Winter's Tale: An Ethiopian Christmas

Goat stew and plum pudding
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The Independent Travel

Christmas in Scotland or Christmas in Ethiopia? It could have been a dilemma, but, thanks to the vagaries of the Gregorian and Ethiopian Orthodox calendars, I was able to enjoy both.

Christmas in Scotland or Christmas in Ethiopia? It could have been a dilemma, but, thanks to the vagaries of the Gregorian and Ethiopian Orthodox calendars, I was able to enjoy both.

Thirteen days after the festive season with my family in the Scottish Highlands, I could appreciate the same festival 3,000 miles away in the highlands of Ethiopia, this time in the company of a group of the Orthodox faithful. For them the weeks preceding Christmas hadn't been a seasonal mix of office parties and family get-togethers, but a 43-day fast which was now over. It was appropriate, therefore, that a goat be freshly slaughtered and a feast prepared - to which I, as a visitor, was invited as an honoured guest.

We were in Gonder, founded in 1636 by Emperor Fasiladis. For more than 200 years this was the capital of Ethiopia, but it is now a quiet and dusty city 250 miles north of the present capital, Addis Ababa. The Royal Enclosure at the heart of the city contains six palaces as well as once-lavish gardens. Wandering round this vast royal estate gives an impression of the grandeur of the medieval court: views for miles from the castle ramparts, banqueting halls and bathing pools, and architecture reflecting Portuguese and Moorish influences.

Parts of the enclosure were severely damaged by British bombing in the 1940s in an attempt to rout the Italian occupation. Our guide, Yohannes, became so incensed as he recounted the treasures that were lost then that my Ethiopian friend had to remind him that, although British, the faranji (ie me) wasn't personally responsible.

Gonder's real treasure is the little church of Debre Birhan Selassie, a 10-minute walk from the city square. There has been a church on this site since at least the 17th century, although the current building probably dates from the early 1800s. A high stone wall with 12 towers, representing the apostles, and a gateway where Christ is symbolised in the form of a lion, encircles the area. In contrast to the circular churches found elsewhere in Ethiopia, this beautiful building is rectangular - allegedly because the Emperor planned to move the Ark of the Covenant here from Axum in the north and modelled the structure on Solomon's temple in Jerusalem.

Leaving my shoes outside, I entered with the other women by the right hand door. Inside, the walls are completely covered with a fantastic display of vivid and colourful murals depicting a fusion of biblical scenes and Ethiopian history. But it is the ceiling that astounds: 80 winged angelic faces, each with a different expression, gaze down from above. Reminiscent of Byzantium iconography, these exquisite cherubs have the huge eyes common to ecclesiastical art in Ethiopia. The heavily curtained Holy of Holies hid the tabot, the replica of the Ark that is the most precious possession of every Orthodox church in Ethiopia.

It was in the courtyard of this hidden jewel that I was now enjoying my Christmas Day meal. Stepping back outside into bright sunshine, I wandered over to a copse of juniper trees. Sitting in the shade were a happy company of priests and worshippers, resting after the previous evening's marathon service.

The night before, thousands of white-robed pilgrims had thronged the area, as hours of hauntingly beautiful chanting preceded the procession of the tabot around the church amid clouds of incense. The celebrations began as the sun set over the Chelga mountains, and continued beyond midnight.

Everyone was drinking tej, home-brewed wine made with honey. Hospitality dictated that I must be served a full cup - in this case a large blue plastic beaker. Two or three sips of this potent brew in the already intense heat were enough to convince me that drinking more could prove unwise, and a nearby shrub was the beneficiary.

No one seemed to notice. The priests, in robes of yellow and blue of Vermeer-intensity, were cheerfully practising their English. The women were too busy dicing meat and chopping garlic, onions and herbs with eight-inch scimitars.

Over the next few hours a delicious goat stew was slowly cooked in the large black pot suspended over a charcoal fire and as we sat sharing a little bit of our different worlds, the meal and the company made for Christmas memories I will cherish.

Getting there: fly from Heathrow to Addis Ababa on British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) or on Ethiopian Airlines (020-7987 7000, www.flyethiopian.com); the latter has daily flights from Addis Ababa to Gonder. Travel within Ethiopia was organised by the Eastern Travel & Tours Agency (00 251 1 511 233, www.easterntravel.net).

Getting in: 30-day tourist visas can be obtained from the Ethiopian Embassy, 17 Princes Gate, London SW7 1PZ (020-7589 7212, www.ethioembassy.org.uk). A Yellow Fever vaccination certificate is obligatory.

Staying there: the Goha Hotel (00 251 811 0603) in Gonder is comfortable, with spectacular views of the mountains.

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