(March 18-20, 2007: the rock cut churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia.)
My father travelled to Lalibela
on a mule and in the late '50s, the journey was an arduous one. Later, a road was built, but until 1997, that road was impassable during the rainy season. Lalibela is remote, in the Lasta mountain range, perched 2,630 m above sea level, on the slopes of Mount Abuna Yosef.
I always got a vibration of awe from my father when he spoke of Lalibela, a sense of the Ethiopian's extraordinary skill in stone working, an energy incomprehensible to a European mind that perhaps had difficulty reconciling a prejudice of somewhat lesser expectations with this feat of engineering. Reading what I could about Lalibela before my trip only whetted my appetite. As our plane (a Fokker 50, which is largely what Ethiopian Airlines flies within the country) approached Lalibela, I literally had anticipatory butterflies in my stomach!
A Unesco World Heritage Site
, Lalibela is unique in that it has probably been a living site, a destination for pilgrims, since it was built to the present day. It is, as well as an archeological treasure, a marvel of architecture and stone masonry, a sacred site.
As one approaches Lalibela from the air, precipitous mountain ridges stretch out in all directions into a horizon hazy with the suspended dust of the Sahara. Scarcely a tree is visible, except in the circular compounds around the round churches atop hills. What is surprising is to see the use of nearly every square inch of arable land, stone walls marking the fields' perimeters in a crazy quilt pattern that covers all but the sheerest escarpments. Everywhere the rocky soil is bare, recently plowed in preparation for the spring plantings of barley and tef. Clusters of grass-thatched tukuls
appear on a ridge, on the side of a mountain, at the top of a valley, invariably with the bright yellow buttons of a round hayrick nearby.
The Lalibela airport is a modern structure with bright plantings of flowers around it. It is in a valley, about 9 km from the modern town to which the citizens of Lalibela's old town are slowly resettling. The winding road up to Lalibela has no guard rails on the edges that drop heart-stoppingly away down the mountain side. Rounding bends, the driver constantly tootles the horn of our bus to warn the pedestrians and livestock of our approach. Motorized vehicles are relatively few.
Traffic on this road is very different from what I'm accustomed to: donkeys laden with sacks of grain, young men carrying large peeled poles of eucalyptus or sheets of corrugated tin above their heads, women carrying large sacks on their backs, students in clean school uniforms smiling and waving as we pass, men with easy gait holding their sturdy walking stick across their shoulders. In the cool of this mountain morning, everybody seems to be going up the mountain towards Lalibela and almost everybody is walking.
As we pass the traditional round tukuls along the road, or the more recently built rectangular homes of mud -daub wall with roofs of corrugated tin, small children with bare legs wearing over-sized ragged shirts stand in the yard, waving and yelling at our passing busload of foreign tourists: "hello, hello, hello, ferengi, ferengi, photo, photo, photo."
Not much about modern Lalibela gives any hints to the presence of the rock cut churches. The scenery around Lalibela is quite impressive in itself, purple mountain ridges, ambas (sheer-sided flat-topped mountains like mesas) and cool valleys on every side. With a population of about 7,500 and an additional 1,000 or so clerics, Lalibela is a busy place. Its large schools draw students from a wide rural area around as well. And during High Holy Days, pilgrims swell the population even more. But to the first-time visitor, it is hard to picture this place as the historical capital and holy centre of anything.
But I found Lalibela reveals itself slowly. Only by staying open to it for a day or two does one discover the rhythm of life in the place, the traffic to the early morning services in the churches, the beggars inside the gates of church compounds, the busy shops and markets of the town, the crowded schools where students attend classes in shifts, the evening promenade of throngs of young people up and down the main road.
And it is not until one begins the ascent of the steep mountain path to Asheten Maryam, a church cut into cliffs high above Lalibela, and looking down, that one catches a glimpse of the complex of churches and tunnels cut into the singular outcropping of red volcanic rock. In the photo above, protective roofs of corrugated tin are visible, constructed to prevent further deterioration of the roofs of some of the churches.
Not only are the dozen odd churches excavated from the rock, but they are connected by a vast network of tunnels to each other and to other chambers that were used for living, cooking, or storage. The tunnels extend upwards also to Asheten Maryam up in the cliffs above Lalibela, several kilometers away. It is fascinating to imagine the use of the tunnels for devotional processions that progressed upwards through the churches, perhaps even to Asheten Maryam, or the other surrounding churches.
Recent attempts by the priests to explore the tunnel connecting the churches of Lalibela with Asheten Maryam were halted by the lack of air deep in the tunnel, which forced the priests to turn back. Rumor has it that the tunnels hold sacred treasures that are protected from despoilers by miraculous forces. Needless to say, many of the tunnels in the complex are disused or blocked today.
The 11 churches that are to be found within the town of Lalibela are divided into two groups. The group known as the Northern Group lies to the north of a canalized river known as "The River Jordan." The other group lies somewhat to the east, with the most photographed of them all, Bet Giorgis, carved into the shape of a Greek cross, lying somewhat separately to the west. A third group of churches lies outside of the town and most of these are not on roads or marked on maps. I already mentioned Ashetan Maryam, up above the town, at 3150 m above sea level. Of the ten or so outlying churches, we also visited Na'akuto La'ab, about 7 km from the town, built in a cave near a small village of the same name.
(more photos of Lalibela to follow in future posts)