Out of Africa (Part 7/7) - Ethiopia - Lalibela's Churches of Angels

Updated: Mar 31, 2019


Church of St. George, Lalibela

Kapuscinski's wise words

In 1975, Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote in his book ‘Heban’ the following about traveling to Lalibela; “Travelling the roads of Ethiopia is arduous and often risky. In the dry season, the car skids over gravel on a narrow shelf cut into the flank of a steep mountain; the road runs along the edge of a precipice several hundred metres deep. In the rainy season, the mountain roads are impassable. Those on level ground turn into quagmires, in which one can get stuck for days. In the summer, after several hours of driving on the plateau, you are black with dust. Because it is hot, you are dripping with sweat, at the end of the day you are encased in a thick, crusty armor of dirt. The dust, composed as it is of microscopic particles, is in essence a kind of thick hot mist, penetrating clothing and pushing its way into every bodily cranny and crevice imaginable. It takes a long time to get clean….One can only travel by day. Between dusk and dawn, the roads are controlled by swift-footed, prowling bands, called shifts, who will rob you of everything. ..hence, there are guard-posts at all exits from the city. The policeman on duty looks at his watch, or simply at the sun, and calculates whether you will be able to reach the next town (or the next policeman) by dusk. If he decides that you will not, he will make you turn back. I set off towards Lalibela in a truck containing a shipment of skins. Does it make sense to calculate the length of this route in kilometers? Here, one measures distances according to the number of hours and days necessary to traverse point A to point B. For example, it is 120 kilometres from Dessie to Lalibela, but it will take me eight hours along this road – if, that is, I manage to secure a good all-terrain vehicle, which is doubtful.

An Ethiopian bus: nothing has changed since Kapuscinski's days

Travel hell (again)

Apart from the fact that there are less roaming bandits at night now (though they do still exist by all accounts, which is why no one travels at night), pretty much all of the above is still true today of travel in Ethiopia, and it was beginning to make the trip extremely fatiguing. Getting from Wukro to Lalibela was one of the most difficult and uncomfortable journeys of the trip. And there was a lot of competition. It involved an overnight stop in yet another uneventful overnight stopover called Alamata; a forgettable place which was only notable for the number of kids coming up to us and annoying us with the usual “Mr! Give money” shouts and the lack of hotels or restaurants at which we could make the stopover even slightly pleasant. After eight or nine hours in an Ethiopian bus, such things acquire extra significance; they can be the only highlight of otherwise very tedious and tiring days. The second part of the two day bus journey was slower, hotter, bumpier and more crowded than anything I had yet experienced. From Woldiya to a place called Gashina, high up in the mountains of central Ethiopia, the bus struggled up another winding road with numerous hair-pins which took us up to a considerable height; the usual stifling heat and lack of space I took as a given by now – but an until-now unseen feeding ceremony on the bus was not. We stopped at a small village about an hour after leaving Woldiya, where banana, lemon, orange and sugar-cane sellers flogged their goods to the hungry passengers. The entire bus proceeded to feast on the stuff, noisily and messily chewing, gnawing, spitting and chucking the remains on the floor of the bus. Cultural differences aside, this was an unpleasant experience, and one which added to the misery of Ethiopian bus travel. A malodorous, uncomfortable and painfully slow journey became almost unbearable from that point on.

Ethiopian bus windows: impossible to open

As usual, windows were impossible to open and the smell was impossible to escape from; there were three more hours to endure before a short respite, and then another contracted mini-bus and finally an arrival at Lalibela at sunset, two days since leaving the last point of interest. I was in no fit state to do anything except eat and go straight to bed. It is the main reason why travel in Ethiopia is a huge challenge, and for many - too challenging. Those who can afford it (and I wasn't one of them) take advantage of the fact that most if not all of these tourist towns have an airport by using Air Ethiopia and flying from place to place. When I heard this whilst staying in Addis, I scoffed at such a lily-livered notion; by this stage in the trip I was beginning to think it was a genius idea. For anyone out there with the bucks to do it, a budget tip: use Air Ethiopia to fly in to the country and you are eligible for massive discounts on domestic flights. Just don't ask about the safety record.

Bete Emanuel Church, Lalibela

Lalibela - an architectural wonder Happily, Lalibela is a wonder of the world, one which should be more widely known. It is famous for its churches, like Tigray, which are carved out of stone – in some cases straight out of the mountain or rock face, in others just directly out of the ground. It is Africa’s Petra. On a much smaller scale of course, but still comparable. This architectural wonder was constructed in the 12th century under Saint Lalibela, ruler of the Amhara Kingdom, whose inhabitants were (and are) Eastern Orthodox Christians. He carved them out of the mountain itself so that Muslims invading these lands could not spot them from afar. And even if they did, they could neither demolish them nor move them, because these churches constitute an integral part of the mountain. There is a Church of the Virgin Mary here, of the Savior of the World, of the Holy Cross and St. George, of Mark and Gabriel, all of them connected by underground tunnels. Just for a day, you can pretend to be Indiana Jones, exploring this incredible place. Just remember to bring the right hat. I'd lost mine - probably on a bus.

