Friday, June 13, 2014

How I Crashed Not One, But Three Eritrean Weddings

Rehov HaNevi'im (Prophets Street) is one of the most beautiful streets in Jerusalem, with historic buildings and cultural delights in an area often overlooked by visitors to the city. There's the Italian Hospital, built in 1914, which now houses offices of the Ministry of Education. There's the nearby Musrara neighborhood, once one of the city's slums sitting on the Jordanian border and now attracting artists and the middle class. There's the Russian Compound, with the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church built in 1860, and Jerusalem Police headquarters. And there is Ethiopia Street.

Ethiopia Street - a winding, picturesque lane that was once home to Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the man responsible for reviving the Hebrew language in the modern era. The main attraction on this lane is the Ethiopian Church, a walled compound built in stages between 1874 and 1901. At its center stands a round church, modeled on churches in Ethiopia.

My visit to the Ethiopian Church on a Saturday afternoon coincided with a wedding. No, not just one wedding, but three. And the wedding parties were not Ethiopian at all! The exquisitely attired brides and grooms were from Eritrea!

Where is Eritrea and what are throngs of young Eritreans wearing fancy clothing doing in an Ethiopian church in Jerusalem?

The Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem

Eritrea is a country in the Horn of Africa, positioned alongside Ethiopia in such a way that it blocks Ethiopia's access to the Red Sea. The two countries have been at odds for years; border conflicts claimed some 70,000 casualties between 1998 and 2000.

Talking to the dark-skinned Eritreans gathered at the church I learned that they can easily distinguish between Ethiopians and Eritreans, but they have a hard time determining the nationalities of Caucasians.

Groom and brides pose for the camera

Many of the Eritrea's unemployed young people have fled their country seeking jobs and better lives; a good number of them have made their way to Israel. According to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior, over 55,000 undocumented Africans were here in 2012. The issue of Africans living and working illegally in Israel has led to friction with residents of the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where they live.

In addition to building a fence on the Egyptian border to prevent new arrivals, the Israeli government has given some migrants financial incentives to return to their home countries. But many illegal immigrants are being held indefinitely in detention centers, their future uncertain. While on the one hand there is a humanitarian desire to help these people get better lives, and possibly asylum as political refugees, the increase in illegal African residents in Israel is causing a serious demographic problem.

The first bride and groom pose at the entrance of the Ethiopian church

Eritrea is a multi-ethnic country, and an estimated 50% of the population is Christian.  Their religious practices and beliefs are apparently the same as those of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I had previously visited the Ethiopian Christians of the Old City of Jerusalem to learn about the church, and its similarity in many ways to Judaism.

Weddings take place on Saturdays. Busloads of Eritreans, male and female, come from Tel Aviv for ceremonies at the Ethiopian Church. Everyone is young, capable of having made what must have been a difficult journey from their homeland to Israel. The men wear elegant suits; the women are beautiful in colorful dresses and elaborate coiffed hair styles. The brides and grooms look regal, almost as if they are costumed as King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the Biblical characters that play such an important role in the foundation of the Ethiopian Church.

An Ethiopian priest, not part of the wedding party, waits at the side of the church

While visiting the church, I didn't actually witness the marriage ceremonies. It seemed that the brides and grooms - three separate couples - had come to get the Jerusalem church's blessing. They kissed the outer stone wall of the building and prostrated themselves at the entrance door, but they did not enter. Perhaps this was just for the photographers' benefit, or maybe it was part of the unusual Eritrean/Ethiopian wedding rituals.

I had not been invited to attend this colorful event - I was just a wedding crasher, three times over. But what a fascinating experience this was!

Bride and groom bow down at the entrance of the church

Bride and groom, as regal as the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon

Inside the Ethiopian Church - the wedding parties never came inside

Related article:

The Ethiopian Christians of the Old City of Jerusalem


  1. Nice Article I Like it very much

  2. Fascinating! And great photos. I have often thought that Ethiopians were the most beautiful people on the planet.

  3. Wonderful article and a nice bit of history too. Pictures are beautiful as are the bridal couple.