Well...I'm back in Ethiopia. The time at home this summer was great but the project here is finally making real progress and I can help that progress most be being here. (And besides, I need a job, and if the only job I can find is in Africa, so be it.) The current plan is to be mostly finished by the end of the year so it won't be too bad...
Anyway, this week end is "Meskel" - an Ethiopian Orthodox Church holiday. It commemorates the discovery of the True Cross (or, as they said at the Meskel celebration in Meskel Square last evening, the "Holy Cross") by Queen Eleni in the fourth century. "Meskel" is Ge'ez (Amharic (the language spoken around here)) for "Cross". (Apparently other Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches celebrate it as the "Feast of the exaltation of the holy cross" but I've never heard of it.)
The Meskel celebration includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera, based on the belief that Queen Eleni had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she shall make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.
This Demera-procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself, according to local traditions. The firewood is decorated with daisies prior to the celebration. Afterwards, charcoal from the remains of the fire is collected and used by the faithful to mark their foreheads with the shape of a cross kind of like Ash Wednesday.
It turns out to be a really big deal around here. Meskel Square in the center of Addis Ababa was full of people (1-2 hundred thousand?) Saturday afternoon. Bigwigs from the President to major religious figures gave speeches (a couple were in English) as church groups and choirs marched through the square. The whole thing was capped off by a huge bonfire and fireworks shortly after sunset. A combination of St. Patrick's Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July. The picture below is a shot of the crowd holding candles as the bonfire really got going.
(A more practical explanation for the importance of this festival is that it replaced an older festival, with pagan and Hebraic associations, which may have received its Christian sanction around the reign of Emperor Amda Seyon in the fourteenth century. The most ancient meaning of these feasts -- as was also the case in Israel -- was no doubt seasonal: the month of Maskaram marked the end of the rains, the resumption of work, and the reopening of communications.)
One way or another it was pretty impressive and a interesting way to spend Saturday afternoon and evening.