Stuck in the pitch blackness of the narrow tunnel, crushed between countless chanting pilgrims, unsure of just how much further there was to go until I would emerge from “Hell” into “Heaven”, I began to get a little panicky. Now, I am not usually one to get claustrophobic, but in this situation I was getting close to hyperventilating. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes… When would I see the outside world again? When would I be able to breathe freely?
When at last I saw the beam of light ahead, I understood why this tunnel between the rock-hewn churches of Bet Gabriel-Rufeal and Bet Mekorios is known as the “Way to Heaven”. I sighed a deep sigh of relief and stumbled up the narrow stairs that led into the bright sunlight.
At the top of the stairs, a grizzled guard looked at my sweaty, reddened face and asked: “Where’s your ticket?”
Lalibela really is one of the world’s great wonders, even if it is less well known than the mighty pyramids of Egypt or the Great Wall of China. This little town, tucked into the wilds of the central Ethiopian highlands (a rough two-day bus ride from
Addis – or a much more comfortable one hour flight), is home to a collection of churches that boggle the mind and beggar description. Not only are they carved into the solid rock of the mountain, à la Petra in Jordan, many are all but freed from the rock – only their bases still firmly rooted to the earth, as if growing organically from it. The most famous of the Lalibela churches, Bet Giyorgis (St. George’s Church), is a cruciform structure that is at least 15m-high – meaning, in this case, that its base is 15m below ground level. A “moat” was carved into the mountain slope and the church, all four sides, its roof, its ornate interior, all its windows, were carved out of the remaining island of stone. To reach the entrance, one must follow a series of channels and tunnels carved into the surrounding rock that lead you to the bottom of the moat. Otherwise, it’s a long jump down!
All I could keep thinking as I wandered between the churches was: what if someone made a mistake? “Oops, sorry, I broke that solid rock column! I guess we have to start all over.”
there were only one of these marvels, it would be amazing enough. However, there are eleven churches clustered in Lalibela, each one unique.
When I began planning my Ethiopian adventure, I knew that Lalibela was the one place I had to see, if I only saw one place in Ethiopia. Of course, I had the luxury of nearly a month of travel in the country, so I also had the luxury of seeing more places in Ethiopia and of deciding when to visit each spot, including Lalibela. I decided that it would be best to save Lalibela for the end (or near the end) – adhering to the best-for-last principle. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that this would mean I would arrive in Lalibela just as the Ethiopian Christmas was kicking into gear.
Ethiopian Christmas is celebrated on January 6-7 and has a very different feel from the “western” version. In Ethiopia, Christmas is still very much a spiritual holiday, and a quite serious one at that. There’s no Santa Claus and gift giving; this is about intense spiritual devotion. And Lalibela, or specifically Bet Maryam (St. Mary’s Church) of Lalibela, is a
major focal point of that fervor.
Pilgrims from across the country were already pouring into town by the time I arrived on January 4. Many arrived on foot, having walked hundreds of kilometers. And they kept coming, right up to the beginning of the main ceremonies at St. Mary’s on the night of January 6. While I have never been to Mecca (and obviously will never have the chance, not being Muslim), I can almost imagine the density of the crowds, if not the actual number of individuals, being similar. And with so many of the Ethiopians shrouded in white, the milling mass looked quite similar to the images I have seen of Muslims in ikram.
Of course, all these pilgrims meant that “normal” touring of the churches was going to be impossible. Every church was packed with worshippers, and often I found myself inadvertently caught in the midst of a crowd flowing from one holy structure to another, following an inscrutable religious map and a mysterious set of rituals – as when I got swept into the tunnel known as the “Way to Heaven”! I had to accept that my time in Lalibela would be less about
seeing all the ornate details of the churches and more about immersing myself in an experience.
(Being in Lalibela for Christmas also meant that I had to pay $70 for a room in a hotel that during the rest of the year charges 200 birr ($12). Commerce and religion have long gone hand in hand, I suppose. Merry Christmas!)
By the time the sun began to set on January 6, almost every inch of ground surrounding Bet Maryam was packed with the faithful. I spent several hours picking my way through the masses, trying at first to find a way to get closer to the church and then gradually giving myself over to the moment. At one point, I found a rare empty spot and sat down to listen to the chants echoing from the almost hidden church, the night growing thicker around me.
I knew I would not make it until the midnight mass, but I vowed to return in time for the culmination of the ceremonies in the early morning.
At 4am, I wandered down to the main gates of the church complex, only to discover that the crowd was, remarkably, even
greater than before. Now I could not even find a way into the grounds around St. Mary’s. But it didn’t matter. I stood among the white-clad pilgrims, many bearing candles, and listened to their prayers and imagined the great procession of priests circumambulating the church.
Dawn soon came, and the Ethiopians around me began to disperse, many quietly preparing to retrace their steps across the vast highlands. Christmas was over, without great fanfare. There was none needed…
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