Ethiopia. The cross: symbol of a country.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Tawahedo) celebrates two feasts of the Holy Cross: ‘The Exaltation of the Holy Cross’ is the most popular, it is called the ‘Masqal festival’. It falls on Meskerem 17 of the Ethiopian calendar corresponding to September 27 in the Julian calendar.

This ancient Christian feast follows eight days of celebrations starting on the 10th of the month and commemorates the day when the Doge of Venice gave the Ethiopian King Dawitt (1382-1413) a fragment of the wooden scaffold upon which Christ was crucified as a gift.
While the ‘Finding of the True Cross’, celebrated on Maggabit l0 (March 16), and called ‘Yase masqal’, is a civil celebration that marks the finding of the wood of the Holy Cross by Saint Helena, the Emperor Constantine’s mother.
The ‘maskaram’ feast is one of the most popular among the Ethiopian Church’s celebrations. In addition to the liturgical aspect, this festival marks the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the agricultural cycle of the year. The eve of the ‘maskaram’ feast is called ‘Demera’ meaning ‘bonfire’. Vast bonfires are lit country wide, and piled high in town squares. Boys and girls flock in gangs, singing and dancing about with the long bundles of dried sticks lighted like torches, and parade in spectacle with them throughout the town. According to tradition, the bonfire commemorates how Saint Helena, as legend has it, by way of a series of bonfires lit on every peak, signaled to her son Emperor Constantine in Constantinople her success in finding the Holy Cross. Through the bonfires lit on top of the mountains of the Christian world to signal the event, the news reached Ethiopia, where the happening was celebrated with joy and dances around the fire.

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On this occasion, the faithful gather in the square where a bonfire is lit. Everybody, clergy, men, women, and children, do three laps around the fire in honour of the Blessed Trinity. The ‘maskaram’ feast is still celebrated nowadays not only in Ethiopia and Eritrea, but worldwide, wherever there is an Eritrean and Ethiopian community, even if small. The ‘Masqal’ feast begins on Meskerem17 and lasts until Meskerem 25 (September 27-October 5).

The Cross as symbol: in sacred and in everyday life

In Ethiopia, there is an enormous variety of forms of crosses. Ever since the conversion of the country to Christianity, the presence of the cross seems almost universal, not only as a liturgical instrument in churches and monasteries, but also in popular devotion and in everyday life, as a unifying and distinctive element of a people. The cross replaced the astral symbols of the solar disk and crescent moon on coins since the first half of the fourth century.

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The cross motif emerges from the decoration of liturgical items and objects for everyday use in multiple forms starting from the original Latin cross, in which the vertical beam sticks above the crossbeam, as the main representation of the cross by which Jesus Christ was crucified. Four small crosses are represented on some golden coins issued during King Ezana’s rule (330 AD). Two coins of bronze coinage (VI-VII century), with the inscription in the Ge’ez language, ‘Christ is with us’, feature a Latin cross with flared ends, while a bronze coin, dating back to King Wazena’s reign (6th century), depicts four types of processional crosses. A Greek cross, with four equal length arms, is represented on a wall of King Kaleb’s tomb, near Aksum. This cross can also be found among Matara’s ruins. The cruciform scepter motif is already found on fifth-century coins, and later on a Negus Amah’s silver coin of the seventh century.

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These sceptres anticipate the hand crosses carried by the Ethiopian priests to lead processions or for blessing. These crosses have been used for centuries, and are still used now. They originally had a thin, long, cylindrical, flat-base handle terminating in a square tablet. According to the common Christian tradition, associated with the discovery of the True Cross, the cross that Christ was crucified upon originated from seeds of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Since the Axumite period, a great variety of crosses terminating with buds at their base, were represented on pottery, stone tiles and coins, such as Negus Hataz’s bronze coin of the 6th-7th century featuring a budded Greek cross. Excavations in Matarà and Ieha have uncovered small pectoral crosses in both bronze and gold. We do not know much, however, about the custom of wearing pectoral crosses among common people at those times. The rhombus framed cross is also very popular. It is named Longinus, after the Roman soldier who pierced Jesus in his side with a lance, as reported in the Gospel according to John. The cross within a circle is also a widespread type. The circle allegedly symbolizes the universe. The first representation of this cross dates to 4th, 5th and 6th century coins. Crosses are made from a variety of materials including wrought iron and brass inlays. Wood carving is the most common among techniques for making crosses. Another method used for the production of brass, silver and iron crosses is the cutting-out method. The image of the cross is traced on a sheet of metal and then cut or punched out. Whichever way the cross is made, it is usually finished afterwards with incised sacred patterns. The intersection of two beams offers multiple forms of representation as the inventiveness of Ethiopian artists has extensively shown. (Osvaldo Raineri)


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