Written by Abebe Haregewoin, MD, Ph. D.
Every society deserves a character that is at the center of this story. Even the most conservative societies need someone who thumbs his nose at what is considered sacrosanct and sacred and out of limits to either derision or negative commentary from the vast majority. This is always a sign of a healthy society â€“ magnanimous toward eccentricity and tolerance toward members of society who sing to a different tune and march out of sync with the most common beliefs of most members of their society. In some societies such acts can have severe consequences, which may include stoning, or some such unpleasant acts by the conventional hordes in the belief that this will ensure the favor of God or the King or even other members of their society who are inclined to nod in approval at their outrage against the unlucky ones who end up being the individuals on whom society has to prove its point of, â€œThou shalt notâ€¦â€ In the modern age in the so-called enlightened societies the media may take its pound of flesh if such a personality is worth their time and ultimately their economic interest.
Thus all societies â€“ irrespective of whether they are a tribe deep in Papua, New Guinea, or the literati of Manhattan, or the tea shop philosophers of Mumbai â€“ have their own way of enforcing conformity to the rules of the herd. On a recent trip to my native Ethiopia, I visited, Roha, whose modern name is Lalibela after the Emperor who reigned over the Ethiopian empire as a member of the now extinct Zague dynasty in the 12th century. Lalibela is one of the few emperors of this ancient land who has been recognized by the Ethiopian Orthodox church as a bona fide saint. The church has also canonized three other members of the same dynasty as saints. It is surprising to note that the socalled Solomonic dynasty, which ruled the country for about 2,000 years, did not have a single monarch so recognized, while the rather obscure Zagwe kings, who ruled Ethiopia only for 333 years produced four unchallenged saints for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The most famous of these is Emperor Lalibela, who as a young and religiously trained heir to the Zagwe crown is said to have traveled far and wide in order to acquire knowledge and wisdom, mainly in the Holy Land and then returned many years later to his native Ethiopia. He came back educated and inspired by what he saw in his travels.
Unfortunately there is no detailed history of this period other than the fact that he also had unique architectural plans for the building of churches that have apparently never been dreamed by any other monarch or lay person before or since anywhere in the world. The Ethiopian chronicles are not clear whether he brought back with him architects and other skilled artisans from other lands for executing his plans, or whether his travels included forays to Europe and Asia. Looking at the final results of his work, it is apparent that he had either visited many lands or acquired the architectural styles of many traditions, including those of Europe and Asia. It is obvious that he was an eclectic connoisseur of beauty and a synthesizer of ideas rather than a copy-cat artist or a subscriber to a particular idea. Looking at the wonders of what he was able to accomplish in his lifetime, it is obvious that he was also a genius. No wonder the Ethiopian chronicles state that he was inspired by God and aided by angels in both his plans and execution as the churches he built are so unique and original there is no other way of explaining the unique spectacle and grandeur of these buildings other than divine inspiration and involvement. At the end of his vigorous effort, this remarkable man created one of the greatest wonders of the world in Roha which has became the capital of his kingdom.
It is stated that he started his building of the churches at the rather mature age of 58 and continued on for the next 23 years, and built 11 churches all hewn from the same block of red stone from the same rocky hill. All eleven churches, some as high as three or four stories have distinct architectural styles. Nowhere in history, nor in any land, ancient or modern, has such a unique idea of building eleven monolithic churches or buildings from the same block of stone been executed. The precision of the design reveals a very high level of technical capability, and the finesse of the design reveals one of the highest levels of skilled workmanship. Many of the churches were decorated with paintings and superbly designed frescoes and elaborately carved columns and altars. There are also wall and ceiling carvings of saints and religious figures carved out of the rocky walls. All of these churches have windows with various distinct designs carved into them, some with distinct Lalibela designs and still others reminiscent of Moorish and or Welsh cross designs in their intricacy. Surprisingly, others have Swastika design windows carved into them â€“ almost a century before this sign of Ethiopian Christianity was defiled by the Nazis in Germany. The Swasti ka windows were reminders of the collapsible crosses that missionaries of the Ethiopian church carried when they went out for missionary activity into all four corners of the country to minister to the far-flung members of their churches, which were isolated by the spreading incursion of Islam. Once the missionary reached his flock, he would then unfold his Swastika into a larger cross as a symbol of his faith to those to whom he came with his spiritual mission.
