Abreha we Atsbeha

Panoramic view of the Church of Abreha we Atsbeha on the mountainside.

Panoramic view of the Church of Abreha we Atsbeha on the mountainside outside Wukro.

The church of Abreha and Atsbeha is one of the oldest and best-known rock-hewn churches in Tigray.  It lies in a rural community about 18 km west of Wukro.  To get there you drive north.  Just as you exit Wukro, you take a take a hard left down a long dirt and gravel road which twists and turns up and down the hills and mountains through numerous hairpin turns until you finally reach the church itself.  The trip takes about 45 minutes and is well worth it.  (As of this writing I have been there five times.  I suppose I have become a sort of pilgrim myself).

The church sits on the side (or, rather, “in the side”) of a rocky cliff with a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.  As with the other rock-hewn churches, Abreha we Atsbeha was carved out of the side of the mountain, excavated in one piece.

View of the surrounding countryside from the church.

View of the surrounding countryside from the church.

Rugged cliff face directly opposite the church.

Rugged cliff face directly opposite the church.

According to local tradition, this church was chisled out of the mountainside between 335 AD and 340 AD by King Abreha and his twin-brother and co-regent King Atsbeha, whose mother is said to have been from this area.  The church’s claim to antiquity is enhanced by multiple ancient artifacts in the adjoining museum (which in my experience is open only by special request and payment of an appropriate gratuity to the local priest).  Supposedly the mummified bodies of the two brother-kings are interred within the Holy of Holies in this church and one of the guidebooks reports that the last priest who tried to open the coffin to take a peek inside had his hands badly burnt by supernatural fire, dissuading further clerical curiosity-seekers from following his example.

Abreha and Atsbeha best

The twin brother-kings Abreha and Atsbeha.

You park your vehicle on the road at the base of the mountain and start towards the church by entering through a stone archway .  After a hundred yards or so you reach a stairway at the base of the cliff.

 

The twin brother-kings Abreha and Atsbeha.

Archway at the base of the cliff into which the church is hewn. You can see the stone stairway at the base, to the left.

Stairway 4

Stone stairway, which curves gracefully around the base of the cliff, rising slowly to a small plateau from which you ascend once more to enter the courtyard in front of the church.

I would not want to leave the impression that this church is merely a relic or simply a historical curiosity.  As far as I can tell, this church has been in nearly continuous use for nearly 1800 years (except for a few periods of political instability, about which more later).  For example, we came here on Good Friday this year and there were crowds of people in the vicinity of the church.  (We were told that a funeral had just been held for a recently-deceased local).  This is an active church with a large congregation–and because the church is well-known due to its antiquity, it is a site of pilgrimage for devout Orthodox believers.  The day of pilgrimage is 4 Tekmet (which works out as October 14 in our calendar).

Crowd of congregants descending the stairs on Good Friday, 2014.

Crowd of congregants descending the stairs on Good Friday, 2014.

The Good Friday crowd, 2014.

The Good Friday crowd, 2014.

When you have climbed the stairway from the base of the cliff, you are confronted with a short, steep stairway up to the church courtyard proper, through which you enter through a small blue gate.

Gateway to the church courtyard, as seen while ascending the stairway below.

Gateway to the church courtyard, as seen while ascending the stairway below.

Final approach to the courtyard.

Final approach to the courtyard.

Gateway to the courtyard.

Gateway to the courtyard.

Inside at last...

Inside at last…

Crossing the courtyard, you see the church immediately ahead.  There is an external portico through which you enter the church proper.  The portico is a much later addition to the church complex.

The external portico over the entrance to the church.

The external portico over the entrance to the church.

If the doorway to the church is locked, you’ll have to find the priest, but because this is an active church, it is often open and being utilized.

External portico

Entry to the church through the external portico.

If you do have to pay an entrance fee, be prepared to wait.  You need a receipt.  You need a receipt for EVERYTHING in Ethiopia.  It may take a while for the priest to write you a receipt, but you are in an eternal place anyway, so make the most of it.

Priest writing a receipt.

Priest writing a receipt.

Once you step inside, you are in the chanting room.  On Good Friday this room was occupied by a priest reading scripture aloud and an old man piously engrossed in reading his own holy texts.

