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Fifty five days of fasting underway in Ethiopia

Fasting-JokeAs many will know the big fasting season in Ethiopia started this week on Monday. Fasting is appears in many religions around the world. But in the west its has lost its rigour for most people. However in the Ethiopian Orthodox church there are many fasting days through the year. In fact a strict observer of all fasts would be vegan for half the year. The longest of the fasts is Hudadi or the Abiy Tsom, as the lenten fast leading up to Easter is variously known, and the majority of followers of the Orthodox church fast these 55 days every year.

Why is it 55 days when in the western church it is 40 days?  There are specific reasons for the addition of 2 weeks to the 40 day fast that many people are not aware of.

Eraclias

Medieval painting of King Eraclias

The first week of Hudadi is known as the fast of Eraclius, a Byzantine Emperor who lived in 614 A.D. During his reign the Persians invaded Jerusalem and took the Cross of the Lord. Eraclius made an expedition to Persia and having defeated the Persians he took the Cross back to Jerusalem. The Christians in Jerusalem who were very happy because of Eraclius’s victory and the return of the Cross, dedicated the first week before Lent to be the fast of Eraclius and included it in their canons. The last week of Lent: Passion Week during remembers the Apostles who fasted in commemoration of Christ’s Passion.

To the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Hudadi is a period of fasting when the faithful undergo a rigorous schedule of prayers and penitence. This fast is observed with greater rigour than any other fast and it is a test of one’s spiritual strength and resolve. Properly observed it is believed to nullify sins committed during the rest of the year. 

The fast if strictly followed :

  • is applicable to all persons older than 13 years of age
  • involves abstinence from: meat, dairy products and eggs (and many will abstain from fish too)
  • instead, cereals and vegetables will be consumed
  • only one meal (vegan) a day is eaten, taken in the evening or after 3:00pm (when church services end). Before that no food, drink  nor even water is to be consumed
  • starting on Good Friday to Easter Sunday (i.e. late on Saturday night), there is total abstinence nothing taken maybe eaten nor drunk.
  • on other Saturdays and Sundays during Lent, eating breakfast is allowed.
  • Daily Services are conducted in all churches from morning to 2:45pm.
  • Priests regularly attend night services starting at midnight up to 7am.
Fasting selection with Ethiopian beer

Fasting selection with Ethiopian beer

For the visitor to Ethiopia a wonderful array of fasting foods is served up on enjara – just ask for: – ‘ye tsom bayenetu’. You may also get a wonderful fired fish (probably Tilapia) ‘asseh‘.  Enjoy!

Tesfa Tours will happily recommend good fasting restaurants in Addis, and take you there as part of a city tour.

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A country says farewell to an historic figure.

Richard Pankhurst's funeral, Selassie church, Addis Ababa

Richard Pankhurst’s funeral, Selassie church, Addis Ababa

Dignitaries gathered yesterday at Selassie church in the centre of Addis Ababa to pay their respects to Richard Pankhurst OBE, who died last week at the age of 89.

With his mother Sylvia Pankhurst, the famous suffragette and long time supporter of Ethiopia, he moved to Ethiopia in 1956. As a historian he worked at Addis Ababa University and has been a leading researcher and publisher of historical studies on Ethiopia ever since.

Richard Pankhurst

Richard Pankhurst

He will also be remembered for leading the campaign to return the stolen Obelisk from Rome to Axum, where it was re-erected in 2008.

We at Tesfa Tours, send our condolences to Richard’s family and our admiration and respect for a historic figure in this remarkable country. His great body of work will live on.

For more information see his obituary in the Telegraph

 

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Melkam Timkat … Timkat explained.

