I am a happy wanderer, a lifelong searcher of special people and sacred spaces. I’d love to guide you into my world.
This is the post excerpt.
I am a happy wanderer, a lifelong searcher of special people and sacred spaces. I’d love to guide you into my world.
There is truly a Once-Upon-a-Time place in England. It’s Glastonbury, in Somerset, in the southwest of the British Isles. A small town where myth and legend and tradition loom as large as the biggest open-air rock music festival in Europe.
Glastonbury – the fabled Isle of Avalon, a place of great spiritual significance to people of many persuasions. This is where, according to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea, of the Bible, first brought Christianity to England; where a Hawthorne tree grows that blossoms in the middle of winter; where, according to legend, a mortally-wounded King Arthur was floated away by the Three Queens – and the Holy Grail is concealed.
The Death of King Arthur, by Katharine Cameron, 1907.
Glastonbury. Known as Ynyswytrin (“The Isle of Glass”, or “Isle of Seeing”) to the ancient Britons, then Glassenbery to the Angles. The town in the Vale of Avalon is watched over by the iconic Tor – a conical hill which dominates the land around.
Glastonbury Tor is only 158 metres (518 feet) above sea level, but it is quite steep; so it takes a brisk, breath-taking climb up to the summit, where the forlorn remains of St Michael’s Church tower doggedly braces against the wind. From the top of the Tor you have an unparalleled 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside.
I am on top of Glastonbury Tor, with the tower of the 14th Century St Michael’s Church behind me.
There are many stories about the Tor (“Tor” being an old Anglo-Saxon word for “hill”) – some historically true (Abbot Richard Whiting was hung, drawn and quartered there by King Henry VIII’s soldiers in 1539); some fantastical (inside the hill is a hidden cave, through which you can go to the faery realm of Annwn. Or perhaps the Holy Grail is buried here….)
There are seven clear terraces on the sides of the Tor.
The feature that intrigues me the most, are the distinct grooves, or terraces, along the flanks of the hill. Some say it’s a mystical maze, like the Cretan labyrinth, created by ancient wisdom; some say these terraces were cut by ancient or Medieval people, to grow crops.
On the morning that I walked there, I met a lovely local man called Adrian; but I think of him as the Angel Gabriel, the Divine Messenger – because he definitely gave me some great information and insights.
My Glastonbury informant, Adrian.
Adrian, aka Angel Gabriel, believes the terraces are absolutely natural formations. The Tor is formed of clay and Blue Lias stone, with a hard cap of sandstone. Adrian believes the terraces were formed naturally by the softer material eroding away over time. It is possible that humans linked these natural grooves to form a kind of labyrinth, or a defensive structure; but to date the true origins of the enigmatic terraces cannot be established.
The rocks of the Tor hold more secrets. There are two springs exuding from the hillside within a few metres of each other: one producing “red” water, the other clear white water!
The water of the Chalice Well stains stones red.
The “red water” or “Blood Spring”, gushes forth at the Chalice Well, now in a beautiful garden at the foot of the Tor. The water is actually crystal clear, and has served as Glastonbury’s main source of potable water for many centuries. But it contains iron oxide, which stains the rocks and pipes red. Below the Well is a small pool, the Pilgrims’ Bath, where many miracle healings are said to have occurred. Could this be where Joseph of Arimathea left the Chalice, or cup which Christ used at the Last Supper? Could this be a sign of the Blood of Christ?
The lid of the Chalice Well is decorated with a deeply symbolic image.
The other, the White Spring, pours out not far away, in Wellhouse Lane. This water, which contains calcite, is also reputed to have healing powers, and a lovely well house, or temple, has been constructed to protect this source.
Joseph of Arimathea
Joseph of Arimathea was a merchant, and reputedly the uncle of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ. British legends would have it that Joseph regularly came to Britain, to trade for tin from Cornwall, and lead from the Mendip Hills. According to the Gospels, Joseph asked for Jesus’s body after the crucifixion, and then buried it in a stone tomb.
Further legends claim that Joseph in his later life travelled as far as Glastonbury. This is possible, as 2,000 years ago, the Somerset Plains were under water, with only the Tor and some other hills jutting out as islands. People used to navigate the area by boat (that is why the Three Queens took the dying King Arthur away in a barge….)
Queens and King Arthur, by Harry G. Theaker, 1930.
When Joseph set foot on land at Glastonbury, he reputedly stuck his staff into the ground – and, oh, miracle! It took root, turned green – and bore blossoms at Christmas, in the heart of the British winter, to “prove” that Christmas is a holy time.
