Lalibela

Looking at my pictures, I realize just what an incredible trip I have just experienced, a 9-day pilgrimage through Northern Ethiopia. However, I almost don’t want to show anyone my pictures because they lack the grandeur and absolute awesomeness of reality. Historically, geologically, culturally, and geographically Ethiopia is a breathtaking country.

Day 7

Finally, after days of watching rich white people, NGO and UN officials cruise by in land cruisers, the limo of Africa, I got my turn. The driver had brought guests up to Axum from Addis and was on his way back, so it was a cheap ride since he was already going in that direction. It was very, very, very comfortable after day and days of aching bus travel.

Several hours into our drive we encountered a roadblock where at least 15 buses were backed up waiting along a very narrow winding mountain pass road. There was a Swedish man with his Norwegian wife on one of the buses, and we picked them up and gave them a ride to Mekele. It was nice to have someone to talk to who spoke English well.

We stopped in Mekele for lunch. The driver ordered several inch thick steaks that were 100% raw and ate them just like that. I’ve never seen someone eat that much raw meat.

After Mekele we continued south to Woldia; a few hundred km east of Lalibela. Over all we travelled from 8 am till around 7 pm. It was a very comfortable ride, and I was tempted to continue with him all the way back since I didn’t have enough money left for Lalibela. In the end I arranged with Zelalem to have money transferred to the bank in Lalibela.

We spent the night in a very nice hotel in Woldia.

Day 8

Waking up at 3:20, I showered and got ready for the trip to Lalibela. By 5:00 we were on a bus travelling west along rough gravel roads. By 11:00 we were in Lalibella.

Lalibella was not at all how I had imagined it, and like several other places we had visited it was like travelling back in time several hundred years. The town is set in the mountains, and is very small. It is spread out over a few very steep ridges and valleys, and is very hot, dusty, and dry. Most of the houses are round mud huts, and the people live in extreme poverty. There is one main road that is constructed out of large cobblestones, and is very steep requiring lots of energy to climb. Because we were there only days away from Ethiopian Christmas (today) it was packed with pilgrims that had flocked from all around the country. The prices were all jacked up due to the amount of European travelers there for Christmas. Our hotel room was one of the least pleasing, and yet was at least 3 times the price of many much nicer rooms we had stayed in.

This is the Lonely Planet description of Lalibela:

“An ancient world, including 11 magnificent medieval rock-hewn churches, dimly lit passageways, hidden crypts and grottoes, was carved down into the red volcanic rock underlying this remote Ethiopian town almost a millennia ago. Today that world still remains, frozen in stone.

Descend into the tunnels and pass traditional priests and monks who float through the confines like the clouds of incense, smell beeswax candles and hear the sounds of chanting coming from the deep, cool recesses, only to find yourself in the sunlight, slack-jawed and staring up to a structure that defies reason.

Lalibela, a World Heritage site, undoubtedly ranks among the greatest religio-historical sites in the Christian world.”

Now, I must admit, I was not very excited about Lalibela itself at first, and the steep climb in the dry and dusty heat was exhausting after being up long before the break of dawn. However in the afternoon when I visited the churches, my outlook changed entirely.

“I weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but swear I by God in Whose power I am, that all that is written is truth, and there is much more than what I have written, and I have left it that they may not tax me with its being falsehood.”

– Francisco Alvares (early-16th-century Portuguese writer)

From 12 until 2 every day mass is held in each of the 11 churches, and each church was packed with white robed pilgrims. When our guide tried to show us into the churches around 2:30, we had to squeeze through masses of pilgrims, shoulder to shoulder. Once inside the first church it was difficult to walk without stumbling over people prostrating on the ground, or trip on prayer sticks lying treacherously in wait for the unsuspecting foot. Communion was still taking place during for the first hour that we visited the churches.

All of the churches are said to have been built by King Lalibela, one of three holy Ethiopian kings a millennia ago. The architecture of the churches is incredible. The churches are connected through corridors, tunnels, and bridges. It is a fascinating world. Unfortunately Unesco has had to build huge roofs over several of the churches to prevent decay from the elements, however that aside it remains pristine and ancient.

One of my favourite churches was Bet Giyorgis. The following is an excerpt from Lonely Planet:

“Just as King Lalibela was finishing off his series of churches, he was suddenly paid an unexpected visit. Astride a white horse and decked out in full armour came Ethiopia’s patron saint, George. However the saint turned out to be severely piqued: not one of the churches had been dedicated to him.

Profusely apologetic, Lalibela promised to make amends immediately by building him the most beautiful church of all.

Today Priests of Bet Giyorgis (meaning ‘Place of George’) point out the hoof-prints left behind by the saint’s horse, permanently imprinted in stone on the side of the trench.”

