The Ethiopians living on the roof
Saturday 10 December 2011
Sacred mysteries: An ancient African monastery is perched above the Holy
Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
I went to see the Ethiopians on the roof of the church of the Holy Sepulchre
in Jerusalem this week.
The way up is not easy for a stranger to find. Stone steps double back from
the Souk Khan el-Zeit in the Old City, where the jumble of goods for sale,
hanging from the low canopies – scarves, shoulder-bags, T-shirts,
full-length Muslim women's dresses, camel-tack, racks of postcards –
obscures the street plan.
From the steps, those who know where to look may see remnants of the first
church of the Holy Sepulchre, built by Constantine in the 330s. At the top
is a flat roof looking towards the great domes of the church.
Some green wooden doors in adjoining walls stand open, up rickety wooden
steps. At one side, a bulgy rectangular hut apparently made of whitewashed
adobe, is fitted with eaves of corrugated iron above the tiny windows.
Monks in black habits come and go, and keep an eye open for interlopers, for
even this Ethiopian church territory on the marginal exterior of the church
is subject to rival claims from Copts.
The stone surface of the roof slopes gently in this dry climate. In the
middle is a dome with windows fortified with ancient iron bars. This dome
(once the confusing maze of the interior of the church has been
mastered) turns out to be the roof the chapel of the Holy Cross discovered
by St Helena, Constantine's mother. The Ethiopians kept its feast devoutly
One of the doors on the roof leads to the Ethiopian monks' chapel. This is
separated from a passageway by a green-painted railing, leaving just room
for four pairs of benches on each side of a Persian carpet-runner before a
simple screen of dark, silver-painted wood. In the centre, a horseshoe-arch
opens to the high altar, hung with white silk, beneath an icon of the Virgin
Ethiopians speak the ancient Semitic language of Amharic. They worship in
the even more ancient dead language of Ge'ez. Their liturgy if full of
surprises. As well as Sunday, Saturday is a holy day, and in each church the
Ark of the Covenant is revered. Indeed Axum cathedral is said to house the
Ark once kept in the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple.
Evelyn Waugh tells of sitting next to an eminent professor at Haile
Selassie's coronation in 1930, who kept up a commentary on the ceremony:
"They are beginning the Mass now." "That was the offertory." "No, I was
wrong; it was the consecration." "No, I was wrong; I think it is the secret
Gospel." "How very curious; I don't believe it was the Mass at all."
No liturgy was in progress on the morning I visited, since the 4am worship
had long finished. At the back of the chapel, in front of a sort of shed, on
top of which lay a ladder and a green plastic bath, sat a monk in an old
armchair draped with a multi-coloured blanket. On an old brass dish he had
arranged two dollar bills crosswise, scattered artistically with some coins.
This was by way of ground bait, so that pilgrims passing through would know
where to bestow alms, which a little flock of Americans did. Their few
dollars were soon tidied away ready for the next group.
The Ethiopians are not well off. Once, they had a chapel inside the church
of the Holy Sepulchre. They lost that centuries ago during the long Ottoman
rule of Jerusalem, when political influence and payment of taxes counted for
much. It seems odd that the Copts later wrangled with them for their space,
for the Church in Ethiopia always took its chief bishop from Alexandria, the
The Ethiopians hung on. In 1923 there were only 100 in Jerusalem, all told.
They are stronger today, although the Christians are far outnumbered by the
30,000 Ethiopian Jews flown in from peril in the 1990s. But that is another
Christopher Howse's "A Pilgrim in Spain" is published by Continuum (£16.99).