I think any traveler’s dream is to arrive at your chosen destination and find it empty of tourists and full of local people just doing what they would normally be doing if there were no witnesses.
How blessed, I still feel today, that I had that experience at a place and a time that would imprint a lasting memory.
The venue: the monolithic churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia. The time: the day before Easter Friday according to the Orthodox Christian Church. There are 11 churches cut out of rock and between 40 – 50m below ground. I arrived at the northern group consisting of five churches and found there was a bus full of tourists. There was also an all male choir singing between two of the churches. I thought this was a show put on for the tourists, decided to have a quick scout around and headed to the other churches. I was hoping the northern group of churches was the main attraction and perhaps I will see less tourists at the other churches.
At the group on the eastern side I was the only tourist. At each church there was an all male choir, dressed in their long white robes, holding their prayer sticks and singing or chanting either outside the church or inside. This was when I discovered that it’s the last day of the Lent fast and the following day was Good Friday in Ethiopia.
The exterior of these churches are just magnificent in their pink-purplish colours. I could just stand and stare while trying to imagine what it must have been like to carve these churches. There must be wonderful stories about that time. I’m sure that even one church was not built in a generation. There must have been times when son, father and granddad all went to work at one site.
Stepping into the churches is really stepping back in time and in particular for me on this day. The interior is dark and cool, with little natural light coming in. There was nothing to remind me of the 21st century (except my clothes and camera, but I can’t see myself). On the walls the frescoes, paintings, relief work have been wonderfully preserved because the micro-climate inside the church probably does not change much. The floors are covered with threadbare carpets and rugs. There are a few small wooden benches but mostly the choir stands to sing, and other people praying or reading scriptures are just seated on the floor. There are candles and incense burning. I’m sure this is what it was like just after the churches were completed in 1221.
In every church I would just take my time strolling around and looking at everything, then I would find a place to just sit and soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the soulful singing. The one church still has the original door at the entrance. My guide told me it is made of juniper wood and internet research said olive wood. This is detail and it makes no difference to the experience of touching something with my own bare hands that has been used and touched by thousands of people over many centuries. Then crossing the lintels, worn smooth by thousands of feet, to exit and walk to the next church. At another church what stands out for me is the small opening through which all the worshippers, through the ages, had to enter and exit. Its just big enough for one person at a time.
I had spent several hours in these churches and when I walked along the tunnel towards the fourth one I was in another state of mind, totally transported to another time. At the fourth church in this group, I caught up with many disabled people going into the church. Then I heard these words in my mind “Oh my, maybe Jesus and his disciples are here today”. I could really have believed that, or even if I did meet Jesus and his disciples there, I would not have been surprised at all. Then the boring part of my brain kicked in and said, maybe time for lunch after this one.
After lunch I went to the best preserved church, the Church of St Georges. This is the iconic one with the cross on the roof at ground level. When I got to the stairs to go down, I had to stand back and wait for a very happy crowd coming up. They were all beautifully dressed and singing joyfully. One young girl from the group came to me and said that they have just had her sister’s baby christened in this church and they are now going home to a celebrate this happy occasion.
I did return to the northern group of churches later in the afternoon and once again I was the only tourist there. It was really so special.
Why were these churches built here and by whom? There are many theories. Here is what my guide told me about the origins of this UNESCO site. As a young man Lalibela had spent many years in Jerusalem and when he became emperor he had renamed many landmarks in Ethiopia, giving them names taken from Jerusalem. Like the river near Lalibela was named The Jordan River. My guide said the motivation behind building these churches was to establish another Jerusalem. The emperor saw that the Christians from all over Africa who were making pilgrimages to the Holy Land all passed through Ethiopia. By the time they got here they had spent almost all their money and many were near starvation. Many could not go on to Jerusalem. That was when Emperor Lalibela decided to build another Jerusalem so that the African pilgrims did not have to travel too far.
What I have described here is what I think of when I think of Easter. This was a truly amazing day and I will never forget it.
What happened next could have spoilt everything, but it’s my choice to see it as just another one of those travel experience that leaves you with an amusing story to tell at a dinner table with friends. I have been debating whether I should tell the next part here or keep it for another blog but I’m going to tell it.
I hope I have given you an idea of what an amazing day I had. I walked back to my hotel, had a shower, dressed and sat on my balcony to enjoy the last rays of the sun before heading out for supper. As the sunset every church bell rang and rang and rang… I do not remember seeing any church bells at the churches I visited so there must be many modern churches in the town too. Eventually the bells stopped ringing and the chanting from every church over powerful microphones and loudspeakers started. Not the same song / chant in unison. No! Every church sang or chanted their own playlist and they were apparently competing to be the group to be heard in the furtherest corner of Ethiopia. By the time I had finished my supper there was still no end to the cacophony. I reasoned it can’t go on too long. These people have fasted all day and at some point their joyous celebration must included actually stuffing their mouths with food. Just to be sure I asked the receptionist at the hotel how long the singing would carry on. He said what I was hearing at that moment was the Paschal Vigil which announces the breaking of the fast and that happens from sunset till late. And that is where the receptionist stopped. He was trained: answer the guest’s question, don’t offer information.
What he did not tell me was that the Paschal Vigil would carry on till midnight. Then the church bells would ring again and then one minute past midnight it would be Good Friday and with that Paschal Matins starts. That is the feast of rejoicing or great celebration. All the Christians will gather in churches and sing and rejoice till sunrise. And they did, without a break. I looked the sunrise time up on Google and at 6:12, like a switch was flicked, SILENCE. So the Lalibela Christians headed off to breakfast and then to bed. While I had to drag my body after a sleepless night to the airport for a short flight to Gondar to start a 5 day hike. I would start hiking at about 2 500m above sea level and the first day is a six hour hike to the first overnight village. They say hardships are always forgotten first and that must be true because I do not remember much of that day.