Religion plays an important part of life in Ethiopia. In the Ethiopian Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Tawahedo), the ‘Exaltation of the Holy Cross’ is celebrated in September.
It is also known as the ‘Meskel festival’ and involves an ancient Christian feast to commemorate the day when the Doge of Venice gave the Ethiopian King Dawitt (1382-1413) a fragment of the wooden scaffold, upon which Christ was crucified, as a gift.
The Meskel festival is one of the most popular celebrations in the Ethiopian Church. In addition to the ceremonial aspect, the festival marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the agricultural year.
The eve of the Meskel festival is called ‘Demera’ – for which the literal meaning is ‘bonfire’. Bonfires are lit in towns all across the country to mark the occasion. There is singing and dancing and sticks are lit to look like torches. Worshippers gather in the town square where the bonfire is and do three laps around the fire in honour of the Blessed Trinity.
The bonfire is a symbol to commemorate how Saint Helena lit bonfires in order to signal to her son Emperor Constantine in Constantinople that she had found the Holy Cross. Bonfires were lit on every peak in every Christian country until the news travelled back to him in Ethiopia.
The feast is still celebrated nowadays not only in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but worldwide, wherever there is an Eritrean and Ethiopian community. It begins on 27th September and lasts until October 5th.
A symbol in everyday life
Ever since the conversion of Ethiopia as a country to Christianity (thought to be as far back as the 1st century AD) the presence of the cross seems almost universal. In Ethiopia, cross symbols are not only in churches and places of worship but also in everyday life:
- Crosses features heavily on coins. Four small crosses are represented on golden coins issued during King Ezana’s rule around 330 AD. Further bronze coins also feature a Latin cross, and another which dates back to the 6th century depicts four types of cross. The cross within a circle is also a widespread type, which symbolises the universe. The first representation of this cross dates to 4th, 5th and 6th century coins.
- A Greek cross with equal length arms features on a wall of King Kaleb’s tomb near Aksum’s capital.
- It has also been used in art and on pottery.
- Crosses are made from a variety of materials including wrought iron and brass inlays. Wood carving is the most common among techniques for making crosses.
- The cross within a circle is also a widespread type, allegedly symbolizing the universe. The first representation of this cross dates to 4th, 5th and 6th century coins.