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Ethiopia

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

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Some places of pilgrimage have drawn the human spirit for centuries. The churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia are holy for Ethiopian Christians. These mysterious, rock-hewn churches are marvellous and intriguing. They speak of a world where the sacred is palpable, redemption, perhaps, at hand.

The pilgrims are all dressed in white, the colour of purity. The men are on one side, the women on the other. Rhythmically, they kneel following the cues from the bell, then they stand up again. Their chants reverberate throughout the church. The main priest emerges from the curtains, holding the holy cross. A deacon is swinging incense, filling the air with its perfume. The pilgrims have travelled from far away. From Ormiya in the south; they crossed the highlands of Ethiopia to pray and be blessed in the holy city of Lalibela.

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

In the 12th century, King Lalibela set out to create a new Jerusalem for Christians who could not make the Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He sculpted 13 churches directly into the volcanic rock, hewing from the surface down, to shape the outside of the churches and then hollowing the interior from bottom to top. Thus, each one of these churches was made out of a single block of rock.

The churches are invisible from the outside, hidden from enemy eyes. A stark contrast to the role they play in the skyline of other places, where the cathedral is the highest building, always visible, a reminder of what is important to man. In London, it was called the Canaletto effect: no building could be higher than St Paul’s. What we deem most important appears to have shifted over the centuries. Factories with thin, smoke-breathing chimneys came to dominate the landscape in the 19th century. More recently, glass-and-iron financial centres tower above our cities.

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Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

Even to the modern eye, the Lalibela churches inspire mystery and awe as they did in the past. Francisco Álvares, when writing of Prester John, confesses that he is wary of telling about these churches for fear that no one would believe his words. Prester John was the mythical ruler of Christian lands in the East, surrounded by Muslims and heathens. In the Medieval imagination, he was configured as rex et sacerdos, king and priest in India, or Central Asia. When the Portuguese travelled to Ethiopia, they were convinced they had found the kingdom of Prester John, in the midst of Africa.

The beauty of this UNESCO World Heritage site is enhanced by the white-clothed pilgrims, who bring the churches to life. One can get a glimpse of what worship in Lalibela must have been like in ancient times. I follow the pilgrims after mass. They sit under the shade of Bet Maryam, the Church of Mary, to eat injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread filled with spices. The men are deep in conversation, leaning against the rock. They sit dignified, as father figures, elders whose traditional clothes hang solemnly from their sinewy bodies. Their faces light up and soften as a woman holding the communal plate goes by them, offering the spiced bread. Her face is wrinkled and her no-nonse expression is severe and hurried, it contrasts with the sudden joyousness of the men.

 

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

I walk across the passageways to a larger church: Bet Medhane Alem, the Church of Christ the Saviour.

Never a man spoke as Christ did, turning the values of Jewish spirituality and the wisdom of Greece and Rome upside down. Better to be poor than rich! Better to be weak than strong! I also think of the Buddha: life is suffering, yet in humility lies the discovery that our own fear and weaknesses are also those of our fellow humans.

St Paul wrote in the the second letter to the Corinthians: “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

In the dim light of the churches I meet other pilgrims. One is kissing the wall, resting his head against the rock. Another is kneeling in front of the images of the Passion of Christ. Several direct a low rumble to the priest. He invites them to the cross, which the pilgrims kiss repeatedly and touch devoutly with their forehead. This is a group of youngsters. They are university students from a science faculty at Addis Ababa. Before they leave, the priest gives each and every one of them a pinch from the ashes of the incensed burned in the mass. The young men and women carefully put it in a pouch that they then hide in their Netala.

How to reconcile science with religion? Where is the common ground between the stories told by these walls and the hypotheses of science professors? Lucy, the hominid superstar who revealed a story of our genesis, a very different tale from that of the Bible, rests in a museum in Addis Ababa, close to where these students live. The sense of origin is strong in Ethiopia, it was in this Rift Valley that we walked as men for the first time.

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

French paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Teilhard de Chardin, provides a mesmerising and thought provoking example of science reconciled with faith. He spent months in the emptiness of the Ordos desert in Mongolia, in 1923. There, he found evidence of a Paleolithic age, thus demonstrating the existence of a pre-biblical earth. His findings and his dedication to science did not undermine his faith. When pressed on the matter, he replied that religious truths are evident everywhere in the material world, rather than only in the magisterium of the Church.

“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both,” said Carl Sagan.