The community at Mequat Mariam parade the Tabot out at TImkat with Ethiopian flags flying

The community at Mequat Mariam parade the Tabot out at TImkat

So tonight 18th January, is the eve of Timkat. Processions made there way across towns in urban areas and over the fields in the countryside, to a place where in the morning the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan river is commemorated. Water will be blessed and the multitudes will be splashed with the holy water and try to take some home with them in bottles. Following this ceremony the tabots (with the exception of Mikael tabots) will be processed back to their church with similar joy, noise, colour and reverence to that with which they were processed today.

Why is Timkat called “Epiphany”, and hey, what is Epiphany? Well it is a Greek word meaning manifestation or appearance, and it celebrates the events in Christ’s life that showed him to be the son of

Priests at Mequat Mariam head to the water blessing

Priests at Mequat Mariam head to the water blessing

God. In the early church (before Rome got into it) this was the major feast in the church after Easter. In Epiphany was encapsulated all the major events that manifested Christ’s Godhood to man: his birth (Nativity) , the visit of the Magi, the turning watering wine at the wedding in Cana, and his baptism in the Jordan river. With the appearance of Christmas in the developing church as a new festival, his nativity was taken out of Epiphany.

So where should you go to see it. In Addis Ababa, head for your nearest place where tabots have congregated, and try to get there quite early (8am). There will be big crowds near the major places such as Jan Meda, and beware of pickpockets! In the countryside similarly head for the tabots resting place early in the morning. Local people

Worshippers jump into the Fasilides baths

Worshippers jump into the Fasilides baths

will tell you when.

In Gondar you will need to seek out a place early in the morning at Fasilidas’ baths. It becomes extremely crowded. Your guide will advise you. The moment of the joyful splashing is the high point. In Gondar youngsters jump into the pool, in Addis the clergy spray the crowd from the water in the pool in the midst of the field. In parishes up and down the country water is splashed from the blessed pool, spring or river in a joyous celebration. Then you can follow the processions.

Melkam Timkat!

 

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Ethiopia prepares for Timkat

Flags put up on the streets of Addis in preparation for the Timkat processions on 18th - 20th Jan

Flags put up on the streets of Addis in preparation for the Timkat processions on 18th – 20th Jan

Preparations are underway for one festival that seems to encapsulate Ethiopia’s unique place in the world: it is Timkat – or ‘Baptism’. It is frequently referred to as Epiphany, which undersells what is a very special and Ethiopian day. In fact it is really spread over 2 or 3 days. And it start tomorrow- Wed 18th Jan (Ter 10).

The programme:   In Addis the Tabot will leave the churches at around 2pm with a big procession, singing of hymns and chants, drumming, horns being blown and dancing to the chants. Icons are processed and most especially the tabots wrapped in brocaded cloth carried on the heads of the high priests under umbrellas. The procession will makes its way over several hours to the special resting point for the tabots. In north eastern Addis Ababa this is Jan Meda (

A Tabot  being paraded

A Tabot being paraded for Timkat

the Royal horse racing fields). At Jan Meda about a dozen tabots spend the night with tents for shelter, and priests and devoted followers. The fields become the centre of the festival for the evening and next day, and for St Mikael Tabots  the next day too. Tens of thousands of people will gather at the fields in the evening, hundreds sell refreshments and nicknacks. The roads around are packed solid.

During the processions roads are closed across the city (and the country) and no cars can pass. Houses beside the route the tabots pass are blessed. Young lads lay down carpets on the road infant off the taboo. They rapidly rolls them up behind and run them round to the front again, extreme hard work and a devotion that illustrates how deep seated are the beliefs and culture of the Orthodox church even in the capital city.

Where to see it?  Head to your nearest Orthodox church, and plan to be there by 2pm. Then you can join in the procession to the fields. Don’t be worried by the crowds, everyone is joyful and will be happy to see you, but do show respect for the priests and the Tabots, dress appropriately (women should cover heads and neither men nor women should wear short clothing – if you have traditional white cotton clothes all the better).  At the convergence points of the tabots thee could be pick pockets at work so be careful of possessions and do not carry unnecessary valuables.

