Travel Stories

Debre Libanos

The road down the Grand Canyon of Ethiopia
Leads and ends here
Where Italian Fascists destroyed the original church
Built on the visions of Saint Haymanot in 1284
Who stood on one leg
Sustained by a single seed 
Brought him each year for six years
By a bird who shared Haymanot’s vision of the church
Centuries before the Fascists killed the priests, the novices,
And four hundred unfortunate villagers
Who lived nearby planting wheat.
The narrow single lane village street leading to the church
Is lined with beggars
Old women and children mainly
Small shops
Souvenir vendors
Small donkeys and goats
And continuous processions
Of hundreds of mourners
Dressed in black cloth
With white shawls or scarves
The sounds of their keening
Like the cries of great sad birds.

There are over four hundred square stained glass panels in the church
One for each martyr
Some displaying but one expressive jointed hand
Or one foot
Some with a bearded face
All brilliant colorful patterns
Made of broken glass.
The floor of the church is covered with oriental carpets
Some truly valuable and ancient
Some commercial and new
Carpets donated by shorn sheep and native weavers
So penitents may kneel down in the Arabian tradition
Cross themselves in the Christian tradition
And sit separated by sex
Men to the left
Women to the right
In the Judaic tradition.
A portrait in the church
Of the Passover meal
Where Jesus sat among friends
And ate his last supper
Hangs amidst saints, swords, horses, candelabra
Crosses and sheaves of wheat
The smell of incense, myrrh, and eucalyptus
Drifts out from priests rocking back and forth
During mass
Like old Jews praying

One square panel contains red, blue, and pale purple glass
Through which you can see
The palm fronds outside the window of the church
Twelve of the pieces in this square composed of rectangles, squares,
triangles and a variety of non-geometric shapes
Are shades of green
Every green panel has arrows etched in it
The arrows all point downward toward earth
Each arrow smaller than one inch square
With very short shafts
No longer than the equilateral edges of the arrow tips.
If you stare long enough
The arrows raining down
Transform into simple grasses
Reaching their arms up to the heavens
In gratitude and prayer
One hundred and ten arrows or grasses
In one panel
One hundred and forty in another -
I counted -
The mass takes a long time to recite
Life ebbs and flows
Chalices and deeply resonant bells ring
And as I step outside the church at Debre Libanos
A bearded bird in purple robes
Comes to fed me one small seed.