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Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Treasures from the Age of Princes

In a location so remote that only the most ambitious travellers have ever ventured there, Nick Crane discovers something wonderful

“Can you see anything?” It was all I could do to get out the words, “Yes, wonderful things.”

Howard Carter, Tomb of Tutankhamen

As we gazed at the inner walls of the church, we must have had the same emotions as Howard Carter when he looked into the crack in the wall of the tomb of King Tut. Wonderful things came to mind. Colourful scenes stretched from the floor to the roof.

We were in Ethiopia and this was no ordinary discovery. We were near the source of the Nile, deep in the Simien Mountains at a place called Deresge Maryam.

We had driven to an altitude of 4,000 metres before descending into an eastern valley. The road had been rough – one of the toughest in the world. We had come to a location so remote that only the most ambitious travellers have ever ventured there.  

Paintings in all colours covered every inch of the Kidist. The Orthodox churches are round in the highlands of Ethiopia – but in the centre is a square ‘inner church’ called the Kidist, and it is here where the tabots and other treasures are held. The tabots are wooden blocks or slabs of alabaster that have been carved with the words of the Ten Commandments.

Could it be true that there are still undiscovered treasures on this Earth? We truly felt that we were close to some.

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Top: this region of Ethiopia is remote and mountainous; above left: priest at Deresge Maryam; above right: the round church

In the 19th century, Ethiopia’s regions were ruled by warlords – some of them claiming to be descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. This period was known as Zämäna Mäsafint, the “age of the princes”. The capital of this dynasty was Gonder, a medium sized town to the north of Lake Tana.

One of these princes was Webe, who – after 30 years of warfare – felt tantalizingly near to fulfilling his dream of being crowned emperor of a united nation. He built the church of Deresge Maryam in preparation for his coronation.

Many battles raged during the ‘age of the princes’ and Webe lost his final battle against a young warrior named Kasa – a vicious warlord who at this time had good relations with Queen Victoria. Kasa had gained access to 19th century weapons and he had the advantage when it came to fighting. It was Kasa who would be crowned at the church of Deresge Maryam – the place that we had come to.

The church was consecrated in 1852, and we guessed that the paintings were probably started around the time of Kasa’s coronation in 1855.

Kasa took the name of Emperor Tewodros II and, after initial military successes, became more ruthless and cruel. He dominated the highlands, a vast area of northern Ethiopia.

During his reign there were no roads over the mountains, only small tracks, so he did not remain long at Deresge Maryam. He moved his capital first to Debre Tabor in the east, and later to Magdala.

But 13 years later he enraged the Queen by asking for more weapons, and in the process he mistakenly held some British hostages. It would be the British forces of Queen Victoria who would finally overthrow Kasa in 1868. Realising that he could not win the battle of Magdala, he shot himself with a golden pistol that had been a present from the Queen herself.

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Clockwise from top left: treasures hidden within the church; gilted processional cross; detail from the extraordinary paintings

Obtaining access to the church takes patience. Time is of no importance to the highland people and suspicion is ingrained into their culture. Understandably so. For centuries, Jews and Christians were pushed deeper and deeper into the Ethiopian highlands by warring factions and the rise of Islam.

However, we had come prepared with letters of permission from the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, and after much discussion we were allowed to go into the church and view the famous paintings. This is normally a privilege reserved for the priests.

Massive hardwood double doors weighing half a ton each were pushed aside by enthusiastic young deacons who rushed to remove the bolts. The doors are rarely opened and the hinges seemed frail under the enormous weight. Hardwood forests once covered the Ethiopian highlands, and such gigantic pieces of timber can no longer be found.

Soon the daylight shone onto the inner walls and the extraordinary paintings were revealed.

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Top row left: the paintings tell stories from the Bible; right: St George and the Dragon

Bottom row left: horsemen; gilted crowns are brought out of the storehouse

The paintings tell the stories from the Bible. The colours help in the interpretation of the pictures’ meaning. The background remains undifferentiated and flat, there are no shadows or views with perspective – and yet the message portrayed by each of the individual images is dramatic and impressive.

The painted surface covers over 30 square metres per wall. The full painting repertoire of the Ethiopian Orthodox church is displayed. Scenes from the life of Mary, the passion of Christ, the heavenly army in the form of equestrian saints, led by St George and the dragon.

And there was more. The priests took us to a tiny building next to the Bethlehem where they bake their bread. This store they call the ‘eqabet’ and they were to reveal to us the real treasures that date back to the time of Kassa.

They began to bring out treasures that had been commissioned for the church by Webe. There were golden crowns and processional crosses, together with beautiful copes embroidered with gold and silver threads and encrusted with medallions. We saw swords and arms dating back to the time of Emperor Tewodros.

The priests had initially not enquired if we were Christians, but finally they came around to asking the question and we started to tell them about the protestant church. It was a mistake. A different version of Christianity was something outside their experience.

We knew that the treasures would soon go back into the store and the wooden doors to the church would be closed. We had been lucky. We had come as friends of Ethiopia, marvelling at the richness to be found in this country and we were not disappointed.

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia

Clockwise from left: gilted processional cross; the painted surface covers over 30 square metres per wall; gold and silver gilt treasures

Historical verification

Historical verification in this article was by Dr Dorothea McEwan. Dr McEwan, based at the Warburg Institute, London, is an expert on the history of Däräsge Maryam. Her works include:

The Story of Däräsge Maryam. The history, buildings and treasures of a church compound with a painted church in the Semen Mountains. Vienna: LIT Verlag, 2013

Picturing Apocalypse in Gondär. A Study of the Two Known Sets of Ethiopian Illuminations of the Revelation of St John and the Life and Death of John (by Robin McEwan, edited posthumously by Dorothea McEwan). Turin: Nino Aragno Editore (2006)

Illuminierte Manuskripte in Äthiopien: Entstehung, Bedeutung und Herstellung der beiden Manuskriptbücher der Apokalypse in Qwesqwam und Därasgä Maryam, in Kirche und Schule in Äthiopien (Heidelberg: Mitteilungsblatt der Tabor Society Heidelberg, Heft 59, November 2006, 39-50)

Nick Crane is owner of Simien Lodge ( Simien Lodge is currently the only lodge in the Simien National Park and is the highest hotel in Africa at 3260m. Nick has a passion for preserving the Simien Mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site. When not in the Simiens, Nick lives in deepest France and breeds ducks. Twitter @nickcran.

Green Adventures July 2015

Simien Mountains, Ethiopia