Descending hill to Bet Giyorgis

Descending hill to Bet Giyorgis

“Very well-hewn churches excavated from the rock, the likes of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world… I weary of writing more about these buildings because it seems to me that I shall not be believed.”

-Frances Alvarez – First European to visit Lalibela in the early 16th century.

Pilgrim in white at the the door of Bet Giyorgis

Pilgrim in white at the the door of Bet Giyorgis

Down they came. Almost tumbling over themselves like broken rock from a mountainside. Draped in pearl-white, both pure and fanatical in equal measures. Replicating a biblical scene when doused in a flood of puncturing light, luminous from the violent swirl of an overhead storm. Reduced by caution, the four elderly women almost lost in the folds and depths of their cloaks, shuffled along to the sharp edge of the precipice. Four sets of watery eyes looked across the chasm to the vast cross that lay before them. Its rust-red sides mottled with moss and mould sunk deep into the gloomy rock. Shadowing a medieval fortress, too heavy for its foundations, swallowed up by the calamities of the land.

Guided by the first drops of rain, the women dashed to the opposite side. As if by magic, be it the very hand of God, under the blinding distraction of lightning, the pious group had disappeared.

The rains fell in a fury, colour drained from the land as cold dullness engulfed the hill. The giant cross, fifteen metres deep, a triple-tiered plinth resembled an altar when seen from the eye of the storm. The formidable rock-cut church of Bet Giyorgis offered climatic and religious sanctuary. Quietly embracing, on that early November morning, the chattering huddle of four women, who moments earlier had mystified the world by their disappearance—vanishing down a subterranean stairwell, in a similarly excited breath of Alice heading to Wonderland. But the clever act that really shocked its audience was the puzzling brilliance of excavating an entire church from the rock -not inwards but downwards.

Painting of the Virgin mary Christ and the Holy Trinity

Painting of the Virgin mary Christ and the Holy Trinity

Not just one church to mesmerize the architects and engineers! But eleven in total, all cut and crafted by hand from solid bodies of rock. There are no bricks and nails, no tiles and joists like a standard church, for the worshipping places of Lalibela came directly from the command of God.

Legend tells us that Lalibela’s mother foresaw her son Gebrel Mesqel Lalibela (1181-1221) as the future emperor, from a phenomenon of a swarm of bees encircling him at birth. A divine blessing would occur during adulthood when stories talk of Lalibela ascending, under the guidance of angels to the realms of the third heavens—leaving his coma induced body, poisoned by the hands of his half brother, for orders of a higher purpose. Bearing witness to the unveiling of a momentous city, a new Jerusalem, with orders from God to return and build it. As the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem by Saladin’s army, had effectively halted all pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

Modern-day experts dated the churches around Saladin’s capture of Jerusalem in 1187. They agree that the names of the buildings such as the Tomb of Adam and Calvary were representative of the holy city.

Priest holding crucifix on the church doorstep

Priest holding crucifix on the church doorstep

The churches of Lalibela, constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries during the Zagwe dynasty, sit chronologically in the middle of Ethiopia’s three empires. Before Lalibela, grew the Kingdom of Aksum in the countries far north. The first official written accounts by an Egyptian sailor mention Aksum during the first century after Christ. But modern methods of archaeological dating, take it back centuries earlier to 400BC. Set at the core of intersecting trade routes with Egypt, and the gold-productive plain around the Sudanese frontier. Not far away to the northeast, lay the port of Adulis which ferried trade across the Red Sea to Arabia and India. At its zenith, the empire flooded into vast tracts of southern Arabia and northwest into the Sudanese Nile Valley.

After Armenia, at the hands of Abba Salama, a wandering Saint, Ethiopia became the second country to adopt Christianity during the fourth century BC. Following the baptism of King Trdat III who Christianized his people at the time of the Apostles. The new religion increased its field from the arrival of the Nine Saints, a band of missionaries who conceived a necklace of cliff ledge monasteries in the north.

Gonder became the first fixed capital since Lalibela, founded in 1636 by Emperor Fasiladas. Remaining defiant for over a century which was a considerable achievement in light of the Muslim-Christian wars and tribal conflict of the migrating Oromo that had preceded it.

Encouraged by religion and government, Ethiopia’s artistic temperament blossomed. From paintings to architecture, the country witnessed impressive strokes of creativity. As the capital prospered, it unveiled opulent palaces, castles, attractive gardens, and lucrative estates. Eventually, Gondar’s realm imploded, brought down by rivalries, court intrigues, corruption, and good old fashioned murder. Rather than confrontation from external forces.

