PHOTO: Ethiopians chanted and ran circles around a flaming pyre in the People’s Square of Gondar in celebration of the Meskel Festival. (Photo by David Cogswell)
The People’s Square of Gondar, Ethiopia, was packed with people, shoulder to shoulder, front to back as far as we could see for the Meskel Festival. There was electricity in the air as the teeming crowds pushed up against each other and crowds lined the tops of buildings around the center of the plaza where the festival took place.
The Meskel Festival is a Christian festival celebrated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church on Sept. 27. It commemorates the discovery by Queen Helena of what was believed to be the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
In the center of the plaza was a pile of timber stacked together like a 20-foot teepee. The bonfire ritual is based on the story of Queen Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, who was believed to have been told by an angel in a dream to build a bonfire and the trail of the smoke would lead to the site where the cross was buried.
The leaders of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, including the bishop, assembled at the festival in Gondar to speak to the crowd. As the bonfire burned, crowds of young Ethiopians ran circles around the fire, chanting until it collapsed. According to tradition, if the center staff of the bonfire falls to the east when it collapses, it is an omen for abundance.
The local guide for the NTA Product Development Trip had the connections with local officials that allowed him to lead the group through the crowd to a place near the platform where the bishop and other religious leaders were assembled. As the bonfire burned, bright orange flames and black smoke climbed into the sky. The crowd chanted until the pile of burning wood collapsed in a smoking heap, then broke out in uproarious cheers and shouts.
It was a riveting spectacle. To be there was to participate in a rare experience of collective human energy building to a peak.
The celebration is unique to Ethiopia and is celebrated there by people regardless of religion, including the Christians, Jews and Muslims who populate the country. In Ethiopia there are no territorial disputes and the people of the three religions live harmoniously together.
The occasion also marks the transition from the rainy to the dry season and has roots more ancient than Christianity itself.
Ethiopia is historically made up of people who are a mix of Black African and Semitic Jews and Arabs. Culturally it is a crossroads of Black Southern Africa, Semitic Northern Africa, Europe and Asia. It is unique among all its neighbors and certainly in the world beyond Africa. It was such a mix of impressions, it was often hard to remember where we were. It had elements of so many places.
After attending the Meskel Festival and a pause for lunch, the group visited Gondar Castle, which is actually a complex of several castles built in about 1636 by King Fasilides. The grounds and the castles look as if they might be in Europe, but the architecture is a blend of styles from the Axumite kingdom, the Portugal and India.
A comparative timeline of Ethiopia and the U.S. would show the building of these castles and the strength of the empire it represents as being contemporary with the earliest British colonies in America. The experience of being exposed to this series of what must be called revelations to this group of travelers evokes many mysteries to ponder at some future, more leisurely moment when the trip is finished and its kaleidoscopic cascade of images and experiences can be assimilated.
The NTA trip was designed to provide a sampling of what is available to travelers to Ethiopia from the U.S. Though Ethiopia is adjacent to Kenya, which is one of the most popular destinations in Africa for its wildlife safaris and The Great Migration, Ethiopia is in contrast a site of concentrated religious and historical sites.
For the group of tour operators and writers in the NTA PDT trip, each day included a series of experiences revealing the richness of the culture and history that can be experienced in Ethiopia, a country that is still an unknown blank to most Americans.
While we traveled in East Africa, the ebola plague raged in West Africa, and coverage reached the group from news reports on TV screens in the hotels and airports we visited. It was tragic to see the reports, though to us it was remote, much as were the ongoing reports of war and the latest attacks in the Middle East.