Between rain showers (we are in the monsoon season where the moisture from the Indian Ocean somehow manages to find this landlocked country), I found time this morning to walk the mile or so to the largest cathedral in Ethiopia and the second largest cathedral in Africa–Medhane-Alem or Savior of the World. It is a renowned Ethiopian Orthodox church and, from what I could gather, the congregation takes their religion seriously.
It was an interesting walk through Addis’s construction boom and pockets of sheer poverty.
Last night, I was reminded that I stand out in these streets—and make for a tempting target. There is enough petty crime in Addis to remain vigilant which I was trying to do while returning to my hotel. About half a block from the hotel, on the congested sidewalk and busy street, two street urchins caught sight of me (and I of them) and immediately closed the distance while engaging me in contrived greetings. These two young men were clever with one lining up on my left, the other on my right; they began walking and talking to me. I ignored them as best I could and increased the pace. I now noticed they were now eyeing me up and down scanning my clothes, my pockets, searching for an easy place to grab a valuable and run. I pressed my hands to my wallet and iPhone and began shouting, “No, no, no….” till they got the idea and peeled off.
Now walking to the cathedral, I came to a traffic light and began to turn right when I caught sight of two little girls, sisters, who, in their shabby clothes, were darting about barefoot on the muddy sidewalk. They had the most beautiful smiles and when I waved, they waved back. A closer look revealed a possible family member under a blanket, inert, maybe strung out on khat (a popular and mild narcotic) or alcohol..or simply sleeping. That was a heartbreaking sight, and on my return, they were still there excited to see me. It was hard walking away…the tendency is to help.
After a few short blocks, I witnessed two men in an alley dressed in security guard clothing and wielding batons as they shouted at several young boys who were duck walking with hands behind their head. It appeared to be some kind of corporal punishment, painful for the boys…especially on their knees. I just took it in stride, like I see this type of thing every day.
At the roundabout, I turned left, and had a choice–the narrow path to the busy market or the path to heaven….(er…the cathedral). As I approached the cathedral with its eye-catching façade, I began to feel the power of God assembling his congregation. The chanting and singing was like a Siren call and I hurriedly pushed on through the park to discover its origins. Along the park’s tree lined path, I passed a side chapel where worshipers were praying, singing, some drinking little tin cups of holy water taken from a nearby thermal spring. Sitting in a chair in the middle of the path, a regal and handsome black priest with an offering box at his side, blessed me in Amharic while pressing the Orthodox cross to my forehead. He agreed to pose for a picture. I dropped a note in the box. Quid pro blessing.
At first, I thought I had stumbled upon a large mosque, footwear had been left scattered outside and, every once and a while, I could catch a word in Arabic emanating from within the cathedral. Several worshipers urged me to enter whereupon I discovered the mass had ended but two weddings were in progress. Those at the wedding were dressed in resplendent clothing, the veiled women in their Habesha cloth dresses; the men with their long white robes and traditional headware. The couples, wearing their crowns, were being fawned upon by their respective wedding parties.
As far as cathedrals go, this one was not extraordinary but it did feature one of the most colorful cupolas in the world.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a young man in civilian clothes praying devoutly. He hardly deviated from his kneeling posture as if he were in a trance. When I exited the main door, I found myself in the company of several young men, church singers, who indulged me with a photo. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was the devout young man from inside the cathedral.
In halting English he said politely, “I saw you inside.”
“Yes, I saw you too.”
Before I could utter another word, he said, ” I was praying to God.”
“Prayer is a good thing,” I conceded.
“I can talk to God with my prayer.”
“Of course,” and I reached out and touched his shoulder. He accepted the gesture with a smile.
Another man suddenly appeared at my side, this one spoke fair English. He was in his 60s and called himself Daoud (David).
As we walked away from the cathedral back to the park, he shared his story. A refugee from Eritrea, he fought in the Eritrean army against Ethiopia and has been down on his luck. As a soldier (trained in Russia) during the war, he was wounded and left with a shattered leg (which he showed me–ouch!). He lamented the uneasy relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea reminding me that the civil war had lasted 30 years. We were soon out of the park, the sounds of the nearby market were inviting but I had to get back. David seemed to understand although I got the impression that he had more to say. We shook hands; it was understood I would leave a bill in his palm. Recognizing the roundabout, I crossed the street and was soon left to ponder all I had seen on this Sunday morning in Addis Ababa.