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

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...

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