All the churches are interconnected by either open air passageways carved into the parent stone or dark tunnels dug through the solid rock. The tunnels are purposely built not to be lighted so the passenger can walk to the next destination by using the walls as a guide as while at the same time getting a respite from visual distraction and meditatively connect with the holy spirits of the saints as guides to the next destination. The master plan, as well as the instruments that were used in carving these churches and tunnels, has since become extinct. Even though a large number of religious texts from those ancient times still exist in the churches, there are no descriptions on the designs or plans of the churches or the implements used in their construction. The ensuing centuries have led to the chronicles being written stating that angels collaborating in this holy effort were alternately working on the churches at night with twice as much result as what Lalibela and his artisans were able to accomplish during the day. Be it as it may, this collaboration between angels and humans have led to one of the most impressive projects mankind has ever completed. The selection of Lasta, and particularly Roha, as the capital is surprising given the remoteness of its location and its distance from, both the sea or a major source of water, the Nile, as was usually the case with most ancient civilizations, such as those of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and India. Lalibela and the Axumite kings probably chose such sites in order to be able to protect their churches with less effort than they would have been able to had they founded their capital close to the coast or a major river like the Nile, which would have made it easy for their enemies to encroach upon them.
This was particularly true of the spread of Islam, which a few centuries later led to a devastation of Christians and their symbols in other parts of Ethiopia under Gragn Mohamed. But Lalibela has been able to escape from these wanton destructions of this nefarious man and his horde because of its strategic location in the mountains, which allowed the people of Lasta to easily defend their treasured churches and religious artifacts. Saint Lalibela endowed each church with various articles of faith, usually crosses, some of which are made of gold â€“ with some weighing up to eight kilos. His gifts also included finely written holy books, such as the Bible, and various acts of the saints in fine goat parchment that seem to have survived in various states of repair. After completing his task, the noble king is said to have surrendered peacefully his reign to the next in line so that he could devote the rest of his life as an anchorite serving his God. His work makes it clear that this ancient visionary created what might be considered a Zion in his African homeland so that the believers might be able to visit this holy citadel in the mountains as an alternative to Jerusalem, because of the dangerous encirclement of his Christian empire in a sea of hostile and spreading Islam. This unique African Zion, located in the heart of the Ethiopian mountains, in the state of Lasta, has thus remained one of the main pilgrimage sites for Ethiopian Orthodox believers. Innumerable tourists also flock to this holy place in droves from all over the world.
The people of present day Lasta are deeply aware of the deep religious significance of their beautiful homeland. They subscribe to all the orthodoxies of their church, follow all the interminable fasts, and other strictures of their church, with complete and unquestioning obedience. They have followed this same path for more than a thousand years. More recently, however, 24-hour television and the Internet have come to Lalibela, but the zeal of the people of Lasta has so far not strayed from those of their ancestors of centuries ago. They are vigilant for any incursions into their holy land and guard their faith with all their heart and are willing to sacrifice themselves or their loved ones for their religion and their holy churches. A significant segment of the population is dedicated to serving the churches as priests, deacons, or church acolytes. Almost everybody has a first-degree relative who is directly serving in the church. It is difficult to find a person of Lastan descent with no direct and personal connection to the churches. Outside of Roha, a large number of other less well known rock-hewn and cave churches have been built throughout the centuries in the surrounding hills and mountainsides. Some are smaller structures, which show the ongoing architectural capability of these ancient people to continue to hone the skills of their ancestors. Some of these churches are peripheral churches and some even older than those built by Lalibela and may have served him as a template and as training sites for his workers for the main task. Thus the people of Lasta enjoy the presence of innumerable churches and have many holidays related to both the individual churches as well as the many other holidays of the Orthodox Church. For the ultra-orthodox, there is hardly a day that is not dedicated to the memory of one saint or another. On almost any day of the year it is not unusual to see the faithful streaming in the early dusk to one church or another wearing their obligatory shammas and looking like ghosts in a cloudy dream.
