Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Ethiopia’s hidden treasures

Narthex north wall Narthex north wall Maria-Jose & Bob Friedlander/IB Tauris
26 Feb
2015
Ethiopia was among the world’s first Christian countries, but its many remote churches remain hidden – even from the locals

Ethiopia’s remote churches range from rock-hewn buildings perched on mountains to timber-built caves. These almost forgotten churches contain rich murals and vibrant manuscripts.

‘The churches were looked at by American scholars many years ago, but they only measured them. There was no interest in the paintings,’ says Maria-José Friedlander.

Friedlander set out to document Ethiopia’s most remote churches with her husband, Bob Friedlander. The result Hidden Treasures of Ethiopia has already been published in Ethiopia, and is now available in Europe.

Figure 104 Page 160Inside Abraha Atsbeha church (Image: Maria-Jose & Bob Friedlander/IB Tauris)

Churches were not the first thing Friedlander noticed when she first visited Ethiopia in the 1980s with an art history study group. ‘I was horrified by the fate of children with trachoma [a bacterial eye infection]. I tried to send medicine from England, but I found that I couldn’t send it directly,’ she says.

The Daughters of Charity, an Ethiopian order of nuns, were treating children for trachoma. Facilities were often sparse. ‘There wouldn’t be more than three or four nuns, and a doctor would come every month to do major operations. There was one nun who could do minor operations,’ says Friedlander.

‘We brought £2,000 and medicine for the Daughter of Charity. We had never met. We emptied the medicines onto a table and handed over a cheque,’ she says.

Figure 150 Page 261Manuscript. The story of St Michael and Dorotheus (Image: Maria-Jose & Bob Friedlander/IB Tauris)

Then the war with breakaway province Eritrea started. ‘During the war there was only electricity for one or two hours in the evening,’ says Friedlander. ‘The streets were empty.’ Toilet paper was not available, and people used to stones instead. ‘There weren’t even enough newspapers to use,’ she adds.

Figure 15 Page 24St Yared, Abuna Gabre Mikael (Koraro) (Image: Maria-Jose & Bob Friedlander/IB Tauris)

‘You wouldn’t recognise the country now,’ says Friedlander. ‘In 1998 there were hardly any cars, now the traffic is horrendous. The cities have changed, but the smaller towns are the same.’

Local fashion has become more western. ‘Women used to regularly dress in the traditional, very elaborate embroidered costumes, but now these are only seen on Sunday and at weddings,’ says Friedlander. Cheap western-style skirts come in from neighbouring Djibouti, each costing about £1.

There’s still scarcity in the country. ‘Ethiopian churchmen often do not have bibles. The book is available, but it’s expensive so they don’t have it,’ says Friedlander.

Each region has its own church with remarkable decorations. Often these are not known nationally, according to Friedlander. ‘The churches are easy to visit,’ she says. ‘Usually the priest is given land to work by the church, and they can be found working their own field.’ Find the priest and the church will be opened up.

Figure 46 Page 77Debre Tsion with the rock-hewn church of Kidana Mehrat at its summit (Image: Maria-Jose & Bob Friedlander/IB Tauris)

In some places, the local government has agreed a price for visiting the churches, but many are remote and unknown enough for entry to be free. A willingness to hike is the only price for admission. ‘Some of the churches are 300 or 400 metres high. So you go up and down, up and down to get there,’ says Friedlander.

Related items

Subscribe to Geographical!

Geographical Week

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Development

The ‘golden triangle’ switches from growing opium crops to coffee

I’m a Geographer

Fearghal O’Nuallain is a geography teacher and explorer. His edited…

Explorers

In the Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat, new measures to…

Cultures

The small southern African nation of Eswatini has a rich…

Development

Many countries that are classified as being ‘not high income’…

Development

As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…

Explorers

Fifty years since the great Blue Nile was first traversed,…

Explorers

When author Lydia Syson set a historical novel on a…

Development

A new vaccination strategy aims to eradicate peste de petits…

Development

Over 100 years have passed since São Tomé could claim…

Cultures

As one of the biggest displays of Caribbean culture in…

Development

After 130 years in the diamond industry De Beers recently…

Explorers

From Calcutta to the Himalayas, in The Last Englishmen, author…

Development

As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…

Development

Using WhatsApp to monitor and predict deadly landslides in Colombian…

Explorers

During her time in Ghana, Sarah Begum experienced the lives…

Development

An investigation reveals how the illegal export of talc, used…

Cultures

Land rights for the indigenous are still a problem, but…

Development

New statistics suggest rising healthy lifespans in China, at the…