Ethiopia 09 p2


The well-trodden Northern tour usually begins with Bahar Dar, goes on to Gonder, and ends with Lalibela from which it takes two days on the road to return to Addis. I opted for flying, and for starting with Lalibela. One personal travel rule I have never regretted is never leaving the best for last, but always doing the richest and most exciting sites first, when the trip is just beginning and I'm full of energy. You don't want to miss out on the best attractions because you're so worn out by traveling you have to drag your feet through it. I prefer leaving lesser sites for last, so that if I'm really tired by then, I can skip them altogether with no regrets.

Ethiopian Airlines interior flights were really cheap because I benefited from some obscure reduction that nobody really seemed to understand. But I flew 4 times while in Ethiopia, and once I'd gotten the discount for one flight, I was able to argue with EA employees who thought I wasn't entitled to it till I got it again for the rest.

Villages seen from the air

I got a shock on that first flight, when I noticed the lady next to me reading in French and I asked her if she was French. She said "more or less" and remarked on my Lebanese accent (!) It turned out she was Lebanese-Palestinian, though she had left for Paris during the war and never returned.

Fleeting settlements on the road from the airstrip to Lalibela

The mountainous, green regions of northern Ethiopia


Those lovely huts are called tukul

Lalibela is a very small city with only one road winding from the top of the hill to the bottom, with homesteads on either side of it except for the large part that is taken up by its famous rock-carved churches. On a recommendation, I took a room at the 7 Olives at the very top of the hill. Other than the fact I had to walk up and down the steep slope constantly, it's really the only place to stay in Lalibela. A gorgeous view, a fantastic restaurant, a terrace to relax outdoors on a deck chair surrounded by exotic birds (traveling in Ethiopia without having a place to relax can very quickly lead to a nervous breakdown) – it had all I needed to enjoy my sketchbook and meeting more travelers.

A nun circumbulates around Bet Medhane Alem, the largest church in Lalibela. Nuns dress in yellow, monks in blue, and priests are recognized by their white turban and gabi.

The churches of Lalibela, all made of a single block carved out of the rock, are extraordinary, all the more because they're alive with worshipers who can't be distracted from their devotionals. Because I was there during Lent, fasting-period chanting took place constantly. There are ineffective light bulbs inside the churches, but ideally they should be visited when there's a power outage (those last a full day at a time). That was my luck, and I enjoyed the original, dark interior relieved only by candles and the little light that came through the clerestory lighting. With the parishioners wrapped in white, crouching silently here and there when they weren't reading out of a sacred book against the church wall, it was a Biblical experience

I first visited the churches with a guide who was ferreting out clients at the hotel. This was useful because it's very difficult to figure out the lay of the land and the passages connecting the churches without a guide; also he knew all the priests so they were happy to show me the crosses attributed to each church. One wants to take what guides say with a grain of salt, however. I got the distinct feeling, later confirmed by overhearing other guides and doing my own research, that they make up a lot of stuff. The next day I returned on my own (there's an entry fee for visitors but it's valid for the duration of your stay), taking my time to sit in each and not stand out form those that did the same: for these people at least, spiritual life was not something they left for a moment of free time. The came to spend time here, apparently daily, as if it was an important part of the fabric of their lives.
During my second day in Lalibela, the yellow-clad nun caught up with me and spoke to me for a while. I couldn't understand a word and she was aware of that, but her face expressed unmistakeable, rapt devotion.

Priests grouped for fasting chants

Some of the churches of Lalibela:

Bet Medhane Alem, "House of the Savior of the World", is the largest monolithic church on earth: 800m2 with a height of 11,5m. It's a deeply impressive structure, and its 36 pillars provide some privacy for those praying against its wall. That is not the only aspect of Ethiopian Orthodoxy that is reminiscent of Judaism: the most sacred element of every church is the Tabot, which is a replica of the Tablets of the Law, kept in a holy of holies only the priests can access. The cross is optional, but a church is not deemed consecrated without these. If this was not Old Testament enough: In a corner of Bet Medhane Alem are three empty graves, symbolically for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Impressive baptistry by Bet Medhane Alem

Bet Maryam is the most popular church of the group, as the Virgin is highly venerated here. It is a beautifully designed church rich with carved ornaments. One of the columns inside is permanently wrapped in cloth; nobody really knows what's under the wrapping, but everyone makes up a different story for visitors.

This "templar cross" inspired all sorts of nonsense.

This 3 sets of openings on one of Bet Maryam's walls were explained to me in fascinating terms. The 3 square ones at the top represent the Trinity, the rest the scene on Mount Golgotha, when Jesus was crucified in the company of two thieves. On the left, the one who mocked Jesus and didn't repent, and so was sent to hell (as that lower "arrow" indicates!) On the right, the thief who repented and was accepted into heaven. In the center, identified both by a "heaven" arrow and the cross, Christ himself.

