An Ethiopian Journal

"Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters"

An Ethiopian Easter in Jerusalem

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Palestine Monitor
29 April 2008

Contrary to romantic perceptions, the streets of Jerusalem’s Old City by night are typically sinister and ghostly due to a combination of bad lighting and poor rubbish collection services, together with the cadres of patrolling Israeli police and soldiers armed with rifles and batons, and the scores of CCTV cameras that punctuate the walls of each winding alley.

But this weekend, the city’s streets took on a festive hue as thousands of orthodox pilgrims converged on the city’s Christian holy sites to celebrate the most important event in the Christian liturgical calendar: Easter.

José M. Ruibérriz

A willing pilgrim poses for the many photographers present at the Holy Saturday ceremony. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

One of the most lively and joyful of these celebrations is the Holy Saturday festival held at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which Christians believe to be built on the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection.

The Holy Saturday festival commemorates the time that Jesus is said to have lain in the tomb and descended into hell, defying death and releasing those held captive there, including Adam and Eve.

According to orthodox tradition, at exactly 2pm on this day, a sun beam is said to shine on Jesus’ tomb, lighting 33 candles held by the Patriarch of the Greek Church who waits inside the tomb. The Patriarch then emerges carrying the Holy Fire to light the candles of thousands of worshippers that crowd into the Church for the ceremony.

But because of the strict guidelines defining which part of the Church belongs to which of the six churches based there, Jerusalem’s tiny Ethiopian community conducts its own Holy Fire ceremony later on Saturday evening in the courtyard of the Deir Al-Sultan monastery, which sits on the rooftop of the Church.

Deir Al-Sultan has been home to a community of Ethiopian monks since 1808. The monastery lies above the Chapel of the Finding of the Cross, where Queen Helena is believed to have discovered the three crosses used to crucify Jesus and the two thieves, Dismas and Gestas. It consists of several small chapels, including the Chapel of the Archangel Michael, and a courtyard with a dome in the centre which gives light to the Chapel of Saint Helena below.

During the Holy Saturday festival, the Archbishop of the Ethiopian Church, dressed in an elaborate golden garment, wearing a jewelled crown and sporting a candle carrying the Holy Fire, lights candles carried by monks, nuns and pilgrims wearing simple white cotton robes. Led by the Archbishop, the worshippers proceed to dance around the dome of the Chapel of Saint Helena to the sound of drums and to the smell of incense, chanting and singing as they go. The Archbishop then retreats to a tent erected outside the Chapel of the Archangel Michael especially for the occasion, where prayers continue.

José M. Ruibérriz

Ethiopian pilgrims dress in white cotton robes for the Holy Saturday ceremony. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

The Ethiopian Holy Fire ceremony attracts a great deal of attention, and today the courtyard is filled with Israelis, Palestinians, Germans, Italians and a multitude of other nationalities vying for the best view of the festivities.

A spirit of joy prevails over the celebrations, fuelled by the infectious smiles of the Ethiopian pilgrims. While some of the younger worshippers pose with their candles for the many camera-toting media and tourists, some of the older members frown on, decidedly unimpressed by this outside attention.

José M. Ruibérriz

A nun frowns at the touristic and media attention generated by the ceremony. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

Yet outside of the Easter festivities, the area is the site of a lengthy and sometimes violent turf war between the Ethiopian and Coptic churches, exacerbating and exacerbated by other disputes between the six churches competing for control over the Church: the Latins (Roman Catholics), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Copts, and Ethiopians.

Since its dedication around 335, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has undergone many cycles of destruction and rebuilding often strongly linked to political upheavals that have persisted in the region throughout history. And since the accession to power of the Ottoman Turks in 1517, many political machinations among Christians trying to gain control over all or parts of the edifice have followed.

On Palm Sunday in 1767, a squabble broke out between the Greeks and Franciscans over rights to the Church. In order to put what they thought was a decisive end to the bickering, the Ottoman authorities passed a firman (imperial decree) splitting the Church and other holy sites in Palestine between the various Western and Eastern churches. This eventually came to be known as the Status Quo, basically a legal regime restating the different rights and powers enjoyed by the various Christian denominations over holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, including the monastery of Deir Al-Sultan in Jerusalem.

Successive regimes promised to uphold the Status Quo throughout the 20th century, including the British, the Jordanian, and the Israelis. But neither the Jordanians nor the Israelis kept their Status Quo promises when it came to Deir Al-Sultan. In what some say was a jibe at the Egyptian authorities at the time, the Jordanians passed a ministerial decree in 1960 ordering the Coptic Church to hand over the monastery’s keys to the Ethiopians. When the Copts refused, the Jordanian police forcefully broke open the monastery’s locks and handed the new keys over to the Ethiopians. The Jordanian king personally intervened and ordered that the monastery be restored to the Coptic Church.

But the Jordanians lost East Jerusalem and the Old City when they were occupied by the Israelis in June 1967, and the dispute erupted yet again. On Coptic Easter in 1970, while the Copts were busy at midnight prayers in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Israeli police forcefully changed the locks at Deir Al-Sultan and handed over the monastery’s new keys to the Ethiopians. Despite a ruling by Israel’s High Court in 1971 that the monastery be returned to the Copts, no action was taken and the situation remains unresolved to this day.

For their part, the Ethiopians accuse the Copts of having taken over the monastery in 1838 when plague struck Jerusalem and all the Ethiopian monks died. According to the Ethiopians, the Copts burned down the library containing the documents which validated the Ethiopians’ claim to Deir Al-Sultan.

José M. Ruibérriz

An elderly pilgrim reads his bible by candlelight. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

Today, a tense coexistence prevails between the Copts and the Ethiopians, one where even the most seemingly insignificant actions can spark off fierce internecine fighting. In 2002, an unholy brawl broke out when an Egyptian Coptic monk stationed on the roof decided to move his chair from its agreed spot into the shade. This was interpreted as a hostile move by the Ethiopians, violating an agreement that defines ownership over every nook and cranny in the Church. Rivals hurled stones, iron bars and chairs at each other in the resulting fracas, and seven Ethiopian Orthodox monks and four Egyptian Coptic monks were hospitalised as a result.

This tragi-comic incident is just a small example of the wider battle raging within and over Jerusalem, one that is not only religious, but deeply political. While this Easter passed without incident at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Palestinian struggle for East Jerusalem as a Palestinian city is being severely undermined day by day.

The building of Israel’s Apartheid Wall is isolating the city from its Palestinian hinterland in Ramallah and Bethlehem, while the construction of thousands of new illegal settlement homes for Jewish Israelis on confiscated Palestinian land are fragmenting Palestinian neighbourhoods and severely impeding their development.

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Worshippers carry candles light by the Holy Fire. Photo: José M. Ruibérriz

While pilgrims from all over the world come to Jerusalem to pray at its holy sites, local Palestinian worshippers, Christians and Muslims alike, are denied free access to the city and depend on permits arbitrarily granted by the Israeli authorities. While Israel puts on a show of beneficent religious tolerance for the outside world, it quietly enforces a relentless system of Apartheid against Palestinians.

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Written by Tseday

November 4, 2008 at 11:32 pm

One Response

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  1. I Love Ethiopian Ortodox church.

    Assefa

    April 4, 2010 at 12:16 am


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