Wednesday, June 6, 2012
After a mere 4 hours of sleep, we woke up at 4:00am to get ready to our early morning flight to Lalibela. I felt so guilty dragging my poor Friend out of bed so she could cart us off to the airport. Armed only with light backpacks, for some reason I thought the whole check in/security process would be easy and quick, but they have you go through SO many scanners and xray machines…one when you first enter the building, one to get to the terminal, one to get to your gate! I see why they recommend you arrive 3 hours before your flight leaves. Most of the shops weren’t open yet, but we found our gate and dug into our dwindling stash of snacks for a breakfast of granola bars and beef jerky.
When we were ready to board, we had to walk down a few flights of stairs to go outside and jump on a shuttle bus (the kind everyone stands on...no seats) to be taken to a tiny little plane. I’d say that about half of us traveling were tourists, and the other half were Africans. Todd and I were very tired and happened to have the misfortune of an Indian businessman seated directly behind us, grilling an American PhD student about her life and travels at an increasingly loud volume the entire flight.
After about an hour, we landed in Gonder, which is a city I had really wanted to visit because of its medieval castle and rich history. Even the small airport was built with battlements to look like a little castle! But it was just a pit stop on the way, and we didn’t even get off the plane. We’d have to save Gonder for another trip. A few passengers disembarked, and new ones got on to fill in the gaps (almost like a bus, I thought) and we flew on to Lalibela, where the plane would stop again and then make the final leg of the trip on to Axum. Axum is another destination I would love to visit...looks like we are going back to Ethiopia in the future!
View of Gonder's Airport from the plane
When we arrived in Lalibela, the airport was tiny, with just one room for arrivals and one for departures. The arrivals room was lined with fold-out tables that had different hotel representatives seated with hand-written signs. Our Bradt guide had given us some great and affordable recommendations for traveling to Lalibela, and my Friend had arranged for our guide to pick us up at the airport, since it’s about a half hour drive to the actual town of Lalibela…and there he was with a sign for Todd Sipes (though he and the hotel employees kept calling him Tobb Spice). We jumped into a community van, and made our way through twisting, dry countryside viewing the local life and animals along the way. Some of the coolest animals I saw on our trip were during this drive: there was one pure white ox or bull that reminded me of an episode of True Blood, and one that was white with small black spots like a Dalmatian. I tried to get a photo but wasn’t speedy enough.
Tiny Lalibela Airport
The town of Lalibela is sort of sprawling outwards, with people moving outside of the town proper and into the surrounding areas to leave more space for the churches and developing tourism. The huts here are more made out of sticks than mud, or rocks with straw or wood roofs. I think the drier climate might have something to do with this?? The main part of town (the old part) slopes down a big hill, and the streets are built with large, uneven cobblestones that you really have to focus on to navigate. The life here is extremely rural, and you can see villagers at work all around you, carrying jugs of water, leading donkeys loaded with grains or hay, preparing tef for injera, washing dishes or clothes in large bins of dirty water. People would frequently wave or say hello, and were all very friendly but we were thankful we had a guide with us!
Our hotel, The Seven Olives, is the oldest hotel in Lalibela and is situated at the top of a big hill in the old part of town, in a grove of beautiful trees and flowers. Our guide, whose name was Teddy (or Toddy, or maybe Taddy) let us check in and would wait for us to drop our things off in the room before we began our tour. The hotel was painted brightly in a great shade of Tiffany blue (my favorite!) and our small room had bright blue painted walls, with a metal door that only stayed closed if you lock it, and a dirty floor I was afraid to walk on without shoes. In the bathroom, we had a water heater that we had to work ourselves and turn on 30 minutes before we wanted to shower if we hoped for hot water. In front of our room, there was a beautiful garden setting with tables and chairs available for outdoor dining or enjoying coffee.
The Seven Olives
The Seven Olives' garden patio
Our room...the bed was actually super comfy
Tiffany blue hotel! Standing outside our room, looking towards the restaurant.
The view of Lalibela from outside our room.
Our hotel's garden patio.
