Of light and shade in Ethiopia

Stephen Scourfield,
Travel Editor The West Australian

A priest holds an umbrella at a rock-hewn church in Lalibela. Picture: Stephen Scourfield
A priest holds an umbrella at a rock-hewn church in Lalibela. Picture: Stephen Scourfield

(Yahoo News) It’s Sunday and people are out with their umbrellas. Through the wide, golden landscape of northern Ethiopia, terraced from countless generations of touch by human hand, they walk to the nearest town and to the nearest church.

For some it might just be a big black umbrella or a silver one to keep off sun that is strong at this altitude of more than 2000m. One can see the practical side of the umbrella here, of course.

But some are more decorative. I watch two young women walk down a road on the outskirts of Axum – once the capital of the powerful Axumite kingdom, from the fourth century BC to the 10th century, before Ethiopia was so-called. One is wearing a traditional long, white cotton dress, with turquoise printed decoration and embroidery around the bottom, and carries a matching turquoise umbrella. Her companion is dressed similarly in purple, carrying a purple umbrella.

In the town itself, there’s gold, blue with daisies, Burberry check.

Yesterday, in the dusty, buzzy Saturday markets, it was as colourful. I followed a woman with a spectacular orange umbrella and others with elaborate patterns.

And here you can buy big bunches of chickpeas, to eat from the pod like peas, pulses and big, maroon, dried chillies – so many piled on hessian on the ground in some places that the air makes you sneeze. There are tailors with street-side sewing machines, open shops with fabrics and sheaves of grasses for weaving baskets. Camels are loaded with timber or salt, donkeys cart all manner of goods and small Ethiopian horses pull carts. A group of men gathers to unload 50kg sacks and they carry them away on their heads – umbrellas of sorts.

And a couple of days ago, in Gondar there were, again, all manner of umbrellas, but I walked with local Tena Seraw, doing her shopping, with silver against the sun.

In tracing back through my days in Ethiopia, we also start tracing back through the history of the umbrella here.

For, some days before, I was in the capital, Addis Ababa, for Timket – the Christian festival of Epiphany.

Every Ethiopian Orthodox church has a representation of the Ark of the Covenant, and these are brought out during the Timket celebration and paraded together – all under umbrellas and canopies.

For the umbrella in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is said to signify the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Traditionally, an umbrella is opened during the liturgy and held by a deacon over the head of the priest reading the Gospel from the Bible – white for Easter, and colourful umbrellas the rest of the year. [next page]

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