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Relevant or Relic?

Ethiopian Orthodox monasticism copes with a new reality

by Peter Lemieux

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Sunrise at the Meskaye Hizunan Medhane Alem Monastery in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, feels anything but contemplative. A cacophony of roaring bus and car engines interrupts the early morning calm. A blur of red brake lights eclipses the rising sun’s soft rays. The compound, which includes a church and an elementary and high school, sits at the heart of the bustling Sidist Kilo neighborhood, home to Addis Ababa University’s main campus. The neighborhood’s urban energy is palpable, even when the city has barely awakened.

Inside the church, worshipers and monks have filled the pews to celebrate the day’s first liturgy. Chants drown out the noise of the street. Incense meanders through the candlelit nave.

As the service concludes, Abbot Melake Girmai leads the monks to the monastery’s refectory. A small army of kitchen staff serves a hearty breakfast — fluffy white injera (spongy bread made from teff), wat (a traditional vegetable and meat stew), fruit, coffee and tea.

Though hardly the lap of luxury, the monks at this urban religious house enjoy comforts unthinkable in the far more ascetic rural monasteries for which Ethiopian Orthodoxy has long been known.

No one bears witness better to this contrast than Abba Kidane Mariam Arega, who has just arrived in the capital from the rural Georgis of Gasicha Monastery in Wollo. He is on his way to visit old friends at the Ziquala Monastery, a day’s journey from Addis Ababa.

Before dawn the next day, Abba Kidane sets out for Mount Ziquala, an extinct volcano whose peak is home to the monastery. For the next two hours, he drives along the dusty highway that cuts through the golden plains of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley.

Little by little, the sun’s morning rays illuminate the landscape. Nearing Mount Ziquala, the two-mile-high peak casts a wide shadow on the valley. As the sun climbs above the mount, its shadow gradually draws back as though a stage curtain, revealing an ageless vignette — peasants with donkeys tending their fields.

Arriving at the base of the mountain, Abba Kidane pulls into Wanbere Mariam, a small farming village whose outward appearances have not changed in centuries. Only pop music pulsating from an unidentifiable source situates it in the new millennium.

The drive may be over, but the journey is certainly not. The summit of the mountain may only be reached by hiking three hours on a winding trail. Despite the steep, rocky terrain, the monk displays no physical strain, even as his flowing black cassock absorbs the sun’s now blistering rays. The trail’s switchbacks steepen as they climb the mountain; the thick shrubs give way to forest.

Finally, the trail levels out and opens onto a swath of terraced fields. Sweeping panoramic views of the countryside are visible in almost every direction. A weathered sign welcomes visitors to the Ziquala Monastery, where some 230 monks and 120 nuns make their home.

As do Ethiopia’s better known monasteries — Debra Damo in Tigray, Debra Libanos in Shoa and Debra Hayk in Wello — Ziquala exemplifies Ethiopia’s ancient monastic tradition. Its remoteness and the communal and strictly ascetic lifestyle of its residents recall Ethiopia’s first monasteries, which appeared in the fifth century.

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Tags: Ethiopia Education Monastery Ethiopian Orthodox Church Monasticism