Cramming on to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre's roof for Ethiopian Easter Mass


KHAN AL-ZEIT street is alive, with light, delicate pastries stuffed with nuts and dates nestling in plastic boxes. We brush past silk scarves and Palestinian embroidered dresses hanging at the entrances of shops and glimpse glittering gold necklaces in a window display designed to entice wealthy pilgrims to make generous presents in this season of renewal.

Vendors proffer tins of juice and cola. We hurry, determined not to miss the Ethiopian Easter Mass on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Just beyond the opening to the Via Dolorosa, where Christ bore his cross to Calvary, we ascend to the roof up steps and a ramp in a tight press of patient, quiet Ethiopians. Abi cadges a slender candle off a neighbour and hands it to me. “For later,” Abi remarks.

On the other side of a metal fence the Israeli police have erected to divide the narrow passage, young men, who have made an acte de presence at the Mass, are striding away to cafes to while away the solemn hours before the joyful resurrection.

The Israeli police do not blink an eye when our party of one Ethiopian and four Europeans turns the corner opposite the door to a Coptic Orthodox chapel and slide through the entrance to the courtyard of the hermitage. Here priests are already conducting the service in a rectangular tent made of panels of clear and flowered plastic. The Greeks and Armenians require impossible-to- obtain passes to attend Easter Mass below in the church; the Ethiopians welcome all to the roof until packed to capacity.

Michael, a tall fair German Lutheran pastor, leads the way through the throng and up a rough flight of stairs to a rise dubbed “the garden”. Between the trunks of spare, spiky pines we have a panoramic view of the scene. Directly across from where we stand is the dome over the central hall of the vast church, lamps glowing softly behind windows framed in stained glass.

Below is a shifting, swaying mass of standing pilgrims, many wrapped in white gauze shawls, women with heads covered, their gowns edged in bright strips of woven cloth.

Some sit on carpets against the wall of the small chapel at the centre of the courtyard, others perch on folding chairs.

The priest sings the interactive service in Amharic, the congregation replies where required. Cameras flash, people speak on mobile phones to relatives in Ethiopia, Canada and Germany: “Guess where I am?”

As midnight approaches, the throng bows and holds its breath until the bells clash and clang, clash and clang. We descend to the courtyard where a brocade umbrella bobs out of the tent. Beneath it is a priest carrying a large, flat, handwritten Bible to which pilgrims touch lip and chin.

The devout who enter the tent to take Communion exit with their mouths covered to seal in the sacrament. Young men hustle in with a table, steaming sauces and plates of food for pilgrims who have fasted since Good Friday.

Weary, we depart at 2am, before the dancing and the lighting of the candles. I catch a flame from a neighbour as we enter the tunnel to the street. We buy chilled bottles of water from a Palestinian youth before making our way along Khan al-Zeit, its shops now snug in sleep, to Damascus Gate where an intrepid hawker stands guard over his stock of white sports shoes.