A picture from Pinterest depicting Joseph of Arimathea and the miracle of the Holy Thorn.
Today there are many hawthorne trees, “descendants” of this Holy Tree. One of the most important Glastonbury Holy Thorns stands in the grounds of St John’s Anglican Church in the town. I have been told reliably that it really does bloom out of season; and every Christmas Eve a branch is cut from this tree and sent to the Queen, to decorate her breakfast table on Christmas morning.
A Glastonbury Holy Thorn in the churchyard of St John’s Parish Church in Glastonbury.
But perhaps Joseph of Arimathea’s biggest legacy in Britain is the little wattle-and-daub church that he reputedly built in Glastonbury. Out of these humble beginnings grew one of the biggest, and most important abbeys and monasteries in Britain. And, some say, the spiritual birth of Christ in England.
The evocative ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
In Saxon and Norman times, (i.e. about 1,000 years ago), Glastonbury Abbey was bigger even than Canterbury Cathedral, and by all accounts a splendid edifice, a great place of learning. There were several great abbots, like St Dunstan; and at least three Saxon kings were crowned here.
A tour guide, “Brother David”, at the beautifully-carved archway into the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey.
But then, in 1184, a huge fire devastated most of the abbey complex. Joseph’s old church was wiped out. Most of the treasures, precious manuscripts and relics were lost.
The abbey was quickly rebuilt. But… the monks needed money. And by happy chance (?!), seven years later an amazing discovery was made: a grave was uncovered, and two skeletons found – believed to be King Arthur and his bride, Guinevere! The remains were later transferred to a marble shrine, which became a great place of pilgrimage – and a great source of income for the abbey.
A signpost among the ruins at Glastonbury Abbey.
I am personally rather sceptical about this “find”. It was never beyond good Christian monks to perpetrate a bit of fraud to supplement their income. But…. I do actually believe it was possible for Joseph of Arimathea to have worshipped here long ago.
Today, the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey are a poignant but serene reminder of the greater glory of bygone days. The decline of the abbey and monastery came with Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, when in 1539 the last abbot, Richard Whiting, was brutally executed on the Tor, and the wealth of the abbey confiscated by the king. In the following years even the stones were ripped from the walls, and used as building material elsewhere.
Another view of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.
But there is a power, a mystical calling at Glastonbury, which makes these places sacred to so many people. The weird and the wonderful congregate here and find a home. Glastonbury is undoubtedly the New Age capital of the UK, with every New Age therapy and book and crystal available. Nowhere else in very tolerant UK have I encountered so much acceptance and embracing of “the other”.
A lovely mural in Glastonbury town centre. Note the sword, Excalibur, in the hand of the Lady of the Lake.
At the Abbey ruins is a beautiful little chapel, St Patrick’s Chapel. Yes, another of the once-upon-a-time tales of Glastonbury is that the Patron Saint of Ireland is buried here!
As I sat contemplating the lovely wall paintings in the chapel, an astonishing sound arose. I realised that it was the other person sitting in the chapel, doing overtone chanting! Later during my visit to the abbey ruins, I saw this person several times, wandering about the gardens and filling the air with these haunting sounds. Quite normal, evidently.
A short clip of someone doing overtone chanting in St Patrick’s Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey.
That evening, as I walked down the High Street, I noticed quite a large gathering of people around a soup kitchen outside St John’s Church. I was saddened: “So many poor and hungry people in this small town!” I though to myself.
No, no! My new friend Adrian, aka the Angel Gabriel, told me those were not all destitute and desperate people. “No, the soup kitchen is a social event, where all sorts of people gather and chat,” he explained. “You’d find that quite a lot of those people you saw are good, middle-class people just reaching out.”
Adrian ascribed this tolerance to the Quaker presence in the history of the area. The main industry in the next village of Street is the world-famous shoemaking firm of Clarks. The Clarks were a Quaker family, as were other leading business people in the area. And I know that the Quakers extend a very real social conscience into their everyday activities.
Undoubtedly there will be normal human conflicts and resentments in the Glastonbury community. But long may the world be blessed with the strange, wonderful, unique phenomenon that is Glastonbury.
# I drew much from the book About Glastonbury, by Polly Lloyd, published by Bossiney Books, 2013 reprint.
Not that I wanted this. But it happened. Now I am surrounded by the aromatic fragrances of fynbos, a multitude of herbs, mingled with the salty air of the wild southern oceans.
