On Thursday night, a massive bonfire blazed in the central square of Ethiopia‘s capital city, Addis Ababa. However, by Friday morning, they swept the mess away, leaving nothing but a giant spot of soot on the asphalt. Thousands of people flocked to the arena, called Meskel Square, to watch the ceremonial lighting of the fire for the eve of Meskel, a national holiday also known as the Finding of the True Cross. Ethiopians from across the country… and visitors from around the world… carried yellow daises, wooden crosses, and wax candles as the pile of wood burned down to the pavement.
After sunset throughout the city, people lit smaller bonfires in backyards and on street corners, and celebrations continued throughout the night. On Friday morning, the square was still buzzing; Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, many with soot on their foreheads in the shape of a cross, congregated at Meskel Square or paid a visit to the nearby Estifanos Church. After the spectacle of Meskel eve, the holiday itself is a time for rest, family togetherness, and feasting… however, since 27 September fell on a Friday this year, a fasting day, Orthodox Christians had to abstain from meat. Johannes, 34, who’s pursuing his Master’s degree in Addis, said, “Families come together for the ceremony. It’s a celebration to join people together, hand to hand. For the people, for God, for the government, and for prayer”.
Legend has it that on this day around 330 AD, St Helena… known as Nigist Eleni in Ethiopia, the mother of Rome’s first Christian emperor, Constantine… found the cross on which the Romans crucified Jesus. In accordance with a revelation she’d had in a dream, Helena burned a giant pile of wood and frankincense. The smoke rose into the sky and then arced back down to earth, showing her the spot where the cross was buried. One can find fragments of the cross in churches around the world, and one found its way to Ethiopia, where it’s now said to be buried under Gishen Mariam Monastery on the mountain of Amba Geshen in the northeastern Debub Wollo Zone. Ethiopia, which has one of the most devout Orthodox communities in the world, is the only country that celebrates the finding of the cross on a national level.
The Meskel festival is about 1,600 years old, but Ethiopians didn’t always celebrate it this grandly. During the 1970s and 80s, when Ethiopia was ruled by the Derg, a Marxist faction, religion took a backseat to politics and the giant bonfire was banned from Meskel Square. During that time, the government often killed those suspected of supporting the resistance. Johannes himself was only 16 when the Derg arrested him and threw him into prison for one year. He said, “At that time, there was no religion”. The Derg fell apart as the USSR, its biggest benefactor, withdrew from the world stage during the late 1980s. Ultimately, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, a coalition of rebel groups that’s since become the present ruling party, defeated it. Today, 63 percent of Ethiopians identify as Christian, two-thirds are Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox, and worshippers pack churches on holidays like Meskel.
Even non-Christian Ethiopians have reason to rejoice on Meskel; the festival marks the end of the rainy season in Addis Ababa. Since June, the city… which sits at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet (2,133 metres), much higher than the rest of the country… was cloudy, wet, and cold. Yet, sure enough, the sun shined brightly all day Friday, and people expect to keep shining for nine more months until the rains come again. It’s also the time of year for Meskel daisies… bright yellow blossoms bloom all across the country. Families collected them all this week in anticipation of the festival; they used the flowers to decorate stacked wood for the bonfires, and women and children all over the square on Friday carried little bouquets to celebrate the changing of the season.
As the only country on earth to celebrate Meskel, Ethiopia’s petitioning UNESCO to register its annual celebration in Addis Ababa as a cultural heritage experience. The Foreign Ministry said that the holiday “deserves this designation because of the ancient nature of the celebration, its colour, and significance, and the attraction it has for a growing number of tourists, as well as the enormous participation of society and of people of all ages, which adds to its inimitable quality”.
27 September 2013
International Business Times