A group of 11 centuries-old rock-hewn churches in Lalibela now attracts tourists as well as pilgrims.
By TIM JOHNSONSpecial to the Star
Fri., July 21, 2017
LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA-It’s a darkness so complete, it feels like a physical thing. The guide’s bright scarf serves as my beacon, until it disappears into the deepest gloom imaginable, and I start to feel a bit claustrophobic as I follow him. All of the clichés apply, including the one about (not) seeing your hand in front of your face. I’ve never known the true meaning of that other one — about the light at the end of the tunnel — until we near the end of this 30-metre one, and emerge in a church courtyard. I ask the guide, Moges Melkamu, what people call that particular passage. “Oh, we just call it hell,” he says, lightly.
I’m in Lalibela, a small town cradled in the mountains of northern Ethiopia and home to 11 rock-hewn churches. Commissioned by King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela back in the 13th century, these places of worship had been created as a new Jerusalem for Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims. Now recognized and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they continue to pull in people by the thousands from around the world, drawn to the biggest attraction in a country where tourism is on the rise.
I start the day at the largest of them all, Biete Medhane Alem, or House of the Saviour of the World, descending from ground level and circumnavigating the structure before we enter. Melkamu explains the basics as we go. We pass portraits of devotion — an impossibly elderly woman with a red-crossed hat reciting prayers, a man folded in behind the pillars of the church, doing the same — and Melkamu notes that Ethiopia had been one of the first countries to adopt Christianity. Actually mentioned in the biblical Book of Acts, Ethiopia adopted Christianity as its official state religion in the fourth century.
The churches here had been constructed at the direction of King Lalibela after the sultan Saladin captured Jerusalem in 1187. Carved from grey basalt and volcanic red scoria, “these were built by Ethiopians — with the help of the angels, of course,” Melkamu says.
It seems wherever we go, we see the faces of angels — Ethiopian ones —with beautiful round faces flanked by wings, staring at us from the ceiling, or from frescoes on the walls.
At Biete Maryam (House of Miriam), Melkamu pauses to kiss the doors before entering, then shows us the icons inside, which include ancient frescoes depicting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.
We also see priests everywhere, their heads wrapped in turbans and a wooden staff always at the ready. They gather together and walk past, reading and talking and, like everyone else, praying.
We see deacons, too, clustered and crouched against the round wall of a traditional tukul, with mud walls and a thatched roof, a mantra falling from their mouths like a sort of song, a stream of foreign words being lifted from the little scripture books held before them to the heavens above. “They’re speaking in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopian liturgy,” Melkamu explains. “These boys are considered deacons. If they pass the exams and get married, they will one day be priests in the church.”
In single day, we tour all 11 churches, clamouring up and down stone steps and crouching through tunnels and even once climbing up on a roof for a panoramic view of Biete Golgotha Mikael, which is said to contain the tomb of King Lalibela himself. We cross the Jordan River, now at the end of the dry season, just a sliver of green, filmy water. We make our way through dark tunnels and even visit Biete Lehem — literally, Bethlehem — the House of Bread, where loaves were baked for Holy Communion.
Exhausted, we make one final descent into the carved rock, the sun casting long, warm rays on top of Biete Giyorgis, the Church of St. George, the jewel in Lalibela’s crown, named for the patron saint of Ethiopia. We make our way down a small path into the crevices that surround the cross-shaped and intricately hewn church, slipping our shoes off, one last time, as we ascend the steps. We enter a church devoid of tourists, the priest’s chants cutting eerily through the silent space.
As I sit down next to him, Melkamu calls out to the man, asking him to give me a blessing. And just like that — before I expect it — his cross is on my face. I react poorly, giving a quick start, before getting hold of myself and settling down. I thank the priest and, at his encouragement, slip him a small bill for his efforts. No, it wasn’t a good blessing, but is there such thing as a bad one? Slipping my shoes back on, I decide that, either way, I’m relieved — after all, now, there’s no way I will have to go (back) to hell.
Tim Johnson was hosted by FKLM Ethiopia, which didn’t review or approve this story.
When you go
Do this trip: A boutique firm based in Addis Ababa, FKLM Tours (fklm-tours.com), provides tailor-made itineraries all over Ethiopia. Using local guides who know the lay of the land, as well as top-notch equipment that includes luxury Land Cruisers, many of its itineraries include at least two days in Lalibela.
Get there:Ethiopian Airlines (ethiopianairlines.ca) provides the only direct air service between Canada and Africa. About 13 hours (flying east, from Toronto to Addis Ababa), the trip is undertaken in Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, whose Cloud Nine business-class cabin includes spacious seats that fold into fully flat beds.
Stay: With both traditional rooms and large, rather luxurious tukul with patios that overlook a valley, Sora Lodge (soralodgelalibela.com) in Lalibela provides comfortable nights and good meals at its on-property German-themed restaurant.
Eat: In Lalibela, try excellent local or international cuisine at Ben Abeda (benabeba.com). Crowning a small mountain with a structure that looks straight out of The Jetsons, lunch or dinner here comes with 360-degree views of the surrounding landscape.