In the late fourth century Empress Helena, the 80 year old mother of Constantine the Great, went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to find the true cross on which Jesus was crucified. Ever since reading The Canterbury Tales, I’ve been drawn to the idea of pilgrimage. Perhaps that’s part of why Ethiopia appeals so much to me–it feels like a medieval country, with old men and women going on remarkable journeys and accomplishing remarkable things in much the same way now as it has been for thousands of years. (OK, for all you historians out there, I realize Helena predates the Medieval period by at least a hundred years, but that’s not my point.) So what does this old Roman woman have to do with Ethiopia?
Legend has it that when she reached Jerusalem Helena built a fire and burned incense, which drifted to the resting place of three crosses, buried in a cistern. The cross of Jesus, identified through a healing miracle, was broken into fragments and given out to various churches. The story goes that one large fragment of the right arm of the cross found its way to Ethiopia, and is said to reside under the Gishen Mariam monastery, in the mountains between Addis Ababa and Lalibela. It is one of Ethiopia’s important pilgrimage destinations.
For these and perhaps for other reasons Meskel, the Finding of the True Cross, is a major holiday in the Orthodox calendar. It’s a two-day holiday. The first day consists of building a huge bonfire, demera, made of eucalyptus branches and green leaves (for dense smoke) with a cross at the top. It is decorated with yellow Meskel daisies and other flowers. Each neighborhood community has a Meskal bonfire, and a lot of informal ones dot the sidewalks, built precariously near power lines, fences, and overhanging trees. The “official” bonfire and celebration happen in Meskel Square downtown.
This year, we went to the one in the big open lot called the Tabot Medaria up the hill from our house. The celebration began at about 6:30 with chanting in and singing in Ge’ez, which involved the priests, women “decons” (?? they have a part of the service, but I’m not sure what their official role is), and Sunday school kids. A priest circled the crowd with a collection box, offering a blessing by touching a large carved wooden cross to my forehead and holding out the end for me to kiss.
As darkness fell, long thin beeswax candles were lit. Parents carefully guided children’s candles away from the thin cotton natellas and gabbis, head coverings and shawls.
Then the priests lit the bonfire, to much ululating.
Meskel is the family holiday, and the following day is a day to gather with relatives and have a feast. However, I haven’t met an Ethiopian holiday yet that doesn’t involve gathering with relatives and having a feast!
The second day is also a time for the faithful to revisit the bonfire site and draw a cross on their foreheads with ashes from the fire. If it rains after the Meskel fire, it is supposed to be a sign that the yearly harvest will be good. Sure enough, this afternoon it rained. Generally, Meskel marks the time of year when the rainy season ends and the grains begin to dry for harvest in October and November. In the month of September, the fields are yellow with Meskel flowers.
Children from Oromia with freshly gathered Meskel flowers during a visit outside of Addis in September 2016.