As a dark curtain of rain drew near, my tour group made its descent down the hill, leaving the Ethiopian town of Lalibela behind us. In the distance, rows of lush green plateaus stretched out under the thunderclouds before plummeting down to the valley.
Only one thing could cause us to look away from this tropical Grand Canyon: a giant cross jutting out from the mud-red hillside.
Our group—myself, two couples from Chicago, and our tour guide—soon found itself on the edge of a gaping hole in the hillside. Inside was a full-sized church, hewn out of volcanic rock. A zigzag of stairs and trenches led to the Church of St. George—or, Bet Giyorgis in Amharic (the main Ethiopian language). From the base, the 17-story church towered above us, its finely carved four columns forming a Greek cross from base to roof. With volcanic red walls scarred by yellow splotches and green stains, the church conveyed a sense of time as well as timelessness.
We entered the church, after first removing our shoes—one of many ubiquitous holdovers from Jewish tradition that I would witness on my trip. The interior was bathed in a cave-like darkness, pierced only by shafts of light from spade-shaped windows high above us. As in other Orthodox churches in Ethiopia, there were no pews or chairs, just a mish-mash of plush carpets. What appeared to the untrained eye to be one room was actually two: the qene mahlet around the entrance, where the congregation sings hymns, and then the qeddest, where the faithful receive communion. A third room was hidden from view in the front: the maqdas, the Ethiopian equivalent of the Jewish Holy of Holies.
It is not for nothing that St. George has been dubbed the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.’ Were it the only rock-hewn church there, the small northern Ethiopian town would still be worth the visit. But in fact, Lalibela has not one, two, or even three such churches, but a dozen.
How these churches of Lalibela came to be is the stuff of legend. Some modern historians have credited the Knights Templar with their construction. Ethiopian tradition, however, maintains that angels worked on the churches during the night, picking up where tired villagers had left off. Adding to the mystery is the fact that not a single tool has ever been found. “Maybe the angels took them away with them,” our guide quipped.
In the absence of material for carbon dating, no one is even really sure how old the churches are, although tradition holds that they were built after the 12th century King Lalibela received instructions for building them during a vision in which he was taken up to heaven.
The remaining 11 churches are clustered in two compounds elsewhere in town. Wandering through the maze of moss-covered trenches, stone archways, and tunnels that connect the churches within each group has all the thrill of a treasure hunt—but I was in it for more than the sights, as breathtaking as they were.
By day, these churches stood as architectural fossils of an ancient faith with nothing more than a lone priest here and there and the bones of pilgrims at one church to keep the occasional gaggle of tourists company. But one Monday morning, after 6 a.m., I witnessed one of these church compounds burst into life in the celebration of the daily liturgy.
Since I was more than half an hour late, I braced myself for the inevitable embarrassment of trying to sneak into whatever church was hosting the liturgy. Instead, I found the area still bustling with activity. Some white-clad worshippers were pouring into and out of one of the churches. Others were circulating through the compound, kissing the walls of each church or making the Sign of the Cross as they made their rounds. One man bowed repeatedly before a church wall while immersed in prayer. Another leaned against a church with an open book.
Apart from a sizable crowd that sat or stood on the ground above the compound, everyone else seemed oblivious to the rattle of the liturgy that belted out of the loudspeakers near one church. The whole scene had more in common with the pandemonium of an open-air market than the regimented order of the Mass.
But that did not seem to make the devotion of these Ethiopian Orthodox faithful any less intense or sincere. Inside the Church of Mary—across from where the liturgy was being celebrated—I sat on a bench, and, in my earnestness to participate, opened up a recent copy of Magnificat magazine. Next to me was a priest immersed in a book that he was speed reading. He seemed unperturbed by the interruption of a worshipper who asked for a blessing. A boy nearby sang softly while in the center of the church, a group of people kneeled, prostrated themselves, and then kissed the floors.
As a new Catholic convert at the time—this was the summer of 2009—I felt a spiritual kinship with these Ethiopian Orthodox devotees that would have been unthinkable when I was an evangelical Protestant. Their icons, their devotional customs, their traditions—all seemed very foreign to me, but so had many things about Catholicism. And so, I found the strangeness of Ethiopian Orthodoxy oddly familiar, even inviting.
But one local theologian I met, Frew Tamrat, the head of the Evangelical College in the capital, Addis Abba, suggested that something more specific was at work. Though not Orthodox, Frew credits the Ethiopian Orthodox belief that the church possesses Ark of the Covenant with making Ethiopia—at least the northern mountainous region, where neither tribalism nor Islam hold sway—a religious nation.