I am used to the ocean air. And water. But back on the coast of Normandy, it was thinner. And wetter. Oh, yes, it rained a lot more there than here, in Hermanus. And of course you also have the fresh water coming down the Seine. But here I have an open mountain to explore. Endless bushes and rocks.
If it wasn’t for that nuisance, Shadow. He says it’s his home, and I am not welcome. When I first arrived, we had a good scrap. But I wasn’t known as The Bruiser back at home in Rouen for nothing. Now he does sometimes allow me to eat from his bowl. He’s quite placid, really. I suppose he was also taken to the vet – oh, I hate that place!! The smell of the disinfectant. And of the thousand other animals in distress there. You always know there will be some pain and discomfort.
It was a few summers ago that I was taken to the vet. I don’t know why Maman always took me there. I just knew, when I was bundled into the cat basket, that meant trouble. I was being punished. Perhaps it was because I loved roaming. Ah, yes, that was the last time I really travelled: all around the neighbourhood in Rouen. The park by the Abbatiale Saint-Ouen near my house in Rouge Mare was my favourite haunt. And, oh! My haven, the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou. I can still recall the strange scents there. Of thousands of old human bones.
But it was probably because of my passion for Delice. Oh, I couldn’t resist her. She was so soft and fluffy and sensuous. And she called me in. Many nights that summer. But her house Maman resented me, she threw stones and buckets of water at me. Then she came and screamed at Maman. It was soon after that that I was bundled into the cat basket again.
Come to think of it, that trip to the vet aged me terribly. I was aching for weeks. And I had no desire any more for Delice. Or for roaming. Sigh. Yes, that was the last time that I really travelled.
Until that bright morning last summer, when these two middle-aged women came bowling down the street. You wouldn’t think they were middle-aged, the way they were behaving. Laughing and bouncing like teenagers. But I could smell that they were older.
They were really intrigued by the carvings on the wood frame of our house. Well, it is well-preserved for a 17th century building. I couldn’t understand what language they were talking – tourists from a foreign country, obviously. You get loads of them around there, always fascinated especially by that carving of the man with the twisted neck and clawed feet, holding up the corner beams. Near him is carved Ch. Morel, but whether he is meant to be Charles Morel, nobody knows.
These two woke me from my nap. I was annoyed. And as I popped my head through the window, one of them poked a camera at me. Hmpff, invading my privacy, disturbing my peace.
They wandered on, enraptured at my street. I yawned, stretched out, took a little walk outside. Then curled up again on the settee.
I don’t know when it happened, or how; but suddenly I was transported. Through the Internet, I understand. It didn’t hurt, but it was dizzying. Disorientating. I was suspended in air. A myriad images flashed before me. I think it was only a few seconds, but I soared past the moon and stars. Then it settled. In a thousand strange places. But I was stuck inside the same window, like inside a capsule.
Lots of human faces passed in front of me, they seemed friendly, gave me a blue thumbs-up and sometimes a red heart. I recognised that woman who pushed the camera at me. She was there often, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
Until Derek looked at me. He regarded me in a different way. Really closely. Again and again. One day he came back with an easel, a canvas, pots of acrylic paint and a set of brushes. He started painting my window. And eventually I could step out from the window trapping me onto his canvas.
And at night, when the people are asleep, I can wander around again. But now it is in Derek’s house in Hermanus, no longer in Maman’s house in Rouen. It’s lovely here. Except for Shadow.
If France is the heartland of passionate love – l’amour – and great philosophical discourse, then I encountered it on a recent visit – vicariously at least – in two legendary relationships that resonate in parallel over 800 years.
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre dominated the French intellectual and bohemian scene of the 20th century. Abelard and Heloise were tragic lovers and philosophers of the 12th Century who shook the Medieval society of their time to perhaps the same extent as Sartre and De Beauvoir did. All four these characters significantly influenced Western thought to the present day. Quite serendipitously, I stumbled upon both these couples in memorials in France recently. And it set me thinking……
Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were the “priests” who initiated me into adulthood and liberation when I was a student of Humanities and Literature in the early 1970’s. I cannot describe the sense of recognition, of relief, that I experienced when I learnt about Sartre’s Existentialism, the philosophy of the individual’s freedom and authenticity. And then, quite soon after, I came across De Beauvoir’s groundbreaking feminist work, The Second Sex, which explained woman’s status to me as nothing else had until then.
