02.07.2012 - 04.07.2012 16 °C
Perhaps it's a sign of our ignorance, but at first there weren't many obvious stops for our tour around Ethiopia. But, if there was one place we knew we wanted to see, it was the rock churches of Lalibela, allegedly one of the most impressive sights in the country. To get there, we could choose between an uncomfortable and lengthy two day bus ride or a quick and inexpensive flight with Ethiopian Airlines. We quickly decided on the latter option.
At Lalibela airport. In the background the type of propeller plane that would take us around Ethiopia
The rural town of Lalibela has the most beautiful setting, surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. The town itself is quite typical, with dirt roads, simple houses and lots of cafes and movement. There is a constant accompaniment of Ethiopian pop hits being blasted out from the local music shop.
Tourists come to Lalibela to see its rock churches which date from the 11th century. According to legend, King Lalibela had the help of angels in making at least one of the rock churches in "the new Jerusalem" (established to avoid Muslim/Christian clashes along the pilgrimage route to the actual Jerusalem in those days). Angels or not, the work put into making these churches is just astonishing. They are not built but rather carved straight out of rocks in the ground. In other words - where there once were huge rocks, there are now churches. You can see all over the constructions the marks of the hand tools used to scrape the rock away.
Our guide Sata - a.k.a. "The Deacon" - and in the background, Bet Medhane Alem, the first church we entered and the biggest monolithic rock-hewn church in the world
Inside Bet Medhane Alem
With us we had our "deacon-turned-tour guide" Sata, a nice and knowledgeable man with a sometimes challenging accent (we believe we got around 60% of what he said). In addition to having the various sights explained to us, another benefit of having a guide is that he could phone and find absent priests to have them unlock the doors to the churches. No priest, no entry here! Over two days, we visited the 13 churches within Lalibela, as well as hiking up to a monastery on a mountain next to the town.
It is impossible to describe Lalibela without getting into the history of the place and well as that of Ethiopia. The history of Christianity is very old in Ethiopia. It was one of the first countries to convert to the new religion in the fourth century AD (that's earlier than Scotland and Sweden for example!). The Queen of Sheba, who is mentioned in the Old Testament, was from Cush, the old Ethiopian kingdom. She apparently got on so well with Salomon the Wise that they had a son, who became the first emperor of a dynasty which ended only (according to legend) with Haile Selassie and his death in 1975.
Today's Christian Orthodox Church has changed little since 400 AD. It is interesting to see the similarities and inevitable differences from the types of Christianity we know from Europe: Jesus has dark skin in all the pictures you see in churches here; priests can marry here, but only once; women cannot be ordained in Ethiopia and are banned from various religious sites; homosexuality is deeply taboo and homophobia abbounds. It is also interesting to see the obvious similarities with muslim practices: the call to prayer is a feature of Ethiopian christianity, only that it lasts considerably longer than the Muslim equivalent and hence keeps you up for longer early in the morning; the chanting you hear in Ethiopian churches sounds closer to Islamic chanting than European hymns; many Christian Ethiopian women wear headscarfs. The similarities with Islam are hardly surprising given the proximity to the Muslim region and the relative isolation from Christianity in Europe.
Jesus and Mary as depicted by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church
Different types of crosses
Women wearing headscarves
When we walked around these impressive sights we couldn't believe that we practically had them all to ourselves. As we were thinking what a luxury it was, our guide said: "you're probably happy that you're alone here. Tourists like when there aren't other tourists around." We briefly contemplated the possibility of Sata being a mind reader, but quickly discarded that option. Truth be told, we're just typical tourists, i.e. people who do touristy stuff but want to feel like explorers. Despite us enjoying the quietness of the place, however, we still couldn't help feeling sorry that more tourists do not make it here. It is an incredible sight and if people make it to the Pyramids, Petra, and Angkor Wat, they should make it here, even during low season. God knows the Ethiopians could do with the money.
The interior of the churches is very simple and not what we would call beautiful. If Islamic architecture is all about symmetry, this Christian architecture is the opposite: squint walls, uneven pillars and uneven surfaces that show the hand carving work of 900 years ago. They are dark and cramped, often with only a single shaft of sunlight to illuminate the interior (most have had tasteless strip lights added in recent years as well!) Still, they are full of ambiance and once you can get your head around the fact that you are standing inside what used to be a solid rock, truly impressive. The different priests often took pride in showing us their particular church's icons gladly posed for photos!
