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September - October 2004
One Heart
 
 

Asmara Eritrea - September 27th 2004

 

On September 27th Eritrea celebrates Meskel, commemorating the finding of the True Cross (The Cross on which Jesus Christ died) in 326 AD. In that time, Constantine, son of the Byzantine Queen Helena saw the words "hoc signo vinces" (in this sign you will win) written in the sky. It was the sign of the Cross. Constantine won the battle and Queen Helena sets off to Jerusalem, impressed by the miracle, to start the search for the remainders of the Crucifix of Jesus Christ.

Helena is said to have found the Cross by lighting incense and following the smoke as it descended to earth. To spread the news on the discovery of the true cross, Helena caused bonfires to be lit on the hills which could be seen across the sea by the people of Constantinople.

In return for the protection of Egyptian Copts, 15th century Emperor Dawit asked for pieces of the True Cross. On their journey to Wollo, they were guarded by torchbearers. Feasting followed throughout the country. Since this day, Orthodox Christians in the region commemorate this occasion with flaming torches and huge bonfires. This piece of the Cross is now deposited in the Gishen Mariam monastery in Wollo.

Yesterday evening the children went on the streets singing "hoye hoye", and running around with their burning torches. Today hundreds of priests in brilliant embroidered costumes, bearing ceremonial crosses, and choir boys and girls of Sunday schools arrive with chartered buses or colorful processions. They form a circle around a huge pyre, covered with cloth, called the Damera. The Damera is blesses by the priests, chanting and performing ancient rites, and then soaked with gasoline and set on fire.

As a visitor, I am allowed to enter the inner circle in accordance with the Eritrean tradition of hospitality. Photographers of various photo shops picture groups of priests posing in front of the burning pile. Parents try to do the same, by picturing their children. The Asmara police tells them to leave the circle.

It is said to be a good omen if the Damera falls eastward, because it is the direction from which Christ will come back to earth. Unfortunately the burning pile fell in the South West direction, which is more the direction of Badme, where the Ethiopian army is planning to come back. Makes me wonder in what direction the Damera collapsed in Addis Ababa.

The remainders of the bonfire are extinguished by the Asmara fire brigade. People are using the ash of the bonfire to make the sign of the Cross on their foreheads. A woman is trying to take a larger part of the remainders of the Damera. She is stopped by the Asmara police.

Immediately after the ceremony, I collect my traveling bag and leave to Keren, to visit visit friends and to keep my promise to Deborah. In the bus I have a seat next to Ameha, a teacher from Asmara, who speaks excellent English. When we pause in a bar, some 30 kilometers from Keren he hastens to pay my coke. And when I give him some details about my visit to Keren, he is surprised. "Afworki and Hansu used to be my neighbors, when I lived in Keren!". It is a small world. He promises me to visit us in the evening.

After arriving in Keren, I walk in the direction of Afworki's house. Suddenly I find myself in a part of Keren, that I do not recognize. I am lost. People standing in the door opening ask me where I am going. I tell them I am looking for Hansu and Afworki. They point to a house on the corner of the street. Hansu and Afworki are in the house of their relatives, helping to prepare food for a wedding.

So instead of being lost, I was guided to them! Hansu makes me some tea. We go to their house, where Hansu prepares a bed for me. Again I drink tea, sitting in front of the house, enjoying the cool breeze of the evening. We talk about the situation in Eritrea. Life is hard these days. Drought, war, everything is getting expensive.

Ameha keeps his promise to visit us. He is exited to find me here, just like I told him in the bus. Again we drink tea, and talk about the situation in Eritrea, our families and my plans for the coming days.

 

 

 

Priests on their way to Bahti Meskerem Square - Asmara Eritrea.

Priests on their way to Bahti Meskerem Square - Asmara Eritrea.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.

Pupils of the Debre Bisrat Sunday School at The celebration of Meskel.

Pupils of the Debre Bisrat Sunday School at The celebration of Meskel.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.
Sunday school children dancing and singing religious songs.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea. Priests with their finest habits and best crosses decorated with gold.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.
Priests with their finest habits and best crosses decorated with gold. 

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea. Priests with their finest habits and best crosses decorated with gold.

The celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.
Priests with their finest habits and best crosses decorated with gold. 

The Damera on fire - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.

Wood is piled up into a pyramid, called Damera and set on fire.
 Celebration of Meskel - Bahti Meskerem Square Asmara Eritrea.

The Damera collapsed - the Asmara police is keeping an eye on the audience.

The Damera collapsed - the Asmara police is keeping an eye on the audience.

The Asmara fire brigade extinguishing the remainders of the Damera.  

The Asmara fire brigade extinguishing the remainders of the Damera.

Street parade to celebrate Meskel - Harnet Avenue Asmara Eritrea.

Street parade to celebrate Meskel - Harnet Avenue Asmara Eritrea.

Small scale trade on the road from Asmara to Keren.

Small scale trade on the road from Asmara to Keren.

Afworki slaughtering the goat - Keren Eritrea.

Afworki slaughtering the goat - Keren Eritrea.

 

 
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