See tomorrow for details of the rest of Timkat!  Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

 

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Christmas is coming .. in Ethiopia

Melkam Gena / Happy Christmas

Sheep are bought into Addis for sale for holidays

Sheep are bought into Addis for sale for holidays

Christmas is coming and sheep is for the pot.
Onions need cutting and enjara pan is hot.
If you can’t afford a sheep a chicken will do.
If you can’t afford a chicken then God bless you.

This adaptation tells a few home truths about festivals in Ethiopia such as Gena:
mountains of onions are peeled, chopped fine and put in the pot. Enjara bread (pancakes) is baked on the eve of Gena with a big pile ready for the feast. People using electricity in the cities are nervous of power cuts or low power meaning the pan does not

Chickens for sale on street corners

Chickens for sale on street corners

get hot enough. And after the long fast that precedes Gena, everyone wants to eat meat. Best is to buy a sheep, but prices of sheep ahead of festivals has soared in recent years. A small sheep would not cost over $100 USD, for many that is a months salary or more. But a Doro wot- spicy chicken stew – is a favourite for the holiday. Yet even a chicken would cost around $10-15USD. So there are many families who will not be able to afford a chicken this holiday.

In most of Europe and the West, Christmas is the big family day, with presents, special foods, traditions to be followed. For many they will go to church and remember that it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, but for many more it has become a feast of consumerism and consumption.

In the Ethiopian Orthodox church, the traditional church in Ethiopia and the one that forms the framework of much of the culture of the country, there are several very important festivals throughout the year: Easter, Christmas, Timkat (the celebration of the baptism of Christ) and Meskal being the most important. Add to this new Year, which falls on 11th September in most years, and is very important to many although it is less of a religious day, and you can see that there are a good number of festivals through the year.

Bale Wold church in Addis, crowds gather to see the Tabot

Bale Wold church in Addis, crowds gather to see the Tabot on Gena/ Christmas day.

Feasting is part of all these holidays. It is also family time, with people returning to their mother’s home to enjoy real home cooking. Church is often attended during the night on the eve of the holiday, although with days like Timkat the church procession is a big part of the day’s events.

So where should you go to see Gena?  If you attend any Orthodox church the night before you will witness the service and the mass. In Addis the church of Bale Wold by Selassie celebrates

Gena ceremony in Lalibela

Gena ceremony in Lalibela, the most famous place to spend Christmas in Ethiopia.

Christmas on Christmas morning.  If you have Ethiopian friends they will undoubtably invite you round to partake in the feast. Do bring round gifts of food: coffee, biscuits, fruit, cake, bottle of wine and the like are all acceptable presents.

Gena is most famous in Lalibela. But if you have not booked it you are too late. Accommodation fills up, (so there will be no room at the inn) and flights become full.  Hotels and guides inflate their usual fees, so in addition it does become expensive.

 

 

 

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Ethiopia is safe to travel to, says British FCO, so pack your bags and come and see this ancient land.

British FCO map advising travellers going to Ethiopia

British FCO map advising travellers going to Ethiopia

The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) have lifted travel advise against non essential travel to all tourist destinations in Ethiopia. On 2nd December they returned their advise to the pre September levels with exception of several remote woredas (district) in North West of Gondar, by lifting advise against travel to western Amhara and parts of Oromiya.

Naturally we knew it was safe for tourists to visit for a long time now, and having just been back from the Simiens, Gondar and Bahir Dar myself, I could see  how peaceful it was. A priest on Lake Tana was confused as to why tourists were staying

Tana Cherkos Museum, L.Tana

Tana Cherkos Museum and monk, Lake Tana

away from his church. It was not easy to explain to him why foreign governments thought Ethiopia so dangerous. I look at some of the advise still on these websites and am baffled myself.

