Wole Shadare, who was in Ethiopia and witnessed the celebration of traditional Christmas in Lalibela, writes on the fascinating and enchanting nature of the historic city.
Visiting Lalibela from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, could be tedious. It is a distance of over 645 kilometres by road. But going by air makes it easier and stress free – just about 45 minutes from Gondar.
Besides the stress free nature you also have the advantage of arriving early and in high spirit and expectant mood to a historic celebration that could easily be described as the “eight wonders of the world”.
It was an exploratory trip for the team of Nigerian journalists who flew with Ethiopian Airlines. It was a fascinating trip as one suddenly is transported through the mountainous ranges to a mesmerizing underbelly of a maze of historic structures, sights and sounds of the historic city of Lalibela.
The underbelly of Lalibela Your first impression is that this is truly a wonder of the world and the fact that it is in Africa – even though not as famous as the pyramids in Egypt – makes it the more alluring and exciting.
Despite its ancient nature [it’s actually over 800 years old], with remarkable dosage of life and religion. Lalibela is history and mystery frozen in stone, its soul is alive with the rites and awe of Christianity at its most ancient and unbending. No matter what you’ve heard about Lalibela, no matter how many pictures you’ve seen of its breath-taking rock-hewn churches, nothing can prepare you for the reality of seeing it for yourself.
It’s not only a World Heritage Site, but truly a world wonder city. Partaking in a vigil here during one of the big religious festivals, when white-robed pilgrims in their hundreds crowd the courtyards of the churches, is to witness Christianity in its most early, pristine and powerful form.
The world-renowned group of 11 churches at Lalibela comprises a very important historical and religious site, attracting thousands of pilgrims from around the world. The churches represent a unique artistic achievement, in their execution, size and the variety and boldness of their forms.
You can feel the devotion and spirituality in every corner. Definitely worth waking up at 5am to join the local people for their morning prayers – they are very warm and welcoming and you can sit amongst them in silence, watching and soaking in the breath-taking atmosphere.
Almost bearing a semblance to the Taj Mahal in India while the rock hewn churches share similarities with Petra in Jordan [though on a much smaller scale], but what makes Lalibela so much different from Petra is its “livingness,” as priests and hordes of people still use the churches as worship places.
Lalibela, unlike Petra, is primarily being used as per its original purpose and hasn’t [yet].been reduced to a mere listless and lifeless tourist destination. The creative ferment and intriguing as well intricacies of a group of 13 rock– hemmed churches during the 11th century, still intrigue and excite many visitors to the location.
The churches come across as very massively and artistically created, exuding not just curiosity but enchantment as well.
These churches breathe life and the tour guide did a good job recounting the history of the city and its various worship centres, highlighting the churches’ relevance today.
On this fateful day, we were fortunate to be visiting on the same day that Christians in the city celebrate the annual Christmas [January 7]. So, it was a wonderful and exciting experience to partake in this historic celebration for the first time ever, making it a second Christmas celebration as one had earlier celebrated the 2014 Christmas in Nigeria.
Exploring the innards of the churches come with their own challenges as the structures are rugged, rocky and with steeple and slippery stairways as well as having long passageways to navigate. One needs to be in a very good state of health to go through the rigours but despite the challenges, the experience is a memorable one.
All the churches are so impressive. Except for certain repairs, they are all in one solid stone block carved on the outside and the inside.
Non–Ethiopians pay [$50] to see these churches and the money generated from them don’t go into the coffers of the tourism bureau but rather it goes to the churches.
But it doesn’t appear as if much of the many go into keeping the churches. Religious tourism is supposed to be at best here given the high traffic generated, but for some reasons not many of the tourists are pleased with the level of religious tourism as tourists from Europe, Caribbean, Africa and the United States of America who are more in numbers here described the brand of tourism as “more commercial and less religious”.
Though this is a pretty little town but the churches have given it colour and character, making it an impressive and must place to visit. The constructions here are sights to behold with noble intentions and their religious nuances quite obvious to feast on. Lalibela may originally be a pious city with its magnified and monstrous churches, but over the years, especially with the influx of tourists, its religiousity seems to be enjoying less emphasis while commerce appears to be taking over most of the religious rites.
For instance one witnessed a baptism scene during the visit where the participants seemed to be more interested in the outward celebration of the event and not the solemnity and seriousness that are attached to such an important rite in the Christian faith.
