Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Jerusalem of Ethiopia

I am 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 the 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 Ho Preste Joam das Indias: Verdadera informa-cam das terras do Preste Joam (1540) 

I awoke early in Lalibela and as I was walking out of room, I met a fellow guest at the hotel, an Aussie named Adeline.  We got to chatting over coffee--she was an environmentalist who had quit her job and was traveling in Africa for a year.  She had just recently arrived from Addis, and was doing the loop I just completed, but in reverse.

Adeline was also interested in touring Lalibela, so I mentioned I was being met by a guide named Hailu who had been recommended by my friend DJ Juan Gomez.  Worked out that we could split the cost of the guide, so she joined.

We were met by Hailu, and headed down to the entrance of the rock-hewn churches.  Hailu explained that King Lalibela had built these rock-hewn churches in the city of Roha over 23 years to create a "Jerusalem" for Ethiopia.  This was because many Ethiopians were dying on the long pilgrimage trek to Jerusalem.  The churches were built directly from chipping away at the sandstone and building down.  Ethiopians believe that angels assisted in the construction effort, and would chip away at the rock at night when the work day was finished.  For his creations, the city was renamed Lalibela after the king.

It was also an auspicious day to visit  because it was a festival day for some festival I never quite caught the name for.

I had picked up my (expensive) ticket for entry the day prior (1,000 Birr, $50, or triple what it used to be a few years ago; good for 5 days), so after Adeline got hers, we headed in to the northwestern cluster of churches.

Immediately, it was an impressive site.  Pilgrims cloaked in white were sitting above the intricate granite church, praying softly above the churches carved into the granite earth.  We walked down to the first church Bet Medhane Alem (House of the Savior of the World), which is claimed to be the largest rock-hewn church in the world.  Immediately, I thought of Jerusalem as I saw pilgrims cloaked in white shawls, rocking slightly before stone walls.

We doffed our shoes and entered into the stone church, amid a procession of holy fire.  Priests were chanting and shaking holy "groggers."  Light spilled in through windows shaped in the stone like Greek crosses and Aksumite obelisks.  It was, in a word, incredible.

Under barrel vaulted nave, and amid the stone columns, we took in the procession.  After watching the service, Hailu explained the intricacies of the church--like the three empty graves in the corner for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

In another corner, pilgrims waited to be blessed by a priest with the Lalibela Cross--a 15 pound cross made of gold, which was believed to heal.

After making our way around the church, we passed through a rock tunnel to the enclosure holding Bet Maryam.  Bet Maryam is believed to be the first church carved.  There was a beautiful bass-relief carving of St. George conquering the dragon.  Inside the church were ancient frescoes.  At the corner of pillars, there were eyes carved to represent the seeing eyes of angels.

We visited the other two chapels carved directly into the rock, and a third with a tombstone for Adam and elaborately carved stone statues of Archangels Gabriel and Michael.

After climbing to the top of the enclosure to see the churches from above, and the valley below, we headed back into Bet Medhane Alem.

Inside the first church, the crowds had thinned out, but the priests were still chanting and shaking their holy music makers.  Adeline went to get blessed by the Lalibela cross, while I sat against the cold stone, meditating with my eyes closed as I listened to the chants echo off the rock ceilings and walls.


After a while of listening to the chants, we split from Hailu to meet him later in the afternoon.  We headed back to the hotel, grabbing lunch at the delicious Unique Restaurant ("Bad house, good food") with an excellent fasting fair.

After resting a bit, we met back up with Hailu, who toured us around the remaining churches in the Southeastern cluster.

We had to first descend through hell--a dark, unlit tunnel, where we grasped around in the dark for 100 meters, until we ended up on the other side at Bet Merkorios.  This one had been the second largest, but an earthquake had destroyed large portions of it--since rebuilt.

Then on down, we visited the large Bet Ammanuel, the finest carved church of the whole crew.  Inside, it was made to look like wood carved between the stone.  This one was believed to have been the royal family's private chapel.

We continued on to another one that reminded me a bit of Petra,

 We finished in the Southeastern cluster, and wandered over a hill top to the piece de-resistance, Bet Giyorgis.  Bet Gyorgis was a freestanding church shaped like a Greek Orthodox cross.  It was meant to symbolize Noah and the flood.  The bottom windows were faux windows to keep the animals dry.  There was a flood line carved into the rocks, and a rock hill to symbolize Mt. Ararat.




 It was all pretty impressive, and worth the long trip.  Lalibela, the Jerusalem of Ethiopia, exceeded my expectations and was rather incredible.  Very much an under-rated wonder of the world.
(not my pic)
We hiked our way back up, and later Adeline and I grabbed dinner at the incredible Ben Abeba restaurant.  The place was designed like something out of a Dali or Escher dream.  Built on the mountain cliff, it had stunning views 360 views around the landscape.  It had pathways that didn't quite connect around a circular center.  The place was funky and cool.

Meanwhile, the food was excellent.  I had an Ethiopian Shepherd's Pie, which was spiced ground beef covered with mashed potatoes and shiro (chick pea stew).  We drank good Ethiopian syrah as the bats fluttered through the purple night after their own insect dinner.



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