A Legendary Photographer Visits an Isolated Christian Community in Ethiopia

High in the mountains of eastern Africa, an ancient way of life continues apace

It is not uncommon for highlands churches to be situated within caves. Mekina Medhane Alem, built of wood and layered stone, contains 800-year-old paintings but is believed to be centuries older. Sebastião Salgado
The Gelada baboon is unique to the highlands, along with the Ethiopian wolf and a species of wild goat called the Walia ibex. Sebastião Salgado
Giant lobelias grow elsewhere in East Africa. Sebastião Salgado
“I saw billions of hours of work, thousands of years” in the ties between landscape and people, the photographer says. A villager lives at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet in the Simien Mountains. Sebastião Salgado
“The developed world belonged to another age,” the photographer says. Sebastião Salgado
The Simien Mountains Sebastião Salgado
The path to Yemrehanna Kristos, a medieval church Sebastião Salgado
Mary, the mother of Jesus, is revered in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity; churches dedicated to her can be found in places ranging from Addis Ababa to Los Angeles to this highlands grotto. Sebastião Salgado

We were very tired,” Sebastião Salgado recalls. He was on a 500-mile, 55-day hike though some of the most inaccessible passages in the Ethiopian highlands, a region known as the roof of Africa, where the elevations range from a few thousand feet to almost 15,000. “We had to climb, to climb, to climb,” he says in his Portuguese-accented English. Finally he and his porters and guides reached a village. “It was about 2 p.m., very hot. Very few people.”

But “slowly, slowly people start to come out,” says Salgado, one of the world’s premier photographers. Among the villagers were “two ladies with a kind of basin, wood basin, and with water. They came beside my feet, they took off my boots, my socks, and they washed my feet. Oh boy, I felt the humility of the beginning of the Christians.”

This sacred encounter, reminiscent of the biblical scene in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, was a highlight of the extraordinary journey that led Salgado to create the pictures on these pages. They commemorate a people’s profound connection to both the heavens and the earth.

It was 2008, and Salgado, a native of Brazil, was 64 years old. His monumental projects Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000) had established his pre-eminence as a chronicler of conflict, dislocation and environmental degradation. Then, as an antidote to despair, he embarked on an eight-year quest involving some 30 trips all over the globe to seek out places and peoples untouched by modernity, including the highlanders of Ethiopia.

Why would a man risk his 64-year-old knees on terrain so difficult that it killed five of his expedition’s rented donkeys? “In every step we discovered new things,” Salgado explains. “You feel the power there.”

The highlands hold traces of ancient Jewish communities, though most of Ethiopia’s Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1980s and ’90s to escape famine, persecution and civil war. Some of the world’s oldest Christian communities persist there, populated by the spiritual descendants of an Ethiopian court official who, according to the New Testament, was converted to the faith a few years after the death of Christ. Today, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians make up 44 percent of the country’s population; Sunni Muslims, who are concentrated in the east, make up 34 percent.

Sectarian and civil conflict still wrack other parts of Ethiopia, but not this one. Setting out from Lalibela, with its 11 renowned monolithic medieval churches, Salgado headed southeast and then turned northwest, to Simien Mountains National Park. Some people he had consulted before his trip advised him to hire armed guards, so he did. “Two guys with Kalashnikovs,” he says. “After one week we sent them back, because we felt that the people would take this as an offense. When you come to a place, everyone brings a gift to you, they are so kind.”

He, too, brought gifts—knives and tools to trade for lamb meat to supplement the food he packed in for himself and his retinue of 17 guides, porters and donkey-tenders. So few people tread the path they took that “we had no guide capable to come with us from the beginning to the end,” he says. When one guide’s knowledge of the way ahead ran out, Salgado hired someone who could pick up the trail. With local expertise, plus a GPS-equipped satellite telephone, they stayed on track. With solar panels, he kept his phone and camera batteries charged. But above all else, he says, he valued his hiking shoes.

The highland villages are so far removed from the rest of the world, Salgado says, that in most of them he was the first outsider to visit in memory. And they’re so cut off from one another that they speak different dialects. “But they are linked by the same God,” he says. “These communities are Christians from the beginning of time.” In these communities, he saw churches fashioned from caves, Bibles written on animal skins and traditions that reflect Christianity’s Judaic roots, such as forgoing milk and meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. He was especially taken with the highlanders’ terraced farms: “I looked at all this incredible, sophisticated agriculture, I said, ‘We had these 10,000 years ago.’”

For him, the villages bespeak a continuity over millennia, and the landscape—with its blazing shafts of sunlight and a river-carved canyon deeper, at points, than the Grand Canyon—inspires a connection to eons past.

That river, the Tekezé, ultimately nourished the Blue Nile Delta, hundreds of miles away. “All that fertile land energy came from there, eroded from there,” Salgado says, “and boy, me walking there, seeing this, doing my task inside the beginning of our history, was something amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing.”

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