De Beauvoir and Sartre had an extraordinary relationship. They met as philosophy students in 1929, when De Beauvoir was only 21 years old. Simone agreed to Sartre’s suggestion of an “open relationship”, i.e. that they could have other lovers – sending shockwaves through traditional society. And so, while many lovers came and went, De Beauvoir and Sartre were in a committed primary relationship for 51 years. They never married, never shared a house, never had children. Yet they saw each other almost daily; they discussed their different love affairs, they did not publish anything without the other criticising and editing the work.
The house in Rouen where Simone de Beauvoir lived in the 1930’s.
My interest in this seminal relationship of the 20th century was re-ignited on a recent trip to Normandy, France, when, quite by chance, my friend and I found the house where Simone de Beauvoir had lived when she was teaching in Rouen in the 1930’s. The French – at least in Rouen – are not very helpful with information about memorials and monuments. Then we found the tearoom where De Beauvoir and Sartre (he was also teaching there) used to have their meeting of minds.
“Simone de Beauvoir had declared that, whatever her many books and literary prizes, whatever her role in the women’s movement ……. her greatest achievement in life was her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre,” writes Lisa Appignanes, in an article in The Guardian, 10th June 2005.
Today Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre rest together in a grave in Montparnasse cemetery.
The story of Abelard and Heloise is one of history’s most passionate and romantic, also supremely tragic, true love stories. But they were not only star-crossed lovers – both were brilliant, radical minds that challenged the intellectual establishment of the time.
Pierre Abelard became a philosophy teacher at the Notre Dam school (attached to the Cathedral) in Paris early in the 12th Century. One of his teachings: ”It is by doubting that we come to investigate, and by investigating that we recognise the truth.” How would this be received by the all-powerful Catholic Church, which considered itself the Fortress of Truth? Abelard was in constant conflict with the church, but evidently a most inspirational teacher with a huge following.
At Notre Dam he met the beautiful, intelligent Heloise d’Argenteuil, barely 19 years old at the time, and he old enough to be her father. He became her private tutor, and soon the marriage of minds flamed into a marriage of bodies. Heloise fell pregnant. But she was under the guardianship of her uncle Fulbert, a senior church official, who was outraged when he found out about the relationship. Abelard and Heloise fled, and she bore a son. They were married in secret. But they could not forever escape Fulbert’s wrath. Heloise sought refuge in a convent, but a gang of thugs commissioned by Fulbert attacked Abelard and castrated him.
The painting Abelard and Heloise surprised by Master Fulbert, by the French artist Jean Vignaud.
For the next 20 years, Abelard taught at various monasteries as a monk, and Heloise became an abbess at the Convent of the Paracletes. But we know of their enduring, all-consuming love, and their philosophical discussions, through a series of letters that have been preserved since about 1128.
Only once more, by chance, did they meet at a ceremony in Paris. “They realized at that time that their love was the reason for human existence, and they promised to remain together forever,” according to Geri Walton, writing in Unique Histories from the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Separated in life, Abelard and Heloise were brought together in death. It was a privileged pilgrimage for me to visit their beautiful shrine in the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris and to pay tribute to these immortal lovers.
I am at the shrine to Abelard and Heloise in Pere Lchaise Cemetery.
Now, what is it about France that produces such revolutionary intellectuals who are at the same time such passionate lovers?
The night before there was a blue moon – the second full moon in July 2015. And the wedding between Mike Kamstra and Jo Nowicki, a much-loved couple from the Boland village of McGregor, was certainly the kind that only comes once in a blue moon!
Mike (81) and Jo (79) have been together for exactly 40 years. They were both married before, but in 1975, in their separate ways, Mike and Jo were each headed for a problematic future. One late December evening at the end of that troubled year, they were introduced to each other by a mutual friend. At the time, they were both living in Johannesburg: Jo a linguistics lecturer at Wits at the time, now a renowned artist in her retirement; and Mike a qualified geologist and man of many talents – set builder for TV productions, succulent expert (there is an aloe named after him), garagist wine maker, and artist.
“We suspected then and there that we would have a future together,” says Jo. “Perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that somehow we knew we would be each other’s salvation.”
Spontaneously, Mike proposed marriage back then, 40 years ago, but Jo said she would think about it.“Our natures were clearly very different; but on the other hand, differences can complement each other. How about boyfriend and girlfriend living in separate houses?” explains Jo. “No,” said Mike, “no separate establishments. I want to wake up every morning with my woman beside me.”
