Meskel Ceremony

by Audio Landscapes

Meskel is an annual religious holiday commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena in the fourth century in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Meskel occurs on 17 Meskerem in the Ethiopian calendar (September 27, Gregorian calendar). “Meskel” originates from the original Ethiopian Ge’ez script for “cross”.

The celebration includes the burning of a large bonfire, or Demera, based on the belief that Queen Helena had a revelation in a dream. She was told to make a bonfire and the smoke would indicate where the true cross was buried. Following her dream, she ordered the people of Jerusalem to pile wood, add frankincense, and burn it. The smoke rose and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried.

This Demera procession takes place in the early evening the day before Meskel or on the day itself, according to local traditions. Firewood is decorated with daisies and after burning, the faithful mark their foreheads in the shape of a cross with the remaining charcoal, similar to Ash Wednesday. Many Ethiopian believers hold that the direction of the smoke and the final collapse of the heap shape the course of future events.

Friends obtained passes that provided access to the center of the ceremony where close to one thousand priests, monks and pilgrims filled Meskel Square, city center of Addis Ababa. Continuous chanting began at two in the afternoon, interrupted only by a few spiritual and political announcements, and concluded with the burning of the six-meter Demera at dusk.

When I first approached the elder priests, I was cautious and walked around a bit before photographing. Before long, I was accepted to approach closely and occasionally turned the LCD around to get an approving smile or nod. The clear, afternoon light was next-to-perfect on this unusual end-of-the-rainy-season day. I used diffused, off-camera fill flash for some of the images, experimenting with distance and power. Checking the histogram occasionally, I knew I had all the detail necessary for the subjects to expose correctly. Pleasantly surprised when I downloaded them, very few frames needed adjustments in post.