The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Exhibition - Wednesday 2nd September 2009
Between Heaven and Earth: a journey through Christian Ethiopia
Given by - Photographs by Nick Danziger
Reviewed by - Andrew Chadwick
From 2nd September to 8th October 2009 an exhibition of photographs at the Royal Geographic Society in London highlighted the ancient culture of Ethiopia's Christian Church and the challenges it faced on entering Ethiopia's third millennium in 2007.
The British Council commissioned renowned British photojournalist Nick Danziger to document Ethiopia's Tewahedo Orthodox Church, one of the oldest surviving Christian communities in the world, as it approached this momentous anniversary. The Ethiopian Millennium celebrations in September 2007 offered the chance to throw light on the church and its culture, its breathtaking antiquity and its tentative entry into a globalised world.
The stark monochrome images illustrate the unforgiving reality of life for both Ethiopian clergy and their congregation. The Ethiopian church is a living church and Danziger remarks on the Ethiopian pilgrims walking across the steeply-gorged landscape, "its people and their faith giving shape to their existence". Danziger's photographs convey something of the spiritual devotion of the faithful despite the hardship they face in sustaining their own spiritual journeys and their determination in striving to meet their spiritual obligations under such harsh conditions.
Featuring 22 superb black and white photographs taken during the summer of 2007, the exhibition captured the Church's antiquity and shed light on an ancient culture. Captions by the traveller and writer Philip Marsden added background information, though some captions were used more than once and left this viewer feeling somewhat short-changed.
Danziger comments: "My journey through Christian Ethiopia was extraordinary for its mystical intensity, for the adventure in travelling to rarely visited valleys and gaining access to places and ceremonies that had not previously been photographed." Many of the photographs in the exhibition focus on a handful of the main religious sites to which any tourist might be drawn, notably Debre Libanos, Kulubi Gabriel, Debre Damo, Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Abeba and Bole Medhane Alem. Not to concentrate more attention on some of the 3,000 increasingly dilapidated monasteries and countless churches in isolated rural areas of the country where reside much of Ethiopia's spiritual heritage is, perhaps, a unique opportunity missed.
The real story of Ethiopian Orthodoxy lies in drawing to wider attention the devotion of the monks, who strive to fulfil the spiritual and educational needs of the great majority of Ethiopians as they seek salvation in the face of desperate poverty and the desolate, insanitary conditions in which they are immersed. Greater emphasis on life beyond the tourist route would have lifted this exhibition and its accompanying book from the competent to the extraordinary.
As churches and monasteries across the country fall into disrepair, and monks and priests face increasing isolation, unsupported and with insufficient resources to maintain their own number let alone counter the increasingly desperate poverty of their congregations, it remains to be seen whether the Ethiopian Orthodox Church will prove sufficiently robust to withstand the creeping incursion of modernity heralded by the new Millennium.
Time will reveal whether the Ethiopian Orthodox Church remains unchanged by the pressing challenges it currently faces. Evidence of those challenges lies in the increasing use of mass-produced, Western representations of the saints in place of traditional, handpainted icons which have served the past two millennia, and the growing numbers of Ethiopians abandoning their traditional religious roots to find comfort in the new, vibrant and socially supportive Evangelical Christian Churches currently gaining influence in Ethiopia. Perhaps the answer could be seen in images showing the ceremonial regalia of the Ethiopian Patriarch, adopted in place of the simple monk's cloak of his predecessors and in stark contrast to the more traditional attire of the Armenian Patriarch who stands alongside him, representing the only Christian community older than the Ethiopian Tewahedo Orthodox Church.
Editor's Note: A catalogue of the photographs in the exhibition was published and is still available (June 2012).
Between Heaven and Earth: A Journey Through Christian Ethiopia.