Sunday in Gondor

While the world was treated to another sham performance of peace process in Palestine, and just before the next stage of Middle East war, I paid a visit to the Ethiopians, much loved by Poseidon, the Sea God – probably because these landlocked people do not disturb the seas but inhabit high plateau which also gives birth to Nile. ‘The farthest outposts of the Race of Man’, as Homer called them, Ethiops, poor as they are, preserved many things we have lost. There, one can see women reaping high stalks of wheat with the sharp sickle, and four ferocious black bulls tearing along and thumping shoulder-to-shoulder threshing wheat in a narrow circle of hay, and a man with a spade winnowing the chaff off corn, girls filling jars at the side of a spring, and the result of their labours, the vast congregation of men and women clothed in white who sit like seagulls in the church yard on Sunday morning listening to the preacher, receiving blessings from their priests and sharing the blessed bread. For in the world we lost, seeding and reaping and winnowing and baking bread are completed in this blessing and sharing.

The Ethiopians have much of their ancient tradition intact as they received the Light of Christ from St Anastasias the Great in Byzantine Alexandria in 4 th century. Their dogma is at variance with ours, but they venerate the Virgin as the Mother of God, as the apostolic churches do. Never colonised, and not for lack of trying, they were not ushered by Western missionaries towards a Protestant sect like other Africans. The Jesuits equally failed to subjugate them to Rome. Thus the church unites, not divides them. If this ancient and authentic church were to evangelise the Black Continent, its fate could be different. It is still valid for those seeking an African Christian identity, more than its Rastafarian offshoot. Like other Eastern Churches, the Ethiopian Christians prefer Muslims to Westerners and live with the large Muslim community (some 30%) in perfect amity.

In their holy city of Gondor (not far from Shire, to utter delight of Tolkien lovers) a pilgrim finds Orthodox Christianity, as African as their black skin and as rooted as the enormous banyan tree in the main square.

On Sunday I prayed with them in their 17th century Trinity Church of Gondor, built along the lines of the Temple of Solomon. Waist-high drums broke the dead quiet of an African night, accompanied by ringing silver of rattle-boxes; hundreds of angel faces looked at us from the high beams. The church was illuminated like an ancient manuscript; every inch of a wall covered with exquisite paintings explained by the Ge’ez captions: a Saint rides on lion back, climbs by a snake as by a rope to his hermitage or stands on one foot being fed by birds; a swarm of angry bees defends the church from the invader; a cannibal King repents and receives pardon through the Mediatrix; and pictures that require no caption, such as The Holy Trinity presented by three almost identical grey-bearded men, the story of Passion of Christ suspended on ropes from, rather than nailed to his cross, or the Coronation of the big-eyed dark-skinned Queen of Heaven. She did not look strange to my eyes, though, for we are familiar with her sisters, Black Virgins of Loreto in Italy, Czêstochowa in Poland, Montserrat in Catalonia. ‘I am black and beautiful’ – this line is not from the Negritude poet Sengor, but from the Song of Songs.

And the people were beautiful, with chiselled features, smooth skin, warm and compassionate eyes; their looks exuded brotherly love to each other and to this pilgrim from Jerusalem. We clapped hands together in the rhythm of the drums under constant stare of the angels. It was quite different from your ordinary Sunday service, but essentially the same: unity of people in God. It is great to be a Christian for one can feel this uniting brotherhood-in-God with the native people in so many lands and places, be it among prosperous English folk of Reverend Stephen Sizer in the low church of Virginia Waters, or with the monks of Mount Athos in their candle-lit medieval chambers, with Jerusalemites in the small Palestinian Arab church of Father Attalla Hanna, or among throngs of jolly Italians in the vastness of St Peter in Rome, or among the unique mixture of Russian writers and peasants in the village church of Peredelkino near Moscow, – and among the Ethiopians in far-away Gondor.

