By Christopher Howse
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 in September
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 and Child.
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 Coptic see.
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 story.
Christopher Howse’s “A Pilgrim in Spain” is published by Continuum (£16.99).