Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia and Eritrea are about to begin celebrating the annual religious holiday Meskel, which marks the finding of the cross that Jesus was crucified on.
According to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, St Helena, the mother of 4th Century Roman Emperor Constantine, lit a bonfire with frankincense in it – and its smoke led her to the spot where the cross had been buried in Jerusalem.
After its discovery, she lit a bigger bonfire – known in Ethiopia and Eritrea as a “damera” – to let her son know she had found the cross.
Other variations of this story say the initial bonfire was so big it collapsed to one side – pinpointing the spot where the cross was buried.
As part of traditional Meskel events today bonfires are constructed with long sticks and lit in towns and cities across Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Much symbolism is attached to which way the burning wood falls – if it is towards the east, it is a sign of good times ahead for the next year; the west is a bad omen and a warning of looming danger to come.
If the bonfire stays upright or goes either to the north or south, things will continue as they are – or at least things will not get any worse.
In a part of the world plagued by conflict and drought, many Orthodox followers will be keen to see how this year’s dameras fall.
In the past, there have been stories of unscrupulous authorities trying to manipulate the way the sticks fall.
For example, when Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia, some remember how officials of former Ethiopian ruler Mengistu Hailemariam interfered with the clergy, whose job it is to organise the event.
They tried to ensure the damera in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, fell to the east – fearing if it went westwards, people would associate it with the fall of the Derg as Mengistu’s former military government was known.
His regime eventually fell with gunfire in 1991 – after 18 bonfires.
In Ethiopia, the main damera is lit in the capital, Addis Ababa, on the eve of Meskel – which this year is on Wednesday evening (see pictures above), while in neighbouring Eritrea, the principal bonfire is lit on the actual day.