It is quite dissimilar from the Jewish experience which, though equally globe-embracing, – there are synagogues in Venice and Cochin, New York and Curacao, – is basically the experience of expatriates meeting together wherever they go – the people are quite the same, like in different British Officers Clubs in various corners of the Empire, from Hong Kong to Vancouver. It is not a question of race but of doctrine – there was in Ethiopia a long-established Judaic community, whose members were not distinguishable from the rest of Ethiopians by their looks, blood, language or customs; but they received the call from Jerusalem and went there, to guard Tel Aviv cafes and man checkpoints in Palestine, humbly accepting their third-rate status in the new land. Thus they joined the members of other once-well-rooted communities from Germany and Russia, from Yemen and Morocco, for Jewishness unavoidably leads to separation from the native population and to exile. But let us return to the Gondor church.

A wall with two open arched doors separated the commoners’ part from the priestly inner sanctum which, in its turn, led to the Holy of Holies where a replica of the Arc of Covenant was resting obscured from our sight. The Trinity Cathedral of Gondor was built for the real thing, brought from troubled Jerusalem to remote Axum by Menelik, son of Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, according to their tradition. However, the Arc refused to be moved and has remained to this very day in St Mary of Zion in dusty and deserted Axum. A strange obstinacy: Gondor is much more attractive with its vast black basalt castle built by Ethiopian Emperors with the advice of their Portuguese masons and bombed, centuries later, by the ubiquitous British Air Force. If you, my reader, know of a country that has never been bombed by the Anglo-Americans, please share this knowledge with us.

While we looked at the pictures, the drums gave place to the beautiful singing of the Psalms and the priests came out and blessed the devout. By this time it was already eight o’clock, and ordinary folk had begun to congregate outside. By local custom one can’t enter or leave the church during the long service, so the vast majority of worshippers stay outside at ease, walking around the church, kissing its posts and stones. People who have not observed the strict fasting rules (which prohibit not only meat but sexual union as well) also have to remain outside. The doors were opened, and we sat in the yard in pleasant morning chill, while children went around with baskets of freshly baked bread, the dark bread of Ethiopia.

The church is a peaceful oasis in this troubled land. Outside, tanks roamed – the new conflict between Ethiopia and its breakaway province of Eritrea was about to flare up. Paupers and homeless children swarmed the streets. Though Ethiopia is not dead as I learnt that night, it is seriously ill. Since 1950, its population has grown six-fold, and such an increase has overstretched its meagre recourses. In the same period of time, the US and its allies have supplied weapons to all parties in the region, promoting strife and dissent, and supporting every separatist movement. They undermined the hugely popular socialist government of Mengistu who is still remembered with nostalgia by many Ethiopians. His fall was caused by the US support of separatists – people got tired of endless war. Now Ethiopians have ‘democracy’, though this word means mainly ‘corruption’ in this huge country of 60 million people, dozens of tribes, nationalities and languages, social gaps and dreadful poverty.

Noam Chomsky wrote about this American strategy: they do not have to win; they need just to undermine, destroy and push the rebellious nations back into the Stone Age. Afterwards, they will blame it on socialism, like in Vietnam or Ethiopia, on Islam like in Palestine or Afghanistan, on nationalism like in Serbia, and never on their own intervention. “The US never provide aid for people, but are always ready to give arms for us to kill each other”, Ethiopians told me.

The role of the Church is also steadily diminishing. Its lands were confiscated and redistributed by the government and it has lost its ability to protect the people. The rural communities get uprooted by ceaseless fighting and a lack of water, its members drift into towns where they are reduced to begging. The younger generation of city dwellers does not go to church any more. The onslaught of Modernity is relentless everywhere, even in far-away Ethiopia. Not much is left; who knows maybe the Ethiopian priests count years better than we do: according to their calendar it is now AD 1997, with only three years to the millennium and the end of days.

Israel Shamir is a critically acclaimed and respected Russian Israeli writer. He has written extensively and translated Joyce and Homer into Russian. He lives in Jaffa, is a Christian, and an outspoken critic of Israel and Zionism.