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Ethiopia’s Island Sanctuary

Reviving religious life in central Ethiopia

Ringed by volcanic hills, Lake Ziway is known for its birds. On a typical day African pygmy geese, yellow-billed storks, white pelicans and other birds swoop over the 187-square-mile lake in central Ethiopia. Ornithology aside, there is another reason to visit Lake Ziway: Its largest island, Tullu Gudo, shelters the oldest active religious community south of Ethiopia’s Christian heartland, Debra Zion. Tradition holds that Tullu Gudo once housed the Ark of the Covenant, said to contain the Ten Commandments.

Around the ninth century A.D., when reportedly the Ark was sheltered there, the island was home to more than 500 monks. Today, there are three. Numerous factors have contributed to this decline, including the return of the Ark to Aksum, immigration over hundreds of years to the less impoverished mainland and the anti-church policies of Ethiopia’s Marxist dictator (1974-1991), Mengistu Haile Mariam.

According to legend, the Ark had been kept in Aksum, the ancient capital of Ethiopia, ever since it was taken from Jerusalem sometime after 587 B.C. But during the ninth century A.D., the Ark’s Ethiopian protectors fled Aksum with the Ark, to escape Queen Judith, whose forces threatened to steal it. Journeying south, the Ark and its guardians eventually settled on the uninhabited island of Tullu Gudo. They built a church, Debra Zion, to hold the Ark and other treasures. About half of the monks returned with the Ark to Aksum some 40 years later, when the city was deemed again safe.

Though it was no longer necessary to guard Tullu Gudo, the monks maintained a significant presence there for more than a thousand years. During the reign of Haile Selassie (1930-1974), Ethiopia’s last emperor, about 100 monks lived on the island. That changed after Mengistu, then a colonel in the army, seized power. Along with the murder and forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, the Marxist dictator also nationalized all land and discouraged religious practice.

Now, 13 years after Mengistu’s government collapsed, religious life is flourishing again in Ethiopia. And the monks of Tullu Gudo, who live amid an Orthodox lay community of several hundred, are trying to recapture some of the island’s celebrated past.

There is no ferry service to Tullu Gudo. Most island residents rely on reed canoes to paddle to the mainland, which takes about four hours. On a recent visit, I was fortunate enough to have the use of a motorboat, which cut the trip to an hour.

I was joined by Abune Gregorius, whose archiepiscopal see is in the lakeside town of Ziway. I had met the archbishop earlier in the day by the lake. He was sitting in a chair and stroking his beard, watching workers digging the foundation for a new cathedral. It would be a stone cathedral, he said.

“These days, you need to make a statement in stone to balance the building the Muslims are doing,” Abune Gregorius said. Funded by the Saudis, “the Muslims build schools, clinics and mosques, and then they seek to convert.”

Of Ethiopia’s 70 million people, about half are Christians, mainly Orthodox, and half are Muslims. There are also small numbers of Jews and animists.

Although Tullu Gudo is entirely Orthodox, the island lies outside the archbishop’s jurisdiction, so it would be the first trip for both of us. As we approached the shore, the island’s lush vegetation became clear. Its hills were covered in candelabria, thorn trees and cacti. Cows and goats grazed along the shore. Children were there to greet us, excited. There are few visitors to this isolated island.

We climbed out of the boat and walked toward Debra Zion Church, atop a hill less than a mile away. We were soon joined by a group of islanders, each bowing to the archbishop and kissing the cross he carried in his right hand.

At the church, we met Abba (Father) Mariam Samuel, one of the island’s three monks. Wearing a flat cotton hat, black cassock and a bright yellow shawl, he looked younger than his 43 years.

“I have been a monk for 23 years, but I was assigned here just two years ago,” he said. The three monks live in community, subsisting on a $5-per-month stipend as well as small gifts from the community. There are also five priests on the island.

Joining Abba Mariam Samuel was Abba Gebre Mariam, 66, a priest native to Tullu Gudo. He is a balding man with a weak back and huge smile. Like the archbishop, Abba Gebre Mariam carries a wooden cross, always ready to bless a passerby.

The islanders are known as “Lak’i,” he said, descendants of the Aksumites and speak a language that dates to the old empire. Some 25,000 Lak’i live in the general area, many of whom abandoned the island at one point or another because of the harsh living conditions.

“There is dire poverty on the island,” said Abba Gebre Mariam, who is married and has eight children.

Poverty exists throughout Ethiopia, but it is indeed “dire” on this island. The Lak’i of Tullu Gudo live in round stone huts covered with thatch. There is no electricity or running water – drinking water is carried from wells. There are no roads or automobiles, though dirt paths abound.

Until recently, fishing was the main source of income. Lake Ziway was flush with tilapia, which the islanders would sell at mainland markets. Due to overfishing, the lake has been closed to commercial fishermen.

Farming is seasonal; there is no irrigation. My visit, in late autumn, marked the end of the rainy season. Fields of barley, wheat and maize, which grow on the island’s lowlands, were almost ready for harvest. The terraces I saw from the boat stand neglected, carved out of the hills when Tullu Gudo was more densely populated and more provisions were needed.

Some islanders also raise cows, goats and donkeys for transportation. Many households also have a few chickens. A traditional society, the men are responsible for fishing and farming while the women tend the home.

Tullu Gudo has had a primary school for 26 years, but there is not a single shop. Anything not produced on the island must be brought from the mainland.

“One change for the good has been the construction of our new church,” Abba Gebre Mariam said. “Here we live by our faith.”

The original church of Debra Zion and its monastery fell into ruin by the early 19th century, but its treasures – various ancient Christian manuscripts and icons – were preserved. Soon after Mengistu was ousted, a new church was built in the traditional Orthodox style – an octagonal stone building with murals depicting biblical scenes. A picture of the present bishop, Abune Nathaniel, hangs on the wall – though he has moved from the island to the mainland.

Once Tullu Gudo’s monastery was the main institution of his diocese, but with its decline it made sense for Abune Nathaniel to move to the mainland, where it is more convenient to minister to the area’s Orthodox faithful. At the back of the Debra Zion church is a padlocked door behind which are the island’s historic treasures.

Looking over the various manuscripts, Abune Gregorius was particularly interested in one book, a history of the saints, written in Ge’ez. This ancient language predates the Aksumite empire, but remains the liturgical language of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

The Tullu Gudo monks claimed the book dated to the Ark’s stay on the island. But later, Spiritan Father Emmanuel Fritsch, a French expert on early Ethiopian Christianity, said it was unlikely to be more than 600 years old.

All the same, it was a significant piece of church history. Unfortunately, here as in much of Ethiopia, such works are not handled with the same care as they would be in modern Western archives. No one wore gloves and there were no efforts to create a controlled environment that might best preserve the manuscripts.

After visiting the church we joined the monks for lunch and then made our way back to the island’s shore, stopping to look at various hot springs along the way. Abune Gregorius offered more blessings and we climbed back into the motorboat along with several islanders who had business on the mainland. The Lak’i waved to us from the shore.

Dark clouds gathered, and our companions started singing to stave off the storm. Soon the island of Tullu Gudo was far behind us, a speck on the horizon but a powerful, and living, reminder of another time.

In November, Sean Sprague spent three weeks on assignment for ONE in Ethiopia.

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