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Ethiopia Celebrates Mary

A photo essay focuses on Ethiopians’ annual pilgrimage to Aksum

Not far from Ethiopia’s disputed border with Eritrea lies the sleepy town of Aksum (population, 41,000). Though not a common tourist destination, Aksum holds its place as an important heritage site. It is littered with archaeological ruins, including the steles for which it is famous. Once the capital of a prosperous empire that stretched from eastern Africa to Arabia, Aksum controlled the East-West trade routes linking India and Rome. Its emperors were among the first to embrace Christianity, using it to forge a distinct culture and nation from a bewildering number of ethnic and linguistic groups.

Each year, on 30 November, Aksum is aroused from its sleep. Tens of thousands of Ethiopians, wrapped in their white pilgrimage attire, or gabis, converge on Aksum to celebrate one of Ethiopia’s holiest days, Mariam Zion, or Mary of Zion. They focus their attention on a modest shrine that is actually part of a cluster of churches all dedicated to her. Surrounded by a simple iron fence, and guarded by a solitary monk who alone has access to its contents, the chapel houses Ethiopia’s greatest treasure, the Ark of the Covenant.

Mariam Zion commemorates this African nation’s Judaic heritage and its Christian faith: Ethiopians believe the Ark of the Covenant, which enshrines the Ten Commandments, has been in Ethiopia since their first king, Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, took the Ark from Jerusalem. Others have suggested it came after 587 B.C., when references to the Ark disappear from Scripture after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. Mariam Zion therefore celebrates God’s presence in the Ten Commandments and honors Mary as the New Ark.

Legend or fact, Ethiopians take seriously what the Ark and Mary both represent: vessels in which the presence of God, the God of the Old and New Testaments, dwells.

Pilgrims to Aksum are not unlike the Christian pilgrims of the Middle Ages, who traveled to the Holy Land, or the Muslim pilgrims of today, who journey to Mecca. A pilgrim’s trek to Aksum is an outward expression of his or her faith, a quest for the sacred, an expedition that includes prayer, reflection, penance and almsgiving. And while this quest is not obligatory, it is a practice that has remained widespread among the region’s Orthodox Christians – clergy, religious and lay – despite coups, civil strife and famine.

Several days before the feast, thousands of pilgrims leave their homes and head north on foot (many take buses, few fly), carrying their bedding and food. Pilgrims must abstain from meat and dairy products as well as sexual intercourse for three days before the feast. Some practice acts of mortification – a rite of purification – as they process to Aksum. Others give alms to the beggars who line the paths leading to the object of the pilgrims’ devotion.

For those pilgrims who abstained and fasted, the climax of the feast – which includes the chanting of psalms, the reading of sacred works, liturgical dances and a plethora of sermons and pious exhortations to follow the example of Mary – is the reception of the Eucharist during the Divine Liturgy, which is celebrated in a vast modern church built by the last emperor, Haile Selassie. Awed by the presence of God, Ethiopians rarely receive Communion.

Mariam Zion concludes with a simple lunch, the fast broken by the Eucharist.

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