Make like Indiana Jones: tunnels lead between the rock-hewn churches

Like Petra, the churches are carved from beautiful red volcanic rock, which looks particularly stunning early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the orange of the sun plays with the colours and picks out some wonderful swirling patterns. The experience of visiting Lalibela was a rather surreal one. First of all, our guide – who we found at our hotel (or rather who found us) – was a bizarre, deep-voiced character, who would echo what you said to dramatic effect, and who seemed almost Shakesperian in his gravity, but whose rather mundane chat seemed utterly incongruous. In all honesty, he was just a good blagger who seemed to know how to convince foreign tourists that his guiding was worth paying for. You could probably happily go guide-free though, as the signage and labelling is quite adequate and the churches are all walkable. The second surreal thing was, as you wander around the impressive sights of Lalibela, you see from time to time traditional priests and monks floating through the confines like a cloud of incense, occasionally posing with sunglasses and brandishing crosses in front of crowds of tourists with flash cameras.

Priests/Keyholders: pleased to pose for pictures

You crawl through pitch black tunnels to get to a church which is deserted because you have happened upon it when the last gang of tourists has just departed; you arrive at the next one and you can’t move because you caught them up. In addition to this, the churches are nearly all covered with unsightly metal structures to protect them from – well, who knows? Meteors? Plagues of locusts? Rain I suppose. It seems crazy that they have stood for several millennia already, yet UNESCO deems it necessary to blight them with scaffolding and railings which make them look more like shopping malls or football stadiums. Overall though, this didn’t spoil the experience of visiting Lalibela. Thankfully, by far the most impressive of the churches there – the Church of St. George – is not surrounded by anything, and it stands, proudly unprotected, below your feet – a cross shaped church of maybe twenty metres height – as it has done since it was first conceived. The local myth says that it was made in one night with the help of angels; the truth is that, as Lalibela’s undoubted masterpiece, it stands as the apogee of Ethiopian church-building , and probably took many, many painstaking years to carve out. It is truly mesmerizing; beautiful, unique, unparalleled. The fact that it contains quite intact mummified corpses in its grounds give it even more mystique. Fantastic. Worth the arduous overland trip? Almost..

Like no other church in the world: Church of St. George, Lalibela

An Ethiopian night out

Lalibela itself is kind of spread out over a hillside, and if you happen to live at the bottom end of the hillside (as we did), you end up traipsing up and down the long cobbled road several times a day to get to the restaurants and bars in the evening and the sights during the day. Tiring and slightly annoying; there were no rickshaws available in this town, perplexingly. No idea why; they would have made a packet from the tired tourists. The town also lacked cashpoints and I was forced to lend Harry yet more money, I was indeed the walking cash machine - though not in the sense I had expected. One evening, after a hard day of sightseeing and a rather substantial meal at a little restaurant called The Unique that looked less than promising from the outside but which delivered some exquisite Ethiopian dishes, we ended up in a ‘Tej’ bar halfway down the hill. Tej is a rather potent honey wine which comes in round-bottomed, narrow-necked bottles and is a rather unappealing dirty yellow colour. It doesn’t taste too appealing either, but after a few swigs, you get into it, and the alcohol takes over. You are offered three differing strengths – basically which range from strong to brain-melting. I went for the brain-melting option, and managed to get three down me before feeling I might collapse.

Tej drinking at an Ethiopian bar: don't challenge the locals

The entertainment, meanwhile, was traditional Ethiopian dancing – which involves a very idiosyncratic way of moving to quite high-pitched, rhythmic but repetitive music, with exaggerated shrugging shoulder movements and odd ticks that are hard to describe. Embarrassingly, I was pulled up onto the dance floor to attempt this impossible manouvre in front of a bemused audience; I tried gamely to move my body to the frankly undanceable rhythms for a couple of minutes, then gladly escaped back to the anonymity of my seat. The round of applause that followed was probably more out of sympathy than appreciation. At least I tried, goddamit. I can’t remember much of what followed that evening, but I think it ended up with us talking to some youngsters in a coffee house till the early hours followed by a stumble back down the hill in the moonlight. A magical and unique place to finish the trip; we still had another massive two day trip back to Addis via Dessie which would involve as much frustration as any other journey, including a hitch in an onion truck and several cramped buses. But I don’t want to remember Ethiopia for it’s difficulties and frustrations despite there being so many. The moments of surrealism and madness, the utterly barmy nature of the people, the fantastic scenery and the occasional brilliance of the architecture - and the lack of tourists almost everywhere you go – make Ethiopia a choice destination if you have oodles of patience and ability to deal with some degree of discomfort. Go – just take a cushion and plenty flea powder.

Our Guide in Lalibela: it's true he crept the boards as a youth

Postscript

My travelling companion for the majority of this trip - from Bahir-Dar to Lalibela - which included a lot of painful bus trips and games of whist and chess - was Harry, who was as good as his word and paid back all his debts to me in the end. It turned out our Simien mountain scout and his gun had inspired him, because in 2015 he took up arms against ISIS and went to fight in Syria, despite having had no military training whatsoever and having no knowledge of Arabic. Fortunately for him and his family, he survived to tell his story, which you can read here. Trust.




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This is the last part of a series of blogs from Ethiopia. To see the previous part, go here:

Part 6/7: The Rock-hewn Churches of Tigray