Yesterday I met K at Bole Novis to walk down to the big bonfire to celebrate Meskal (see previous post). We were both warned to get there very early if we wanted to be able to see the celebrations well. We were both told the bonfire itself would be at 4:00 at the latest, rather than dusk as we assumed. As soon as we took 10 steps it started to sprinkle. By the time we got to Ethio-China Rd. it was starting to come down hard. We ducked under a bus shelter and caught a cab to Meskal Sq. It was pretty much empty, and it was raining even harder so we crossed all 16 lanes of the square and hid out in a cafe, damp in clothing, but not spirits. After a couple of machiatos and some Ambo, the rain tapered off and a marching band was starting to play, so we ventured out.
We saw some seats and photographers under the big grandstand. Surely this was reserved for VIPs? "Just walk over like we belong there" K said. So we did, and sure enough we were in a prime location for viewing the entire event.
To boil down a four-hour epic of DeMille proportions and a cast of over 4,000 (in the cold and wet) to a paragraph: Orthodox Church dignitaries from all over the world (Greece, Armenia, India, Russia, etc) arrived via limos, all in black. The Pope (of Ethiopia) arrived in maroon and gold robes. Then rank after rank of white-clad priests performed a drum, chant, and marching number. Next came a two-hours-long parade of parishioners representing all the churches in Addis Ababa, church by church. Each congregation had its own color of gown: purple, dark blue, light blue, black, green, and so on. Each group paraded from east and west alternatively, and performed some small act in front of the grand stand. Many of the acts involved forming some shape by the arrangement of the groups members, kind of like the 1/2-time show at a US football game. Many of the themes were as nationalistic as religious, celebrating the Ethiopian millennium. One group formed the HIV/AIDS red ribbon. After the church groups came a float representing the globe, from which a woman and then a priest emerged, each releasing a dove/pigeon, both of which fluttered to the ground and started looking for food before being chased off by the handlers around the float. At one point priests on the float uncovered a cross fitted with incandescent bulbs, from the top of which they shot fireworks flares. No kidding.
Finally, at 6:30 or so, the Pope and other dignitaries crossed the square and lit the bonfire. The material was mostly greenery, and given that it had been raining for four hours, it was a little hard to start. Some extra petrol cured all and it made a lovely fire, accompanied by an impressive fireworks display. We were pressed up against the fence watching all this when a group of priests mistook our section of fencing for the gate and we almost got mowed down by a phalanx of white- and gold-robed holy men wielding crosses the size of squash rackets.
We left via Bole Rd., which was closed to traffic and filled curb-to-curb on both lanes with pedestrians making their way south. Being cold, wet, leg tired from standing for four hours, and hungry, we ducked into the new Zebra Grill for burritos.
The overall impression left by the event was a realization of how much the Orthodox church is tied in to the national identity.
See more photos at the Flickr site, here.