Some concerted effort must be put in place by the people and even the churches, who seem to be enjoying the attention and commercial gains, to preserve the religious nuances and essence in order to retain its originality and make it appealing to many who want to savour authentic religious values and practices and the commercialized ones.
History Lalibela is in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia, some 645 kilometres from Addis Ababa and noted for the 11 medieval monolithic churches, which are hewed out from the underbellies of rocky ranges and plateaus.
These building are attributed to King Lalibela who set out in the 12th century to construct a “New Jerusalem”, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
Lalibela flourished after the decline of the Ak-sum Empire. There are two main groups of churches – to the north of the River Jordan: Biete Medhani Alem [House of the Saviour of the World], Biete Mariam [House of Mary], Biete Maskal [House of the Cross], Biete Denagel[ [House of Virgins], Biete Golgotha Mikael [House of Golgotha Mikae]; while to the south of the river are: Biete Amanuel [House of Emmanuel], Biete Qeddus Mercoreus [House of St. Mercoreos], Biete Abba Libanos [House of Abbot Libanos], Biete Gabriel Raphael [House of Gabriel Raphael], and Biete Lehem [House of Holy Bread].
The eleventh church, Biete Ghiorgis [House of St. George], is isolated from the others, but connected by a system of trenches.
The churches were not constructed in a traditional way but rather were hewn from the living rock of monolithic blocks. These blocks were further chiselled out, forming doors, windows, columns, various floors and roofs among others.
This gigantic work was further completed with an extensive system of drainage ditches, trenches and ceremonial passages, some with openings to hermit caves and catacombs. Ten centuries ago, King Lalibela had a vision: That his capital, Roha, in what is now northern Ethiopia, would equal Jerusalem in spiritual and architectural glory.
It was this dream, which gave birth to the 11 fantastic churches, which were hewn in the reddish-pink volcanic scoria rock, each unique in style and this is what has given the town it character and allure. King Lalibela lived to be 96 years old and saw to the completion of his dream, which was one of the legacies he bequeathed to the people and town.
When he died in 1221 BC, he was buried in Beta Mikael Church and Roha became known as Lalibela.
Today, it stands as a historic landmark of sacred architecture and a World Heritage Site inscribed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation [UNESCO] and if one may add also as one of the wonders of Africa.
According to popular legend, angels were believed to have greatly aided the construction work at night while St. George supervised the construction as his horse is believed to have left hoof prints on the passageway leading to his church — Beta Gyorgis, the last to be built, and arguably the loveliest, cross-shaped, with elaborate windows.
When the sun sets over the hills, it glimmers inpink, gold and moss green. No wonder people thought celestial help was needed. These awesome buildings were carved with hammer and chisel, each out of a single scoria block, by an estimated 40,000 workers.
In the 1520s, the Portuguese priest, Francisco Alvares, wrote that he was “weary of writing more about these buildings because it seems to me I shall not be believed”.
Features of Lalibela’s churches Lalibela packs the kind of aesthetics and mystical power of Macchu Picchu and Angkor Wat, with the advantage of not being mobbed by tourists, at least not yet. Grouped in two clusters, the churches have roofs at ground level and plunge down 40 feet. Seven of the 11 churches are organically embedded in the rock while four are self-standing, with well-defined geometrical volumes.
Among these is the world’s largest monolithic rock-hewn building, Medhane Alem, with 72 pillars and five naves.
The complex rambles underground, a labyrinth of narrow passages, causeways, steps and tunnels, endless historic landmarks for which the country is famed, they include – carved obelisks; the Ark of Covenant, Gondar with its castles and palaces; Negash Amedin Mesgid – walled Muslim city of Harar and Lega Oda, some distance from Dire Dawa where carved paintings of ancient time are preserved; Cities, notably among them are Addis Ababa, which is the political, socio – cultural and commercial nerve centre of the country; Aksum and Gonder.
Cuisine Top on the list of traditional cuisines is the wot meal, which is more or less Ethiopia’s national menu and there are varieties of it such as meat, fish or poultry and vegetable of hot pepper spiced with stews and supported by unleavened bread known as Injera.
There is also the popular Buna, Ethiopian brand of coffee. Ethiopia is one of the world’s coffee producing nations. Nightlife Night life in Ethiopia is phenomenal and full of colours with a blend of outdoor activities and spots to keep you busy round the clock.
Addis Ababa, the capital city is a suitable place to savour the vivacity of the people same as such cities as Gonder, Aksum and Lalibela where you find different levels of night clubs, bars, restaurants and events centres to unwind.