Surrounded by all these religious symbols of their church, and their adherence to the true orthodox faith, the people of Lasta may be considered one of the most conservative of Ethiopian Christians. Their easy smiles and willingness to accommodate others and the dire poverty of most of them may give the impression that it is easy to buy their religious allegiance for a pittance. But the Lastans are very vigilant and will do everything in their power to ward off such attempts. European missionaries or even Ethiopians inspired by such ideas from abroad had tried to penetrate this orthodox people, but the Lastans have steadfastly refused to have any other religion proselytize or build any establishment in their Zion. Although they have more or less succeeded in this effort, they have somehow not seen through the vile and sinister ways of the modern international thief motivated by greed and the riches that can be gained by selling these ancient artifacts of Lalibela in the international markets. Some foreign thieves visiting as tourists have succeeded in penetrating through this wall of vigilance and convince some of the greedy inhabitants of Lasta to connive with them in stealing some of the old treasures of the church. Such scandal has happened occasionally, particularly in recent years. The most celebrated of these is the theft of one of the most beautiful treasures and certainly the most beautiful golden cross weighing eight kilos and made in the distinct and unique Lalibela style, which was stolen and taken to Europe for auction and was almost sold to the highest bidder. However, it was returned recently after some international haggling. But the people of Lasta believe that these and other artifacts donated by the saints many centuries ago can never remain away from their true home. They believe they will eventually be returned by the grace of God and the intercession of his Ethiopian saints. And they also believe that those who transgressed the wishes of the saint will come to a terrible end.
It is said that the culprits who have collaborated with the foreign thieves of the famous cross have been stricken by the wrath of God and have disappeared from the face of the earth, and members of their families accursed for seven generations. Nobody is willing to divulge the nature of these divine punishments and disappearances of the sinning culprits. They also sincerely believe that the foreign thieves have also met the same terrible fates in their own homeland in Europe. Let alone stealing the treasures of the church, woe to those who dare to question the various miracles attributed to the various saints as well as the curative power of the holy waters, church ashes, and soils dug from under the grave of the saints that are distributed in small quantities to the believers. As a sign of utmost respect, nobody is allowed to enter any of these holy places clad in shoes. Neither His Holiness Abuna Paulos, the head of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, or for that matter former President Bill Clinton, who visited here recently, was allowed to enter any of the churches with their shoes on.
For the first time in my life, I visited this holy place, silently moving from church to church, enjoying the full impact of my ability to walk on the same soil that was once trod upon by distinctly Ethiopian divinities. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the presence of an indescribable spirituality heretofore unknown to me. I felt close to God through the agency of the saints, who were also my fellow countrymen. I kissed the steps, the crosses, wet my face with the holy waters and collected the ashes form the holy incenses of the churches and honey collected from the rafters of one of the churches. I imbibed the holy waters on arising from my sleep on an empty stomach and for the first time my usual abdominal pains and difficulty falling asleep seemed to have evaporated in those days of instant religious fervor. I believed. One day, after I finished visiting one of the most wondrous of these churches, the Church of St. Giorgis, which is carved in the shape of a cross and is three stories high and is on postcards and posters that tourists and visiting Ethiopians take back home, I came upon what turned out to be the most dramatic experience of my visit. As I walked outside of the fence surrounding the church, I saw a group, made up mostly of children and some adults, all smiling and seeming to have a good time. As I approached the group, I noticed a small person, barely taller than a 6- year-old child, who from a distance I thought was one of the children. He was standing apart from the main group, which was gathered under a tree, to shed the hot early afternoon sun. As I drew closer, I saw that the little person was in fact an adult. Some were calling the little man, â€œAchefer!â€ loudly.
This was my first encounter with the dwarf of Roha. His unique presence pulled me away from my holy reverie and into the full attention of his unique presence. Achfer was so named from his origin in distant Gojjam. In addition to his small stature, he was a pudgy and rotund little man with a body-fat distribution reminiscent of a very fat little baby, with a round and Michelin-like face planted right on to his round shoulders without an obvious neck. His large cheeks were sagging and almost touching his protruding breasts. He was wearing a tattered brown sweater that looked like it may have seen better days while it was probably worn by the child of a European or an American tourist in a distant past and a distant land. He was wearing a matching rolled-up pants torn here and there. It seemed the clothes were brownish not by design but from not having been washed for a long time, and having absorbed the clayish and reddish brown earth of Roha. He did not have shoes and his fat baby-like feet displayed hoof-like uncut and gnarled nails that were also covered with the reddish soil. His round and distended belly looked ridiculous compared to the flat or hollowed bellies of all those around him As I was getting closer, he looked like one of those Chinese Buddha figurines one might buy in any China town, with the exception of his expression. Achferâ€™s face seemed to wear a perpetual and unsmiling scowl. Unlike a Chinese Buddha, Acheferâ€™s eyes were rather big, and looked like glowing orbs at the center of his paradoxically intimidating face. His pug nose and round forehead and spherical head covered by a surprisingly fine cropped and straight hair completed the face of a fearless and somewhat intimidating little gnome of a man. Achferâ€™s chin and cheeks had a few wisps of stiff hair mixed with some fine hair here and there but no true beard. The picture is that of a eunuch or a person with some genetic condition that trapped the body in a perpetual state of puerile obesity. The little man talked with a high staccato voice to the crowd of children who were asking him nuisance questions aimed at provoking him to hear his unique and irreverent responses and retorts. His answers seem to be greeted with smiles and nods of assent.
