The magazine of the photo-essay
Jan 2017 back issue
Priests & Pilgrims of Ethiopia
by Christopher Roche
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous!” Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
Imagine a hundred thousand white robed pilgrims descending upon a village of churches carved out of the ground.  At night some sleep on whatever bare patch of rock they can find whilst others read their bibles by candlelight.  Imagine priests in colourful robes swaying and chanting above them at daybreak. Imagine churches built into caves on high cliff faces and inaccessible mountaintop monasteries.  Imagine a people that believe they hold the Ark of the Covenant and whose Emperors were direct descendants of King Solomon.  These seemingly fantastic scenes, which I witnessed in current day Ethiopia, are the inspiration behind this book. I first travelled to Ethiopia nine years ago and immediately fell in love with the country and its people.  What I encountered was not the Africa I had lived in as a child and visited as an adult but a land from another continent – and another time. The country, having spent so much of its past in isolation, is quite different from the rest of Africa culturally, historically and linguistically.  Exploring the northern highlands I felt I was stepping into the ancient world, a world soaked in godliness.  I visited the sites, trekked the terrain and danced (poorly) with the locals.  I
witnessed spectacular scenes straight out of the bible.  I was determined to return. Earlier this year I finally had the opportunity. I landed in Addis Ababa with the desire to explore and photograph the spiritual devotion of the people that had so fired my imagination during my first trip.  I discovered that many things have changed, most notably the number of tourists and hotels, but the one thing that has not changed at all is the faith of the people which still permeates all aspects of life. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with a membership of approximately 45 million people, is one of the oldest forms of Christianity in the world and unlike any other. The story of its origins and development is so imbued with myth and legend it is impossible to separate fact from fiction – though historians continue to try. The overriding impression that I have from my travels in northern Ethiopia is that it is like stepping into the Old Testament.  If ever I should want to film a biblical epic and not worry about set design and costumes, this would be the place to do it.  The Ethiopian people are proud, dignified and handsome.  There is no proselytising; the Orthodox Church sits alongside a large Muslim minority relatively peacefully.  At times their devotion is deeply personal and private, at other times public and celebratory. I fear that many of the traditions that I photographed will not survive the erosive forces of tourism and consumerism - at least not in an authentic spiritual form.  As everyone (including the priests) has a digital phone with a camera, the subject becomes the photographer.  I have attempted in this book to convey the epic and the intimate aspects of the Ethiopian faith, the monumental landscapes and private moments. 
A meeting of minds in Bet Maryam, Christmas Eve Lalibela.
A pilgrim in front of Bet Giogris, Lalibela, Christmas Day.
Pilgrim with candle and bible, Bet Maryam, Christmas Eve night.
Deacon with candle, Bet Maryam, Christmas Eve night.
Pilgrims at dawn, Lalibela, Christmas morning.
Priests at dawn, beginning of St David’s dance, Christmas morning, Lalibela.
Priest outside his cave church, Tigray.
Priest outside his cave church, Tigray.
Celebration of Timket, Gondar.
Pilgrim, Christmas Eve night, Lalibela.
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