Priest reading scripture Good Friday 2

Monk reading scripture on Good Friday, 2014.

Old man reading scripture Good Friday 2

A priest with his prayer book, Good Friday, 2014.

Drums in chanting room

Inside the chanting room at the Church of Abreha we Atsbeha.

The chanting room has a soft carpet on the floor, wonderful murals of Biblical scenes and illustrations from the mythologies of Christian saints, prayer crutches (for those long, long services–something lean on), and drums.  Drums are an important part of worship ceremonies.  The drums come with a strap so the priest can lift it, beating the drum rhythmically while singing softly in Ge’ez, the ancient liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  If it isn’t busy and the priest likes you (after five visits, we were becoming old friends), he will demonstrate the drumming and chanting for you outside of the regular service.

Priest with drum 2

Priest with a drum, showing how to sing and dance simultaneously in praise of the Lord.

The walls of the chanting room are covered with lovely murals and each is worth exploring.  You could spend hours sorting out the iconography and symbolism of these paintings, which are later than the original construction of the church.

Murals - chanting room 5

Murals of the chanting room.

Mural - Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve (buck naked), about to be punished for their transgressions.

Murals - Mary suckling baby Jesus

Mary suckling the baby Jesus. The anatomy depicted is somewhat implausible.

Murals - judgment

Judgment day – the weighing of souls.

St. George and the dragon 5

Saint George slaying the dragon. Saint George is the most popular saint in Ethiopia (and this may have something to do with the most popular local beer bearing his name). The dragon is a symbol for pre-Christian paganism, from which Our Beloved Saint is rescuing the damsel tied up in the tree.

Devil chained 3

The Devil, chained. Hoorah!

From the chanting room you step through another doorway into the sanctuary.

Entrance to sanctuary

Doorway from the chanting room into the sanctuary.

Sancturay 8

Inside the sanctuary.

Remember, please, that this church was not built, it was carved from a solid piece of rock.  All of the “open space” you see here was carved away, bit by bit, to leave the pillars, the ceiling, the walls of this church as a single piece.  Amazing!

Sanctuary 6

View towards the chanting room, as seen from inside the sanctuary.

Interior 3 Good Friday

Inside the sanctuary of the Church of Abreha we Atsbeha, Good Friday, 2014.

ceiling 5

The vaulted ceiling of the church. Parts of it were blackened in a fire. Attempts were made to destroy most of the churches of Tigray by the Falasha Queen Yodit who (as the story is told) met an unpleasant end due to divine retribution as a result.

At the far end of the sanctuary is the Holy of Holies, into which only specially authorized priests may enter.  In each Ethiopian Orthodox church there is a replica of the Ark of the Covenant (called the tabot).  it is commonly believed that the original Ark of the Covenant (really!) is kept in the Holy of Holies in the church in Axum, in the far north of Tigray.

Holy of holies 3

Entrance to the Holy of Holies, Church of Abreha we Atsbeha, near Wukro.

The Church of Abreha we Atsbeha is a place of pilgrimage, well worth a visit to those who wish to explore the Tigray Region.

Countryside

The countryside.

Gateway with countryside

View from the courtyard of the Church down to the foot of the mountain and the stone archway that opens onto the path leading to the church.

Cross on entryway

Cross over the entryway to the courtyard of the Church of Abreha we Atsbeha.

 

 

Infrastructure!

The blog is back!

Thanks to all who inquired (through various media) as to whether or not Helen and I were well. We are indeed. We have not been ill. We have not been kidnapped. We have not been the victims of terrorist plots or horrible accidents.

For at least the last 6 weeks, however, we have been victimized—as has the entire internet-using community in Ethiopia–by a network that does not work. Internet services in Ethiopia have been sporadic, unreliable, and often non-existent. There are problems at the local, regional and national level. EthioTel struggles at the best of times to maintain quality services (a constant topic of complaint at all levels of society). Last week the entire telecommunications system–phone, text, and internet–was out completely in Mekelle for at least 6 hours. This is highly annoying, but not unusual. Much of the time the phone services do not work anywhere–even in Addis Ababa (the largest city in the country) you often cannot call another mobile phone. (Fortunately, most of the time text messages get through–I have sent more text messages since I’ve been here than I have made phone calls!)

