Getting Blessed (and Saved From a Beating) at Meskel

Already wedged between crowds of men, barely able to breath, I can’t imagine the promised fight after the massive burning cross falls. When the muscled army guards, in sand-green camo and guns on their shoulders, come racing down the line. With surprising vengeance, they whip back the line of men in front of me, away from the holy circle, where the priests stand.

As the men before me flinch, they stumble and then fall towards me. Like a human domino, I’m swept up off my feet, and right out of my flip flops (my only shoes!) carried on a sea of people. Barefoot on a day of red-hot falling crosses is not possible. I need my shoes!

The guard comes down the line again, soundly whipping the men before me. But I need my shoes (my only shoes!)! I figure I’ve seen worse superman-ing over handlebars onto slabs of rock while mountain biking and lunge my body forward.

Across the squirming pile of people. Fingers loop around their leather, just as I look up to see the dark arm of the gun-toting guard flying angrily down towards my face and back. I flinch and wait for the impact. (A quick breath, now you’ll know how it feels to be beaten.)

Instead I feel my hand clasped within the massiveness of a much stronger hand. And I feel my entire five foot ten inch fame catapult from the crowd, upright, and onto my feet. The guard puts an arm on each of my shoulders. Waiting to be chastised, he stares into my eyes, “You are ok?”

“Yes. Yes, thankyou.” I see the crowd of men waving at me, giving me the thumbs up and smiling, as they continue waiting with the masses, behind the thin rope. “Amasagnalo, guardenia!” (Thank you, friend!)

His massive face breaks into a grin. “Have fun.” Then he returns to his post, pushing people back.

I stand in the empty space between the raging bonfire and the masses of people. I feel strange. Lost. Open. And then a shout, like nothing else rises from the crowd. The cross is falling. It’s a free for all. As smoke clouds the air, men and boys pull at burning charcoal, with wet rags, with bare hands. They drag 10 foot sections of burning wood through the thick crowds.

A young teen grabs my hand. He tells me, “It is very dangerous for you, you must listen to me.” And then he runs me through the crowd. Dodging burning timbers being waved and dropped, and fought over by frantic people. I gasp, and clench the hand of my little tour-guide. And we’re off again. Him, pushing me away from danger, as I pull his hand to dive back in. We dodge steaming wood, and people dragging them, yelling, dropping. Smoke is thick, like a war zone.

He tells me to pick up a piece of charcoal.

I hesitate. What will happen? Will I burn myself? But decide to trust him. I grab it. It’s reassuringly warm in my palm.

He takes it and smudges a cross on my forehead, then walks me to a group huddling around a young priest with a noble profile, deftly waving an ornate silver cross as he whispers blessings. The priest is crowded with admirers, but my tour guide pushes me forward. “Take your photo!” He tells me. So shyly pull the camera around, just as the priest stops and stares into my lens.

I feel embarrassed — how to let him know how meaningful this moment is. I lower the camera and bow my head with respect. I whisper: Tenastlni.

And when I lift my head, he’s staring curiously at my forehead. And I remember, the smudged charcoal cross. He nods at my tour-guide, at me, then cracks a smile, and lifts his silver cross as he blesses me, too.

It is my third blessing, from an Ethiopian priest, in so many weeks.

An Army of Men & Boys Shouting “Flower! Flower!” (& Finding My Place in This World…)

I ask what the men, dancing in the center around the cross, are shouting.

Abeba” they tell me. Or “flower” (Addis Ababa is really Addis Abeba, which means “new flower”).

Flowers. The past time I love above all others, since childhood.

Of course, I’m find my way here. Now. Of course the grown men, with savage, charcoal-smeared faces, sweat streaming down their faces, hoisting sticks as they dance madly in circles, are chant-singing at the tops of their lungs:

“Flower! Flower! Flower!”

I can’t stop smiling. Every moment seems bursting with validation that taking this trip, stepping out into a brand new world, all alone, and all the doubts and uncertainty — I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. With an army of men, shouting the creation and beauty I revere most:  “Flower!”

On top of my happiness, everyone I talk to tells me they are glad that I am here.  The day has become like no other I have ever known. I am near speechless with gratitude.

The mosh pit in the center has grown wilder. I can’t resist the urge to dig deeper, to see up close my first Meskel. I gradually work my way into center, to where excitement is whipped to a frenzy and women are few.

The only other tourist I’ve seen in hours sneaks by. I point, and shout gleefully, “Ferengi!”

Ethiopians and the pale stranger all turn and laugh, “Come on!” he yells.

Ferengi and I weave through the crowd, ducking between arms, as we creep towards the center. Until I lose him.

I am stuck behind a wall of Ethiopian men. Shoulder to shoulder. I can hardly breath. I’m alone and tiptoeing to see. The bodies packed against me are holding me up.

The burning cross is raging, and now leaning precariously. I realize I’m within a 20 foot radius of danger, I mean, it’s increasingly lean is heading our way. Surely, everyone will leave soon. I tap the man next to me. “What happens after the cross falls?”

“Oh.” A shrug,”Then there will be a fight.”

“A fight?” I panic.

“Yes. For the cross!” He smiles, as if at an innocent child, “This is your first Meskel? Yes?”

The Finding of the True Cross (Or the Story of Meskel)

In the middle of it all stands the largest cross yet. Like a giant telephone pole, multiple stories high. Roving bands of singing boys and men collide and clash, then circle around the cross. A massive mosh pit, punctuated by the sticks (whole and charcoal), swirls.


At its edges stand groups of holymen, priests draped in all white, shaded by rich, velvet-red and gold-flecked umbrellas. A gurgled microphoned chant rises above it all.

It is absolute chaos. Yet absolute calm. Everywhere, beauty.

I grow antsy, feeling cut off from the action. And sling my camera around my shoulders and stuff some money in my pocket. Then venture back down to the ground. Weaving my way to a far corner, higher on a hill to watch, throwing my small birr onto the tarps of various religious groups.

I stand close to various families, pretending to “belong”. But I’m the only ferengi in sight, and I hear the whispers. Then I turn, over my shoulder to no one, or maybe the closest person, I sing “Meskel betam conjo!” to everyone’s delight and choruses of surprised “Guebez!”

“Yes? You speak Amharic? This is your first Meskel?”

They tell me the story of Meskel, dating back to the 4th century. It is the finding of the true cross, and the word Meskel means “cross”. Queen Helena was told in a dream to build a massive bonfire and the smoke of that fire would lead her in the direction of the true cross.

I ask them the word for smoke (tiss), for bonfire (demera), and for holy, as the 40 foot cross (Meskel. “Oh, right! Meskel! Guebez!) begins to burn as blankets of thick, gray-green smoke erupt from the base, to a thundering roar as the circle around the cross, the buildings, the streets clogged with people erupt with cheers.