Inside the rock churches of Lalibela
Priest with the pride of his church
As you will see from the photos, there are no benches in these churches. People attend two hour long services standing up. At best they have a prayer stick which they can lean on, or if they are really smart, they make sure to stand next to a pillar so they can lean on that.
There are also sights around the churches. Infertile women jump into this pool at Christmas and should have a baby within a year
The one church which perhaps more than any other has come to feature in stories about Lalibela, is the Bet Giyorgis (we know him as St George). The church is carved in shape of a cross and is 15 metres high.
The construction of the church started with carving it from above straight into the ground, then the windows were made and all the rock from inside the church was emptied out through these windows. It was by far the most impressive of the sights we saw in Lalibela. You have to see it to believe it!
A recurring feature of these churches is that there are no fences between you and a 15 metre drop - you better just not walk to close to the edge!
This close, but no closer
Leaving the church, we made a quick stop the deacon school where young boys loudly recited parts from the Miracle Book, supervised by their priest/teacher who immediately picked on any mistakes even though there were lots of boys reading different texts at the same time (and the fact that the priest was painting pictures while listening!). Incidentally, this was another clear similarity to Islam - reciting scripture repeatedly in order to learn whole passages by heart.
The deacon school next to Bet Giyorgis
No mistakes escaped this priest
On the second day we started early with a hike up the mountain Abuna Yoseph to visit the monastery Asheton Maryam. It was more the hike and the views rather than a visit to the monastery that appealed to us. Our guide Sata was with us here as well, as it apparently was "impossible" to hike it ourselves.
On the hike up, we kept meeting people on the way to the Lalibela market with their goods. If they were lucky they had a mule to help them, if not, they carried everything on their back. Several times we would meet groups of men and women, where women did all the carrying. Not very impressive.
These ladies were on their way to the market
We also saw lots of people working in the fields, ploughing with the help of cows. The plough equipment was a couple of planks with a single ploughshare - medieval equipment. Not a tractor in sight. Also here, we were sometimes followed by children asking us for money and school pens, but the benefit of having a local guide is that the hassle was much smaller than it otherwise would have been.
Hard work in Ethiopian agriculture
The views were every bit as good as we had hoped. The rolling hills and the mountains, lush and green, makes this one of the most beautiful place we have been to.
Quick break on the way up
Some of the views
The monastery itself turned out to be quite an impressive spot. In order to enter, we had to pass through an almost impossible opening in the cliff wall. On the other side was the monastery, extremely simple but with a great view. The priest proudly showed us all the artefacts of the monastery, expecting us to take a photo of each. We could nothing but oblige!
The view from the monastery
The priest of Asheton Maryam Monastery and his artefacts
The walk with Sata gave us lots of time to chat as well and it was interesting to hear his views in Ethiopia and its place in the world. For the most part, we sympathised with what he said, but admittedly it became a bit awkward when he told us that he and Ethiopians don't like Obama anymore after his stand on gay marriage. We could only say that we disagreed but realised that a discussion most likely wouldn't change the views of either of us, so we let the discussion end there and then. There are considerable cultural differences here, which don't manifest themselves only in the views of homosexuality. The most obvious and prevalent difference is in the views and treatment of women. One of the lures of travelling the world is to experience different cultures, but just as often as it can be fascinating and rewarding, it is frustrating and a source of helplessness.
Back in Lalibela, it was time to visit the last churches in the town. Several of these are believed to have been secular in origin, and only made into churches later. To enter one of these churches, we had to walk through a pitch dark tunnel under ground. When asking Sata whether we should use our torches he just smiled and said no. The tunnel was around 70 metres and pitch black, walking with eyes closed or open didn't matter. The idea is that you should walk through darkness, or "hell" and then arrive at the church. It was a little bit scary, but mostly a cool experience and we were glad that we hadn't used the torches when we arrived.
Entering the cave...
...and coming out of the cave
More views of Lalibela churches
On our way back to our hotel from the churches we were caught in a heavy rain storm and with our guide we sought shelter in a family's hut. They were extremely welcoming, insisting on us taking the good seats and together we could only sit and wait. We watched the lady of the house spinning a cotton thread as we were listening to the rain and watching the hens seeking shelter in the doorway. This is probably one of the most relaxing moments of our trip.
Just like the chicks, we were caught in the rain - luckily a kind family let us sit in their hut to wait it out
We left Lalibela thinking that it is an incredible place. Not only is it situated in the most beautiful surroundings, it is also full of awesome sights and it is astonishing that the place is not more famous. Hopefully that will change.