“Debire Birhan Selassie” is an ancient church at the center of Ethiopia’s ex-capital Gondar. It’s one of the marvelous architectural accomplishments of the “Gonderian period” in which the city served as the center of the throne for some 200 years.
The structure of the building is a demonstration of both architectural ingenuity and genuine faith. The twelve towers erected around the main building of the church are not there only to give structural support, but to also symbolize the 12 apostles who, in Christianity, are regarded the cornerstones of religion.
The 13th tower, tallest of them all, symbolizes the Lion of Judah that represents the monarch’s blood link to King Solomon of Israel.
The church was originally built in the late 17th century by Emperor Eyasu II, but the structure had to be redeveloped in the 1880s following the ambush on the city by Sudanese Mahadist forces that left many of Gondar’s churches in rubles and ashes. “Debre Birhan Selassie” , however, somehow survived total destruction by the Mahadists which spared the spiritual and artistic gems it hosts inside. If you ask any “Gondere” (residents of the city) why Debre Birhan Selassie’s fate wasn’t complete destruction like the others, almost everyone would reply “that is because God sent saint Michael the angel from heaven to guard it.” It’s believed the angel arrived embodied as a swarm of white bees as the Mahadists approached the church, in fact the priests tell the story like this:
“As the Mahadists approached the main building, a swarm of white bees started to surround the church and when the attackers approached it the swarm greeted them with deadly stings that eventually drove them away salvaging that truly mystical spiritual wonder.”
The priests would also show you some very strange carved depiction of saint Michael on the main entrance door of the church which they, and many living in the city including myself, believe appeared after the angel disappeared into the inside of the church.
Originally painted for those unable to read, every inch of the church walls are covered in vivid depictions of biblical verses that give stunning visual synopsis of important biblical stories and events.
These pictures glowing with marvel compress thousands of words from the gospel into exquisite pictorial depictions. The murals’ marlvel, however, isn’t just in the aesthetic beauty they shine with, but also in the amount of detail included in them, the messages they convey and the stories they tell.
The largest of them depicts the holy trinity: The God Father, The God Son and The God Holy Spirit, holding white spheres in one hand making a cross with the other. The white sphere is a common symbolization of the world in many ancient Ethiopian drawings.
Along the church’s rectangular ceiling, 135 cherubs sit idly gazing down at you. These depictions of cherubs, as strange as they might seem, have a subtle symbolization to the artists and scholars of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahdo Church. The white dots on the wings of the angels, for example, are allegory to the angels’ nature of unrestricted ability to see and be everywhere and anywhere, represented by their many eyes depicted as white dots.
Another picture that catches the eye is a depiction of hell full of smirking devils torturing the sinners while burning in blaze themselves. The painting seems to have been deliberately drawn to plant the seeds of fear in the hearts of those watching, send a message of warning: “That might be your final destination so beware.”
If seeing a place where beautiful art meets detail, religion, biblical stories and genuine faith is something you seek to do, then go no further, our marvelous country hosts one right at the heart of its ancient capital.
Article By: Kaleab Ayenew