The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

The Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela
Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela, Ethiopia

Lalibela has been calling me for many years, since my dear old friend, the late Teferi Messeret, showed me photos of the incredible churches carved out of solid rock. Finally we were on the road (such as it is!) to Lalibela.

We are still climbing mountain ranges here, but somewhat lower and much drier than the ones we have been driving through up till now. We will drive for two days from Aksum to Lalibela, with an overnight stop in the industrial town of Mekele. Here in the Tigre region you see a much more fragile landscape. The soil is not as fertile as in the highlands, and water is starting to become scarce. This region became known to Americans through coverage of the terrible famines of the 70s and 80s. These were the result of a complex interplay of environmental factors like persistent droughts, and human mismanagement of resources.

We stopped for lunch at a place that exemplifies some of the Ethiopian traditions. Gored-gored and kitfo are popular dishes made from raw beef (kitfo is similar to steak tartare). Most homes and restaurants display an area for the traditional coffee ceremony, an integral part of the social life in Ethiopia. We will have an opportunity tomorrow to participate in this tradition.

On our journey we passed through a small town where a wedding party was going on. The men are preparing to get into their cars for a procession.

We see a few more mosques in this part of the country. Although the majority of Ethiopians are Christians, there are significant Muslim populations, especially in the east and south. We’re also starting to see camels along the road. A camel is a very expensive piece of livestock, and they are used in one of the important trade routes, bringing salt from the deserts of the Danakil Depression, which is considered the lowest point on earth at around 400 meters below sea level (Death Valley is around 85 meters). They also carry many products from the market towns we’ve been passing, on their way home. Since the independence of Eritrea, Ethiopia is now landlocked, and depends on keeping good relations with Eritrea and Djibouti for access to ports.

We saw an excellent example of how valuable a camel is as we drove along the highway to Mekele. This man was taking his camel several miles to the vet to repair its broken leg. A cow or goat with this type of injury would probably be left to die a natural death.

Mekele is not by any means a tourist town. It is being developed into an industrial center, with lots of both local and foreign investment. We drove past several factories, including car and truck assembly plants. One reason for the government’s investment in developing this area is that the Tigre region was hardest hit by both the famines and the Red Terror. This causes some resentment from other regions that have not received this kind of attention from the government.

Another concern for this region is that famines could happen again. This dry riverbed should normally be full of water at this time of year–the rainy season runs from June to September so it just ended. There are lots of dams in Ethiopia but they are mostly used only for hydropower production. There is very little irrigation and farmers are pretty much dependent on the summer rains for their productivity.

Continuing along the crazy mountain roads, we saw lots of accidents, mostly involving trucks that were probably overloaded and going too fast. There were lots more scenic viewpoints and encounters with the local people, like this man who seemed to enjoy seeing his photo on Faith’s camera.

At last we reached Lalibela and checked into our hotel, in the middle of the ancient town. This area became known during the reign of King Lalibela in the 12th and early 13th centuries, around the time that Jerusalem was first captured by Saladin. Many Ethiopians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, and it was already a dangerous trip which could end in death by thirst or wild animals, but the capture of the Holy Land by Muslims made it even more dangerous. Lalibela himself made the pilgrimage and decided to alleviate the sufferings of his people by building a New Jerusalem in his home town. So landmarks around the town all have names such as Mt. of Olives, Golgotha, and the little creek in the middle of town that is called Jordan River. A cross marks the spot where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist.

But the main contribution of Lalibela was the construction of 11 churches within a 25-year period, most of which are monoliths cut by hand from the solid rock. 40,000 people are said to have worked on the construction, chiseling down from the top and carving the insides of the churches through the windows and doors. Some people believe that angels helped out as well. I have heard the story and seen the photos but it’s nothing like standing there and seeing these incredible structures in person!

All these buildings are currently active churches, and tourists are allowed to enter only when there are no services going on. Of course flash photography is forbidden so I apologize for the quality of the interior photos. Our local guide, Mulu, was a font of information regarding the churches and the history of the area as he pointed out the decorative motifs and details of construction.

There are two main groups of churches, and after exploring the first group we made a quick trip back to our hotel for lunch, then came back for what I considered the main attraction, and most photographed of all the famous Lalibela structures: the cross-shaped Church of St. George. Because of its setting, St. George’s is the best example of how the buildings were carved from the surrounding sandstone and basalt rock.

This is not a tour for the faint of heart…or knees. There are narrow, steep stairways and passages to negotiate. Along with Mulu we had a man who was paid to help us up and down the stairways, as well as keeping track of our shoes. Shoes must be removed before entering any Orthodox church, and usually we would just leave them outside and collect them after visiting, but in order to see all the amazing sights of Lalibela, we often came in one door of the church and exited another, hence the shoe man was quite helpful!

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela would be a very hard act to follow, but our tour leader Lorna had a special treat waiting for us. A local woman has a small shop next to her home where she hosts a lovely coffee ceremony to show tourists this uniquely Ethiopian ritual. Coffee was invented here, supposedly by a goatherd who noticed that his goats would get particularly frisky when they ate a certain berry. He tried it himself and was pleased with the result, and told the local priest about his discovery. The priest feared it was the devil’s work, and threw the beans into the fire, where the lovely smell of their roasting caused him to change his opinion.

Our hostess showed us into the room which was decorated with fresh grass and flower petals. Coffee ceremony is supposed to be a sort of feast for all your senses, so it’s important to have beauty and wonderful aromas as well as taste. Frankincense, which literally grows on trees in Ethiopia, was the gift given to the baby Jesus by one of the Three Wise Men, Balthazar, who is thought to be from Ethiopia. It is used extensively both in church rituals and coffee ceremonies.

After carefully roasting the green berries over a charcoal fire, they are poured into a wooden mortar and pestle for grinding. While the preparations were going on, we were treated to a glass or two of the local honey wine (tejj), followed by a shot of Arrack, a powerful whiskey made from grain or sugar cane–firewater would be my designation. I was a little worried about drinking coffee at 4 pm and being up all night, but the tejj and Arrack took care of those worries!! I have been thoroughly enjoying the coffee at all our breakfast buffets, laced as usual with hot milk. But at coffee ceremony there is no milk, and amazingly, the coffee tastes so good that milk is not necessary!

From Lalibela we flew back to Addis, and anticipated nothing more than a day of rest and possibly some souvenir shopping while we waited for our late-night flight home. But I had seriously underestimated the warmth and hospitality of Ethiopians! Earlier in the trip, I had made contact on Facebook with some of Teferi’s relatives, and his niece Samrawit, nicknamed Samri, invited me to her house for lunch. She kindly sent her brother to pick me up at my hotel, and bring me to their home, where I met her mother, grandmother and aunt. They had prepared an amazing feast for our lunch, and made me feel like a part of the family.

Teferi’s brother Ghion came by as well, and after lunch Samri and Ghion took me on quite a shopping trip around Addis. We went to the Merkato, which is the largest open air market in Africa, looking for souvenirs for Amara, Teferi’s daughter who lives in the US. Samri and Ghion insisted on buying gifts for me, as well as things for me to take home for Amara. We also stopped at the famous ToMoka coffee house and bought coffee beans for me to take home for me and my family and friends. I hope they will someday be able to visit me in Oregon. I will be forever grateful for their friendship, generosity, and hospitality–a perfect ending for my Ethiopian adventure!


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