‘The Inscription of Meskel Festival on World Heritage Representative List is a Source of Pride for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church’ His Holiness Abune Mathias, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

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The Inscription of Meskel on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity by UNESCO at its 8th Conference of intangible cultural heritages in Baku, Azerbaijan, is a success story and a turning point for Ethiopia that could enhance the visibility of intangible cultural heritage and promote inter-cultural dialogue among the multi-ethnic population of Ethiopia. With its numerous tangible and intangible cultural heritage, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church praised all bodies who contributed for the preservation, conservation and custodianship of Meskel Festival which is now on the Representative List of UNESCO. The Ethiopian Herald approached His Holiness Abune Mathias I, Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Archbishop of Axum and Ichege of the See of Saint Taklehaimanot
Abune Mathias was born in 1941 in Northeren Ethiopia Tigray State, Agame Awraja, Sebuha Woreda. Having been ordained as Deacon by the then Archbishop of Eritrea, Abune Markos, Abune Mathias served the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the Monastery of Chohé for over 14 years. He was ordained as Abba Tekle-Mariam in 1963. After 14 years of service in the Chohé Monastery in Tembein, he left the monastery to further his education in Addis Ababa, and served in the Holy Trinity Cathedral Church from 1971 to 1976. Following the enthronement of Patriarch Teklehaimanot to replace Patriarch Tewophilos, Abba Tekle-Mariam was appointed to serve as the Patriarchal Vicar to the new Patriarch, and functioned as his closest aide. Abba Tekle-Mariam was anointed as the new bishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 1978, where he adopted the new Episcopal name and title of Abune Mathias. While serving in Jerusalem, he was elevated from Bishop to Archbishop.
In 1992, Abune Mathias was named Archbishop of North America by Abune Paulos. Abune Mathias played a key role in initiating attempts to reach reconciliation between the Holy Synod in Addis Ababa, and the exiled Synod in the United States headed by former Patriarch Abune Merkorios.
Abune Mathias became the 6th Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the election held on 28 February 2013. He was enthroned at Holy Trinity Cathedral on March 3, 2013. The full text of the interview follows:
Herald: Your Holiness, could you please briefly describe about the importance of the Inscription of Meskel Festival on UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Representative List?
His Holiness Abune Mathias I: First and foremost, I would like to thank all of you who are engaged in the activity of the inscription of Meskel on the intangible Cultural Heritages List of UNESCO. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church is the owner and custodian of this spiritual heritage ever since its introduction to Ethiopia. The festival of Meskel is second in importance only to Epiphany (Timkat) and has been celebrated in the country for over 1,600 years. The word actually means "cross" and the feast commemorates the discovery of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified by the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The original event took place on 19 March, AD 326, but the feast is now celebrated on 27 September. The Festival of Meskel has its origin in Ethiopia with the physical presence of the True Cross at the remote mountain monastery of Gishen Mariam located in South Wello Zone of Amhara State. In this monastery is a massive volume called the Tefut, written during the reign of Zera Yacob (1434-1468), which records the story of how a fragment of the Cross was acquired. However, many of the rites observed throughout the festival are said to be directly connected to the legend of Empress Helena. This symbolizes the actions of the Empress whom, when no one would show her the Holy Sepulchre, lit incense and prayed for help. Where the smoke drifted, she dug and found three crosses. To one of them, the True Cross, many miracles were attributed.
Gishen Maryam in South Wollo has its own unique place in the history of the coming of the True Cross of Jesus Christ to Ethiopia because Emperor Dawit of Ethiopia was called upon to protect the Coptic minorities and waged punitive war against their persecutors. In which he did so marching to save them from their oppressors. Emperor Dawit, who was successful on his march, presented with reward of Gold but instead the Emperor Dawit asked for a fragment of the True Cross from the Patriarch of Alexandria. He received it at Meskel. Many of the rites observed throughout the festival are said to be directly connected to the legend of Empress Helena.
On the eve of Maskel, tall branches are tied together and yellow daisies, popularly called Meskel flowers, are placed at the top. During the night, these branches are gathered together in front of the compound gates and ignited.
Herald: Your Holiness, Meskel is being inscribed both from the perspectives of its spiritual and cultural heritage dimensions. From the spiritual perspective, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church posses a lot and numerous treasures that need to be protected and preserved such as the Hymns and composition of St. Yared the Ark of the Covenant.
His Holiness Abune Mathias I:-Yes numerous. It is my firm conviction that EOTC will work its level best to preserve the hundreds, thousands and millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Church treasures that are found in and out of Ethiopia. I believe the time is now for us to document all what we posses into a centralized system. Inventory registration, preservation and conservation of EOTC heritages means protecting and documenting the history of Ethiopia too. I would like to thank the Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritages (ARCCH) for their concern and support regarding the inscription of this spiritual and cultural treasure of Ethiopia. We as an EOTC are proud for keeping this heritage and pass down to posterity. The role of our monasteries is immense.
Herald: Your Holiness, could you also mention the role of Monasteries?