The chaos this creates in Ethiopia is hard to underestimate. Americans (and others) are accustomed to doing everything by e-mail or “on the web.” Imagine running a business without e-mail services or internet access. Imagine trying to do banking in a country where the network is down, constantly and unpredictably. (A few weeks ago when I went to the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, there was a line of customers over 100 yards long, winding up three staircases and beyond, because the national network was out and nobody could do banking transactions). Imagine trying to book or coordinate airline tickets with no network. Indeed, imagine trying to check in at the airport when the power goes out…

For most of this time–when we had internet services–we could only log on and keep a connection for about 45 seconds, which is hardly enough time to post a blog or upload a photograph. For the last few days, it seems that these problems have been resolved (at least in Addis Ababa, if not in Mekelle), so we shall sprint forward with updates.

Although Helen and I will soon be leaving Ethiopia, the blog will continue! We have much to share and much to write about and we will make an effort to get past the backlog.

Thanks for sticking with us!

Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa – Sunday, June 15, 2014

Front of The Holy Trinity Church, Addis Ababa

Front of The Holy Trinity Church, Addis Ababa

Churches are fascinating places to visit , particularly for historians and anthropologists,  Churches which are associated with the ruling elites of a country are especially fascinating places because they often give concrete visual expression to the values of a society in a given place and time.  Because they are associated with eternal values (at least the values seen as “eternal” by those who build them) what they emphasize (or do not) tells us a lot about the society that built them.

The Church of the Holy Trinity (more accurately known as Kiddist Selassie Cathedral) is one such place.  It is the “national cathedral” of Ethiopia, located in the heart of its capital city.

The cornerstone of the Cathedral was laid in 1933 by the young Emperor Haile Selassie, who was only about 4 years into his reign as Emperor of Ethiopia.  The cathedral is large, well-built, lavishly decorated, and surrounded by large grounds, in which are buried an assortment of members of the Ethiopian elite.  The surrounding cemetery is a place that one could wander for hours, looking at monuments and tombstones.  If you have had your hands on the levers of power in Ethiopian society (or if you want people to think that you moved in the most influential circles–and particularly if you have imperial connections) this is the place that you want to be buried.  It is the final resting place of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife.  It is also where the beloved alte President of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi (arguably the best thing that happened to Ethiopia in the 20th Century) is buried (photographs of his grave and monument, alas, are not allowed).

View of the cemetery on the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral.

View of the cemetery on the grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Grave of a famous Ethiopian singer, Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Grave of a famous Ethiopian singer, Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Grave of a fallen military officer, Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Grave of a fallen military officer, Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Grave of a famous Ethiopian sports broadcaster

Grave of a famous Ethiopian sports broadcaster

Gravesite of the recently-deceased Governor of Oromia State, Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Gravesite of the recently-deceased Governor of Oromia State, Holy Trinity Cathedral.

Grave and monument of a recently deceased Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop.

Grave and monument of a recently deceased Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop.

"Parade of the Archbishops," a phalanx of graves of former archbishops lined up in their own special section of the cemetery.

“Parade of the Archbishops,” a phalanx of graves of former archbishops lined up in their own special section of the cemetery.

A circumambulation of the exterior of the church presents you with a constantly changing panoply of towers, columns, domes and pillars, all nicely done.

Front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Front of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Exterior view of the dome of the church, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Exterior view of the dome of the church, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Exterior tower and colonnade, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Exterior tower and colonnade, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The dome, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The dome, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Exterior tower, with red, green, and yellow bunting (traditional colors) on display, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Exterior tower, with red, green, and yellow bunting (traditional colors) on display, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

On this Sunday afternoon, we entered the cathedral through a side door, under the watchful eye (and rather scowling face) of an archangel guarding the entrance.

Archangel guarding the side entrance to Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Archangel guarding the side entrance to Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

After taking off your shoes (a prerequisite for setting foot on any “holy ground” such as an Ethiopian Orthodox church) you enter a side aisle at the back of the church.  The cathedral’s interior is elegantly appointed and quite cool and pleasant.

