After hours of driving on the main tar road from Mekele we stopped at an intersection swarming with people, donkeys, goats and taxis. We said goodbye to our guides and climbed in a minibus and turned onto an unassuming dirt road. The road to Lalibela…
Lalibela was the part of our adventure we were most looking forward to. And it was far from disappointing. The town itself is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by an amazing mountain range and rocky farmland. But we’d seen a lot of that already. We had come all this way to see the 800 year old rock-hewn churches, which have been concidered the 8th wonder of the world… and would be officially if they were better known outside Ethiopia!
Looking around you don’t see anything that even kind of resembles a church. But as you approach, the bedrock opens up to trenches more than 10m deep with these amazing buildings set in the middle, below ground level. Rather than being built up, they’ve been carved down!
There is a lot of speculation as to how these churches were constructed. Legend has it, King Lalibela had a vision from God to create a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia and that he had the help of angels, or as Graham Hancock argues, the help of the Knights Templar… and some say aliens (WTF). All I can say is that Lalibela has to be the most mysterious and fascinating place I’ve ever been to.
We had planned our trip to be in Lalibela for the Ethiopian Christmas, which is on the 7th January according to the Gregorian calendar. The Ethiopian calendar is about 7 years behind ours and they have 13 months in a year.
A lot of the people making the pilgramige to Lalibela for Christmas, travel on foot for up to 3 weeks! Others are bussed in from villages all over the country.
Priests on their way to to Lalibela take donations for their churches. These, and the pilgrims along the road, were just a taste of what we were about to experience…
Because of the massive influx of pilgrims (approximately 20 000), the entire town ran out of water. So we stocked up for our three day stay. Drinking, washing and toilet.
It felt like we were at a music festival where the headline act was “Jesus and the Virgin Mary”.
On our first day at the rock hewn churches, we were incredibly overwhelmed by the sea of people who surrounded us and who often moved together as a united sea of pilgrims. If you have issues with personal space, you wouldnt love this experience…
It can get pretty intense inside the churches. It’s dark and you’re the only foreigners surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims, all murmuring a prayer or singing under their breaths. A bit freaky, but also really humbling and peaceful.
Most of the churches are linked via a maze of tunnels running direclty through the rock. Being funneled into a dark tunnel is not something for the claustrophobic.
You wil often find a small cave in the walls surrounding the churches where priests will sleep during their visit to Lalibela.
Bet Maryam (House of Mary) is by far the most elaborately decorated of the Lalibela churches. It is also the church that hosts the main Christmas celebration.
Templar crosses are often found carved into the walls and ceilings. Part of the evidence in the argument about the Knights Templar/Freemason involvement in the churches’ construction. Considering that at this time much of Europe was still in the depths of the illiterate Dark Ages, maybe it was the aliens?… Or perhpas it was just the Ethiopians…
Despite the fact that this is one of the poorest countries in the world, the people are incredibly generous, to the church and to beggars. Its quite humbling to see people who cant even afford to buy proper shoes giving a portion of what little they do have to those even less fortunate than themselves.
The cross-shaped tower of Bet Giyorgis (House of St George) is probably the most famous of the Lalibela churches. We spent an entire day sitting inside the church or under a nearby tree, just watching.
A mummified priest in one of the small caves.
Ethiopian woman in the northern regions often have face tattoos, most commonly a cross on their forehead, as a symbol of their devotion to God.
Not many tourist get to experience this (in fact, its not even mentioned in any of the guide books), but we were really lucky to be taken through “Hell”. A narrow, 40m long and pitch-black tunnel deep within the rock which ends inside one of the churches, symbolising a rebirth of the spirit. It was about 10 minutes underground in the dark slowly shuffling along to the eery hymns echoing off the tunnel walls, sung by the pilgrims infront of and behind us. It was so dark you had to touch the wall just to know you weren’t floating in space. It was maybe one of the most intense and overwhelming experiences we have ever had.
On the Ethiopian Christmas eve we made our way in the pitch black of night to Bet Emmanuel, the largest of the rock hewn churches at Lalibela. We were witness to one of the most amazing spectacles of religion we have ever seen. The service consisted of dense rows of priests slowly chanting and swaying side to side accompanied by a slow tribal beating of the drum. We thought this was incredible, especially surrounded by hundreds of pilgrims, but this was nothing in comparison to when the drummers picked up the pace and beat and we experienced rows of priests competing in what looked like some kind of dance-off. This was accompanied by the ululating of the crowd, clapping and cheering. The energy was incredible and just as it reached its climax, the drumming would suddenly stop and the priests immediately returned to a seated position while a sacred relic was brought around or more slow chanting began.
Both Christmas eve and Christmas are filled with these amazing dancing priests and this was by far one of our highlights of our trip. What was also mind blowing, is these church services have not changed in the last 800 odd years! Meaning the service we witnessed would proabably have looked the same as it had the first year the rock-hewn churches were built!
We were still on a high from our experiences at the Christmas Eve celebrations and from exploring the churches so when it became dark on the actual night of Christmas we were filled with suspense of what the night would hold as we had been told that the Christams celebration was truly spectacular.
The Christmas celebration is held at Bet Maryam the most exquistily decorated church. We again made our way through the mass of people, clambering up rock faces and navigating our way to Bet Maryam through the maze of 10m sheer dropoffs in the darkness. Around us people were lighting their ways with traditional candles, and some even with the light from their cellphones.
The sea of white robed figures lay on every surface imaginable in order to get as close as possible to the Christmas service which started at 10pm and ended when the sun rose. We have never in our lives seen so many people so densely congregated in one place and it created an excited festival atmosphere and created a warmth that was quite surprising in the chilled winter’s night air. People everywhere were chanting, praying, reading their bibles and even just sleeping in this holiest of environments.
Of all the places we have visited in our travels and of all the places we intend still to go to, Ethiopia, and Lalibela in particular will defintely be the place we have to return to one day. One trip was simply not enough.