Ill Amazon Bible Bashers!

Lali Cienfuegos is a videographer working in South America for Al Jazeera and the BBC, as a consequence of that he sees a lot of weird and fascinating things, which he’s documented on a stills camera since he started working there. He’s finding things that don’t even have a Wikipedia page yet. For example, these guys:

I never thought I’d get close to the New Israelites (or Israelites of the New Universal Covenant, or the Ataucusi), least of all dance with them in a religious trance flapping with dyspraxia, but in the centre of the Peruvian jungles that’s how it works, except its more like Machete meets the Bible than your regular Jehovah’s Witness Ribena party.

The New Israelites are mainly Andean peasants who wear Old Testament costumes modeled on the Hollywood epics of Cecil B De Mille, no kidding. They follow the teachings of a man called Ezequiel Ataucusi Gamonal, who died in 2000.

Gamonal, an ex-shoemaker, taught that he had been chosen by God to begin the new Israel, which had been transferred from the Middle East to Peru as a punishment for the original Israelites’ giving up on God. The new kingdom would extend far into the Amazon, where the last Inca emperor had apparently been sleeping since the Spanish invasion in the 16th century.

Belief in the sacredness of the jungle led the New Israelites to start a number of colonies deep in the rainforest, where they farmed and sang psalms in wooden temples. However, Peru’s media insisted that they were a cult that killed its own members. No evidence of this ever really came to light, but unsubstantiated rumours continued to circulate of people killed because they had displeased the Messiah.

Israelite brothers and sisters are utterly devoted to their grumpy prophet, at his month-long birthday celebrations in 1999, 1,000 of the faithful crowded into the courtyard of his desert headquarters outside Lima and serenaded him for hours.

The music -a blend of Andean rhythms with synth, sang like hymns, as you’ve probably spotted in the videos- swelled imposingly as an Indian dressed as Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, handed over a golden sceptre to Gamonal, signifying that he was destined to bring the Incan empire back to life.

Throughout the festivities the old man watched impassively, chewing methodically on enormous pieces of pork, sitting on his throne, which was a reclining orthopaedic armchair. Although the Israelites observed most of the Levitical commandments faithfully, they didn’t worry about not eating pork, maybe because the Messiah was so fond of it.

Gamonal was born in 1918 in southern Peru. He converted from Roman Catholicism to Seventh-day Adventism, though he was quickly expelled from the latter for dressing as a Hebrew prophet and claiming to receive divine revelations.

Chief among these revelations was a visit to what Gamonal called the “third heaven”, in which he met the Father, Son and Holy Ghost and was ordered to copy the Ten Commandments on to a blackboard. From then on, observance of the Commandments became the first duty of the Israelites. In 1969, the new religion was recognised by the Peruvian state, and by the 1990s estimates of its size ranged from 60,000 to 200,000.

Gamonal’s cosmology was a complex mixture of Seventh-day Adventism, Judaism and Inca legend. From the 60s until his death, he taught that various apocalyptic disasters were about to happen to the world, although on several occasions he was able to delay their arrival by petitioning God for more time. As a result, the deadline for the end of the world was regularly pushed back.

It was beyond doubt, however, that Gamonal’s followers, most of whom were peasants uprooted from their villages by the collapse of the rural economy in the 1970s, derived spiritual comfort from his teachings. For many, the Israelites’ life of prayer offered a peaceful alternative to the Shining Path, the Maoist guerillas who hung out in the jungles of Peru during the 1980s.

Gamonal was married several times and was renowned for his voracious sexual appetite. He nurtured political ambitions, twice running for President of Peru. He himself never wore the priestly robes of the Levites, explaining that he would only do so when it was time to announce the apocalypse.

He died during the Israelites’ Pentecost celebrations, and disappointed many of his followers by failing to fulfill his promise that he would rise again after three days.

I went to visit his followers in Altemonte, on the edge of the Amazon River, where they’ve cleared a lot of rainforest to farm the soil (it’s the wrong sort of soil for farming though).

The first thing I saw when I got to their village was an otherworldly pillar drenched in blood, where an untold amount of sacrificial lambs had been slain- it was a pillar to remind us all of our own decrepitude, as if it wasn’t enough that man-eating ants and the deathly sun were constant reminders of what little one meant in this verdant hell.

Then there’s that getting used to that they don’t live in the NOW but in some made up neo-biblical time where EVERYONE dresses like Moses. Women pass along, bowed subservient to the men, while their daughters almost certainly wish they’d be whisked away by some passing logger along the Amazon River.

I was introduced to the Holocaust, as it was actually called, a mass look-but-don’t-touch feast of cattle laid out to a grand bonfire that burned while trumpets played and men went to their knees with hunger asking for forgiveness in this life.

I’d like to say that when I read the Bible with these people or heard their music my face switched and I felt an inner-glitch transformation towards compassion among men, Jehovah and even myself, that my existentialist pap was brushed aside by the mastery and mystery of revelation. Take me away Archangel. Feed me mirth; rid me of my polyps of guilt. But nope, all I could think of was of the poor children whose parents had brought them to this jungle quagmire and forced them into labour for the sake of so-called prophet Ezequiel Ataucusi.

Now he’s dead, his son lives in some enormous palace near the capital receiving coffers for laughs. And for what? So that Bible bashers called New Israelites can fuck up the rainforest, changing a fragile ecosystem by putting paddy fields and cattle ranches in place of trees and claiming virgin territory in the name of a centuries old book of Chinese whispers.

Hate religion. Love the meat and maybe the music.

The sweet scent of the Holocaust aided by trumpets.

Ant-infested citric beef - yum.

Music festival in the house of God.

That’s me elated - I love God - I love the Jungle.

This picture shows the hut of an Ataucusi that has rebelled but still lives within the community. Inside he has his own TV and many other prohibited modern gizmos. Naturally we drank Coca-Cola and watched football together.

I traveled back to the past and took this picture.

Typically elegant Ataucusi beard.

The majestic Amazon River nearby.

The wooden pillar of blood and sacrifice.

Market scene in Altomonte - beautiful curious girl that kept following me.

Is it me or do they look inbred?

Village scene in Altomonte.

Women in Altomonte are segregated during Mass.

There wasn’t a moment when the Old Testament wasn’t around. Many of the people here claimed to have personally spoken to or seen God.

Village scene - women holding umbrellas against the sun.


Stop, it’s prayer time!


  • half peruvian November 17, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    more of this kind of thing please

  • Thomas Tabouli November 18, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    Hi Lali


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