I’m not a churchy person – my religious affiliation might be described as lapsed Unitarian – but I do get into the pageantry and mood of religious festivals. Maybe even more than some, because I’m not bothered by questions of belief. This year I had the opportunity to observe more than my usual share of Easter celebrations: we were in Sorrento all of Roman Catholic Easter week, then we were here in Ethiopia for Orthodox Easter this last Sunday.
Andreas tries to attend a Greek Orthodox Easter service every year, but I’ve been curious wanted to see what the Ethiopian Orthodox service is like. As it turns out, we didn’t have to choose between them. During the repressive years of the Derg there was a curfew for foreigners that necessitated shifting the Greek celebration from midnight to 9:30 pm, and they never moved it back again. The Ethiopian ceremony starts earlier but goes on for hours, with the best bits happening after midnight. So it worked out that we could attend both.
The Greek church in Addis is St. Froumentius in the Piazza neighborhood. It was built in 1935 but because it’s modeled after the Byzantine style it looks much older. The main part of the Easter service took place outside in the courtyard. The candles, the incense, and the Greek liturgy were all familiar. The priest was a jolly sort of fellow who really got into handing out the red-dyed eggs inside the church after the 9:30 xristos anesti part. It was interesting to see all the Addis Ababa Greeks turn out for this – diplomats and embassy workers, random hyphenated Greek ethnic types like us, and the legacy of what was before the Derg a large Greek community in Addis, most of them now blended Greek-Ethiopian families.
Afterwards we drove to the Kiddiste Mariam church, one of the older Ethiopian Orthodox churches in Addis, to see part of the Fasika (Easter) service. I felt welcomed there, although I was conscious of being the only faranji among many hundreds of Ethiopian worshippers (Andreas didn’t want to go inside). I was also very aware of the fact that I understood almost nothing of what was going on. I suppose I had a notion that the Easter service would bear some kind of resemblance to the Greek Orthodox one that I know, but I was wrong; I didn’t recognize any part of the service.
I wasn’t comfortable enough to pull out the camera at all in the Ethiopian church. My impressions are of hypnotic chants, barefoot people dressed in white and packed shoulder to shoulder; some sitting on the grass-strewn floor reading the Bible; some touching foreheads to the ground to pray; men and women separated inside the church; silver rattles and crosses (the priest walked around blessing people with it – I got the forehead cross bump blessing); string candles dipped in beeswax; men (priests?) in the center of the ceremony, raising and lowering their canes in time with the chants; lots of icons.
Here’s a video I found on YouTube taken last Easter by someone (username syncronetix) who didn’t mind using their camera in church. It’s a different church in Addis but you can see what it’s like.