Ethiopia’s Island Sanctuary

Despite war, persecution, famine and neglect, Ethiopians remain faithful to their monastic heritage

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Ringed by volcanic hills, Lake Ziway is known for its birds. On a typical day African pygmy geese, yellow-billed storks, white pelicans and other birds swoop over the 187-square-mile lake in central Ethiopia. Ornithology aside, there is another reason to visit Lake Ziway: Its largest island, Tullu Gudo, shelters the oldest active religious community south of Ethiopia’s Christian heartland, Debra Zion. Tradition holds that Tullu Gudo once housed the Ark of the Covenant, said to contain the Ten Commandments.

Around the ninth century A.D., when reportedly the Ark was sheltered there, the island was home to more than 500 monks. Today, there are three. Numerous factors have contributed to this decline, including the return of the Ark to Aksum, immigration over hundreds of years to the less impoverished mainland and the anti-church policies of Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator (1974-1991), Mengistu Haile Mariam.

According to legend, the Ark had been kept in Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, ever since it was taken from Jerusalem sometime after 587 B.C. But during the ninth century A.D., the Ark’s Ethiopian protectors fled Aksum with the Ark, to escape Queen Judith, whose forces threatened to steal it. Journeying south, the Ark and its guardians eventually settled on the uninhabited island of Tullu Gudo. They built a church, Debra Zion, to hold the Ark and other treasures. About half of the monks returned with the Ark to Aksum some 40 years later, when the city was deemed again safe.

Though it was no longer necessary to guard Tullu Gudo, the monks maintained a significant presence there for more than a thousand years. During the reign of Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia’s last emperor, about 100 monks lived on the island. That changed after Mengistu, then a colonel in the army, seized power. Along with the murder and forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, the Marxist dictator also nationalized all land and discouraged religious practice.

Now, 13 years after Mengistu’s government collapsed, religious life is flourishing again in Ethiopia. And the monks of Tullu Gudo, who live amid an Orthodox lay community of several hundred, are trying to recapture some of the island’s celebrated past.

There is no ferry service to Tullu Gudo. Most island residents rely on reed canoes to paddle to the mainland, which takes about four hours. On a recent visit, I was fortunate enough to have the use of a motorboat, which cut the trip to an hour.

I was joined by Abune Gregorius, whose archiepiscopal see is in the lakeside town of Ziway. I had met the archbishop earlier in the day by the lake. He was sitting in a chair and stroking his beard, watching workers digging the foundation for a new cathedral. It would be a stone cathedral, he said.

“These days, you need to make a statement in stone to balance the building the Muslims are doing,” Abune Gregorius said. Funded by the Saudis, “the Muslims build schools, clinics and mosques, and then they seek to convert.”

Of Ethiopia’s 70 million people, about half are Christians, mainly Orthodox, and half are Muslims. There are also small numbers of Jews and animists.

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Tags: Ethiopia Cultural Identity Poor/Poverty Aksum