Lying on a 2,630-metre ridge of the rugged Lasta Mountains, Lalibela remains as an isolated and poor village, despite its historical treasure and religious significance.
"Coming here is my going to Jerusalem”, told me an Ethiopian American on our way to Lalibela.
He lived in Washington DC. Indeed, to most Ethiopians, Lalibela is Mecca to the Muslims, or Jerusalem to the Christians in other parts of the world.
Lalibela. One can hardly imagine that beside the village of thatch huts lays one of the great wonders of human civilisation. The eleven churches of Lalibela and their connecting tunnels are all carved out from the volcanic rocks below ground level.
But reaching Lalibela itself requires tremendous effort. The village is there as if it wants to test the resolve of every pilgrim. Until recently, the road to Lalibela was not always passable all year round. Even today, a two-day arduous journey from Addis Ababa is far from a guarantee, except for the lazy tourists who want a quick in-and-out, a small airport is built 30km from the village, and the Ethiopian Airlines shuttle a few times a day from here to other major towns.
Lying in the rugged Lasta Mountains at an altitude of 2,630 metres, Lalibela suffers a chronic water shortage. If top-end hotels can not guarantee running water at all time, it's easy to imagine that water drawing from commune sources is just a normal way of life in this impoverished town .
Lalibela is more rural and poverty-stricken than anywhere else I visited in Ethiopia. It is a village with some humble houses and huts located on the ridge of a lofty mountain. It has few vehicles, no paved road, no bank. A five-year-old can remember the days without electricity. Few outsiders would believe that a historical and architectural wonder is just living yards away.
The stone bridge and tunnel exemplify the exceptional craftsmanship of the eleven churches.
Although it was the Axumites who first embraced Christianity in the 4th century, ever since the Arabs seized the trading seaport to the north, Axum started to wither and eventually crumbled. Christianity fled to Roha, whose rugged terrain provided a safe sanctuary.
Monks studying the Bible near the tomb of Adam.
Here in Roha in 12th century, King Lalibela was determined to establish a new Jerusalem in the African highland, away from Islamic threat yet accessible by all Ethiopians. He initiated an enormous project that rivaled any of those in other ancient civilisations - carving out a cluster of eleven churches from volcanic rocks.
Sitting in a 12-metre-deep trench and measuring 34x24 metres in area, Bieta Medhane Alem (meaning Church of the Saviour of the World) is the largest monolithic church in the world. The entire church is supported by 72 square pillars representing the 72 saints in Ethiopia. Depite its history and age, the church is still offering service everyday.
Scholars were still debating the manpower and time needed to complete such monumental work with architectural grandeur and artistic intricacy. Privately, I tended to accept the Ethiopian legend, in which angels were mainly responsible for this world wonder.
Bieta Giyorgis, St. George Church, is undoubtedly the most famous and photographed among the churches in Lalibela. Cut from volcanic tuff more than 800 years ago, the church is still remarkably well preserved. Worshipers and visitors can reach the 13-metre-deep courtyard through a serpentine tunnel (upper-right in the picture).
Navigating through the labyrinth of deep passages, stairs and tunnels of the eleven churches, I saw a picture which seemingly frozen in time since the era of King Lalibela. Carrying prayer’s sticks, priests, monks and pilgrims in medieval robes scattered around the courtyard. Hermits sat still, studied and prayed in the niches on the stone wall surrounding the churches; religious chanting came out from hidden crypts and grottoes; the smoke of incenses and bee wax candles carried a sweet odor…
A hermit studying the Holy Book outside his living cave. The stony walls surrounding the churches of Lalibela have been carved with numerous niches that are no more than 2 square metres inside. With the ardent religious faith, hermits and pilgrims live in these caves at night, while pray, study and meditate during the day. Their very survival depends upon the meager donations from the nearby villagers and tourists.
A priest unlocks a church for the visitors.
As I approached some rock hewn churches, the high priests often scrambled to unlock the doors, then eagerly demonstrated the crosses with complex patterns unique to their very own churches. Hey on the floor provided sitting comfort for the residents during the scripture studying, the sacred Arks of Covenant were always hiding behind the heavy curtain. Through the door, the sun shed light onto the ceremonial drums on the floor, as well as the slick door sides touched and kissed by thousands of pilgrims over the centuries.
A local home in Lalibela
I met the Ethiopian American again at the departure lounge in the airport. As a devoted Christian, he carried a bottle of sacred water in his suitcase. For other tourists, there were plenty of gifts and souvenirs in their baggages. As for me, I carried nothing but a historical lesson and images captured by my own.
Last Update: October 24 2009 02:25:35 -0500