ON the roads through Ethiopia’s highlands traffic raises a brick-red haze that coats your clothes, powders your skin and starts a creaking in your lungs. Despite the dust people wear white. Farmers wrap themselves in bleached cotton. Village funerals look like fields of snow. At churches and shrines white is the pilgrim’s color.
I wear it too, protectively: long-sleeved white shirt, tennis cap, Neutrogena sun block. A pilgrim? Why not?
I’m here for something I’ve longed to see, Ethiopia’s holy cities: Aksum, the spiritual home of this east African country’s Orthodox Christian faith and, especially, the mountain town of Lalibela, with its cluster of 13th-century churches some 200 miles to the south.
Lalibela was conceived as a paradise on earth. And its 11 churches, cut from living volcanic rock, are literally anchored in the earth. In scale, number, and variety of form there’s no architecture or sculpture quite like them anywhere. They’re on the global tourist route now, though barely. To Ethiopian devotees they’ve been spiritual lodestars for eight centuries, and continue to be.
Heaven seekers and art seekers are, in some ways, kindred souls, impelled to spend precious time and travel mad distances in search of places and things that will, somehow, fill them up, complete them. For the religious, pilgrimage is a dress rehearsal for salvation. For the art seeker, it can transform a wish list of experiences into a catalog of permanent, extended, relivable memories. But why do art seekers go to the particular places and things they do? This is a personal matter; complicated, with roots in the past.
As an American teenager in the early 1960s I sensed Africa all around me, secondhand. African independence was on the evening news; names like Lumumba, Nkrumah and Senghor chanted by jubilant crowds. “Civil rights” was turning into “black power,” with preachers in suits replaced by Huey Newton holding a spear in one hand, a shotgun in the other.
In college I took an anthropology course called “Primitive Art.” It met in an ethnological museum that had a collection of masks from West and Central Africa. I loved them instantly, these things made for dancing, healing, telling stories, changing identities. They looked old but felt new. I wanted to go to where they came from.
But not ready yet, I went that first college summer to Europe, where I dashed through countless museums in 15 countries before ending up in Istanbul. Again, love, immediate. One look at Byzantine art — the lifting-off dome of Hagia Sophia, the Buddha-calm saints of the Chora mosaics — confirmed what I had begun to suspect: my compass was not set westward.
At that point I didn’t yet know that Byzantium and sub-Saharan Africa had once fruitfully intersected. I later learned, and that intersection is what I’ve come to Ethiopia to see.
The history of Ethiopian culture is deep, going back — if the national epic, the “Kebra Negast” or “Glory of Kings,” can be believed — to at least the 10th century B.C., when an Ethiopian ruler, the biblical Queen of Sheba, traveled to Jerusalem in search of the wisdom of Solomon. The two monarchs met, bonded and had a son, Menelik, who would become Ethiopia’s first emperor.
Solomon, the story goes, wanted to name Menelik as his heir. But the young prince, with Africa on his mind, left Jerusalem behind. He did not, however, leave empty-handed. Secretly he took with him the Ark of the Covenant, which held the tablets given by God to Moses, and brought it to Ethiopia, in effect, establishing a new Israel there.
History, if that’s what this is, then fades out for stretch, until around 300 B.C., when a new empire coalesces in northern Ethiopia, with the city of Aksum as its capital and a still-existing group of immense stone stelae, carved with architectural features, as its grand monument. Another fade-out. By the fourth century A.D. Ethiopia has become officially Christian, and the Ark is in Aksum, enshrined in a cathedral named St. Mary of Zion, where it remains.