Like all others, I was attracted to this little man. My newly acquired habit of the time was taking pictures of everything, including churches, priests, crosses, paintings and people who all complied without any complaint. I withdrew my digital camera from my waistband like a western sheriff about to shoot a rogue. The impish man covered his face with both pudgy hands, and in a hissing voice, said, â€œI am not a monkey, a tree or a church!â€ That statement stopped me dead in my tracks. Somebody jokingly told Achefer that I might pay him some money, if he allowed me to take his picture. Achefer, then retorted, â€œI am not as cheap as the priests of the churches, who allow pictures to be taken inside the holy places against their rules, for the sake of money. I am not a church! And I am not a cheap and greedy priest!â€ he shouted. I found his statements amusing and started laughing in amazement while I stared at him to take in the entire scope of the unusual experience. Achefer, looked me straight in the eyes and said, â€œYou must think you have become a white man because you live in his land and have come back here with his camera. We are not monkeys, trees, birds, or even the cheap priest who enjoy their pictures taken by you and the white people so that you can show or sell the pictures to show how ridiculous we look.â€ One of the onlookers, a teenager told him, â€œBut it is only you who looks like a monkey and the rest of us do not.â€ Achefer, mockingly answered, â€œMy young friend, I may indeed look like a monkey, but what you do not know is that you are a monkey!â€ The crowd started to enjoy the Achefer they know. The hapless target looking uncomfortable slipped away from the crowd that was laughing at his discomfiture and walked off in order to avoid further embarrassment.
I approached closer to Achefer, and said, â€œI apologize for trying to take your picture without your permission.â€ He did not answer my question but retorted, â€œWhat are you doing here?â€ I told him that I was visiting the amazing churches of Lalibela. He smiled or tried to smile, and said, â€œIt seems to me, you came from far away on this day to visit these churches that these ignorant people think are holy. You want to take pictures back and show your white friends how smart your ancestors were to have built these churches, so that you can boast and show off your undeserved claim.â€ I felt somehow embarrassed as there was some truth to his statement, but I was also concerned that his comment about the lack of holiness to the churches might raise some objection or even anger from one of the onlookers. Achefer perched himself on a short stone wall, looking like a little Buddha. He wrapped his short hands around his belly and locked his childish fingers around his midriff. While not looking at me, he said, â€œYou must have been kissing the steps of the churches, and the various crosses, and swallowing the ashes and honey collected from the church rafters hoping for miracles to happen to you. But the spirit of the saint or that of God or the angels does not reside in any of these articles. You are cheating yourself like all the rest. They are ignorant, but you think you are educated. Your education should have taught you better than kissing stone, pretending that you are kissing the foot of God or the saint. You take pictures and try to bribe dwarfs with money and buying the favor of God by giving alms to the church boxes dropping coins in the hands of the poor. You can go ahead and pretend all day long. When you go back to wherever you come from, you will forget all the holiness you thought you felt in a matter of not days but hours. You may pity me, but I pity you more than you will ever know. If you think a camera is the way to the saint or to God, you are mistaken. Your camera is an instrument of the devil and the key to hell! Good bye, my friend!â€ And so the dwarf had his say â€“ and I was chastened â€“ but not without appreciating how nonconformity and a divergence of opinion can make a community more vibrant and strong. Every town, every nation in fact, needs a voice of dissent. It is healthy!
Ethiopian Medical History
Photo: Dr. Melaku Beyan. Dr. Melaku Beyan became the first Ethiopian medical doctor to complete his education in the United states in 1935 (Dr. Workneh Eshete became the first Ethiopian doctor to obtain a modern medical education in 1882)
The non-governmental organization, People to People, has just released The Manual of Ethiopian Medical History by Enawgaw Mehari, Kinfe Gebeyehu and Zergabachew Asfaw. The purpose of the publication is to teach the future generation of Ethiopian medical students and health care professionals about Ethiopiaâ€™s medical history.
Mekele University and Bahir Dar University have reportedly agreed to incorporate the study into their medical education curriculum.
Enawgaw Mehari, MD
Kinfe Gebeyehu, MD
Zergabachew Asfaw, MD
Senior Graphic Editor: Matthew I. Watt