Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Ethiopian Decalogue Tablets

Paul Raffaele, in the Smithsonian, describes his hunt for Israel's Ark of the Covenant that Ethiopian Christians claim to be keeping in a monastery at Aksum. That story has, of course, been told many times before. But along the way, he describes the iconic role of tablets of the Ten Commandments in Ethiopian churches and rituals:

The tabots (pronounced "TA-bots") are replicas of the tablets in the ark, and every church in Ethiopia has a set, kept in its own holy of holies. "It's the tabots that consecrate a church, and without them it's as holy as a donkey's stable," Abba Gebre said. Every January 19, on Timkat, or the Feast of the Epiphany, the tabots from churches all over Ethiopia are paraded through the streets.

... A dozen priests, deacons and acolytes—clad in brocade robes in maroon, ivory, gold and blue—joined him to form a protective huddle around a bearded priest wearing a scarlet robe and a golden turban. On his head the priest carried the tabots, wrapped in ebony velvet embroidered in gold. Catching sight of the sacred bundle, hundreds of women in the crowd began ululating—making a singsong wail with their tongues—as many Ethiopian women do at moments of intense emotion.

As the clerics began to walk down a rocky pathway toward a piazza at the center of town (a legacy of Italy's occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s), they were hemmed in by perhaps 1,000 more chanting and ululating devotees. At the piazza, the procession joined clerics carrying tabots from seven other churches. Together they set off farther downhill, with the trailing throng swelling into the thousands, with thousands more lining the road. About five miles later, the priests stopped beside a pool of murky water in a park.

All afternoon and through the night, the priests chanted hymns before the tabots, surrounded by worshipers. Then, prompted by glimmers of light sneaking into the morning sky, Archbishop Andreas led the clerics to celebrate the baptism of Jesus by playfully splashing one another with the pool's water.

The Timkat celebrations were to continue for three more days with prayers and masses, after which the tabots would be returned to the churches where they were kept.

Among many interesting things in this account is the claim that churches are sanctified only by the presence of tabots . Here a very iconic text legitimizes that most religious kind of ethos, holiness.

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