The Debre Birhan Selassie Church, Ethiopia

In case you missed them, please be sure to check out my previous blog posts from the northern Ethiopian cities of Gondar and Lalibela.

Debre Birhan Selassie is located in Gondar, Ethiopia, and built during the reign of Iyasu II in the 18th century.  It’s one of the few churches that survived the sacking of Gondar during the Madhist war of the 1880s.  This is most well-preserved Ethiopian artwork I’ve seen from its period.  

1: A view of the outside of the gatehouse for the church, which is connected to a tall perimeter wall. Part of the reason this church was not destroyed in the 1880s, was due to this fortress surrounding it. There are also a few egg-domed guard towers positioned along the wall. We had to squeeze by these priests escaping the intermittent drizzle that plagued us the entire day.

2: The rear or inside of the gatehouse. The second story of this gatehouse serves as the living quarters for the resident priest. The gatehouse itself is supposed to be shaped like a lion, and a nearby section of wall (next photo) is the lion’s tail. I had some difficulty seeing it, but it might be my lack of imagination.

3: Here we have a small section of wall that appears to serve no purpose. There is a small stone carved with a swirl at the top of the arch, that is supposed to be the tip of the lion’s tail extending from the gate house.

4: The front of the church isn’t what I would call remarkable, but the fact that it survived in its current state is. The thatched roof is completely replaced every ten years. The enclosed veranda makes the church look much larger than it actually is. Atop the steeple is a Gondarian cross with seven ostrich eggs protruding from it.

5: Colorful artwork, including a crucifix, surrounds the curtained entrance to the holy of holies. This is the place in Ethiopian Orthodox churches, where a replica of The Ark of the Covenant is kept. It’s only a replica Indiana Jones wannabes!

6: The ceiling is comprised of support beams painted with colorful patterns, and the heads of angels painted into the recessed areas. If you look on the bottom left side of this photo, you can see a discolored area caused by water damage.
7: In the center we have a depiction of St. George slaying the dragon. It’s amazing how the white horse has retained so much of its vivid coloring. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that St. George and the Dragon is one of my favorite depictions within the Christian art genre.

8: More paintings depicting the Ethiopian kings. The lighting was pretty poor within the church, and I was understandably not permitted to use a flash. The upper half of the walls were absolutely covered in this beautiful religious art.

9: This is the first depiction of Satan that I’ve seen within an Ethiopian church, along with a beheading (John the Baptist I think). From this angle you can tell the painting is actually done on a canvas-like cloth that is overlaid onto the mud-brick walls. It’s amazing to me that is has survived in this condition.

10: We climbed to the top of the gate house for a photo and were greeted by the resident priest. He offered us some food, and I guess it’s a big deal when a priest feeds you by hand. In this photo he’s feeding my guide. He offered a hand full of cold food to me, and my desire to be polite outweighed my inherent reluctance to eat from a stranger’s hand. I at the food and he laughed as I bit his hand. Doing something like this is very risky when you are traveling, so I instantly regretted it. Luckily, everything turned out fine.

Thanks for dropping by! I hope that you enjoyed my travel photos and commentary, and will return for more travel content in the future.

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