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Testament to a Joyous Heritage

Perhaps the most colorful and surprising of all these pilgrims are the Ethiopians.

text and photos by Gerald Ring

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For Easter Jerusalem puts on its biggest Christian celebrations. Thousands of pilgrims from all over the world converge on Christendom’s holiest sites. Greeks, Latins, Armenians, Copts, Jacobites, Anglicans, and more are there to compose the medley that is Christ’s faithful today.

Perhaps the most colorful and surprising of all these pilgrims are the Ethiopians. They are not usually seen in large numbers outside their homeland, so they bring to Jerusalem’s Easter observance excitement and gaiety that is unique among devout believers.

The Ethiopian presence in the Holy City is relatively small. Nonetheless, they stand out from the rest by their distinctive appearance, stately bearing, and smiling faces. They occupy two main centers in the city. The Monastery of Deir el-Sultan on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the one where they hold the Easter celebrations.

The Ethiopian faithful have shown their deep attachment to the Holy Land through a long history of pilgrimage despite the many difficulties of traveling from their remote, mountainous land. Today, that tradition continues, although many obstacles remain. Recurring drought and ongoing civil war are recent burdens carried by the Ethiopian faithful on this pilgrimage.

At Easter, Deir el-Sultan with its simple stone and plaster monastic cells takes on an air of jubilant activity and triumph. Lay pilgrims dress in white, desert hermits wear bright saffron-yellow robes, and the clergy don richly embroidered vestments.

Christianity somehow came to Ethiopia around the fourth century. Separated from the mainstream of the faith and eventually surrounded by a sea of Islam, their faith traditions developed within their African culture. Drums and dancing play an important role in celebrations, and bowing one’s head to the ground is part of their prayer ritual. These cultural expressions of their faith are much in evidence during Holy Week.

Like other denominations, the Ethiopians begin the week with a Palm Sunday procession. The week comes to a triumphal climax on Saturday evening after sunset, when a procession of victory and joy marks the Savior’s Resurrection.

Throughout the week’s observances, their rituals stress the Ethiopian’s attachment to the Holy Land, especially through the recitation and singing of psalms.

The Palm Sunday procession takes place around Deir el-Sultan, rather than on the route tradition says Jesus took and which is followed by the other Christian denominations. As the white-robed pilgrims walk behind the church elders in their multi-colored vestments, they sing hymns, including Psalm 113: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the Lord’s name shall be praised.” The group circles the roof and sings these hymns of praise three times in honor of the Trinity. The ceremony ends with a special prayer of remembrance for the deceased.

On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday the monks, nuns, and other pilgrims gather in the ancient stone chapel to read portions of the Passion story, to recite psalms, and to chant the Magnificat. These observances continue throughout each of these three days. The congregation participates in these prayers and songs, and often the Ethiopians prostrate themselves in their expression of faith. With each series of prostrations, they recite the Lord’s Prayer twelve times.

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Tags: Ethiopia Jerusalem Pilgrimage/pilgrims Easter Holy Sepulchre