Interior of the cathedral, side aisle, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Interior of the cathedral, side aisle, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Interior colonnade, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Interior colonnade, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Interior, Holy Trinity Cathedral, the ceiling.

Interior, Holy Trinity Cathedral, the ceiling.

Central aisle of the cathedral, looking towards the Holy of Holies.  The three figures at the top of the photograph are the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Central aisle of the cathedral, looking towards the Holy of Holies. The three figures at the top of the photograph are the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The windows along the sides of the church are filled with wonderful stained-glass representations of Biblical scenes, all produced locally within Ethiopia.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Moses bringing the Ten Commandments, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Moses bringing the Ten Commandments, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Noah giving thanks after The Flood, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa

Noah giving thanks after The Flood, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa

The birth of Jesus, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The birth of Jesus, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The crucifixion of Jesus, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The crucifixion of Jesus, stained glass window, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

As you approach the front of the church, just before you reach the Holy of Holies, there are two slightly secluded areas at the very front of the church, one on each side.  In these two areas, two small private pews were built, one for Emperor Haile Selassie, and the other for his wife, the Empress.

Private pew of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

Private pew of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

As you face the front of the church, directly to the left of the Holy of Holies, there is a small secluded area with two large stone crypts.  These contain the bodies of Haile Selassie and his wife.

After the Emperor was overthrown in 1974, he was held in virtual house arrest in a palace in Addis Ababa.  Eventually he was murdered–the most likely scenario is that he was smothered with a pillow in his bed by Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, the bloodthirsty leader of the Communist ruling clique (The Dergue).  The Emperor’s body was buried next to a latrine where it remained until after the overthrow of the Dergue regime.  Eventually the body was recovered and it was finally re-interred in its present location in Holy Trinity Cathedral in a lavish celebratory ceremony on November 5, 2000.

The tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

There is an elegant painted archway just over the Emperor’s tomb as you look up towards the sanctuary of the cathedral.  If you look carefully through the archway, you can see the painted dome of the cathedral.

Ceiling of the archway between the Emperor's tomb and the dome of the cathedral.

Ceiling of the archway between the Emperor’s tomb and the dome of the cathedral.

There is a mural on the wall of the dome.  The mural depicts the young Emperor Haile Selassie addressing the League of Nations, pleading for help from the other European powers to counter the invasion of his country by the Fascist Italian army under Mussolini–an attack undertaken in part as revenge for the humiliating defeat of the Italian army by the Ethiopians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896 (more on this later!).  It was Haile Selassie’s finest hour and it is still worthy of remembrance.

The young Emperor Haile Selassie pleading with the League of Nations for help in the face of the Fascist Italian invasion.  Dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The young Emperor Haile Selassie pleading with the League of Nations for help in the face of the Fascist Italian invasion. Dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, Addis Ababa.

The Flood

Rainy season has arrived 6 weeks early this year, and nobody in Tigray is really ready for it.  We had two short, heavy rainstorms about 10 days ago, and everyone was surprised that the rains had come this early.

Last Sunday, as we were getting ready to go to the airport to pick up 11 faculty members from Washington University who were to arrive for a medical education conference, the rains came again.  The power went out shortly after the rain started (not really unusual here) and Helen and I settled down to watch a movie on my laptop (battery power).

It was a torrential downpour, something that we would have experienced in New Orleans many years ago when we lived there.  Because we had had some leakage of water through window-frames last time, Helen went upstairs to check to make sure all of the  windows were securely closed and that all was well.  As soon as she got upstairs and opened the bedroom door, I heard a screech of distress.

I ran up the stairs to join her and we were confronted with over two inches of water in the bedroom totally covering the entire floor.  The water was running out under the door to the small veranda in a torrent.  It was moving out of the bedroom itself into the hallway, down over the balcony into the living room and into the stairwell leading upstairs.

The bedroom has a small veranda on the second floor, with a doorway outside (or into the bedroom, depending on where you are).  I sloshed over the to door and opened it, stepping out onto the veranda and roof.  The gutter overhanging the veranda was blocked and the water was streaming on the veranda.  In addition, the vernada is also rather like a bathtub enclosed on three sides but open to the bedroom.  There is poor drainage  (only two small drainholes over the side of the house into the front yard) and unfortunately ithe floor of the veranda tilts towards the house and, of course, the door to the bedroom.  The rain was torrential (we probably had 2-3 inched in a little over an hour) and the water was collecting on the veranda and running directly into the bedroom.  I was up to my ankles in rainwater, with more pouring down all the time.