His Holiness Abune Mathias I: Our monasteries are rich in everything. They are educational centres. They are also places where numerous movable ecclesiastical items, movable heritages are housed. Monasteries like Debre Damo, Gundagundi, Debre Liabanos, Asebot and many others are credited for keeping safe all these treasures for generations. The monasteries in Tana too are unique; remains of ancient Ethiopian emperors and treasures of the Ethiopian Church are kept in the isolated island monasteries. Take Daga Istifanos, the mummified remains of five Ethiopian emperors, including King Fasilides founder of the Gondar Castle are still there.
The monasteries are earlier religious sites and include the fourteenth century Debre Maryam, the eighteenth century Narga Selassie. For example, the Tana Qirqos islands have been a spiritual retreat long before Christianity was introduced in Ethiopia, all of the island churches are the main tourist attractions, the churches are decorated with beautiful sacral paintings. Monasteries of Kibran Gabriel, are just a few.
It has also to be noted that Saint Yared, the great Ethiopian scholar and his works too need recognition. We recently celebrated the 1,500 birthday of Saint Yared who was born on April 5, 501 A.D. in the ancient city of Axum. Yared arranged and composed hymns connected to religious celebrations and holidays, introducing the concept of sacred hymn to Ethiopian Orthodox services. This hymn claims Debtera, is the basis of their performances. Yared wrote five volumes of chants for church services and celebrations. These volumes include The Book of Digua and Tsome Digua chants for church holidays and Sunday services, The Book of Meraf chants for major holidays, daily prayers and the month of fasting, The Book of Zimare chants to be performed after Mass, The Book of Mewasit chants for the dead. Tradition has it that Yared was a favourite of the Emperor Gebre-Meskel. According to legend, the emperor once became so enchanted with Yared's singing that he accidentally dropped his spear on Yared's foot during a performance. As an apology, the emperor offered to grant Yared a request. Yared requested to live the remainder of his life in solitude, where he could focus on prayer, meditation, and music composition. He spent his final years as a recluse in the Semien. Not only Yared’s music we need also Timket to be internationally recognized as spiritual heritage with its colourful cultural practices.
Herald: Your Holiness, what distinction can you make between Timket and Meskel? What special description can you give me for Timket?
His Holiness Abune Mathias I: As I mentioned earlier, we also need Timket (Epiphany) to be registered on UNESCO World Heritages Representative List. Timket is the supreme festival of EOTC, it falls on 19 January, Timket in Gondar is unique like Christmas in Lalibela, celebrated as Beza Kulu Alem, unique festivals, without forgetting Maryam Tsion of Axum celebration each year in Hidar. As an open air festival, EOTC celebrates Timket colourfully and is full of joy. It is actually a three-day celebrations, beginning on the Eve of Timkat with dramatic and colourful processions. The following morning, the great day itself, Christ's Baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist is commemorated. The third day is devoted to the Feast of St. Michael, the archangel, one of Ethiopia's most popular celebrations. The celebration of Ketera is similar to that of Demera with some minor differences in ritual ceremonies. The priests remove the tabots from each church and bless the water of the pool or river where the next day celebration will take place.
Herald: At this juncture, Your Holiness, can you tell me how the Ethiopian Orthodox Church manages monasteries? I mean does the Church posses maps that show the core and buffer zone of its properties in order to manage its properties?
His Holiness Abune Mathias I: We have numerous properties in the width and breadth of Ethiopia. Our properties are known and identified. It is a bit difficult to answer precisely now its status but we will work on the documentation of our properties in a modern way. In this regard, we ask the cooperation of all concerned individuals, the government and any NGO’s which love and respect our Church to closely work with us. Like the renovation works in Axum, Lalibela, Gondar and many other historic sites of Ethiopia to have well preserved and protected the indigenous knowledge of our forefathers. This generation is shouldered with the responsibility of keeping its identity and heritage for posterity. Therefore, all those who are concerned can join us to enhance, elevate the status of heritage conservation in EOTC. My office is open for all those Ethiopians interested to contribute something for our heritages conservation. They learned and the educated need to work hard to protect our spiritual and cultural wealth.
Herald: And what activities are being carried out to protect the church's invaluable heritages?
His Holiness Abune Mathias I: We have numerous dictionaries regarding the wealth of our heritages. We will work hard here after side by side with preaching the Gospel the Conservation and archival of parchments in museum. We have museums now in some churches and monasteries including here in the Patriarchate. Compared to what we posses, there remains a long way to go. Many of movable heritages too are found out of Ethiopia. Dictionaries like Aleqa Kidane-Wolde Kifle and Dr. Sergew Hable-Sellasie need to be printed and reprinted to create a wider audience among the scholarly community about our church. If each individual contributes its own share, I hope many more will go both to the representation list and World Heritage Site documents. The most important thing is inventory, archiving and collection management. Each and individual dioceses and parishes will be communicated in order to manage these heritage in a modernized way.
Herald: Your Holiness, do you have any message to convey?
His Holiness Abune Mathias I: I want to congratulate Ethiopians: Great people, Great Country blessed by GOD. Meskel is inscribed in our heart long ago. It is in our face, in our hand, it is there in all our activities. The Inscription of Meskel both in its spiritual and cultural dimension is a credit of our forefathers who passed it down for generation. GOD BLESS ETHIOPIA AND ITS GREAT PEOPLE. (EH)

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