ETHIOPIA - THE EXTRAORDINARY ROCK-HEWN CHURCHES OF LALIBELA!
“So you’re off to Ethiopia eh? Better pack a few sandwiches ha ha ha!” Twenty seven years after famine killed a million people, the haunting images linger on.
Well, the rains have returned - for now anyway. An uneasy peace has been reached with neighbouring Eritrea. Tourists are finally trickling back into a country with one of the oldest and richest cultures on earth.
Our little Dash 8 flies low over an endless patchwork of villages and lush green fields coating majestic mountains and winding river valleys.
We put down in Lalibela, 2600 metres above sea level and 650 kilometers north of the capital, Addis Ababa. Having failed to book a hotel online, I went the old-fashioned route and phoned. It worked. A young man, Tesfaw - “Just call me Hop,” holds up a sign with “MR. ANDREW RENTON” written in bold letters.
The airport is 25kms from town. The road is black-topped. Vehicles are minimal and yet the going is slow. It’s the cows! Cows are currency here. They buy wives, donkeys, and sacks of coffee beans. Sheep and goats are worthy animals but cows are a man’s wealth on display, and the road is full of them.
No sooner do we pass one herder on his way to some secret pasture, than we run into another, then another etc. The net result is good natured chaos and animals scampering off in all directions!
We pass through villages of typical, thatched, 2-storey circular homes – Tukuls, before reaching the outskirts of town. A tailor sits outside at his treadle sewing-machine, patching a pair of jeans for the umpteenth time. A shoemaker fixes sandals fit for the garbage can in a wealthier country. An umbrella repairer re-welds a failing frame. Two giggling women pound maize to make tella, the local beer.
Hmm! No sign of churches yet?
The road has turned from blacktop to dirt to very rough cobblestones – A cunning way of bringing traffic to a crawl. According to Hop, vibrations from speedy vehicles have caused cracks in the 800 year old church walls.
“Where are the churches?” I finally ask impatiently, scanning the hillsides for a steeple or two.
“We have passed several already. I will show you after you have unpacked,” replies Hop.
I settle into my comfortable room with a stunning view over the Lasta Mountains. Still nothing of biblical significance in sight?
Ethiopia was the second country, after Armenia, to adopt Christianity in the 4th Century. Legend has it that King Lalibela was so angered when Muslim conquests blocked access to The Holy Land, he decided to build his own Jerusalem - at home!
Instead of building churches from the ground “up,” he built them from the ground “down.” Land in Lalibela is mainly volcanic lava and relatively soft. He instructed his workers to dig deep trenches around each chosen site. From the central cores they carved out churches.
The King named a rather nondescript dry gorge, The Jordan River, and created churches in two clusters - One on either bank. We climb the hill to explore The North Western group.
At 800 Sq. meters, Bet (Saint) Medhane Alem is the largest rock-hewn church in the world. Priests and worshippers dressed in white shammas (one-piece robes) are gathered in the trench around the building. 36 concrete pillars have been added to reinforce the simple structure. It is mind-boggling to imagine the work involved to create this huge building from a mere chunk of rock.
A keen group of congregants scrape moss from the surrounding walls, pock marked with old graves and empty hermit’s caves.
A short tunnel leads to a second courtyard with three smaller churches and a fetid pool said to hold curative powers for infertile women. Three thorough immersions at Ethiopian Christmas apparently does the trick!
The ceiling and walls of Bet Maryam (Saint Mary’s church) are covered in carvings and ancient paintings, including a Star of David proving the crossover between Judaism and Ethiopian Christianity. In each church a priest stands by, clutching a cross or a bible. Shoes are left outside under the watchful eye of a white-turbaned guard.
When I walk through yet another tunnel, the planning starts to make sense. Two more churches are set in a third courtyard. In all there are 7 churches in the North Western group – All connected by tunnels and passageways. A narrow slit, cut through the rock, finally gets us out of the labyrinth – Phew! Without Hop in the lead, I would be hooped!
From ground level, the only inkling that these buildings even exist comes from the plastic roof coverings, financed by the European Union to preserve the structures which are beginning to erode. Chanting and drumming are kept to the courtyards for fear that vibrations will cause further cracks in the walls.