I jumped onto the veranda with a push broom and fought (like the little Dutch boy!) to stem the tide.  i succeeded in keeping a lot of water out of the house, but not enough to prevent major damage.  In between pushes with the broom, I send out distress signals to all of my Ethiopian friends, who arrived in about 20 minutes.  The attempted rescue was under way!  Fortunately, the rain stopped, but the carpet in the bedroom (and the bedroom as an inhabitable location) is pretty much destroyed.

We managed to push most of the water downstairs into the stairwell and then into a bathroom drain.  Fortunately, the carpet has no underlay and the houses here are built with poured concrete and no drywall, so it isn’t a total disaster.  It is, however, a disaster.

We have moved into the Axum Hotel for a few days.  Eyoel managed to get a water vacuum from the Axum Hotel and had somebody suck up as much water as was possible.  This in itself was a heroic achievement!   (Note:  There is no “Servicemaster “franchise in Mekelle).  Today Eyoel seems to have located a large industrial fan to help dry things out.  We’ll see if it works.

We had minimal damage to personal possessions, nobody was hurt, and there were no electrical fires or other problems, but life has gotten a bit tougher.

Don’t expect a lot of interesting blog posts on scenic tourist attractions or other things for a few days until we have dried out!

The medical education conference is going very well, but we are a little distracted!!

Wukro Chirkos – May 11, 2014

We have been traveling in northern Ethiopia for two weeks and have also had a series of overseas visitors, so the blog postings have, alas, been rather scarce of late.  I hope to make this up to faithful readers by a rapid series of postings about the history and geography of northern Ethiopia over the next week or so.  Thanks for your patience!

Among the many man-made splendors in northern Ethiopia are the rock-hewn churches, of which there are many.  The most famous location is in Lalibela (about which more in a future post).  There are some 200 of these rock-hewn churches in Tigray, and 25 of them are located in what is called the “Wukro cluster.”  Perhaps the most accessible of these churches is the church of Wukro Chirkos (sometimes written as Wukro Turkos).  Wukro is a town of about 30,000 people about 40 km north of Mekelle on the road to Adigrat.  The Wukro Chirkos church is about 500 meters off the main highway, so it is easy to get to.  I am told that it was “discovered” by the outside world (a British expedition) in 1868, and is reportedly the first of the rock-hewn churches to be made known to the outside world.  Some of these churches are VERY difficult to reach (by donkey or mule expedition followed by a hand-overhand climb up a 40 foot rope to get to the top–I do not plan to visit any of these churches)!.

OK, so “big deal.”  What is a “rock-hewn church” anyway?  The rock-hewn churches are just that:  they are churches excavated, by hand, out of solid rock.  The Ethiopians (who have been Orthodox Christians since the 3rd or 4th Century AD) found suitable locations, decided to build a church, and then excavated the entire church in one piece out of solid rock, leaving arches and pillars standing inside.  They are incredible feats of engineering, and they get more and more spectacular as you think about what they did, when they did it, and with what they carried out their architectural feats.

Wukro Chirkos juts out from a low cliff along the side of a hill east of the main road.  The church is said by the locals to date from the 4th Century to the reign of the twin brother kings Abreha and Atsbeha, but some scholars think it is a few hundred years more recent than this.  An external roof and raised porch were added in the mid-20th Century due to seepage.  The interior of the church was burned in the 16th Century by a Muslim intruder from Somalia, Ahmed Gragn.

The rock-hewn churches are generally constructed in a cruciform shape, with three rooms:  an exterior “chanting room,” an interior “holy” room or sanctuary, and then a deeply-recessed “holy of holies,” into which only the priest may enter.  The holy of holies contains a replica of the Ark of the Covenant in every Ethiopian Orthodox Church, since it is believed that Menelik I (reportedly the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba) is said to have transported the original Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem to Ethiopia as a gift from his father.  Ethiopian tradition says that the original Biblical Ark of the Covenant rests in a church in Axum in northern Ethiopia.  (Steven Spielberg says it rests in a wooden crate in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution, but that’s a whole ‘nother story!).