In the center of a huge square hole dug into the rock, around 50 feet deep, stands the monolithic church of Saint George (monolithic meaning freestanding). Approaching you are almost level with the flat roof of the church, 15 m or 50 feet from the base. A huge cross is set into the roof. Standing on the edge you can gaze down 50 feet and watch as people come and go from the church, the sheer drop to below is, well, rather sheer. The sides of the church have some sort of yellow growth on them that glows in the sunlight. It is beautiful.

One of the other churches that is supposed to symbolize Bethlehem has a tunnel connecting to another church. Several of the churches are actually connected by tunnels, but most tunnels are for priests only. The tunnel was pitch black, with a low ceiling carved out of the rock. We walked for several minutes getting deeper and deeper approaching what the guide described as the ‘temple of hell’.

Everywhere there were tombs carved into the rock, and there are supposedly mummified corpses in several of them.

The Ark of the Covenant is very prevalent in Ethiopian history, and many churches and monasteries claim to have housed it for a time. Most churches have a box that resembles the ark. I think I mentioned that I visited that chapel that is supposed to house the Ark in Axum, well, I looked at it from the outside. There is only one specially chosen guard who as access to the Ark, and apparently several people have burst into flames for getting to close. Did I talk about that already?

The history is absolutely fascinating, and again I quote Lonely Planet for the history of the Ark:

“Ethiopia’s most famous legend is that of the Queen of Sheba. According to the Kebra Negast (Ethiopia’s national epic), the Ethiopian queen once undertook a long journey to visit the wise King Solomon of Israel.

While there, Solomon assured the queen that he would take nothing from her so long as she took nothing from him. However, the crafty king had placed a glass of water at her bedside. During the night, awaking thirsty after the spicy food served to her, the queen reached for a drink.

Solomon wasted little time in demanding his side of the deal, and the queen returned to Ethiopia carrying his child, the future king Menelik.

Menelik later visited his father in Jerusalem in the Holy Land, but sneakily returned to Ethiopia with the Ark of the Covenant (it seems Solomon got his comeuppance after all). Menelik then established a dynasty that would reign for the next 3000 years.”

The churches of Lalibela are absolutely stunning, and it was well worth the tiresome journey.

Day 9

I had a horrible sleep, as it was almost impossible while the churches were crying out into the darkness via loudspeakers all night, and still by the time I had to get up at 4:20. Walking to the bus station we passed through hundreds of white bundled pilgrims illumined in the moonlight, sleeping on the ground. Some were standing listening to the sermon of a priest under some trees.

By 5:30 once again we were bumping through the darkness headed back East to Woldia. I had awoken with a very painful sore throat, and spent most of the day feeling rather sick. The perpetual winding and bumping of the roads was no help, several people vomited along the way and I was tempted to join them.

Along the way I found several different ways to sit, or attempt to sleep, and continually switched between them. Travelling on these buses is a little like holding a hot potato; you have to keep tossing it between hands to keep from burning yourself. The same goes for sitting on the bus, you have to keep changing position to prevent aching death. It doesn’t work, but it’s the closest way to stay sane. Our bus stopped in Dessie, some 500 km North of Addis around 2:00 in the afternoon. Not wanting to spend the night and the afternoon waiting for the bus to continue the next morning, we sought out a mini bus.

I have been warned several times about travelling in mini buses (Toyota vans modified for 11 passengers) outside of the city. However, I was not interested in waiting around, and Dessie was the last place I wanted to be on my birthday (a horribly hot and dusty town that looks like a war zone, crumbling buildings and rubble enveloping everything.

It was an interesting ride back to Addis; I had no idea it would take so long. Our driver was fast, but cautious. Sitting in the front seat it was easy to keep my mind off my aching body while watching as we maneuvered past other vehicles and buses and though all kinds of tricky roads. There is so much livestock on the roads! Cows, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, horses, and bull, there is always something crossing the road. It wasn’t until around 11:00 pm that we arrived in Addis, after 19 hours of travel.

I had a splitting headache and every muscle in my body seemed to be stretched like a cello string, so an ibuprofen was a soothing finish to the day.

Addis Ababa

I never though I’d be so grateful to get back to Addis, back to my home away from home. It felt so good to not feel like such a foreigner anymore, back where everyone speaks Amharic and my limited vocabulary is relevant, back to where I know where things are, how much things should cost, and feel at home. It felt so good to walk back into my apartment, home! I have been homesick the past few days, for home, and for home here.

I will have some pictures up soon.

Jan 5 was my birthday, and Grandpa’s birthday, so Happy Birthday Grandpa!

I would also like to take a minute to dedicate this post on my 19th birthday to my loving mother and father who have put so much care and time into raising me to be who I am today. Although I didn’t always understand at the time, each day I am beginning to appreciate more and more the way in which they raised and educated me and how that has profoundly affected me today.

Mom, Dad, I am so blessed to have you as my parents. Thank you, I love you.