Easter is nearly upon us. For many this means little more than a surplus of hot cross buns, a nausea-fuelled orgy of chocolate eggs and a chance to spend some time trawling through the aisles of the local DIY stores. Personally, it will signal the end of a self-imposed chocolate fast that has seen me enduring cold turkey since the beginning of Lent.There are, of course, many out there who still observe its more traditional meaning and a mission of mercy on the lifeboat this week – to deliver a bishop and a cross to a small fishing port on the south-west coast of the Isle of Man – did make me momentarily reflect on what Easter still means to many people around the world.
It also reminded me of a surreal Easter that I once spent in the town of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia…
Having travelled across the country in a bus, sat sandwiched between a nervous chicken and an old man cradling a Kalashnikov, I had arrived in Aksum just in time for the Easter celebrations, an important time for the Orthodox Christians. Of the numerous religious festivals practiced by the Ethiopians the two most important are Timkat and Easter and, whilst Timkat is certainly the more colourful, Easter has always required a more committed approach to worship. The Orthodox Easter is known as Fasika and marks the end of a fast that lasts some 55 days, during which time no animal product at all can be consumed. Suffice to say, the end of Easter in Ethiopia is something of a blood bath, when the streets quite literally run with gore and animals and vegetarians alike tend to keep a low profile.
The town itself was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Lying at the heart of an empire that stretched along the Red Sea coast to present day Djibouti and deep into southwestern Arabia, at its height it rivalled the empires of Rome, China and Persia and nurtured a civilisation that far outstripped its neighbours. It was from here that Christianity spread its way into the rest of Ethiopia.
…It is also the final resting place of the ‘lost’ Ark of the Covenant!
The stuff of legend and conjecture, sought by everyone from the Knights Templar to Indiana Jones, this most holy of relics today resides in a small, unassuming concrete chapel sandwiched between Aksum’s two cathedrals. Lying beneath a decaying green roof, watched over by a solitary monk, there are few here who will publicly deny its presence. This sacred relic is central to the entire Orthodox faith, with every church, no matter how large or small, housing a replica known as the Tabot within its sanctuary. Little wonder then that there is still an unshakeable belief amongst its people that the Ark of the Covenant is indeed within their midst.
Strangely, this deeply ingrained religious fervour had more than a passing effect on me. I even managed to drag myself into the pre dawn light one morning, to bear witness to a remarkable procession. Hundreds of white robed figures, their faces bathed in the almost ethereal glow of candlelight, walked through the surprisingly crowded streets. At their centre, a group of monks carried a box, about the size of a small tea chest, within which lay, allegedly, the hallowed symbol of their faith. A part of me truly wanted to believe that this small unremarkable box, just a few feet away from me, contained the most sacred of all religious artefacts…the words of God himself.
It was during this rare (and temporary) episode of religious enlightenment that I found myself purchasing a grubby scroll from a wandering street trader. Written in Ge’ez, a language that can trace its origins back to the ancient Arabian texts of 6th century BC, this aged roll of pigskin represented a tradition that has long disappeared from western art. A mix of talismanic art, religious prayer and illuminated manuscript, these gospel scrolls were believed to provide protective and healing powers. Inscribed with prayers, spells and charms, they were commissioned by individuals for a range of reasons, from warding off evil spirits, to curing sterility and restoring health. Ironically they were tolerated by the Ethiopian Church, in spite of their obvious connections to more pagan practices, because of their inclusion of religious imagery and exerts from the gospels.
These scrolls were specifically tailored to the physical and spiritual characteristics of the client and even the selection and sacrifice of the specific animal was overseen by an ordained cleric, who would then wash the client in the animal’s blood. Three strips of parchment were then made from the skin of the animal and stitched together, to form a single scroll equal in height to the owner. The direct physical connection with its owner was meant to enhance the power of the scroll’s magic. I have no idea who my scroll was originally made for, or indeed what the words or religious iconography mean. If its size is anything to go by though its original owner was nearly six and a half foot tall, so I am guessing that he didn’t need it to ward off a neighbourhood bully!
The Easter ceremonies in Aksum carried on throughout the following days and the town reverberated to the sound of singing. As midnight approached and Easter Sunday drew nearer, drums began to sound throughout the town, accompanied by a hypnotic chanting that seemed to permeate every nook and cranny. Not wanting to miss out, I made my way down to one of the smaller churches, drawn by the incessant sound of the drums. It was filled to overflowing, every piece of floor space taken up by prostrate figures, beggars and young children who, seemingly oblivious to the goings on around them, were content to spend the few remaining hours of the fast dreaming of the feasting to come.