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Monastic life in Ethiopia faces an uncertain future

Sunrise at the Meskaye Hizunan Medhane Alem Monastery in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, feels anything but contemplative. A cacophony of roaring bus and car engines interrupts the early morning calm. A blur of red brake lights eclipses the rising sun’s soft rays. The compound, which includes a church and an elementary and high school, sits at the heart of the bustling Sidist Kilo neighborhood, home to Addis Ababa University’s main campus. The neighborhood’s urban energy is palpable, even when the city has barely awakened.

Inside the church, worshipers and monks have filled the pews to celebrate the day’s first liturgy. Chants drown out the noise of the street. Incense meanders through the candlelit nave.

As the service concludes, Abbot Melake Girmai leads the monks to the monastery’s refectory. A small army of kitchen staff serves a hearty breakfast — fluffy white injera (spongy bread made from teff), wat (a traditional vegetable and meat stew), fruit, coffee and tea.

Though hardly the lap of luxury, the monks at this urban religious house enjoy comforts unthinkable in the far more ascetic rural monasteries for which Ethiopian Orthodoxy has long been known.

No one bears witness better to this contrast than Abba Kidane Mariam Arega, who has just arrived in the capital from the rural Georgis of Gasicha Monastery in Wollo. He is on his way to visit old friends at the Ziquala Monastery, a day’s journey from Addis Ababa.

Before dawn the next day, Abba Kidane sets out for Mount Ziquala, an extinct volcano whose peak is home to the monastery. For the next two hours, he drives along the dusty highway that cuts through the golden plains of Ethiopia’s Rift Valley.

Little by little, the sun’s morning rays illuminate the landscape. Nearing Mount Ziquala, the two-mile-high peak casts a wide shadow on the valley. As the sun climbs above the mount, its shadow gradually draws back as though a stage curtain, revealing an ageless vignette — peasants with donkeys tending their fields.

Arriving at the base of the mountain, Abba Kidane pulls into Wanbere Mariam, a small farming village whose outward appearances have not changed in centuries. Only pop music pulsating from an unidentifiable source situates it in the new millennium.

The drive may be over, but the journey is certainly not. The summit of the mountain may only be reached by hiking three hours on a winding trail. Despite the steep, rocky terrain, the monk displays no physical strain, even as his flowing black cassock absorbs the sun’s now blistering rays. The trail’s switchbacks steepen as they climb the mountain; the thick shrubs give way to forest.

Finally, the trail levels out and opens onto a swath of terraced fields. Sweeping panoramic views of the countryside are visible in almost every direction. A weathered sign welcomes visitors to the Ziquala Monastery, where some 230 monks and 120 nuns make their home.

As do Ethiopia’s better known monasteries — Debra Damo in Tigray, Debra Libanos in Shoa and Debra Hayk in Wello — Ziquala exemplifies Ethiopia’s ancient monastic tradition. Its remoteness and the communal and strictly ascetic lifestyle of its residents recall Ethiopia’s first monasteries, which appeared in the fifth century.

Abba Gebre Medhen, the monastery’s abbot, greets Abba Kidane and leads him to the rustic facility’s kitchen. Straw covers the floor. A simple mud oven is the only appliance. Rays of sunlight beam through the window’s wooden shutters, closed to keep out the high-altitude heat. He offers dabhi, a simple, dark mixed-grain bread — the staple of the monastery’s menu.

“We’re hermits devoted to a contemplative life,” says Abba Gebre, who has lived at the monastery for the past 15 years. “In town, we get a wage, good food, good home, bed, many things. Here, we give up everything. We work the fields and pray. We have no water supply. We go up and down the mountain. It gets very cold here. We get one type of dabhi. That’s it! No other option. But I’m very happy here.”

