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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!

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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.

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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!

IMG_2471The 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.

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A few years ago I travelled across Ethiopia, for no other reason than I could. Almost a decade later It still remains one of the most visually and culturally captivating places I have ever seen.

To many, Ethiopia today is a country without hope. Nothing more than a famine-ridden dust bowl languishing on the eastern edge of Africa. Yet this is home to one of the oldest Christian civilisations on earth, with a cultural pedigree that can match anything in antiquity. This is a country that witnessed the rise and fall of great empires whilst our ancestors were still running around in animal skins and woad mascara. This is the cradle of humanity for God’s sake!

I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t given Ethiopia much thought of late, that was until a friend of mine came back from there earlier this year. Listening to her talking about the place brought back memories of sharing a rickety old bus with a man and his Kalashnikov, passing the skeletal remains of burnt out tanks and the imposing majesty of imperial castles as I made my way into the religious heartlands of the interior.

One of the places that left a particular impression on me was a town called Harar, situated in the foothills of the Chercher Mountains, some 150 kilometres from the Somalian border. This was a town of conflict and contrast, a microcosm of African life, where Muslims and Christians had brokered an uneasy truce and the streets and alleyways positively screamed with noise and colour. Once a staunch Muslim stronghold, until the latter part of the 19th century Harar was completely closed to Christians. Birthplace of Ras Tafari Makonnen, better known to most as the emperor Haile Selassie, this was a city like no other I had come across in Ethiopia. It was more vibrant than the towns of the Central Highlands and felt more Arab than African. There was also an underlying feeling of tension wherever I went. Christians were tolerated here, but only just.

For all its initial aggression though I liked Harar. From my hotel room I watched the chat sellers doing a brisk trade in their seemingly inexhaustible supply of the region’s main cash crop. Chat is a mildly intoxicating and perfectly legal stimulant that has been cultivated in Ethiopia for centuries and from my elevated vantage point it also appeared to be the prime preserve of the adult male population of Harar. Walking through the streets later that day I came across countless men resting up in the late afternoon sun, their eyes glazed and their teeth green from chewing bags of the stupefying leaves.

Harar’s network of narrow lanes crisscross the city, passing markets overflowing with spices and vegetables and crossing streets filled to overflowing with barber’s shops, tailors and lepers. I wandered past tiny mosques and Catholic schools, visited the house of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who spent 16 years of his life here and, in a back street of almost overwhelming obscurity, came upon the house were Haile Selassie grew up. It had been taken over by a local family and a passing holy man, whose lofty claims to be able to cure everything from sexually transmitted diseases to cancer were somewhat tempered by the appalling stench and overwhelming sense of decay that assailed you as you entered the yard. It was more open sewer than health centre and I remember beating a hasty retreat back out into the warren of alleyways, looking for more pleasant sights and smells.

One of Harar’s more famous spectacles is the nightly hyena feeding that takes place outside the city walls. Very much a tourist attraction these days, it nonetheless has its origins in a ceremony that stretches back hundreds of years and, in spite of its potential for crass commercialism, it does present something of a unique experience. Calling them in from the surrounding darkness the “Hyena man” feeds these wild dogs from a basket of offal, sometimes placing the tempting morsels between his teeth and allowing the more adventurous of the pack to snatch it, quite literally, from his waiting jaws. I counted upwards of 20 of them emerge from the trees and walk cautiously towards us, a somewhat disconcerting sight given that they could have torn us to pieces very easily had they been inclined. They seemed content to go with the easy option though, just as well given that our “armed” escort seemed to be holding his gun the wrong way round!

As the food ran out and the rains began, I recall the Hyenas vanishing into the darkness like ghosts, their retreat being calmly watched over by a mangy cat who seemed to take the entire spectacle in its stride. I should have gone with them. As it was, I spent my last night in Harar stood on a rooftop, in the midst of a storm of almost biblical proportions, trying to talk sense into an evangelising and very drunk American. He had climbed onto the roof to preach a sermon to the poor benighted souls below, offering them comfort and solace from the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels. This was not good. For centuries this town had been a crossroads, an entrepôt of commercial trade from Africa, India and the Middle East. It was from here that the Muslim armies of Ahmed Ibn Ibrahim al Ghazi had swept forth in a holy jihad against the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This was a town with attitude, which still had a xenophobic mistrust of foreigners and the largest chat market in Ethiopia. This was not a town for drunken American evangelists…