Jo with her wardrobe mistress, Lyndsay Skidmore, who was once regional manager for Clinique, and who styled wigs for Vidal Sassoon.
And so it was. After a three-day ’honeymoon’ in Namibia early in 1976, pessimistic, care-taking Mike and optimistic care-less Jo moved in together. “But it has taken 40 years of strenuous fighting and strenuous loving for us to forgive, appreciate and even finally, to love each other’s differences,” explains Jo. “We finally got there!” Which is why, in this the 40th year of their ‘engagement’, they wanted to be married in the eyes of God and in the presence of their families and friends.
So – while other people of their age are fretting over their Will and planning their funerals – Mike and Jo were sorting out their guest list and planning an unforgettable evening of entertainment.
And on a beautiful winter’s day, the village of McGregor came to a standstill as this brave, exceptional couple declared their love to the world.
There were about 160 guests at the ceremony and reception in the Community Centre. Mike and Jo are both, in different ways, intimately involved in community life in McGregor, and “it was painful to have to leave out some names from the guest list. We would have loved to have had the entire village here,” proclaims Jo.
“We believe this marriage could not have happened if it hadn’t been for this extraordinary village. Day by day we delight in its beautiful surroundings and find nourishment in the warmth and affection of its people.”
And what a joyful, inspiring event the wedding was! With Billy Kennedy, the monk from the Temenos Retreat Centre blessing the couple, Mike and Jo exchanged vows.
Jo vowed solemnly: “Mike, I will love you when we are together or apart; when our lives are at peace, and when they are in turmoil; when I am proud of you, and when I am disappointed in you; in times of rest and in times of work. I will honour your goals and dreams, those goals and dreams I have witnessed over the years that we have been together. They have been an inspiration to me and a source of endless entertainment and admiration from day to day. I want to hold you and be with you, literally and figuratively, for whatever time is left to me.”
Mike, eyes shining, said simply: “Jo, I wrote a long vow, then tore up the paper, because it all comes down to this: I love you and want to be with you for the rest of my life. I can’t live without you.”
And then Mike put the wedding ring on Jo’s right hand – much to the dismay of the bridesmaids and best man.
Then the ageless couple took to the floor by waltzing to the “Blue Danube”. Jo’s daughter, Julia, stunned the guests with a thrilling belly dance straight from the Arabian nights; and Jo’s two grandsons, Fergus and Jasper, performed a capoeira dance. Local chanteuse Barbara Jacobs sang Cole Porter’s “Day and Night”and Gershwin’s “Summertime”.
Perhaps the most heartfelt tribute came from Jo’s 25-year old grandson, Fergus Turner, who commended her wild, courageous spirit. “She puts the grand into grandmother!” he exclaimed, and then sang a Portuguese song which he explained as follows: The world is a terrible place/ everything is wrong/ but what I want is the musical instrument which my grandmother gave me/ this will see me through the world.
And the village celebrated. Mike says he finally retired at 20 to three in the morning, while the younger ones still continued.
As the guests had sung at the wedding: “Lank zal ze Leven!” (Long may they live) – a Dutch chorus in tribute to Mike’s Dutch background. Yes, long may this spirit live. I am reminded of the poem Ode, by Arthur O’Shaughnessy:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams;—
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
Africa is so rich in resources – gold, rare minerals and metals, tropical forests and wildlife. But its wealth also lies in magnificent cultural heritage and the legacies of great ancient civilizations. Such as the ancient Empire of Axum.
Axum is today a rather sleepy city in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia. But 2,000 years ago, it was the centre of one of the great empires of the world. Yes! An African Empire!
By the time the Egyptian civilisation came to an end (with the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC, when Egypt became a province of Rome), there was a great trading nation just to its south, with its centre at Axum. The Axumites did not have great armies like the Romans, and did not build pyramids like the Egyptians; but according to UNESCO, the Axumite empire was on a par with Rome, Persia and China.
The Empire of Axum extended over a large part of northeastern Africa, across the Red Sea to Arabia and present-day Yemen, and through their harbour at Adulis on the Red Sea, they traded gold, ivory and slaves to India, receiving in return exotic spices and fabrics.
The most enduring legend of Axum stretches back a thousand years earlier, to the “romance” between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Axum claims to be the home of the Queen of Sheba, or Makeda, as she is known locally. There are impressive ruins close to Axum which, legend has, were her palace.
The ruins of the supposed palace of the Queen of Sheba near Axum.