The abbot points to an icon on the wall, which depicts a white-bearded monk with leopards and lions at his feet and a raven pecking at his eyes. The man, explains the priest, is the monastery’s founder, the Egyptian monk Abba Gebre Menfes Qiddus, Servant of the Holy Spirit. According to tradition, Abba Gebre Menfes Qiddus established the monastery in 1370, where he lived for 262 years. For a century, he prayed in the nearby crater lake. Only his long white hair covered his body. While he prayed, he befriended wild animals, such as leopards and lions, and endured Satan’s tests, one of which involved a raven pecking at his eyes. The legend attracted countless faithful to the monastic life.

As did its founder, the Ziquala Monastery has since faced its share of trials and tribulations. In the late 15th century, it ceased operations entirely, remaining deserted for the next 300 years. The dilapidated facility did not reopen until the end of the 19th century, after Emperor Menelik II defeated the invading Italian army.

Today, the monastery is a vibrant stronghold of traditional Ethiopian Orthodox monasticism. And at first glance, it even seems impervious to modern Ethiopia’s fast-changing society. But it, as do all facets of Ethiopia’s monastic culture, confronts new realities and an uncertain future.

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church has been navigating turbulent waters ever since the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974. In particular, these years have taken a heavy toll on traditional monasticism. Under Marxist Derg rule, which lasted until 1991, the government seized and redistributed church-owned land. Monasteries, which traditionally operated relatively large farms, were forced to forfeit much of their property and, as a result, lost their economic sustainability. Stripped of their resources, monks and nuns also surrendered their vital roles as producers, employers, educators and leaders in their communities.

“Historically, the Western church has made a distinction between the active and the contemplative life, establishing monastic communities, institutes and orders dedicated to specific purposes,” explains Joachim Persoons, a scholar of Ethiopian monasticism and professor at the Orthodox theological college in Addis Ababa. “In contrast, Eastern Christian monasticism has a more holistic approach; all monasteries are contemplative, however, at the same time they are deeply involved in the lives of their local communities, giving assistance to the needy and acting as cultural and educational hubs.”

“In contrast, Eastern Christian monasticism has a more holistic approach; all monasteries are contemplative, however, at the same time they are deeply involved in the lives of their local communities, giving assistance to the needy and acting as cultural and educational hubs.”

Ethiopia’s monasteries once served as important spiritual and scholarly centers. They conserved ancient relics. They passed down from generation to generation liturgy, poetry and exegesis — once found throughout the Christian East, but preserved in their entirety only in Ethiopia. Monasteries employed local farmers and educated children from rural, economically disadvantaged families. And they protected the environment, the local flora and fauna so critical to biodiversity.

Today, most of Ethiopia’s monasteries need financial support. Many are simply languishing. A growing number of Ethiopians see them and the monastic culture they represent as disconnected from society. As Mr. Persoons describes it, they are regarded “as a liability for the church and country, an impediment to her development or at best something with little to contribute to the future.

“In one generation,” he continues, “the public has taken for granted that monasteries are impoverished — and more often than not excluded from the momentum of socioeconomic development — while monks are regarded as alien to society, which is not historically correct.”

It is not difficult to identify reasons for monasticism’s decline. In addition to recent political and social upheavals, economic stagnation, new standards in education and migration to urban centers top the list.

“Education was always from the church. The curriculum was all church material — the Bible. The kingdom was a theocracy. But now, with the encroachment of modern education and secular life, the chain is broken,” explains Dr. Getachew Haile, the 78-year-old director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. “Many people don’t go to church schools, where monks were recruited. They go to government schools and that doesn’t attract them to monastic life.

“Families ask, ‘Why should we send our children to church schools? Why spend so many years studying the Old and New Testaments, learn the ancient language in which these books are written and become monks or nuns?’ ” says Dr. Getachew, who fled the Derg in 1975. “Education is supposed to help you in life. But this doesn’t help you. An engineer who graduates from college can earn more than someone who studies the Old and New Testaments.”

As the educational system has transitioned from traditional to modern, religious to secular, the allure of monastic life has dulled among a public who now sees a more prosperous future in the commercial world.

