Meskel, Ethiopia’s Intangible Heritage
The Ethiopian New Year comes up with various religious and cultural celebrations which are marked indoors among families and outdoors with the entire public. Meskel, the holiday celebrated in commemoration of the discovery of the True Cross happens to be one of those holidays marked at outdoor venues.
Meskel, meaning the Cross in Amharic is an annual religious Ethiopian holiday among Orthodox Christian believers and the first outdoor feast in the Church calendar. Meskel takes place on the 27th of September, or 28th during a leap year, Gregorian calendar.
In addition to its religious values, Meskel coincides with the end of the main rainy season (June to September) and the onset of Ethiopian spring in which fields and meadows in the country are carpeted with mesmerizing endemic daisies, locally known as adey abeba, with their captivating yellow colors which majestically envelop the Ethiopian fields. The daisies prevail for only two months and disappear over the next ten months to reappear at the same period the next year.
Meskel is also a time when many urbanites return home to villages. Neighborhoods and villages celebrate Demera in thousands of local celebrations.
The feast of Meskel started on the 26th of September with the celebration of the Demera, a ceremonial burning of a large bonfire. It is a special event that is conducted on the eve of Meskel to recall the smoke that supposedly led Empress Helena to the site of the True Cross.
The True Cross, Christ had crucified upon it, was thrown in a ditch or well, and then covered with stones and earth, until Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, discovered the place where three crosses that were believed to be used at the crucifixion of Jesus and of two thieves, executed with him were found.
Empress Helena had a revelation in a dream to make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried. So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it the bonfire was lit and the smoke raised high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the True Cross had been buried.
The national feast of Demera is held at Meskel Square, a huge square in Addis Ababa, on September 26, the eve of Meskel, the official day of the Feast of the Finding of the True Cross.
That morning, the demera, a tall pyramid of branches, decorated with adey abeba, daisy-like flowers, prepare at the Meskel Square and in public squares or at intersections.
At the Meskel Square, in the afternoon, dozens of Sunday school students and members of the clergy move through the square singing spiritual songs that last for hours. As darkness begins to set in, the demera is set ablaze.
The following day, the official day of the feast of the finding of the True Cross, Ethiopians attend liturgy and a feast and celebrate with family and friends. Many use the ashes from the demera to mark their foreheads with a shape of a cross.
The Demera festival of the Meskel holiday, its celebration dates back to 1600 years, has been registered as world intangible heritage by UNESCO in December 2013, as the first intangible Ethiopian heritage.
During Meskel festival, a special species of birds known as ‘YeMeskel Wof -Meskel’s Bird’ also appears. Generally, the word ‘YeMeskel Wof’ is used to call the four bird species, namely the northern red bishops, indigo-birds, whydah and widow birds, and yet it has more than ten species under it. These birds are also enjoyed by bird watchers during Meskel.
These birds are endemic to Ethiopia, and do not migrate from one place to another as other birds do. As September, Ethiopia’s first month, is their reproduction season, the colors of their feathers gets changed in order to attract opposite sexes. Due to this change, it looks that they are new birds that appear only at this time of the year.
Meskel also marks a tourist season in Ethiopia. Thousands of tourists from many countries converge on Ethiopia to enjoy the ceremonies during the Meskel celebrations. They particularly enjoy celebrating Meskel in Addis Ababa at Meskel Square and in tourist attraction areas in the northern part of the country known as the historical route among tourists and travel agencies catering to tourism in the country.
Meskel is celebrated as a grand religious occasion among the Ethiopian Orthodox believers because it is believed that a part of the True Cross has been brought to Ethiopia. It is said to be kept at Amba Gishen, which itself has a shape a cross.
The cross has a special meaning for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. Christians of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church dangle the symbol of the cross on their neck.
Priests carry various types of cross with their ceremonial staff in conducting mass and other forms of prayers including a ceremonial blessings and sanctification of holy waters meant for healing the sick and casting out evil spirits from persons suspected of being possessed by demons.
Mario De Salvo says that “There is no country in the world that matches Ethiopia in the number of forms and types of its crosses. Ever since Ethiopia’s conversion to Christianity, the cross has appeared almost universally, not only as a liturgical instrument in churches and monasteries, but also in common devotion and in daily life.”
From the cross stamped on the Aksumite coins, depicted in architecture and illustrated in the ancient illuminated codices to the astylar, manual or pectoral crosses made and forged respectively for liturgical functions, the author notes that “there is no country in the world that matches Ethiopia in the number of forms and types of its crosses.” (Mario Da Silva, Crosses of Ethiopia, 2006)
Ethiopia boasts various types of crosses that are used on various religious and cultural occasions. The most popular ones are the crosses of Lalibela, Axum and Gondar. Tourists from various countries visiting Ethiopia make sure that they purchase various types of Ethiopian crosses that are made from silver and bronze, as well as carved from wood and marble.