A Legendary Photographer Visits an Isolated Christian Community in Ethiopia

High in the mountains of eastern Africa, an ancient way of life continues apace

Photographs by Sebastião Salgado

This article is a selection from the July/August issue of Smithsonian magazine.You can read more on smithsonian website.

It was 2008, and Salgado, a native of Brazil, was 64 years old. His monumental projects Workers (1993) and Migrations (2000) had established his pre-eminence as a chronicler of conflict, dislocation and environmental degradation. Then, as an antidote to despair, he embarked on an eight-year quest involving some 30 trips all over the globe to seek out places and peoples untouched by modernity, including the highlanders of Ethiopia.

Why would a man risk his 64-year-old knees on terrain so difficult that it killed five of his expedition’s rented donkeys?

“In every step we discovered new things,”Salgado explains. “You feel the power there.”

 

Some of the world’s oldest Christian communities persist there, populated by the spiritual descendants of an Ethiopian court official who, according to the New Testament, was converted to the faith a few years after the death of Christ.

The highland villages are so far removed from the rest of the world, Salgado says, that in most of them he was the first outsider to visit in memory. And they’re so cut off from one another that they speak different dialects. “But they are linked by the same God,” he says. “These communities are Christians from the beginning of time.” In these communities, he saw churches fashioned from caves, Bibles written on animal skins and traditions that reflect Christianity’s Judaic roots, such as forgoing milk and meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. He was especially taken with the highlanders’ terraced farms: “I looked at all this incredible, sophisticated agriculture, I said, ‘We had these 10,000 years ago.’”

 

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