Lake Tana has seen the ebb and flow of history for several millennia. At one church I went to the priest in the museum told us that the church dated back to some 900 years BC! ….Err… how is this possible? Well the assumed original structure and location were part of a Jewish temple and was a refuge for the Arc of Covenant in pre-Christian tana-cherkos-img_1620times!  Such is the importance of the Old Testament era in Ethiopian Orthodox thinking that there is no clean break but a continuum into the Christian era.

Imagine the changes and upheaval that has passed by Lake Tana in the last 2900 years! Armies of Queen Yodit (a Jewish Queen) Mohammed Gragn (from Harar) resulted in burned churches and upheaval, as did wars between factious regional leaders and epochs of civil war that left their damage. The recent disturbances pale against those

Lake Tana fisherman on a Tankwa,-  papyrus canoe.

Lake Tana fisherman on a Tankwa,- papyrus canoe.

of history! Lake Tana is a tranquil place, with history going back into the mists of time. It is a lake which still has hippos and where you can greet fishermen passing by in the papyrus tankwa canoes (a craft also found on the Nile and Lake Titicaca!).  So pack your bags and  come and see for yourself.

 

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Simiens is normal for the Gelada and Ibex, but where are the tourists?

Gelada baboons, staring back at tourists

Gelada baboons, staring back at tourists

Life in the Simien Mountains this week:

Gelada baboons graze the Simien grasslands as they did last year: murmuring and mewing, with occasional shouts when bachelor males venture too close to family groups. They spend much of their time grooming each other in ritual social behaviour. The grazing consists of digging the grass with sharp strong fingers and pulling out the succulent roots to eat.

Gelada Family grooming in the Simiens

Gelada Family grooming in the Simiens

No sign that they are at all on edge or unduly worried by the bizarre travel advise given out by embassies that is limiting the numbers of tourists visiting their mountain home

Walia Ibex grazing steeper slopes, near the precipitous ledges. There numbers were down to a few hundred some decades back, but now there are over a thousand of these surefooted mountain antelope.

Wail Ibex above Chenek Camp

Walia Ibex above Chenek Camp, beside Giant Lobelia plant

They glance curiously at the camera touting tourists who were lucky enough to see this rare animal, and then go back to their grass, or take a break in the shade of a Giant Lobelia plant.  Maybe they wonder why there are fewer tourists this year.

Trekkers are passing through, enjoying the sunny days, the golden gwassa grass, azure blue skies with lammergeyers, eagles and vultures, soaring across the scene and the unique wildlife of the park on view.  But less than in recent years.

Walia Ibex looking down on passing tourists

Walia Ibex looking down on passing tourists

That makes the experience for the visitors better, but spare a thought for the local people who depend on tourists to pay for their goods and services. They cannot understand the reason why foreign governments are telling tourists to stay away. Tourists were never targeted in the unrest that spread to some of the towns several months ago. And that unrest ended. But still the foreign governments advise their nationals to stay away!

If you haven’t been already then come, if you have been then come back to Ethiopia!

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Lalibela & Meket now safe for travel – so says British FCO

Happy tourists on Mnt Abuna Yoseph

Happy tourists on Mnt Abuna Yoseph

The British FCO has now removed the travel advise against non essential travel to Eastern Amhara, (including Lalibela and the Meket & Lasta Community Treks). [See here] This means UK insurance companies policies will be valid for visits to these areas.

 

This change in advise has also been taken by many other western governments, all of whom have realised travel in Northern Ethiopia is safe for tourists (and has been for some time now!)

What about Gondar, Bahir Dar and the Simiens?

Giyorgis festival in Meket, villagers ready to welcome tourists

Giyorgis festival in Meket, villagers ready to welcome tourists

Well the British still advise against non-essential travel to these areas.  We sincerely hope this will be lifted in the coming weeks too. Other western countries no longer give advise against travel even in the western parts of Amhara and Tourists are traveling though these places in quite large numbers with no problem. I myself will be traveling to the Simiens, Gondar and Bahir Dar next week and will report on my trip with photos.
If you are visiting to places where the FCO advises

Lalibela - a subterranean labyrinth of passageways

Lalibela – a subterranean labyrinth of passageways

against non-essential travel, then do check with your insurance company to see if your insurance will still be valid. Some companies will provide cover for medi-vac, and other services (but not political evacuation) for areas to which the FCO advises against. Examples are TAG and BUPA Global.

