Western-style processions mix with ululations and cowhide drums in Jonathan Hanson’s multimedia piece from the Celebration of St. Mary in Gondar, Ethiopia
Gondar, in Ethiopia’s north, may be known as the longtime staging ground for the massive exodus of Ethiopian Jews (the last of whom are finally leaving after two decades of airlifts to Israel). But the Jews of Gondar, whose mestizo customs include burying their dead in Christian cemeteries, are not the only ones with hybrid religious traditions.
Ethiopia is a majority Christian nation, and for Gondar, the festival of St. Mary held every November 30 is one of the biggest dates on the religious calendar. As Jonathan Hanson’s multimedia piece from the festival in years past shows, the celebration of St. Mary includes the kind of icons and processions that feel familiar throughout the Christian world as well as distinctly regional variations like ululations and cowhide drums.
Just don’t call it a new mix: the Kingdom of Aksum, which covered large parts of Ethiopia and Eritrea, was one of the first nation-states to adopt Christianity as its official religion, in the 4th Century AD, long before the Italians or the Germans or most anyone else. So, to paraphrase Lauren Bacall: you know how to ululate, don’t you, Benedict? You just put your lips together and… trill your uvula. —Nathan Thornburgh