Ethiopia was the first country to accept Christianity as it’s state religion. (Although Armenia also makes this claim.) In the 4th century AD, Ethiopia became Christian, before even the Roman Empire.
The 13th-century rock churches of Lalibela are important Ethiopia’s cultural icons. They have been recognized as a world heritage site by UNESCO, and steps are being taken to preserve them from the forces of nature and man. For example, UNESCO has constructed two rather intrusive roofs–which are designed to keep rain from hitting the roofs and seeping down inside causing erosion damage–over two of the ancient churches.
The current charge to enter the rock church complex is $50. And it is well worth it. The book Sacred Places lists the group as an important spiritual mileau. The rock churches were literally chiseled out of a large rock formation.
Visit 1: As I entered the UNESCO site, I was encouraged by my guide to hire a shoe handler. Since shoes are not allowed in the churches, the shoe handler protects your shoes and moves them from the entry point to the exit point of a church. My shoe handler was an attractive 17-year-old student who said she wanted to be a vet or a nurse. Girls are allegedly selected for the job based on financial need.
In the first and largest rock church, there are 12 in the Lalibeala group, there was a ceremony going on, a celebration of a saint’s day. Before entering the church, I took off my shoes (with the aid of my shoe handler). The interior of the church was dark and the procession included a drum, chanting, and the burning of incense. It was all very surreal, like visiting the Middle Ages. After observing the ceremony for a short period of time, I received a blessing from a priest that involved rubbing the Cross of Lalibela over various parts of my upper torso. After the blessing, I kissed the cross.
On leaving the first rock church (still in my stocking feet), I slipped on a well-worn step and landed on my back. The fall took a chunk out of my elbow.
After walking and visiting some of the other rock churches, I looked at my pants and they were covered with blood dripping down from my elbow. I took immediate steps to stop the bleeding. We then walked down and checked out the most famous of the rock churches, the cross-shaped Church of St. George (Bet Giyorgis).
I then decided to head back to my hotel–the Tukul Village–and try to cleanup my wound. I take asperin for my heart condition and this has alway caused minor bleeding problems. It’s a good thing I don’t take coumadin.
Visit 2. My second assault on the rock churches of Lalibela came two days later. The first structure we neared was the reputed palace of king-priest Lalibela that had been converted into two chapels.
From a distance, looking at the palace/church, I finally started to realize how massive the ancient drainage system was that protected the churches. Since most of the churches were carved down into the rock, there had to be a system to evacuate water when it rained. These massive drainage canals, like the churches they protect, had to be carved out of the rock. On non-rainy days, some of the channels are used as access ways for worshippers, pilgrims, and tourists.
One passageway that we used was a short tunnel. My guide said it served it two religious functions: it symbolized the passage from hell to heaven and it demonstrated the handicap of blindness. (I suspect that it also served as a drain.) We walked through the dark tunnel with one hand on the ceiling and one hand on the right wall. Hopefully, this exercise is symbolic of my own spiritual progression.
As we exited the tunnel and neared another well-preserved rock church (Bete Amanuel), we had to descend a short flight of stairs. From the top of the stairs we had an excellent seat to observe a religious ceremony that was taking place below. We sat and watched as priests performed a variety of rituals, and read from various texts, all to the delight of western tourists. It was all very colorful, very medieval.
General Impressions: Lalibela is a wonderful place, but not for long. Big hotels are being constructed, and there is a restaurant on the edge of town that looks like something from the set of a really, really bad sci-fi movie. The thing that is disconcerting about all this is the surrounding poverty. The “rich” Europeans, Americans, and Asians in their fancy hotels, surrounded by the locals in their extremely humble abodes (many one room huts). I wonder how long the peace between the two groups can endure?
Lalibela is well worth a visit. It looks like a great place to mountain bike and hike. The rock churches really are a treasure. And Ethiopian Orthodoxy seems firmly planted in the past, which makes for an interesting time-travel trip.