medhane alem rock-cut church lalibela ethiopia 1994

Pilgrimage to the Rock-cut Churches of Ethiopia

Lalibela - 1994

The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela remain one of the world’s least-recognized man-made wonders.

Yet, in medieval times, they were “The Jerusalem of Ethiopia”.

Hitchhiking to Lalibela

My journey began from Weldiya, with the 145 kilometers taking 6 hours.

Beginning at 5 am, with a ride in a truck across a darkened landscape before the sun revealed rocky slopes patched by stone and thatch huts and fields of dry crops.

thatch house in mountains near lalibela ethiopia 1994
On the road to Lalibela in 1994.

Up a winding gravel road, we snaked to a high pass. The chilly dawn soon eclipsed by the sun, creeping across the mountainside.

The truck rattling down the rutted dirt track, avoiding fallen boulders and stray goats, narrowly missing laden, disobedient donkeys – tapped aside by the farmer’s stick.

Under the deep-blue sky, amid parched ridges and ravines, our lone truck droned across this steep barren silence, which had widened into a gaping desert canyon – like an Ethiopian Death Valley.

I got out at an isolated village.

The truck I’d ridden with had detoured; I waited for another ride.

But nothing moved beyond mules and tribes-people – and even they were few.

Seeing me hanging around, a woman invited me into her earth-plastered-between-the-sticks shack to drink tea.

saint george cross-shaped church laibela ethiopia 1994
A quiet afternoon at Lalibela’s famous cross-shaped church of Saint George.

Soon a small crowd gathered, part of which later followed me around the village, visiting the U.N. grain warehouse – a tin-sheet barn – and where I met the proud male guardian of the padlock.

He showed me the key … and at the market, where women shaded beneath branch-and-sacking shelters, you could buy veggies or bundles of living chickens tied at the feet.

The smiley kids who’d followed me around, the kids with fly-infested lips, happily posed for a photo.

priest prays outside church lalibela ethiopia 1994
Outside praying outside an ancient, rock cut church at Lalibela in 1994.

It was a lucky lift.

I rode the last 45 – dusty – kilometers to Lalibela in an aid truck driven by Mohammad.

The only other vehicles came from the opposite direction, and they too were aid trucks (in the service of Oxfam and Save the Children). Mohammad knew both the drivers and we stopped for a brief chat.

I thought it ironic, me once being an Oxfam member, that they now helped me.

On the mountainside are the churches of Lalibela

Dating from the 13th century, these eleven churches sit deep and cavernous (most are monolithic amid complexes, all chiseled from rock).

All the rock-cut churches of Lalibela are different in design

The largest structure at Lalibela is ‘Medhane Alem’ or “The Redeemer of the World”.

It stands 11 meters high and is 23 meters wide by 33 meters long and resembles the Parthenon. But rather than freestanding stone, they have cut this structure from the surrounding red rock. (You look down at the complex; only its roof is at ground level.)

medhane alem rock-cut church lalibela ethiopia 1994
Early morning worshipers at the rock cut church of Medhane Alem in the village of Lalibela.

They carved some with Byzantine and Persian influenced motifs and many have arched windows; others rich interiors of biblical murals.

Ethiopia has been (orthodox or eastern) Christian since 333 AD. However, they use a different calendar than the West and tourist posters proclaim “13 Months of Sunshine”. In Ethiopia, Christmas falls on 7th January.

And it is then that Lalibela swells with the influx of 20,000-plus pilgrims.

But in Ethiopia on the 25th December – my Christmas, as it chanced, this year the date fell on a Sunday.

So on Xmas Day, I got up early and walked around the village, from one church service to the next, until I stopped at Saint George.

sunday mass saint george church laibela ethiopia 1994
Prayer service at Saint George church on “My Christmas” – the morning of 25th December 1994.

Exorcism and Sunday church ceremony at Lalibela

Now, near the edge of the deep rock-hewn drop, gathered above the cross-shaped church, villagers in white shawls listen to a black-robed priest reading aloud from a bible.

A ceremonial umbrella (of crimson and green paisley panels shaded the priest) held by a boy. For already it is hot, and Ethiopian services extend for hours.

digital art painting of priest at saint george church in lalibela ethiopia.
Prayers at St. George – Churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia – ART from my 2013 ‘Lalibela Revisit’.

Some of the praying villagers watch me as I watch them; a little way off, I’m seated on the roots of an ancient tree.

Into the distance, I gaze at the desert canyons and mountains drawing color from the morning sun.

Screaming from the bowels of the earth. There’s an exorcism happening in the dark chambers of the church. It lasts 15 minutes: her shrieking is torturous.

Two young children have left the praying mass and joined me.

They ask for money. I say “No” a dozen times.

They persist. (Pity, cos I want some peace to reflect on those back home.)

worshippers at medhane alem lalibela ethiopia 1994
Worshippers on chilly morning at Lalibela rock-hewn churches.

Still, they pester me, and so I wander away to smoke a number, then return to my tree. Still, the priest reads and all listen in silence.

This scene is timeless. The church, the clergy, the clothes of the people.

Sometimes shrouded faces gaze my way.

I smile but don’t want to disturb.

But it can’t be helped.

These kids – especially the cheeky little girl – keep asking for “Something!” I’m a little wary of their demands.

I’ve tried ignoring them, but now decide to play. “Something,” I reply, “okay” – and I hand him a stone and her a twig – “Here’s something.”

Their shrieks and laughter tears across the quiet surrounds. Some worshipers smile; others frown.

But in the end, it’s me who gets something.

They passed chunks of brown bread around the mass.

A lad walks up to me with the basket extended. I’m part of their Sunday, and they’re part of my Christmas.

The service finishes with blessings – the priest’s wooden cross placed against foreheads, cheeks and then the lips of those that wait.

It takes a while for mothers and their babies, old ladies and men to get their dose.

priest blessings lalibela ethiopia 1994
Blessed by the priest with a cross to the forehead at the Sunday church ceremony within the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia at Lalibela.

And me, I stare at the elaborately carved living-rock standing symbolically of this world … and I feel I’ve been there, back some centuries.

Back with the hymns of the soft-spoken priest, away with the crowing of ravens, drifting back in time with the wind amid the murmuring of prayer.

Travels in Ethiopia – 1994

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