ETHIOPIA 2: Gyorgis, Alleluia

September 7, 2004

I go to the St. George cathedral, an octagonal building in a part of Addis they call the Piazza. It’s closed. Men keep walking up to the doors of the church, pressing their heads against the doorframe, kissing it, and mouthing words.
A deacon, a dignified, graying man in a blue blazer, offers to let me in, and gives me a primer on Ethiopian Orthodox Churches; there are separate doors for men, women, and priests; there’s a part for praying, a part for chanting, and a central holy-of-holies in which a replica of the Ark of the Covenant is kept.

He shows me the ceremonial instruments. There’s a big drum, a kind of shaker–a metal tamborine on a Y-shaped stick–called a sistrum, and prayer sticks with arm rests, meant to lean on during marathon 12 and 20 hour praying sessions.
He sings me a couple songs, banging on the drum very slowly, and singing, “Gyorgis…Alleluia…Alleluia…” He does this with the sistrum and the prayer stick as well, waving the latter in the air, as a kind of conducting to no one, as he sings. The rhythms are hypnotically slow, and switch time signature. As he sings and plays, he walks backwards in a methodic circle.
I ask him to sing them again, and he’s a little perplexed, but he does.
He shows me the little museum, and then says, OK, now you must tip me. At this point I have no perspective on the value of the Ethiopian birr, so I pull out 50 birr (roughly six bucks) and hold it up, and he kind of sighs. So I pull out 100 birr and he nods. OK.
This is an experience I’ll have repeatedly in Ethiopia: a fascinating experience followed by a craven request for dough. Not always in that order.
I go to the National Museum. The crowns of Menelik, Zewditu, and Haile Selassie are kept behind flimsy plexiglass, secured with a hardware-store lock of the type they used to use on the cassette cases at Sounds on St. Mark’s place.
I go to the Selassie Cathedral. (The Selassie is the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, represented with an image of three absolutely identical bearded men in a row) The throne of Haile Selassie is strewn with plastic coffee cups.
I return to the hotel. I sit in the restaurant, drinking coffee with milk, which the Ethiopians call “Macchiato.” The coffee is absolutely incredible, almost across the board in the entire country.
There’s a ferocious hailstorm. The restaurant sounds as if it’s being riddled with gunfire for an hour.
It’s the rainy season in the Horn of Africa, which I kind of dreaded (a man I sat next to on the plane told me–“Now, two months of rain. But after that, beautiful!”). But, in fact, there was gorgeous blue sky most of the day, as there will be every day I was there. The sun is intensely bright, but it rarely got above 65 degrees, and down to 50 at night. That, despite the stereotype of Africa, is pretty much the temperature in Ethiopia year-round.