After dropping off our bags in our room, we headed with Teddy down to begin our tour of the churches. He is a deacon in one of the churches we would visit in the afternoon and was very knowledgeable, but had a thick accent that was difficult to decipher. I was glad that I had studied Lalibela in advance so thoroughly because it helped me understand what he was saying. As we were getting to know each other, he explained that he went to school to become a deacon with the hopes of becoming a priest, but to become a priest you must first get married and he was definitely not.
On our way to the office where we could buy our tickets, we learned that the villagers we were passing would all be relocated by next year so the section of town with the churches would have more space to build a large garden. We also saw traditional houses, different from any others in Ethiopia, that are made from rock with straw roofs, built in 2 storeys--the first for cooking and the second for sleeping. These old traditional buildings can not be demolished because of their historical significance, but instead are used to house pilgrims who travel here for festivals, especially Christmas.
After buying our tickets, we began our tour of the rock-hewn churches. And even after studying them so fairly in depth beforehand, I was not prepared for the massive size! Most of the churches are protected by modern overhangs that help shield from the elements, which is necessary but distracting. We visited the Northwestern cluster in the morning, beginning with Bet Medhane Alem, which is the biggest of all the churches. The church is enormous, a monolith carved out of a giant rock; they carved the outside from the top down, and carved the inside from the bottom up. We learned about the holes in the rock wall outside of the church used to be graves, but have since been emptied and are now used by hermits. When we went inside the church, we had to remove our shoes (our socks were SO dirty at the end of the day) and the floors are uneven rock covered with worn carpets. The inside of Bet Medhane Alem was very like a cathedral, with supporting columns and sweeping arches, and ceremonial drums on the floor. Each church has a Holy of Holies, curtained off and containing a tabot, which is a replica of the stone tablets contained in the Ark of the Covenant, which is said to be held in the Church of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. In front of the Holy of Holies in each church, there are large modern paintings of different religious figures and events propped up sort of haphazardly.
The churches are protected with large overhangs
Double cross windows
Todd on the right gives some size comparison
The window on top, with the half circle above the rectangle, is the traditional Axumite style
These holes used to be graves, and are now used by hermits
Inside the church. Behind the curtain is the Holy of Holies.
The entire church, including arches and pillars, is carved out of just one giant rock.
We took a short tunnel to three more churches, the next of which was Bet Maryam, a church dedicated to St. Mary and thought to be the first church built in Lalibela. Outside there is a pool, green with algae and plant life, where once a year at Christmas they lower infertile women on a rope down to the water and dip them 3 times, claiming that it will bring reproductive miracles. I was struck by the windows of the church, featuring traditional Axumite style (see above photo) as well as crosses and even swastikas. The interior of this church is elaborately carved and painted, with crosses, Stars of David, and religious scenes. It is the only church in Lalibela that is decorated like this. The second storey of the church has seven rooms, which hold the treasures of the church and which only the priests may enter. There is also a veiled pillar which is said to have the stories of how the churches were built, the journey of the Ark of the Covenant, and the beginning and the end of the world written in both ancient Greek and the ancient Ethiopian language Ge’ez. However, this pillar is never uncovered; the local priests say that it is too sacred and that it glowed brightly until the 16th century, and it is too dangerous to lift the veil and show to researchers.
Some of the priests
Decorative ceilings and arches
Star of David with a cross inside
The next churches we visited were Bet Mikael and Bet Golgotha. They are semi-monolithic, meaning instead of free standing from the surrounding rock, they are built into the rock face and are still attached. Traveling between churches was an adventure, since we had to make our way through tunnels, across narrow walkways, and over uneven stairways. After climbing our way into Bet Mikael, we were greeted with the smoke of incense and sounds of chanting and drums from a ceremony that was being held in the church. Through the church you could access Bet Golgotha, but it is unfortunately off-limits to women, so Todd went inside without me to see the carving of saints while I watched the ceremony continue. Ethiopian legend says that King Lalibela, for with the town is named, is buried underneath Bet Golgotha, and so the soil is sacred.