“Big monasteries used to have land to plow or rent to peasants who’d divide the harvest. That life attracted people to the monastery,” explains the director. “But when the previous government confiscated and nationalized land, they lost it. People saw they could earn more outside the monastery. The monastery was not as comfortable as it used to be.”

The net result has been a sharp decline in the number of new monastic vocations, raising serious concerns within the church about the future of traditional monastic life.

In response, Ethiopian Orthodox leaders have begun taking steps, albeit small, to revitalize monasticism. The church’s Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission plans to establish a working group to examine and evaluate solutions to the challenges facing the monastic community. A conference on contemporary monasticism is also in the works, which would bring together religious, experts and other stakeholders to explore viable options toward making monasticism relevant to and sustainable in modern Ethiopian society.

The hope is that monasteries once again will serve as important centers for community life.

Most often located in underserved rural communities, monasteries have a great potential to play pivotal roles in developing Ethiopia at the grassroots level. As moral and spiritual leaders, monks could effectively promote public health and education in the local community. A growing number of women, for example, are entering the nation’s monastic communities, which could serve as a platform to promote gender issues. And as environmental sanctuaries, monasteries could be key partners in building Ethiopia’s ecotourism industry.

Back in the refectory at the Meskaye Hizunan Medhane Alem Monastery, Abbot Melake Girmai and his brother monks do not lack in vitality. Abbot Melake exudes energy as he describes the facility.

“With the school on one side and the university on the other,” he explains, “the aim is to minister to the spiritual needs of those in higher education and to do so in a way appropriate to the modern context.”

By the end of breakfast, the monastery’s grounds are teeming with students. Some 2,000 children have gathered in the courtyard, awaiting the bell.

Abbot Melake looks at the clock and makes his way to the courtyard. When he arrives, the youngsters, dressed in pressed white-collared shirts, blue pants and V-neck sweaters, form neat lines. The abbot mounts a raised platform in front of the students.

The din hushes. He leads a prayer and then offers them a few words of moral guidance. Heputs down his microphone and the students file off to class.

The school offers a first-rate education. Its 145 staff includes some of the city’s best teachers. And for the past three years, 100 percent of the graduating class has gone on to college.

Despite its success, the school struggles financially. To help sustain it, the monastery has launched a number of income-generating projects. Already, a clinic and bakery operate on the premises. Plans are also in effect to build a religious heritage museum that would preserve ancient vestments and other artifacts. And across from the church, a seven-story commercial center is under construction.

“Up to now, monks have been engaged in spiritual activities,” explains Abbot Melake. “But we have a plan to get them more involved in the development projects during their free time, apart from prayer. Some are engaged in studies. Some have skills. We need to utilize them.”

Standing between a cement mixer and an intricate web of scaffolding, Abba Tewodros Akalu is supervising the commercial center’s construction. He has no qualms with the job. The monk grew up in Adama, a busy transportation hub in central Ethiopia, and for many years studied theology in Ziway, a rural monastery on the banks of bucolic Lake Ziway in the Rift Valley. Abba Tewodros knows well the contrasts between rural and urban monastic life.

“I’m happy wherever I am, urban or rural. I know wherever I go — Adama, Ziway, Dubai, Norway, Sweden, Brussels, Paris or California — that I go for spiritual service,” says the well-traveled monk. “Of course, there are certain difficulties. No denying that. The urban life is a more luxurious life. But if one’s committed, the setting doesn’t matter.”

From his office, Abbot Melake echoes his fellow monk’s sentiment. “People think monasteries outside on the mountaintop are more holy,” says the abbot, whose office desk resembles one belonging to a senior executive, complete with day planners, achievement awards and fountain pens.

“But you know the church is one. God is one. So this is just as holy as the mountaintop.”

At that moment, the abbot’s secretary sticks his head into the office and gives him a knowing look. A handful of monks, school staff and parishioners have lined up outside his office to meet with him.

The priest pauses. “The mountain monastery is better for prayer,” he admits with a smile. “Nobody disturbs anybody there.”

Peter Lemieux received the Dorothea Lange Fellowship in 2001.

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