The Stunning and Mysterious Subterranean Churches of Ethiopia, and the Humble Christians Who Worship in Them

The faithful wend their way towards the Bet Giyorgis – the 50ft-tall Church of St George carved into the volcanic rock of Lalibela by hand, shaped like a giant Greek cross (Kirill Serebrennikov)
The faithful wend their way towards the Bet Giyorgis – the 50ft-tall Church of St George carved into the volcanic rock of Lalibela by hand, shaped like a giant Greek cross (Kirill Serebrennikov)

When he ventured into the mysterious subterranean churches of Ethiopia, Evgeny Lebedev not only visited one of the world’s architectural marvels, he experienced a humble Orthodox Christianity which shames Russia’s own

I wake up and don’t have a clue where I am. There is barely any light, hardly enough to pierce the curtains. But it’s not the gloom or the early start that has left me confused. It’s the ear-splitting chanting.

The noise is in no language I’ve ever heard. Yet the sound is familiar, even if the language is not. I have heard it in Istanbul, the Gulf, parts of Jerusalem. It sounds almost exactly like an imam calling the faithful to prayer.

Yet I am in Ethiopia, the cradle of an ancient form of Christianity, and the hotel at which I am staying is in Lalibela, one of the country’s most Christian sites; there are no mosques nearby. So what is going on?

Stepping out on to my balcony, I see the hillside opposite covered with thousands of people dressed in white cotton robes. They are making their way up a series of dirt tracks, their feet throwing up a haze of red dust. The chanting seems to be coming from the hilltop. But there is no sign of a church or indeed any building up there. All that can be made out is the rough outline of part of a giant cross, seemingly carved into the ground.

My guide, Girtane, is waiting for me in the hotel lobby. Seeing my confusion, he breaks into a broad smile. “It’s St George’s Day,” he says in explanation. St George, I learn, is the patron saint of Ethiopia. The damsel whom the knight saved from the dragon is, in local tradition, an Ethiopian princess called Beruktawit. And the chanting is not Arabic but Ge’ez , the holy language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Ge’ez has been spoken in Ethiopia since the time Rome was first founded. It has been the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’s religious texts since Christianity originally spread to the country in the early fourth century, brought to this land by a Syrian Greek shipwrecked on the Eritrean coast.

The reason it sounds so familiar is that its origin can be traced to the same linguistic roots which inform Arabic and Hebrew. Ge’ez, it seems, is just another of the many ways that Ethiopia, and its church, has long been entwined with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern – and not just African – tradition.

I had already been in the country long enough to appreciate its rich cultural heritage and how it is a very, very different place to its Live Aid-era image. The capital, Addis Ababa, is a hive of construction (much of it the result of the influx of vast sums of Chinese money). Great stretches of the countryside look lush and green. But, for me, the biggest revelation in my time there was about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and its relationship with the people it serves.

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SOURCE: EVGENY LEBEDEV 
The Independent

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