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They drive 200km from Addis Ababa, trek across rolling hills, take off their shoes and enter single-sex areas, lining up for their turn to stand under the holy water.
Some have come to ask for a child, others have illnesses that medicine can’t cure. A woman wails as the water hits her, shrieking like she’s being beaten. “It’s the devil,” a man says, hearing the noise from outside. “She’ll be fine.”
This is Tsadkane Mariyam in Ethiopia’s central Amhara region, one of many religious sites that has become accessible after months under a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic. Every weekend dozens of buses of pilgrims drive from Ethiopia’s capital to come here or to the surrounding areas.
Nearby is a monastery carved into a cave. Inside phones are banned. Women – who wear long skirts or dresses, and white scarves over their heads – cannot enter if they are menstruating.
At Ajna Michael, another holy water spot, pilgrims climb down a stony mountain path to find an octagonal church, painted with the colours of the Ethiopian flag (green, yellow and red), and a walled off area protecting a holy waterfall. They cannot eat or drink between waking up and standing under the frigid water.
A preacher prays through loudspeakers. While they’re being doused most pilgrims see a rainbow – those who don’t are said to have lied recently or done something else wrong.
Visitors fill plastic bottles and jerrycans with the water, which is known as “tsebel”. They take it back home to drink or wash with over the coming weeks.
In April, Ethiopia declared a five-month state of emergency, with fines of up to 200,000 Ethiopian birr (€4,700) or up to three years in prison for failing to comply with restrictions. Elections, which were supposed to take place on August 29th, were postponed for a year, while churches were ordered to close.
It was an unprecedented time for a country where many people are deeply religious, and are used to organising their time between fasting days, festivals and regular worship.
Trading linksEthiopia is Africa’s second most populous country, with roughly 110 million people. Around 62 per cent are Christian, the vast majority of them Ethiopian Orthodox.
Christianity came to Ethiopia in the fourth centuryAD, during the rule of King Ezana. Trading links connected northern Ethiopia with Rome, nearly 4,000km away, and the Ethiopian Orthodox church became the largest pre-colonial Christian church on the African continent.
According to Ethiopian beliefs, the Arc of the Covenant, which is said to hold the stone tablets upon which the 10 commandments were written on, is also located in Ethiopia. Legend says it was brought to Aksum by Menelik, the son of the Queen of Sheba. Only a single monk – who acts as its guardian – can view it.
However, the country’s most famous religious sites are probably the UNESCOnesco-listed rock-hewn churches of Lalibela. Before the pandemic began they were visited by tens of thousands of people annually.
Churches have been open again since May, but caretakers of rural monasteries say groups of visitors returned only when the state of emergency was lifted. Vehicles still face multiple checkpoints as soldiers search for weapons or smuggled currency (shortly after I made the trip, prime minister Abiy Ahmed declared war with the restive, northern Tigray region).
While Ethiopia’s monks have been known to offer holy water as a cure for everything from cancer and infertility to HIV/Aids, they don’t have any quick fixes for Covid-19. Confirmed cases have risen to more than 100,000 across the country, with more than 1,500 deaths.
In Washa Medhaniaiem, another monastery cut from a cave, monks went from having up to 60,000 pilgrims a day during each of the seven religious festival periods to barely any. “A person teaching here would have been tired because there were so many,” said Abune Tekele Tsadik, the monastery’s director.
He said they did not turn away individuals who came seeking blessings or solace during the lockdown, but he is happy to see more coming now.
Blessings“It is normal,” Tsadik said with relief, gesturing towards dozens of people who were gathering for blessings. Men and women walked through separate entrances, before kneeling before large pictures of Jesus and biblical figures.
“There’s not so much corona,” said Zemenu Bires, a tourism worker who had come for the day from Debre Birhan, a city about an hour and a half’s drive away. “You can see the visitors don’t wear masks, no hand sanitiser.”
In fact monks were instructing pilgrims not to wear face coverings. “A mask will only protect God,” one told a group who had gathered to be blessed by him.
Still, they are asking the almighty to bring a cure for the virus. “Now, with corona, we are praying for the world,” said Tsadik.
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