Priest reading in small chapel recess

Priest reading in small chapel recess

 In light of the country’s impressive history, visitors generally recall Lalibela as a shining example of human endeavour and innovation that genuinely dances on the senses. Time has been somewhat favourable on their condition, surviving the extreme shifts in weather and periods of political instability that caused deep suffering for many of the country’s people. Though the highly photogenic church of Giyorgis claims the mantle in beauty alone, others will indelibly leave their mark. The scope and regal facade of Bet Madhane Alem (Saviour to the World), indented with thirty-four tall rectangular columns, is understood to be the worlds biggest rock-hewn church. Inside a further thirty-eight pillars support the massive tonnage of the gabled roof.

To the west of Madhane Alem and connected by tunnel is Bet Maryam. A complex of three churches set round a sizeable courtyard. Beloved by pilgrims who come to honour the treasured status of the Virgin Mary. Whether its columns, windows, or levels, the accumulation of three to represent the Holy Trinity is a regular and symbolic occurrence throughout Lalibela.

The free-standing monolith of Bet Amanual houses a sublime interior, where a double Aksumite frieze resonates from the nave. A smaller second-floor gallery is reached by a rock-cut spiral staircase, while beneath the floor, three lengthy tunnels link to neighbouring churches.

 The churches of Lalibela wear a different cloak when thousands gather during the annual festivals of Timkat, Leddet and Fasika. Swaying and circling like churned milk, the dense masses of white pilgrims bring an accentuated reverence to the quiet might of rock chapels and churches. Observed with childish glee from the edge of the chasm as priests and clergy, honouring banners of the Virgin, file below. Magnified tenfold when seen at night, for the religion below reflects the celestial swirl of the heavens above.

Ceiling and pillars of a chapel interior

Ceiling and pillars of a chapel interior

 Though Francisco Alvares may have been fatigued in writing about the churches, concerned more by others disbelief, he was not alone in his appraisal. Perhaps the most celebrated beauty, aside from their impressive excavation, is their simplicity. Humble and respectful, inspiring their followers that gold and velvet, jewels and coin, appropriated by other decrees were false trappings to the love for God. Those four elderly pilgrims, casting a hopeful gaze as they edged towards the holy of hollies in Bet Giyorgis, understood only too well. That magic and miracles come often, but it requires belief to recognize their form.

Facts:

Though the world is tentatively opening up, many travellers are still leaning to this side of caution. Even in consideration to those country’s who appear well-equipped to deal with coronavirus, nothing can be taken for granted.

Travel to most of Africa remains subject to substantial restrictions and emphasis to risk assessment if you decide to buck advice. Remember your travel insurance is void if you go anywhere against FCO advice. Currently, travel in Ethiopia is still seen as risky by the FCO and self-isolation of 14 days is necessary on your return. Naturally, there will be some who debate the relevance of an article whose subject is currently off-limits. But as the churches aren’t going anywhere, I hope this will at least offer ideas to a fascinating country not yet on many peoples radar.

Visas are required before arrival, which can be obtained by e-visa from www.evisa.gov.et  The Embassy of Ethiopia in London is only dealing with clients by pre-arranged appointments. www.ethioembassy.org.uk   Tel: 020 7589 7212. Mon-Fri. 10:00 – 16:00. A Single Entry 30-day visa costs $52 and a Single Entry 90-day visa is $72. The application doesn’t require a Yellow Fever Certificate.

Note: Those arriving at Ethiopia will be quarantined for seven days in Addis Ababa.

During the major festivals at Lalibela, accommodation can be challenging to find. Prices easily triple with rooms being booked out by tour companies months in advance. At other times it is a matter of walking around and finding a place you feel comfortable with. I generally recommend Air BNB www.airbnb.co.uk and Booking.com www.booking.com for their variety of accommodation. They will be the most up to date for places that are actually operating.

At the churches themselves, it’s recommended to take a guide (official = more knowledgable) for your first visit then return under your own steam. Returning often to take advantage of light conditions and when the pilgrims come to make their devotion. Being away from the tour groups in some quiet corner allows for the silence to be heard. Take a torch to search the poorly lit tunnels and gloomy corners of the naves. Please refrain from using flash photography on the friezes and murals as intense light will encourage their destruction. Take some small notes to tip the priests if they show you around and generally anyone you take a photo off. It’s worth timing your visit to be in Lalibela for the culturally distinctive Saturday market, set across the rocks beneath the churches.

For further ideas on what to see in Ethiopia try www.ethiopia.travel