Here is your tour of the Church of Wukro Chirkos.  Enjoy!

Distant view of the modern bell tower as you enter the exterior gate of the church.

Distant view of the modern bell tower as you enter the exterior gate of the church.

You enter the church grounds through a modern gate and fence at the bottom of the hill.  As you look up, you can see a modern belltower with a loudspeaker and the hard rocky ground surrounding the church is obvious.  This is austere countryside.

The church may have been used for close to 16 centuries, and there are a lot of burials in the area, dating from ancient to modern times.

Graves outside the church of Wukro Chirkos, hidden in the foliage.

Graves outside the church of Wukro Chirkos, hidden in the foliage.

You clamber up a rocky pathway to reach the gate to the interior of the church compound.  The colors red, yellow and green are typical of all Ethiopian Orthodox Churches and are the main colors of the Ethiopian flag.

Entrance to the interior compound of Wukro Chirkos.

Entrance to the interior compound of Wukro Chirkos.

As you enter the church courtyard, you are met by a couple of inhabitants.  Wukro Chirkos is home to a large assembly of priests, monks, nuns and deacons.  (The “deacons” are actually students who have come to study theology).  An entrance fee of 150 Birr (about $15) is charged.  Immediately upon entering, you notice a nice rock cross over a recent grave.

A cross just inside the courtyard of Wukro Chirkos.

A cross just inside the courtyard of Wukro Chirkos.

Turning to the right, you see a broad set of low stone stairs and the church directly behind them.

Entrance to the church of Wukro Chirkos.

Entrance to the church of Wukro Chirkos.

The modern external portico has a locked door, but having paid our entrance fee (and gotten a receipt–you can’t do anything in Ethiopia without getting a receipt), the priest cheerfully unlocked the door to show us inside.  Removal of footwear is mandatory.  Women are allowed inside at Wukro Chirkos (which is not true for all church structures, particularly monasteries).

The external portico.

The external portico.

Once inside, you find a rather darkened structure.  It doesn’t seem too big—until you remember that this was a solid block of rock and that everything you see was chiseled out by hand in perfect symmetry.  That is impressive.

Interior of the church of Wukro Chirkos, looking back from the sanctuary ("holy room") through the "chanting room" towards the door.  A ceremonial drum is visible in the corner--a staple of Ethiopian church services.

Interior of the church of Wukro Chirkos, looking back from the sanctuary (“holy room”) through the “chanting room” towards the door. A ceremonial drum is visible in the corner–a staple of Ethiopian church services.

Interior of the sanctuary of Wukro Chirkos, all carved out of a single block of stone.

Interior of the sanctuary of Wukro Chirkos, all carved out of a single block of stone.

Carved pillars inside the church.  The surrounding stone was chiseled away, leaving these magnificent supporting pillars inside the church.

Carved pillars inside the church. The surrounding stone was chiseled away, leaving these magnificent supporting pillars inside the church.

Ornate pillars inside the church.  There is enormous symbolism in all of the architecture, which would take an entire volume to attempt to explain, even if I understood it all...

Ornate pillars inside the church. There is enormous symbolism in all of the architecture, which would take an entire volume to attempt to explain, even if I understood it all…

You cross through the Chanting Room, into the Sanctuary, and then you are face to face with the entrance to the Holy of Holies.  Inside are the most sacred relics of the church, as well as the obligatory replica of the Ark of the Covenant.  Only the priest (often referred to as the “Owner” of the church) may enter.

The priest of Wukro Chirkos, in front of the entrance to the Holy of Holies, holding a 5th Century holy book, which he has taken out to show us.

The priest of Wukro Chirkos, in front of the entrance to the Holy of Holies, holding a 5th Century holy book, which he has taken out to show us.

Priest holding open the 5th century book.  It is in good shape, largely because the pages are not paper.  The pages are made of vellum (dried, stretched sheepskin or goatskin) on which the manuscript has carefully been written.  Red letters are used for the names of Jesus, Mary, various saints an other holy personages.

