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).
A circumambulation of the exterior of the church presents you with a constantly changing panoply of towers, columns, domes and pillars, all nicely done.
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.
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.
The windows along the sides of the church are filled with wonderful stained-glass representations of Biblical scenes, all produced locally within Ethiopia.
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.
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.
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.
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.