As recounted in 1 Kings 10 in the Bible, “..the Queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon… (and) came to prove him with hard questions. And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold……. And Solomon told her all her questions; …..and King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire…. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.”
Later in the Bible, in Matthew 12:42, she is referred to as “the queen of the south”.
A mural in a church in Axum, showing the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
Nine months later, back home, the Queen of Sheba gave birth to a boy called Menelek, who became the first Emperor of Axum; giving rise to the claim to sacred kingship of 225 Ethiopian emperors that followed – right up until Haile Selassie, who was dethroned in 1974.
Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia.
Menelek, the son of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, contributed something else to Ethiopia’s mythology: a holy grail! When he had grown up, he went to Jerusalem to meet his father. What exactly transpired is not clear, but when he and his retinue returned to Axum, they had with them a wooden box of extraordinary significance – the legendary Ark of the Covenant, in which Moses had received the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Menelek had stolen it from the holiest of holies in the Temple of Jerusalem! Today Ethiopians believe it is housed in a special chapel in Axum. But we, ordinary mortals, will never lay eyes on it.
Today the most imposing relics of that age are the giant obelisks, or stelae, which stand in the heart of Axum. These magnificent monoliths, carved out of single slabs of granite, indicate the burial site of the emperors of Axum, and were probably a veneration of celestial deities. The editors of the book The Beauty of Historic Ethiopia aptly describe them as “less like prayers of stone and more like lightning-rods to heaven”
I was quite stunned when I first saw the giant stelae close up: not just overawed by their great size, and the sense of antiquity in that field; but…. they are the most phallic-shaped obelisks I have seen anywhere! The archaeologists politely call the carved top of the Axumite stela “monkey-heads”, but to me they still look…..
Nonetheless – these stelae, or tombstones, are statements of supreme craftsmanship and authority in a very prosperous state in ancient times. The biggest stela was 33 metres long, and estimated to weigh about 50 tons, but it collapsed. The broken segments still display the enigmatic geometric carvings suggesting windows and doors, like a skyscraper building.
The tallest stela still standing is almost 25 metres tall, but today it is held upright with cables, like a frail old man hanging on to hoists and Zimmer frame.
The main Stelae Field, only about a kilometre from Axum city centre, is a fascinating collection of neolithic and necrophilic artefacts. There is the Nefas Mewecha, believed to be the largest megalithic tomb, or dolman, on earth. The capstone weighs an estimated 36 tons. How on earth did the people of Axum move such an object?!
The structures that actually excited me the most, were the Mausoleum and the Tomb of the False Door. These sub-terranean constructs awoke all my childhood adventure fantasies again. How wonderful that there was nobody else around – no officials, no noisy tourists, no bogeymen – while I explored the deep, dark passages, tingling with apprehension and delight.
The Mausoleum at the Main Stelae Field.
At the Tomb of the False Door, with its beautifully-dressed granite slabs, there are in fact two openings, entrances into the earth below, with some passages leading… nowhere, really. They probably were the tombs of ancient rulers, but grave robbers have long ago removed whatever human remains there were.
How paradoxical that death is so alive in these sacred sites, that mute rocks can speak so eloquently.
As I’m writing (21st Feb 2018), Ethiopia is embroiled in a state of emergency as its prime minister has resigned after months of protests and conflicts. I do not understand the country’s social issues or political problems. I can only pray that the problems are amicably resolved soon.
But when I was there for six days exactly a month ago, I saw no signs of protest or conflict. I, a middle-aged white woman, travelled and walked on my own. I never felt threatened or in danger, even in the seedier parts of town, and found the people ever so friendly.
In fact, too friendly for my liking!
I had come to Ethiopia in the middle of the Timkat festival, possibly the greatest religious festival in Africa, when the entire country seems to come to a standstill for three days in January; and thousands of Christian Orthodox priests lead processions through the streets of all major towns.
For this is one of the features that make Ethiopia unique: it is the only predominantly Christian country in north Africa, surrounded by Moslem states. Yet I did not sense any religious tension or animosity.
Ethiopia’s form of Christianity – the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – goes back about 1,700 years, to the early days of the Christian Church, when the Emperor Ezana converted to Christianity, and his kingdom, centred at Axum, became one of the earliest, and largest Christian states.
But Ethiopia’s Biblical roots extend much further back: to the time of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, about 2,500 years ago. The Ethiopians believe that the Queen of Sheba – known locally as Makeda – lived near Axum, in the north of the country; and there are some ruins just outside Axum which are believed to be the remains of her palace.
