High Church

William MacNamara:

In a cave on a mountaintop in northern Ethiopia I meet a Christian monk reputed to be 140 years old. Even if this were true, he is markedly young compared to the relics hidden around him in these holy mountains. A few steps away from his hermit hole is a wooden door set flush against the rockface. It is the entrance to St Mary Korkor, one of more than 100 churches buried in the mesas of Tigray, in Ethiopia’s far north.

Push open the church door and you enter the mountain. In the gloom of the nave are frescoes depicting scenes straight out of a Renaissance chapel: the Annunciation, the Last Supper, St George slaying the dragon. But the faces of Jesus and the saints are African, and they were painted 1,200 years ago. This region is a Christian heartland, familiar and yet fascinatingly different. Easter, for example, is celebrated with church services, then family get-togethers and meals – but not this weekend. Instead, it comes after a Lent fasting period of 56 days, on April 15 this year.