So how about you plan your trip for Christmas and New Year now before all the good slots get taken! We can arrange wonderful treks on the Meket plateau or climbing mount Abuna Yoseph (4,300 m peak and home to a pack of Wolves), and give you time to make a visit to Lalibela with its labyrinth of subterranean rock hewn churches.

 

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Holy days of Hedar, Mikael and Mariam

Icon of St. Mikael

Icon of St. Mikael

There are many big saints days in Hedar (Ethiopian month that runs from 10Nov – 9Dec) where certain churches will parade out their tabots with much dancing and celebration. One such is Hedar Mikael, St.Michael’s day on 21st November. On this coming Monday morning your nose will be the first to tell you of this holiday (unless you live very close to a Mikael church – in which case it will be your ears, reminded through the night), as the slightly acrid smell from thousands of bonfires wafts into your nose. The smell ives meaning to the slightly increased haze over the capital city this coming Monday morning.People light small fires burning up rubbish from their compound, believing the smoke clears away disease and sickness – a sort of purification.

Michael church in Lalibela

Michael church in Lalibela

In Lalibela one of the main churches is dedicated to the archangel St.Michael. The church behind, known as Golgotha is the burial place for the Saint King Lalibela who built the amazing complex of rock hew churches in the place formally known as Roha, but now of course called Lalibela.  Lalibela’s saints day is the same as Mikael and so al Mikael days are extra special in Lalibela.

Just over a week after Hedar Mikael is Tsion Mariam (St Mary of Zion): one of the big annual St. Mary days in the country and sees one of the most important Saint’s days celebrations in Axum. The church of Our Lady Mary of Zion (to give it it’s full name) is arguably Ethiopia’s most important church. It was one of the first churches built in Ethiopia back in the very early 4th century, and has been destroyed and rebuilt at least twice with destruction inflicted by the armies of Queen Yodit and Mohammed Gragn.

axum-mariam-fasilidas-img_4555

Axum Mariam, built in the Gondarine style by Emperor Fasilidas

It was here that Emperors came to seek the coronation. If an Emperor was not coronated at Mariam Tsion or at least had a special ratification service they could not hold the title “Atse’.

Axum is booked out early each year for Tsion Mariam (30th November) with thousands of pilgrims descending on the town and spending the night at the ancient church. But the church

Ancient stones in the Church compound in Axum

Ancient stones in the Church compound in Axum

compound is worth spending some time visiting if you can arrange a stay there  at another time. There are stones on which is old Sabean script, that must have been sources from far older buildings. The church built by Emperor Fasilidas has lovely frescoes aside (though only men can enter here), and the trees are full of sun birds and other iridescent birds.

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News Flash: Restrictions on Diplomats traveling out of Addis dropped

Rugged Trekking means more ups and downs, and higher altitudes

Peaceful and quiet in the Mountains of North Wollo – but the Tesfa Communities are not getting enough guests through thanks to negative travel advice.  (Boya Mikael guesthouse)

As part of the State of Emergency the Government in Ethiopia announced that diplomats needed permission to travel more than 40km out of the capital. In practice diplomats have been getting this permission with no problem, and now the government have withdrawn these restrictions.

This should go some way to convincing foreign governments that travel in Ethiopia is safe.  Tourists have been travelling around the country, and although numbers are down due to some being put off by the negative advise, the tourists that are visiting have been commenting that all seems peaceful and normal.

Now we are all waiting to see if the foreign governments can react quickly and lift their negative advise that is restricting the flow of tourists, stopping new bookings and harming the economy of the nation and livelihoods of many that rely on tourism!

 

 

 

 

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