She went on a great state visit to Jerusalem, to meet with the famous King Solomon. And after King Solomon had “worked his will” on her, she returned home; and nine months later bore a son, Menelek, the first emperor of Ethiopia. According to Ethiopian mythology, all their emperors for the last 2,500 years are direct descendants of Makeda and Solomon – right up to Haile Selassie, who claimed to be the 225th emperor with this semi-divine bloodline, until he was dethroned in 1974.
But there is another staggering twist in the Ethiopian narrative: they claim to have a “Holy Grail” – the legendary Ark of the Covenant, a wooden box in which the two stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments had been kept.
According to legend, Menelek, when he had grown up, went back to Jerusalem to meet his father. What exactly transpired is not clear, but evidently he and his followers stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Holiest of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, and smuggled it back to Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church claims that it is housed in a special chapel in Axum; and only one person – a very saintly priest – is ever allowed near it, to guard and look after this most sacred of relics.
However, every church in Ethiopia has a replica of this Ark of the Covenant, and it is paraded at the head of the religious processions during the many festivals.
It all makes for a very original country with a very original legacy.
I am a lifetime hunter of sacred spaces; and there are some very special sacred places in Ethiopia. Undoubtedly the epicentre of spirituality and cultural heritage in Ethiopia is the mountain-top town of Lalibela, with its 11 astonishing churches hewn out of rocky outcrops. These churches, probably built in the 12th Century at the behest of the priest-king Lalibela, are among the greatest engineering and architectural achievements of medieval Africa.
It was this I sought – and found, with some difficulty. And I was enraptured. But also frustrated and disappointed. There are more breath-taking sites – churches, monasteries, ruins – around Ethiopia. But the best ones, apparently, are not accessible to me! Sadly, women are not holy enough for some of the holiest sites, such as the Church of Golgotha in Lalibela, where King Lalibela is buried.
Similarly, I couldn’t get near the Church of St Mary of Zion in Axum; or the monastery of Debra Damo – a four-hour drive from Axum, and then a climb up a steep cliff. I would climb any cliff to be able to share this sacred space, and to see with my own eyes some of the stunning artwork I’ve seen in photos.
So I had to content myself with other Ethiopian treasures. Such as coffee. I am a caffeine-addict, and was looking forward to exploring the Home of Coffee. Eish….
I probably didn’t find the best places. And by the time I had sat through the ubiquitous Coffee Ceremony several times a day, I was too miffed to really enjoy the coffee. You see, (even though there is electricity in all the towns) they don’t use an electric kettle to make the coffee. No, it’s a living fire, often with wonderfully-fragrant wood for fuel. All along the road you will find a woman sitting with her fire, a small stove or brazier, and a collection of coffee pots and tiny cups. When the coals are ready, she will scoop some onto the brazier, then put the pot on to brew. After perhaps ten minutes she will pour the thick, strong coffee into a tiny cup without handle; and offer it to you with sugar but no milk. Like expresso. Oh, the coffee itself is lovely. It’s just that I had to wait so looooong, especially first thing in the morning!
While I was forced to wait, I could contemplate the beautiful features of the Ethiopian people. I was only in the northern Amhara region, and there are many other ethnic groups with different features in the country. But it struck me that the people I saw, mostly had such finely-chiselled features, quite unlike other Africans; and they move so gracefully, like fashion models. A special people!
So, despite my disappointments and frustrations, I am thrilled about, and entranced with, Ethiopia, and wish I could experience more. And so I’ll use the only Amharic word I learnt there: Ammasegunalugh – thank you!
Me at Biete Giyorgis, the Church of St George at Lalibela
Lalibela! It sounds like a song. And, yes, I think it is a song – the sigh of the ancient spirit of Africa resonating through Ethiopia. An awe-inspiring incarnation of African mythology and cultural heritage.
Lalibela is in fact a rather dusty, Third World town in the northern Amhara region of Ethiopia. The reason why all Africans, and anyone who respects and treasures cultural heritage should visit it, is that it is a unique and holy site, with 11 astonishing churches cut from volcanic rock.
Then there is also the intangible heritage of ancient myths and legends, religious festivals, age-old customs and rituals, the Amharic language and its unique written alphabet. And then the people!