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Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

Philosopher, physicist and Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr said that "we ought to remember that religion uses language in quite a different way from science. The language of religion is more closely related to the language of poetry than to the language of science. [...] The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer. But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality."

The significance of places like Lalibela is not their architectonic brilliance, but that they offer us the opportunity to reconnect to a deeper experience of spirituality. In this emotional state, I find myself sitting in one of the balconies at Ben Abeba, overlooking the highlands. Ben Abeba is an excellent restaurant opened in partnership between a Scottish woman and a local. To me, the restaurant has an air of futuristic architecture. The bold, windswept curves follow the insinuations of the mountain top, and create an intricate play between the earthen walls and the glass-and-steel sections of the structure, like some sort of steampunk observatory.

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

I am here for the delicious avocado juice and the tasty injera. Then, a breathtaking full moon rises over the mountains. Once more in an already emotional day, I stand in awe to look. Huxley used the moon to reconcile spirituality and science.

"There is nothing, of course, to prevent the moon from being both a stone and a god. [...] The universe throws down a challenge to the human spirit; in spite of his insignificance and abjection, man has taken it up. The stone glares down at us out of the black boundlessness, a memento mori. But the fact that we know it for a memento mori justifies us in feeling a certain human pride. We have a right to our moods of sober exultation.”

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

During my second day in Lalibela I venture to the countryside to visit a lesser visited group of churches, as well as the cave church of Yemrehanna Krestos. These churches are a wonder to marvel at. The average stay in Lalibela for travellers is one day, so there is nobody here. The priests and diaconate are very willing to spend time with me. They show me a holy book, written on the skin of a goat that the priest says is over 1,000 years. The mystery of the the Amharic alphabet takes form in the centuries-old drawings of Christ. I am moved by an image of the Virgin Mary holding the Son. The clear, black lines are shaded with touches of crimson. I notice that Jesus has six fingers in his right hand, with which he points towards an apostle. These images, like Orthodox icons, have the power to draw you in, to make you an active participant in the holy mysteries.

Back in Lalibela, I visit a second group of churches. In these, there is a fearful metaphor hewn into the rock. Two churches are connected by a narrow underground tunnel that pilgrims walk in absolute darkness: it’s the descent into hell. I walk holding the wall on the left with one hand and the ceiling with the other to keep my bearing and avoid banging my head. Some pray in Silence, while a group is playing loudly. Redemption can only be found after the descent: the harrowing journey of Dante through Hell, Jesus’ 40 days in the battling desert, or Odysseus’ sojourn in the underworld.

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Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

Each church displays different religious symbols. One window is arched and molded with a Latin cross while another has a Greek Cross. Inside, the swastika is carved into the ceilings next to a Maltese cross. The remains of the murals show the apostles and the saints, of whom Abune Gebre Menfes Kidus, a missionary from Alexandria who brought religion over the desert, captures my attention.

He is depicted with lions at his feet. Legends say that these protected the saint against the adversaries of his proselytism and with whom he could communicate. Just like the moon, the lion is another source of myths and legends, particularly in this land. Haile Selassie, emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, said: "I am the lion of Judah, the King of Kings.” The Ethiopian Lion inspired the struggle of the black Jamaicans that Bob Marley made famous in a faraway land. But Rastafarians, with their dreadlock manes, can be found in Ethiopia as well, especially in Shashemene.

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

The pilgrims from Oromia are joined by Rastafarian pilgrims from Poland, the Netherlands, and Germany. Rastafarians abound in Lalibela. I approach a group and make friends with some of them. In the evening, I accept Endris’ invitation. He is the owner of a small souvenir shop. He takes me to “Seble”, a dark and loud watering hole that plays Ethiopian reggae.

“Don’t worry about a thing, ‘cause every little thing’s gonna be alright.”

Redemption in the Rock-hewn Churches of Lalibela

 

When to go:

By October, Ethiopia becomes rather dry and is wonderful to visit until June, then the rains resume. During Christmas, thousands of pilgrims head to the churches. In the Ethiopian calendar, Christmas often falls in early January.

How to get there:

There are no direct flights from Hong Kong to Ethiopia. From the capital, Addis Ababa, you can take a 1 hr flight to Lalibela. There also buses, but that is a wearisome affair.

What to do in Ethiopia:

The churches in the north are an obvious choice. There is also the holy city of Axum, and Addis Ababa is a bustling, exciting city. To the south, you can meet tribes as ancient as humanity. To experience a Norty/South Ethiopian itinerary click here to learn more.

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