Photo by: Owen Barder

Exorcisms, the Ark of the Covenant, and Ethiopia: The Adventures of Justin Fornal

"There are all different kinds of demons inside of people, some of them go easy, some want to negotiate, others want to fight."

December 13, 2019


While searching for the true location of Ark of the Covenant for the Science Channel series UNEXPLAINED AND UNEXPLORED, I immersed myself in Ethiopia’s diverse ceremonies, sacred locations, and ancient traditions. The following story emerged from one of these experiences.

Special thanks to Zablon Beyene, Mikael Tamerat, and Dereje Gashaw.

It’s Wednesday, and as Mikael Tamerat puts it, “Wednesdays are for exorcisms.” Mikael, an Ethiopian explorer, and I are in route to Debre Libanos Monastery to observe an exorcism. He has been incredibly generous with his time, taking me to witness the lesser-known rituals of his homeland — some that are seldom experienced by outsiders.

The Debre Libnaos monastery, founded in the 13th century by Abune Tekle Haymanot, is a collection of churches, caves, and sacred structures spread across an expansive compound. When Mikael and I reach the main thoroughfare, there are two long lines of people, separated by sex, stemming out from the gateway of a small courtyard with a square structure in the middle.

“You might be the first American to come to the exorcism,” Mikael explains. “Every Wednesday the pilgrims wait to enter that building, it is the Meskel Bet (House of the Cross). Soon the head priest of the Church will come down the hill with the tsilat (gold Coptic cross) and carry it into the Maskel Bet. When these people see the tsilat, those who are possessed will reveal themselves… Who knows, perhaps there is a demon in you that will reveal itself!”

A young teenage boy named Fikru explains,“there are all different kinds of demons inside of people. Some of them go easy, some want to negotiate, others want to fight.”

Moments later, several men adorned in bright robes begin their decent form the hilltop. As the kaleidoscopic procession passes, the sound of whispered prayers fills the air. The entourage enters the gates and quickly disappears into the Meskel Bet. Shortly thereafter, a ghastly scream breaks the silence as woman with rolling eyes is carried into the Meskel Bet. As she passes, she contorts, growls, and twists her mouth into a terrible grimace. We listen as the woman’s screams crescendo, then fall to silence.

An usher appears at the gates and instructs the lines to start filing in. Participants snake towards the courtyard, filter through the Meskel Bet, kiss the cross and depart out the rear gate of the courtyard. Once inside, I see the tsilat placed across the head priest’s lap, enshrouded in thick red velvet. Two additional priests, chanting in Geʽez (an ancient South Semitic language) repeatedly strike pilgrims’ backs with large prayer beads as they kiss the tsilat. As I fall to my knees, I guess where the top of the cross is, doing my best to imitate the pilgrims ahead of me.

Later, Mikael explains that some Ethiopian crosses are believed to be imbued with incredible power. He tells me about a powerful cross that was stolen, taken to a museum in Belgium, and promptly returned after the museum burned down.

“Wow, that sounds like some of the powers attributed to the Ark of the Covenant.”

As I reflect on the experience, Fikru shares his story. Mikael translates, “about a year ago he started falling asleep in class, he could not concentrate… His family believed someone in his village put a bad spell on him. They sent him to Debre Libanos. After six months, Fikru went home and everything was ok until the bad feelings returned. So, he returned to Debre Libanos.”

“Will he ever go home? He must miss his family so much.”

Mikael speaks with Fikru for a few minutes.

“He said maybe soon, on a Wednesday, his demon will come out and finally leave. Then maybe his family will let him come home to stay.”

Watch UNEXPLAINED AND UNEXPLORED now on SCI Go.

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