Cross shaped Amba at Gishen Mariam
In Ethiopia, October kicks off with big celebrations. This Sunday (1st October) is Meskerem 21, is one of the biggest Mariam days in the year, commonly called Gishen Mariam after a church in Wollo, not far from Dessie on a cross shaped Amba properly called Gishen Debre Kerbe which holds its annual saint’s day on this date.
There are reportedly documents at Gishen that state that Emperor Zara Yaqob (who reigned in the mid 15th century), bought a piece of the “True Cross’ on which Jesus was crucified and buried it at Gishen Debre Kerbe under the church of Egyziabher Ab (Literally God the Father). There are in fact four churches on Gishen Debre Kerbe: Egyziabher Ab, Gishen Mariam, Kidus Gabriel and Kidus Mikael (Kidus is Saint). Gishen Mariam is one of the biggest pilgrimages in Ethiopia with thousands of pilgrims making their way up the narrow mountain paths to celebrate this day at the end of the rainy season.
Celebrations in 1903 at Lake Hora
Sunday 1st of October is also the culmination of the Oromo festival of Ireeycha Birra, a thanksgiving ceremony most famously celebrated beside Lake Arsadi outside of Bishoftu some 50 km south east from Addis Ababa. This day is actually the climax and most important day of several weeks of celebration. Thousands of Oromo people descend on the town and lake from across the region.
The celebration marks the end of the rainy season and the Oromo people give thanks to God for his bounty and pray for peace and reconciliation among humans and with God. The festival is led by the elders or wise men known as haayyuu who lead the blessings by the lake and make speeches. Tragically last year there was a large loss of life at this festival.
Coptic Icon depicting Holy Family fleeing to Egypt
For those new to Ethiopia you may not be aware that the year is punctuated by fasts of varying length and importance. Each Wednesday and Friday is a fasting day, except for a month or so following Easter when people will have been fasting for 55 days in the run up to Easter. A fast implies that people eat one meal a day in the afternoon or early evening and follow a strictly vegan diet (although many do still each fish which used to be accepted but not so much these days).
On 6th October the Tsige Tsom (fast) starts and runs for 40 days through to 15th November Kusquam Mariam day and it marks the exile of the Holy Family when they fled their land and took refuge in Egypt to be away from King Herod and his slaughter of infants. It ends on the day that commemorates Kusquam, a village in upper Egypt where the holy family were said to have lived during their exile in Egypt. This fast is however considered optional and only clergy are required to fast, but never the less most establishments will serve vegan options throughout this fast.
As 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.
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
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.