Let’s start with the churches: Ethiopia is unique in north Africa in that it is the only Christian country in a Muslim-dominated area. Its form of Christianity – the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church – goes way back to the Axumite kingdom of the fourth century AD, when King Ezana converted to Christianity and the Axumite empire became one of the first Christian states.
But Ethiopia’s Biblical heritage goes back much, much further. According to legend, the emperors of Ethiopia could trace their lineage right back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who – according to Ethiopian mythology – had a son, Menelek, who founded Ethiopia. There is pretty good evidence that the Queen of Sheba might have lived at the city of Axum, in the north of present-day Ethiopia. Signs of a great and very ancient civilisation in Africa.
Myths and legends aside, it is historically true that in the late 12th century, the area was ruled by a very devout Christian king, Lalibela, of the Zagwe dynasty. He had lived in Jerusalem in his youth, and after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem, when Christians could no longer go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he decided to create a “New Jerusalem” closer to home – an African Jerusalem, where African Christians could come on pilgrimage.
So he commissioned the construction of 11 churches, to represent the 12 apostles minus the traitor Judas Iscariot. (These churches do not bear the names of the apostles, everything in Lalibela is symbolic.)
These 11 churches have all been cut out of rocky volcanic outcrops, and the only material that was used in their initial construction was scoria basalt. This is the truly monumental engineering and architectural achievement of medieval Africa: to carve these monolithic structures which still stand today, almost 900 years later. Now they are all UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the property of the Ethiopian church.
The churches of Lalibela are all fairly close together – some only 10 or 20 metres from the other – and all within walking distance. They are in three groups – five in the Northern group, five in the Eastern group; and then the crown jewel of them all, Biete Giyorgis (Church of St George) on its own towards the west. The one group is meant to represent the Earthly Jerusalem, and the other cluster the Heavenly Jerusalem. Lalibela had a trench dug to join all the churches – and the trench is called the River Jordan!
One does a lot of trudging up and down slopes around Lalibela, and it is not for anyone suffering from vertigo or claustrophobia. The surfaces are all uneven and slippery from centuries of wear. And no hand rails. To compound the visitor’s unease, you have to take off your shoes on entering any church. And may I advise that you also take off your socks – as I wish I had done before sliding down some steps, hurting my back and my ego. Thank goodness there was a priest close by, who promised to pray for me as I was trying to catch my breath.
There is a myriad of narrow passageways and tunnels around the church compounds, and uneven steps going up many metres with no hand rails to hold onto. I was amazed to see the local children jumping gleefully over deep trenches and playing around deep baptismal pools filled with stagnant water, and nobody was concerned. But personally I am grateful for no railings – that would spoil the whole aspect of these astonishing structures.
There are also many caves and cavities cut into the rock Many of these had been used as tombs to bury people associated with the churches.
Lalibela and its churches are redolent with symbolism: so, for example, there is the Tomb of Adam cut into a massive freestanding rock, and graves for the Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There is even a grave for Jesus Christ! The Ethiopian Church does not claim that these personages were really buried here, the sites simply represent them symbolically.
It all makes for a sublime transport to a medieval world of mysteries and miracles.
Biete Giyorgis is truly a marvel of ancient architecture, sometimes called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Coming down the entrance avenue, then stepping over the “River Jordan”, my breath was taken away when I saw this cruciform structure shaped out of the rocky outcrop, perfectly level with the top of the rock, but in fact going down 12 metres. It is not the biggest of the churches, but the best preserved, evidently because the basalt there is of a better quality than at the other churches.
According to legend, Lalibela had a vision in which St George ordered him to build the church there – and do not doubt it: St George supervised the construction as well! If you don’t believe me, there is the imprint of St George’s horse’s hoof in the stone courtyard outside the church!
Suspend disbelief, and hold your scepticism. Consider the tools and technical skills available 900 years ago – and marvel at the feat of Lalibela’s construction teams. And the artists!
Lalibela’s churches are full of lovely naïve paintings (mostly quite modern) illustrating the teachings of the Bible, and celebrating the Virgin Mary and Child, the angels and saints, and the church fathers. There are skillful carvings, faded wall paintings and shimmering gold cloth concealing the inner sanctums of the churches.
Perhaps the Lalibela church with the most exquisite interior is Biete Maryam (The Church of Mary), a smallish church but with elaborately carved arches and pillars. Truly a work of art in itself.
There are many more rock-hewn churches around Ethiopia – one might need more than a week to explore all of this treasure trove.
But Africa should be extremely proud of this under-celebrated and unique achievement, and give it the respect it deserves.