The grip the Ark holds on the spiritual imagination of Ethiopians became apparent to me when I met a young man named Fitsum Chekol, then a 24-year-old computer science student. Fitsum was one of the many new faithful at the International Evangelical Church, where he found that some issues, like sexual morality, are discussed more openly than they are in the Orthodox church, where he told me it is taboo to speak of such matters. But he said he remains a practicing member of the Orthodox church. When asked why, he had a simple answer: the Ark of the Covenant.
Just days earlier, I had been to Aksum, the city where the Ethiopian Orthodox Church says the Ark resides. The ark is housed in an unremarkable white-stone chapel in the backyard of the Church of Mary Zion. No one—not even the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church—is allowed to see it, save for a hermit monk who spends his days praying and meditating in front of the Ark. Just in case anyone gets too curious, an iron fence and stone wall cordons off the yard around the chapel. The idea seems to be to make the ark as inconspicuous as possible—and it worked. Standing outside that fence, I had no inkling that yards away could be one of the most awesome instruments of God’s grace.
That might be for good reason. In the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant was a powerful and dangerous entity. When surrounded by shouting Israelites and blaring trumpets, it brought the walls of Jericho down. Carried into the River Jordan, it cleared a path through the waters. And when Canaanites stole the Ark, they were afflicted with a plague and statue of their god was struck down. Even touching or looking at the Ark under the wrong circumstances could lead to death.
Then, in 587 BC, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and the Ark disappeared. What happened to it has spawned many a legend and at least one popular action movie. But Ethiopian Orthodox Christians have little doubt that the ark ended up in their country—the northern city of Aksum, to be specific.
Explanations of how the Ark found its way to Ethiopia vary. The official Ethiopian version is contained in the Kebra Nagast, which is, as one scholar has put it, like a second Old Testament for the Ethiopians. According to this account, the Queen of Sheba—an ancient kingdom in the area of modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen—and King Solomon had a son, Melenik, who brought the Ark of the Covenant back to Ethiopia with him.
Christianity arrived in the fourth century A.D., when a Syrian who had been shipwrecked off the Ethiopian coast, in what is present-day Eritrea, converted King Ezana to Christianity. Many of his subjects soon followed suit. With the advent of Christianity, the Ark was assured its place in Ethiopian lore and liturgy. Even though it is shrouded from view, the Ark has made Aksum—an otherwise nondescript city of about 47,000 people—a destination for Orthodox pilgrims and tourists alike.
Today, every Orthodox church has a replica of the Ark in its holy of holies, where only priests may enter. In fact, a church building is considered a sacred place of worship only when the replica of the Ark is present. “Because the replica of the Ark is there, they feel the presence of God is there,” Frew told me.
At the time, I admit that I had a hard time understanding why the Ark of the Covenant—as intriguing as such an Old Testament relic would be—could occupy so central a place in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith.
It is only as I have learned more about my Catholic faith that the significance of the Ark finally dawned on me. Now, a few years later, I can see that just as Marian apparitions have converted millions and preserved the faith of nations worldwide—Our Lady of Guadalupe comes to mind—the Ark of the Covenant has done much the same for Ethiopia. (Perhaps it is no coincidence that Scripture describes Mary in language reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant.)
But then, just three years after entering the Roman Catholic Church, my experience in northern Ethiopia had a different, more direct impact on my faith. In the evangelical Protestant circles in which I was raised, one is given the distinct impression that the Mass, the church hierarchy, Marian devotion, and the papacy are all inventions of the Middle Ages—medieval dross that has corrupted the pure faith of the gospels. The existence of the Ethiopian church puts the lie to such myths.
For the Ethiopians—along with the other independent churches in the Oriental Orthodox communion—broke away from the rest of Christendom after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. The fact that they too have a Eucharistic liturgy, Marian devotion, the saints, and an institutionalized priesthood, among other things, stands as a powerful witness to the truth of Catholic Christianity. It makes it clear that such doctrines and devotions had already become established facts of Christian life by the fifth century—long before the advent of the high Middle Ages.
To paraphrase St. Augustine, the Catholic Christian faith is one that is ever ancient yet ever new—and it’s a truth that was illustrated anew for me by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Versions of this article were originally published in Parable, the diocesan magazine of Manchester, New Hampshire.