the beginning, middle and end of the service, reminding me of our experiences inthe Syriac Orthodox monastery in South East Turkey. 
The Geze language is used in the liturgy, by tradition, although many will not understand this. But the reading of the Holy book and the preaching are both in Amharic so these words are accessible to all. Three hours of singing by the deacons and priests will all be from memory.
After 20 minutes or so soaking up the atmosphere of the place, we have to leave each, of us taking away our own spiritual experiences. We drive through the market, now in full swing, and with many coffee ceremonies getting under way - a great local tradition for families and friends to get together after church.

An excellent road now takes us up into the mountains. This is clearly a more affluent area. This is where we saw our first car - a modern Yaris!
Gondar street scene
We stop at the nearby Falasha or Ethiopian Jewish village. The Jewish community have all returned to Israel from here, but the culture lives on in their trades and skills, many were ironsmiths/blacksmiths, weavers and farmers, and the women were known for their pottery. The crafts and souvenirs for sale reflect this. 

beehive in a tree

In the Simien mountain range
We briefly go into a private house here. They are busily preparing for a coffee ceremony for after the church service - we will go back on the way home to enjoy their very own and special brand of hospitality over this home roasted, ground and brewed coffee and be shown how the local traditional bread or injera is made. 

This next bit is not for the squeamish! It is - yet another - feast day today and there has been a "scrambling." The villagers have killed a cow, and they are all sharing the bits! Nothing is apparently wasted - we can see women and children cutting, washing, tearing, sorting and generally dealing with the meat and entrails whilst the bloodied and skinned head lies a little apart and the hide has been taken off to dry and no doubt use for floor or wall covering, or even for chair coverings - as we see later today at our lunchtime restaurant. Much of the best meat will be spiced and dried and stored for up to a year. But just as much will be shared and enjoyed now. I cannot feel so upset by the quick killing of a cow that has enjoyed such a good life grazing free range across the pastures here, finally to be killed where she lived and strolled. Her life has been generally good, compared with the miserable lives of so many factory-farmed animals (for UK readers see here) that face the final suffering of perhaps many miles of road transport deprived of food and water and any kind of necessary comfort. And the Ethiopians need this meat for their very survival. 
Befiker Kossoye Ecolodge rooms
a "swarming" - a cow being butchered and shared
The children here greet us at the bus door with Yo's and High Fives - somewhat different from the usual clamour for money and pens we have come to expect. A lady at the "scrambling" was thrilled that we were a Christian group and on our way to a prayer service - and that we had visited church already this morning. She lamented that most of the coaches who stopped by here were tourists and not religious, not even seemingly interested in their religious way of life. 

the perfect spot for our Eucharist
We are climbing into the most Southerly part of the Simien mountain range where the main crops are tef, wheat and barley. The farmers try to get a second crop here when the main crop has been harvested, of chick peas, as this does not need so much rain. But this year the rain fall has been meagre so there will be no second crop. In fact Ethiopia is suffering another serious drought 2015/16 especially in the Kobo area about 200 km South of Mekele, to the East of Lalibela.
at Befiker Kossoye lodge
room at Befiker Kossoye
Because it is Sunday and another feast day many men are carrying large yellow plastic canisters - looking like petrol cans - full of the local "beer", a potent brew and generally not to our taste.

making the injera
There have been many memorable experiences on this trip, but one of the best for me will always be the Eucharist or Holy Communion we celebrate at 2800 metres in a hollow at the very edge of a cliff overlooking the Simien mountain range. We sit in a circle on chairs covered in hide from the local goats, with the smell of Eucalyptus and the various sounds of insects, goats and birds all around us and a lammergeier  or Bearded Vulture circling overhead. Here we lunch at the Ecolodge BefikerKossoye  and are proudly shown the hotel accommodation by the owner - rooms clean and comfortable in their own circular huts with great character, the Lodge reputedly sited where Her Majesty the Queen stopped for tea one afternoon in 1965 while visiting Emperor Haile Selassie. If this is true, the Queen certainly had very good taste. This may be 30 km outside Gondar but the road is good and I cannot think of a better place to stay in the area if you value nature and scenery and good organic food, veggie friendly, in the most fabulous setting. 

enjoying our coffee in a very smoky front room!
Finally on the way back to our equally fabulous hotel Mayleko Lodge we stop to watch the injera bread being made and enjoy sampling it, with coffee brewed for our benefit in a traditional house at the Falasha village. There are basically two rooms. The back bedroom is for storage and with two beds accommodates the parents and the younger children. The outer room is for living, and at night the other children will sleep on skins or straw mattresses. The floor is bare earth, smoothed down regularly with animal dung, and in the rainy season a door will do its best to keep out the mud, I guess sometimes with limited success. 

Soon we will be on our way to Lake Tana and the Blue Nile falls - when pilgrims will become tourists before our journey homewards...