More Bet Maryam windows

Among the lot, there's a cross-shaped hermit's cell known as the Tomb of Adam, or as my guide said with involuntary humor: "This is the tomb of Adam and Eve, and they're also buried on Mt Calvary."

Bet Abba Libanos, who was a priest named after the country.

Bet Abba Libanos is unique in being hypogeous, meaning its floor and roof are both part of the natural rock, but you can still walk around it. It is said to have been built by Lalibela's wife, Meskel Kebra, in a single night with the help of angels. At this point I should probably mention that guide-lore notwithstanding, the churches actually predate King Lalibela's birth.

The daedalus of passages through the rock...

... is as fascinating as the churches.

Ethiopian crosses really caught my interest with their intricate designs. They come in 3 sizes:
- Processional crosses that belong to a church or monastery, with a hollow shaft to be mounted on a staff;
- Hand crosses, of metal or wood, that belong to a priest and have a handle and a base (When taking out his hand cross, I noticed, a priest wraps himself in his cape, and blesses people in a smooth gesture of the wrist that touches the cross to their forehead and its base to their lips 3 times.);
- Neck crosses, made from any material, that are worn.

My guide originally told me that Ethiopia had "3 crosses: that of Axum, with 9 symbols, that of Lalibela, with 12 that represent the apostles, and that of Gonder, with 7 for the 7 miracles of Jesus." This turned out to be a load of waffle, which was a pity because I did fancy the idea of each cross design being attached to a city or church.

Supposedly, the crosses of Lalibela, St George and Gonder.

In reality, the number of elements that can vary in a cross (believe it or not) means there's no limit to the number of designs in use, though there are a handful of historical crosses that were doubtlessly imitated the most, and further research on my part revealed no such things as given names for specific designs. The various abstracted elements used in the crosses do have meanings, though, so that any given hand or processional cross is a repository of symbols for the trained eye to recognize. I could write much on this subject, but instead I'll recommend a superb book I discovered at the Center for Ethiopian Studies in Addis Abeba (when I took advantage of my lengthy stay in the city to do some studying): Crosses of Ethiopia: The Sign of Faith. Evolution & Form by Mario di Salvo.

I left the most beautiful of all the churches for last: Bet Gyorgis, St George. It stands alone and away from the rest, as if all the others had been practice for the builders, and it was the peak of their achievement. It is a perfect volume in a Greek cross plan, and perfectly mesmerizing, especially with the beautiful green-gold lichen dappling the red rock.

Best keep one's eyes on the church when one is down there, because surprises await in the rock wall. What are these things sticking out of that hole in the wall?

 Why, they're feet. Dead pilgrims are left to lie right there, where the dry weather takes care of mummifying them...

On my way back out of Bet Gyorgis, there was a priest who was simultaneously painting on goat skin and listening to kids reciting their homework.

I bought this beautiful souvenir from him.

Before climbing all the way back up to the 7 Olives, I stopped by a place called Torpido that served tej or "honeywine", which I was told I had to try. I ordered the smallest possible portion, which turned out both large enough and strong enough to knock me out, only had enough of it to appreciate its taste, and had a much easier time getting back up the hill.

There are a couple of things to see around Lalibela, and on my third day there I went on a half-day trip to Yemrehanna Kristos. There was only one other person for me to share the expenses with so it came out way too costly, but it really is a sight to behold, particularly because it is older than Lalibela and all evidence points to the fact it served as a model for the excavated churches.

First sight of the place, the ceiling of the cavern we need to enter.

The alternation of wood and stone was imitated in the Lalibela stone facades.

The structure inside the cave is a stunning Axumite* conception with Arab influences. What's crazy is not just that it was built in the cave: the ground of the cave is marshy, so it was covered with panels of olive wood, and the church was built over that. A trap door let us see through the wood to the marshy ground below! The wood panels are covered in straw brought by pilgrims, which is pleasant both to the feet and to the nose. A good thing, too, because the back of the cave is piled with over 10,000 mummified bodies of pilgrims, largely from the Near East, who came here to die. Or so we're told. Like so many other things, it could be a bold lie.

*Axum was the original great Ethiopian kingdom, which converted to Christianity. Its stylistic influence is very visible in Lalibela.

Incredible ceiling frescoes. How did they light the place?

By the way, if someone in Ethiopia asks: "Are you voluntary?" don't look blank: they mean "Are you willing?" This is as nothing to the "securable eggs" I will return to later...

Back at the hotel... Peekaboo!