The five churches in The South Western cluster are carved into cliff faces using old caves or niches in the rock as starting points. Ah, but the jewel in the crown comes late in the day. I follow Hop over a small bridge – A minor deviation from the road home. The path ahead appears to take a slight dip, perhaps from wear and tear over time?
A few more steps and I notice the ground is carved into the shape of a large cross. I am looking at the roof of a church that reaches down 15 metres while retaining the same cruciform shape all the way to it’s base!
Bet Giyorgis – The church of St George stands apart from the others. Legend has it that St George visited the king and demanded a special church in his name. The king pulled out all the stops here!
Lalibela is an isolated mountain village of around 14,000. Tourism is in it’s infancy. Before the road and airport were built, a donkey trek over the mountains was the only way in. Religion is an important part of daily life. Church courtyards fill with worshippers at early morning mass and overflow during religious festivals.
A visit here is not just about churches. It is about the people who come from the surrounding mountains to pray and to trade as they have for centuries.
Today is Market Day. The road into town is packed with loaded donkeys and their owners. Soon a thousand people fill the hillside, displaying their goods and renewing friendships.
Salt. Sandals made from tires. Tef, for making injera, the round fermented pancake that is the staple diet of all Ethiopians. Chat for chewing. Dried peppers for spicing wat sauce. Honey. Ropes for harnessing. Long canes with wide handles to lean on during tedious sermons.
The place is abuzz with bartering and gossip.
I want to take a local bus and visit the countryside.
“You can’t” announces Hop firmly.
There are no local buses.
How do people get around?
"Well then take me to your village.”
His eyes light up. Hop’s family was unable to feed him so they sent him away to fend for himself. At 8 years old, he became the youngest shoeshine boy in town. An intrigued German couple paid for his education including 4 years at guide college.
We park the rented SUV at the roadside. He slips his iPhone into a clean pair of designer jeans and we set off across the freshly plowed fields.
The family compound consists of two thatched huts, made from mud and cow dung. One for sleeping, with an assortment of skins on a raised platform, and the other for cooking. Maize and barley are neatly stored in huge pots underneath.
His sister has brought water from a stream 4 kilometers away. His stepmother arrives with a stack of firewood on her back.
They hug him and proudly admire his clothes. To celebrate, coffee beans are washed, fried and pounded in a hollow log before being added to boiling water and poured.
We stay for an hour. I make a contribution. We say goodbye and head for the car.
“Do you you miss country life?” Hop gives me an “Are you out of your mind” look, then pulls out his vibrating iPhone. Another client is waiting.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela have been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978. They rate right up there with Jordan’s Petra. Ah, but Petra is a dead city, abandoned by it’s citizens, while the extraordinary churches of Lalibela are very much alive.
IF YOU GO:
ACCOMMODATION COSTS: Hotels in Addis Ababa are equivalent to most capitals. I stayed at The immaculate Jerusalem Hotel in Lalibela for $46 a night which included breakfast and airport pick up. The staff were friendly and the views were excellent. www.lalibelajerusalemhotel.com
FOOD: is cheap though limited in variety – Its hard to spend more than $4 on a meal.
TRANSPORTATION: Cars which usually come with a driver are expensive – Around $150 a day for a 4 wheel drive in good condition.
BUSES: Buses are cheap but very basic. Watch out for scammers and pickpockets at the bus station! Minivans are usually faster and more direct.
SAFETY: Ethiopians are generally honest helpful people. Use common sense in the cities. Take taxis at night.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Ethiopia is still a very poor country. When harvests fail people go hungry. Aids has taken a terrible toll. Orphanages are full. Despite these hardships, people are proud, kind and honest.
MONEY: ATMs are around but they often don’t work! Visa machines are often down – Take a good supply of US$. Computers in Internet cafes don’t always send your messages.
TOUR COMPANIES: I hired excellent Galaxy Express Travel to take me to The South Omo Valley www.galaxyexpress-ethiopia.com/
Copyright © 2013 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.