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Day 199-200 – The Wondrous Lalibela

8th- 9th April 2012

If the previous day’s driving had been scenic then the following morning’s drive would strike dumb the voices of angels: Endless mountain’s with their jagged peaks, parched rivers snaking along the depths of the valleys and stone huts standing solidly on the hills; the long and winding road threaded amongst those peaks; over saddles and down almost vertical slopes the crest of each mountain only succumbing to reveal yet more turrets kissed golden by the sun. We made the old capital city of Lalibela by early afternoon and headed straight to the ticket office to see what we would have to do to gain entrance to a cast iron certainty of a highlight for our entire trip.

We found eleven rock-hewn churches in Lalibela all dating back to the 11th century AD. Rock hewn is a term that meant the ornately carved, stunningly beautiful churches were literally carved from the rock; flake by painful flake each building was chiselled from the stone, ornate window arches, staircases and gutters included. But first we had to pay the not inconsiderable sum of 350 Birr (14 Pounds Stirling) per person to gain access. Thankfully we had no desire to go ‘All American’ on Lalibela as that would have attracted another 300 Birr ‘Video Camera Fee.’ We were British after all, though we were looking more Japanese by the day as our discomfort eased and photographing people with a bulky SLR camera in places we’d never dream of in the UK was becoming acceptable.

We decided on a quick trip to the museum and were immediately confronted by a burly ogre of an Ethiopian whose eyes looked in slightly different directions and teeth pointed in several more. We tactfully declined his offer of guide services for ’just 400Birr’ and saw some very pretty crowns, gowns and crucifixes in the museum.

Back outside we were really heading out of the complex to find a hotel when we were met by an immaculately dressed young man. Polished shoes led up to crisp, clean blue denim jeans and a pressed short sleeved shirt over which a fine muslin cloth, as white as a Californian’s teeth, was wrapped. He introduced himself as Tilahun, a deacon at Lalibela who would be delighted if he could be allowed to guide us around the churches for 300 Birr. We accepted his terms without question and our plans changed, we would visit the North West cluster of churches that afternoon and then meet Tilahun the following morning and visit the South East cluster.

For such skill and technology to have been utilised over 800 years ago in the heart of Africa was truly enlightening. Our first church, Bet Medhane Alem, was a monolith that stood proud surrounded by thirty six pillars with another thirty six on the inside. The building was once just solid rock and a chap named King Lalibela, who fortunately had angels on his construction team, dug down into the ground and excavated a church. It’s is entirely impossible to do these buildings justice in words but the detail and forward planning involved in producing a building with no seams and no joins, just one piece of rock, is incredible. Roofs slope to gutters which drain into wells; windows are precise and symbolic in both number and design, measurements are exact and there are even staircases leading to galleries inside the churches and hidden underground tunnels leading between buildings.

We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Lalibela cross, an eight hundred year old, seven kilogram solid gold crucifix in the Lalibela design which was stolen by a Belgian art dealer in 2001. It was discovered two years later in his luggage as he attempted to fly out of Ethiopia. It was, and still is supposedly ‘the most treasured artefact of the Ethiopian church, more Holy than anything in Jerusalem or Rome.’ We didn’t ask if we could hold it but we did take a picture.

We were led around five more churches, shown their fresco adorned walls and we marvelled at how UNESCO has managed to erect huge metal and canvas umbrellas over each of the churches to prevent the rain from damaging the artwork of the churches interiors; good old UNESCO, always keen to ruin the view in the name of preservation. We left the complex in awe. Westerners, us included, struggle to think of Africa as anything but a little backward. A continent for which the term ‘Third World’ was created. Ethiopia in particular inspires images of pot bellied children with flies around their eyes and snotty noses; images of Bob Geldof, first singing about Monday mornings and then pleading for money; images of drought and famine, pestilence and poverty. Yet Ethiopia was once Abyssinia and before that the Axumite Empire, an empire that controlled the trade on the Red Sea, an empire rich in gold, an empire advanced enough to build some of the world’s most impressive structures; structures still worthy of the description all these years later.

After a little price negotiation, with assistance from Tilahun, we checked into the Ashetun Hotel for 250 Birr a night. We nipped over to the Unique Restaurant, ‘favoured by Faranji’s,’ and enjoyed pizza’s, fasting food and free coffee. Our hostess was a breath of coffee scented fresh air charging us genuinely for what we ate rather than offering an inflated Faranji price.

We slept well and awoke to our two hundredth day on the road and what a wondrous place it was to spend it. An early start guaranteed us a view of the sun rising over what was arguably Lalibela’s finest church, Bet Giyorgis, the place of Saint George. Ladies dressed head to toe in white prayed from above the excavation as the sun rose over a sunken church, carved in the form of a cross some fifteen metres into the ground. Tilahun proved to be an excellent guide. As a deacon he was heavily involved in the churches of Lalibela, he had served in several of the churches and several times asked if we could stop whilst he read with the priests from the centuries old parchments written in the ancient language of Ge’ez. Naturally it was an absolute pleasure to stop, resting in the cool shadow of the rock churches watching and listening as Tilahun and the priests read out loud from the manuscripts. Regardless of one’s religious stance, it was difficult not to be somehow spiritually fulfilled by spending time amongst such special surroundings and with such dedicated people. Even the Agnostic Somers temporarily became a little bit Christian. As we walked around, men and women kissed the rock from which the churches were hewn. At head height the rock was worn smooth and had become slightly blackened by the hands and lips of innumerable worshippers. This was Orthodox Christian territory, the Muslims had been kicked out a long time ago.

Lalibela was a truly special place. In order to preserve the patience of the reader we’ll curtail any architectural description here. The city is becoming increasingly touristic but nevertheless it is and will remain a sight that should be seen by all.

As we wandered back along the road we were invited into a house for a ‘coffee ceremony.’ Naturally it would be free, but, if we liked, we could offer a gift (of money) at the end. It would be our first full ceremony and would involve roasting the fresh coffee beans, and then making a series of three coffees from them over a fairly protracted period of time. The first coffee, known as Abul, was strong and rich and powerful enough to caffeinate our heat dulled, and food deprived bodies. The second and third, Tona and Balaka respectively became a little weaker but not so much that we didn’t leave wide eyed and butterfly bellied. Our time was spent talking to our host and the six or seven children who had joined us. Laura had her hair braided by the eldest of the young girls and I was enlightened with the knowledge that braids are a hair dress for ladies of darker skin tones. We stopped to play table football against the local kids on the way back winning the first game and being systematically taken apart in the second and third.

We were in the midst of ‘fasting’ or Lent as we know it and the deprivation of meat had been irking me a little. In such tourist territory we could be certain that the fancy restaurants would be serving the demand created by the foreign visitors and so we headed to one such locale for a plate of cow and a bottle of wine.

Posted by ibeamish 05:26 Archived in Ethiopia

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