Priest holding open the 5th century book. It is in good shape, largely because the pages are not paper. The pages are made of vellum (dried, stretched sheepskin or goatskin) on which the manuscript has carefully been written. Red letters are used for the names of Jesus, Mary, various saints an other holy personages.

Maltese cross carved on one of the side pillars in the sanctuary.

Maltese cross carved on one of the side pillars in the sanctuary.

As you look up towards the ceiling, you can see the remnants of murals and paintings that were badly damaged in the ancient fire when the church was burned.  (You get conflicting stories as to who was actually responsible for this, but it was not an accident…).

Remnants of ancient ceiling murals, damaged by fire.

Remnants of ancient ceiling murals, damaged by fire.

Decorative ceiling carving inside Wukro Chirkos.  Remember, all of this is carved from one block of stone--all of the interior spaces were cut out and taken away to create all of the structures and decorative motifs.

Decorative ceiling carving inside Wukro Chirkos. Remember, all of this is carved from one block of stone–all of the interior spaces were cut out and taken away to create all of the structures and decorative motifs.

Vaulted ceiling, damaged by ancient fire.

Vaulted ceiling, damaged by ancient fire.

As you exit the sanctuary and enter the chanting room, you pass a ceremonial drum on the floor to your right.  (For some reason, I love photographing Ethiopian church drums–get used to them!).

Ethiopian church drum.  These are widely used in church services to accompany singing and chanting.

Ethiopian church drum. These are widely used in church services to accompany singing and chanting.

As you exit the church, you can turn to your left and circle around the building and up to the top of the rock from which the church was carved.  This takes you up to modern belltower (complete with loudspeakers).

Exit the church, turn the corner, and climb up the rock to reach the modern belltower.

Exit the church, turn the corner, and climb up the rock to reach the modern belltower.

Modern belltower of the church at Wukro Chirkos.

Modern belltower of the church at Wukro Chirkos.

From the top of the rock into which the church is cut, you get a great view of the surrounding—and rather austere—countryside.

The view from the hill where the belltower was constructed.

The view from the hill where the belltower was constructed.

From the top of the hill you can get a good look down into the valley (especially if you have a telephoto lens) and see the “student dormitories”–the stone tukuls with thatched grass roofs where the “deacons” live when they are not up at the church studying.

Student housing for the Deacons of Wukro Chirkos.

Student housing for the Deacons of Wukro Chirkos.

Stay tuned!  There is more to come!  Our next stop will be yhe fabulous church of Abreha we Atsbeha, generally considered the finest rock-hewn church in Tigray.

Starbacks Coffee

No, it is not a typo.

Starback's!  Mekelle's best cup of coffee?

Starbacks!  Mekelle’s best cup of coffee?

Starbacks Coffee is one of the best coffee houses in Mekelle, located in one of the older parts of town.  It has both indoor and outdoor seating (outdoor is always popular) and the outdoor seating is a few small tables but lots of stools along the sides of the building.

Inside the decor is simple, but amusing.  In some ways it reminds me of stepping into a 1950’s era diner in the Midwestern US with a sense of humor.  The owners have liberally plastered their walls with amusing signs relating to coffee.  For example …

Ethiopian coffee humor at work...

Ethiopian coffee humor at work…

Or perhaps this one….

How many medical students can relate to this one?!

How many medical students can relate to this one?!

Or perhaps this is more to your taste?

I KNOW this one is right...!

I KNOW this one is right…!

And, of course, you HAVE to have “the old standbys…”

Ah, yes.  This must be a universal joke if you can find it on the wall in downtown Mekelle...

Ah, yes. This must be a universal joke if you can find it on the wall in downtown Mekelle…

According to legend, coffee was discovered in the highlands of Ethiopia by a goat-herder named Kaldi (ring any bells?).  While tending his goats, Kaldi noticed that some of them were eating the little red berries off a bush.  After they had eaten the berries, they were extraordinarily vigorous, excitable and alert, so Kaldi harvested some of the beans, took them to a local priest and together they started experimenting.  Voila!  The coffee industry was born!

But I don’t tell the story nearly as well as the explanatory sign in Starbacks does:

The story of the origins of coffee.

The story of the origins of coffee.

This also explains the large statue of a goat eating coffee beans that sits in the middle of Starbacks…

A goat eating coffee beans--did you expect something else?

