Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Churches of Lalibela

I arrived in Lalibela earlythis morning where i was greeted by hot, sunny weather and a landscape that looked both appealing and inhospitable.

Upon landing they took my temperature, as they have upon each arrival, and i bussed to my hotel, the Tukul Village. While my lodgings in Addis Ababa and Hararr were sketchy and charmless, those in Gondar and Lalibela are fantastic. Upon seeing where i would be staying for the next three days, i wished i would be here longer.

I have this wonderful, round little hut built in the traditional style but with the comforts of a nice hotel. (So far there is running water and electricity so i am hopeful anyway.)
Immediately after settling and swapping a book at the book exchange, i went to explore the churches.

Lalibela is famous for a few groups of churches that were built about 1000 years ago after King Lalibela decided to create a new Jerusalem in Ethiopia. But rather than building the churches, he decided that they must carve them into the sold rock ground, such that the roof of each church is level with the ground and the rest is sub terranian, with each church being carved from a single stone. Just think about this for a moment. It's madness and incredibly beautiful and confounding. What is even better is that these churches are still very much in use, with white robed priests and pilgrims attending for prayer and blessings. 

Some of the churches are plain inside, and others have lovely carvings and paintings.
As if all this wasn't cool enough, to get from church to church, you either walk through stunning pastoral settings or through underground tunnels. Now, a word about these tunnels. They are wide enough for one person and i had to stoop to walk through them. The ground is uneven and slippery from centuries of footsteps. That is fine, but they are also sufficating, pitch black. You can't see your own hand in front of your eyes. In one tunnel i was able to use a flashlight, which was a great blessing, although even then, i was terrified. I am not really afraid of anything - danger, death, loneliness, hyenas, heights...but i am completely freaked out by the dark. Even with the flashlight i was very uncomfortable. As it turned out, all the flashlight did was bring to my attention that the tunnel was full of bats - two of which flew directly into my head. Since bats have excellent abilities to find their way in the dark, i can only assume that they did this on purpose.
After surviving that experience and visiting another church, there was another tunnel, which my guide (yes, i hired a guide. I don't normally but i would have been quite lost without one in this experience) said was the tunnel of hell, or something like that. He said it is forbidden to use light or to speak in this tunnel. I suspect that he might have just been messing with me, but i obliged, with the light part anyway. This tunnel was equally dark and bat filled (i could hear them all around me), but longer. I really though i might die of fright as i felt my way slowiy along the twisting wall. I did not comply with the no speaking part and swore viciously the whole way. When i finally saw the light, i ran for it and then collapsed in laughter. I'm glad i did it.

One other thing worth mentioning is that in the walls of rock that surround the churches are many small tombs carved into the rock - basically timy caves wher people were laid to rest. Most of the bodies have been moved and reburied elsewhere, but in one spot, there were still two or maybe three bodies piled up at eye level, reduced to dusty bones and bits of cloth.
After that i walked around a bit but it had made for a long and tiring day, so i went out for dinner and am now sitting outside at my hotel with a cigar and pot of tea, listening to the tv on which the staff arewatching  "The Golden Child".
A fantastic day. From what i have seen Lalibela ranks up there with the wonders of the world and i feel very lucky to be here.


Alan Forsythe said...

Sounds like a great place to play dark tag.

Wandering North said...

I've not heard of "dark tag", but it sounds terrifying.