“The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.” - Terry Pratchett.
Tuesday was spent quietly in camp as I shook off the last vestiges of my illness. It was great to swop notes with the 2 vastly different Swiss couples.
By Wednesday 2nd I was feeling quite a bit better although still a little shaky. This was the day where we were to immerse ourselves deeply in Ethiopian history and culture again. It certainly is a must-do whilst in Lalibela as the rock-hewn churches here are about 800 years old and are truly amazing. We had missed out rather badly in not visiting any of the cliff-edge rock-hewn churches in the Tigrai and really should have found some way to carry the required guide with us in our 2 seater vehicle. A very capable guide for the Lalibela tour was arranged via the hotel. There are plenty of touts in Lalibela but be sure to hire a registered guide as they add considerable value.
COSTS: The guide cost US$25 for the day and a single ticket covers all the various clusters of churches within Lalibela, costing US$50 pp and valid for 4 days. This ticket is bought from the central tourist ticket office just up the road from our hotel.
In the morning we visited the northwest cluster of 7 churches and also the most famous, the church of St. George (Bet Giyorgis), which although nearby the northwest cluster, stands separately. We were due to visit the second cluster in the southeast after lunch but called it off as I was feeling rather shaky after trudging about in the heat. We took a bajaj (tuk tuk) to the ticket office at the top of the hill, with our guide and from there the churches are in easy walking distance. Many walk to the churches, not too far although an uphill trudge and to save money, proceed without a guide. I would actually strongly advise a decent guide, they add considerable value. The churches in the northwest are evacuated out of the solid rock from below the ground and are thus surrounded by moat-like trenches. Most of them are carved out on all 4 sides (monoliths), but some are attached to the parent rock on 1 or more sides (semi-monolithic). Apparently those of the southeast that we failed to visit, are more like those of the Tigrai, being carved out of cliff faces.
In the northwestern cluster we first visited the largest of the churches, Bet Medhane Alem before visiting the oldest, Bet Maryam. The other 5 churches in this cluster are smaller but very atmospheric, some connected by tunnels. These churches are still active places of worship. The amount of skill and labour required to carve and hollow out these churches out from the solid rock is astounding. They are covered by slightly jarring shelters that are deemed necessary for their preservation by Unesco. Bet Giyorgis a short walk away, is the most spectacular of all. It is carved out in the form of a cross and stands 15m high. The devotion of the priests, monks, nuns and pilgrims at these churches is impressive, as they worship and meditate quietly.
However the historical churches and much of the history of Ethiopia had become quite a vexing question for me. The Ethiopians seem unable to separate historical fact from fable and legend. Imagine the amusement should an English tour guide insist that the arm that arose out of the Lake to catch King Arthur’s sword Excalibur, was fact and not legend. An example is the Ethiopian insistence that holes in the carved out passageway leading down to St Georges church were made by the hooves of St George’s horse. Or that the church of Bet Medhane Alem was carved out by 2,000 men and the archangels. There are many other examples. I found that this sort of dogmatism detracts from what remain amazing achievements. What one gets is a wishful version of Ethiopian history according to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with an unpleasantly arrogance tinge to some of it. Fundamentalist religion cannot be good for the future advancement of the Ethiopian people who seem to live in a world of their own. To me this is such a pity as there is so much to be so proud of. To think that these advanced civilisations occurred in Africa, supposedly the dark continent. If only adequate written historical records existed and not only garbled oral history. Such is the enigma of my home continent.
Main. A priest meditating in Bet Maryam church.
1. The largest of the churches in the northwestern cluster at Lalibela, Bet Medhane Alem. This large monolithic structure was chiseled out of the bedrock entirely by hand.
2. One of the many crosses in Bet Maryam Alem, this one a reversed swastika showing an Indian design influence.
3. The intricate ceiling painting in Bet Maryam church.
4. A close-up showing the marks of the chisel work.
5. The interior of one of the smaller churches in the northwestern cluster.
6. A priest meditating outside one of the churches.
7. The narrow passageways between the churches in the northwetern cluster with pilgrims.
8. Another richly adorned church interior.
9. The priests did not mind being photographed.
10. The interior of Bet Maryam church.
11 and 12. The impressive Bet Giyorgis church in the shape of a cross.
13. A pilgrim in one of their carved out shelters.
14. A Tukul hut.