A goat eating coffee beans–did you expect something else?

Unlike the coffee that you may purchase (at extraordinarily higher prices) at a similarly green-and-white-themed coffee bar in the US, coffee at Starbacks is FRESH.  In fact, all coffee in Ethiopia is extraordinarily fresh.  They take the green coffee beans, put them in metal pan, and roast them over a charcoal fire right in front of your eyes.  The succulent smoke from the roasting pan pervades the entire establishment.

Totally fresh coffee being roasted in front of you.

Totally fresh coffee being roasted in front of you.

The coffee is then ground immediately and brewed in a specially designed coffee pot.  Starbacks uses the coffee pots to add to their decor by knocking out the bottoms of old coffee pots and turning them into light fittings.  It definitely adds to the charm of the place.

Light fittings on the ceiling of Starbacks made from old Ethiopian coffee pots.

Light fittings on the ceiling of Starbacks made from old Ethiopian coffee pots.

The coffee is poured from the brewing pot into a delicate little cup.

Pouring the coffee.

Pouring the coffee.

If you look a little more closely at an Ethiopian coffee pot, you will see the coffee “filter.”  Traditionally this is a little plug of sweet grass put into the spout and it is an essential part of the coffee ceremony.

An Ethiopian coffee flter at work.

An Ethiopian coffee flter at work.

I rather got burned out on coffee while I was a medical student.  Helen and I are generally tea-drinkers now.  I find most coffee in the United States bitter and unappealing.  But the coffee in Ethiopia is awesome!  It is strong, smooth, powerful and sweet!  Helen drinks it too!  Apparently she likes her coffee like she likes her men!  (Sorry, but I just couldn’t resist…)

Coffee is plentiful, fresh, delicious and cheap–usually less than 20 cents per cup–and that, too, is very different from the US.

Enjoy!

A freshly-brewed cup of Ethiopian coffee...

A freshly-brewed cup of Ethiopian coffee…

Lewis’s First Haircut – Thursday, March 27, 2014

I hadn’t had a haircut since we left St. Louis, so I was looking pretty shaggy.  Long hair on an aging, balding man isn’t pretty (Right, Ralph?).  So, what to do?

There are plenty of barbershops in Mekelle.  (A barbershop here is often called a “barbery,” which makes me think of the Marine Corps Hymn, not haircuts).  But there are very few people here with “European” type hair, so I’ve been reluctant to just walk in and sit down with a barber who probably doesn’t speak English and see what happens.

So I asked my Indian friend Hareesh (who has nice straight black hair) where he gets his hair cut.  He told me he has a local barber who “makes house calls.”  He comes to his house every few weeks and cuts his hair.

Hareesh always looks neat and well groomed, so I figured why not?  It was probably worth the risk.  Hareesh called his barber and I called Asmarom, the bajaj driver, to arrange transportation.  The barber (whose name is Halish) punctually and set to work.

I’m not quite sure what I expected, but Halish pulled out his instruments, which included an electric barber clippers.  (Helen says it is exactly the same thing she used to cut Jimmy and Thom’s hair all those years ago–ah, childhood memories!  Right, boys?).

We had to go into the house to find an electrical plug.  (You may not have had much experience with Ethiopian electrical sockets, but I did have a momentary pause thinking about this.  Our brand-new electric toaster bit the dust and fried the power strip a few days ago, so I hoped this wasn’t going to happen to me with a sharp cutting instrument applied to my head and plugged into the local power grid).

The first thing Halish did (after putting his barber’s apron around my neck) was to stuff little balls of cotton into my ears.  (I wondered if that was so I couldn’t hear my own screams or if it was to muffle his laughter…probably it wasjust to keep little pieces of hair out of my ears–but you never know, going into something like this…)

Helen took pictures while Halish cut my hair.  He spent a LONG time cutting my hair (much longer than Wayne, my St. Louis barber, would have taken).  But he did a good job and now I am “shorn” and I also have another cultural experience behind me.  I probably won’t wait 11 weeks before the next haircut!

Lewis 2

The haircut begins! Note the little balls of cotton stuffed into my ears…

Making progress...

Making progress…

The final product!

The final product!