The door on the right goes into Bet Mikael
Traveling between churches
Next we crossed a small bridge and walked past the Tomb of Adam, which is a symbolic tomb and not an actual one. We made our way out of the main entrance to the churches (pausing for a photo!) and began a short walk to the most famous of the churches, Bet Giyorgis, dedicated to St. George and shaped like a cross. This monolith is excavated below ground level, sunken into a large rock, with a deep courtyard surrounding it. You have to walk in a long, narrow tunnel to get to the entrance of the church. Our guide informed us that it was built as a symbol of Noah’s Ark, which is why the windows on the first level are fake and look like they are closed up (to keep out water), and the top windows are open to let in light. The top layer of the building above the windows is solid rock, and the roof slants because it was the natural slanting of the rock it was carved from. Taking some photos around the church, we were able to see some wild monkeys that sort of looked like lemurs.
Entrance to the church cluster
Walking between the churches
View from Bet Giyorgis
Note the bottom windows are not functional
After visiting Bet Giyorgis, we went back to our hotel for lunch since the churches closed for 2 hours. We rested in our room since it was fiercely hot and dusty outside, and then enjoyed lunch in the hotel restaurant—I had a “cheeseburger” and Todd had a “Philly cheesesteak sandwich,” which were actually pretty good and came with these potatoes that were a cross between French fries and potato chips. Before our food was served, we had this excellent sweet bread that looked like a thicker version of injera but was very different in taste. I could probably eat that forever! At this time, we learned that electricity and water were kind of optional in our room, and if you flushed the toilet, the sink wouldn’t work. And periodically, the electricity would just go out. We bought large bottles of water in the restaurant to use in our room in lieu of a functioning faucet.
After lunch we met back up with Teddy to continue our tour with the southeast cluster of churches. We took a long walk down to the cluster, enjoying the village life hard at work around us, and approached our first church of the afternoon, Bet Gebriel-Rafael. This church is considered by many researchers to have originally been built as the residence of King Lalibela, and has a fortress-like appearance and a slanting wall above a green river that is said to be the “Road to Heaven” that pilgrims used to attempt to climb up (that practice is now forbidden). Passing through a low-hanging cave, we crossed a new bridge that used to be a very rickety wooden walkway extending across a deep trench to enter the church. Going through the church, we were able to climb out onto a ledge right above the trench with no guardrails or anything to prevent you from falling down!
That bridge crosses over the green river
The flat sloping wall above the river is the Road to Heaven
After going through the church, we were able to stand on that ledge.
Standing on the new bridge
View from the ledge
Our next journey was to travel through a completely pitch black tunnel (aka the Tunnel to Hell) where you have to feel along above you and to the right to navigate. You literally can’t see even an inch in front of your face! It was so scary! But climbing out of the tunnel, it was like emerging into a whole new world! Like in a movie, where they travel underground and suddenly come up into the center of the earth to find a tropical paradise, except with a giant rock church instead of a jungle. It was pretty exciting! This church was Bet Emanuel, the only monolith in the southeast cluster. In the courtyard, priests were rolling up a variety of blankets on the ground. Because the interior of this church is small, the ceremonies must be held outdoors.
Coming up out of the tunnel
The Lion King?!
Emerging from a hole in the wall leading from this church to the next path, we made our way through a narrow walkway, up a few staircases, and found another church with the roof still connected to the rock, and tunnels surrounding the church (Bet Abba Libanos?). We visited a few more churches, some of the highlights including some amazing wall paintings from the 15th century done in traditional Ethiopian style with large eyes and round faces, which I particularly liked (inside Bet Mercurios?). During the day, we also saw some great 12th century paintings on cotton, and were surprised by nuns curled up in little balls on the floor and so motionless we didn’t even realize they were people until our guide pointed them out.
15th Century Ethiopian painting on one of the walls
One of the great views
We climbed out of this hole in the wall!
The last church we visited
Tunnel behind the church
When our tour was over, we headed back to The Seven Olives, and I had originally planned on going shopping at the various souvenir stands lining the streets of the town. I wasn’t feeling well though, so I decided to take a nap, which ended up last 4 hours! Todd woke me up for dinner, but I really wasn’t feeling well at this point and ate only about half a plate of spaghetti and went right back to sleep. Little did I know this was the beginnings of a horrible stomach illness I picked up that would plague me for the rest of the trip!