Churches of Lalibela

Trip Start Jun 08, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2005

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Flag of Ethiopia  ,
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Day the Seventh - in which we eat, sleep and breathe churches. And then argue.


Oooh a lie in! Predictably, my throat is bad again. Up at 7am and off to the churches. Antoneh was our guide, saving us the hassle of getting one. We paid entry and got away without paying for the camera, which can film short movies.

We think we did the churches in this order: Bet Medhane Alem, Bet Maryam, Bet Meskal, and Bet Giorgis. Then we went for lunch and returned to see Bet Gebriel - Rafael, Bet Abba Libanos, Bet Lehem, Bet Emanuel, Bet Mercurios, and back to Bet Giorgis.

They all have scaffolding and a cover on them, except Bet Giorgis. The restoration is an Italian project, started but now ground to a halt, to everyone's frustration. Bet Giorgis is the famous one, shaped like a cross and completely free-standing.

At each church we were expected to photograph the priest with his church cross, and then give a small donation. Now, I don't get this. You can't see the holy-of-holies in the back, it's too sacred. I'm sure at one time, tourists weren't allowed to photograph at all in the church, or at least forbidden to photo the crosses. But then one came along and offered the priest some money for the photograph. And now it's a means of making money. Fair doos, everyone's got to make a living. But I can't help but be cynical. Sometimes I think religion is only what people take from it, they discard the rest, discard what doesn't suit them. I mean, the big Lalibela cross is meant to be very holy, handed down from God himself. But it's ok to photograph it for a bit of money. How cheap is that?
Best of all, the priests get quite ratty if you don't want to take a photo. Obviously, they don't do their priestly duties for the love of God, but instead because they get hand outs for posing for photos every day.

Despite this, we were able to appreciate the architecture and beauty of the churches. They don't have religious significance for me, but it's amazing how much faith the people who constructed them had. To construct a church in negative - to dig into the ground and excavate a perfectly proportioned building, with rooms... incredible!

There are holes dug into the outer walls all over the complex - some of them have pilgrims sat in them. Others have the remains of pilgrims long dead. Some pilgrims who have dedicated their lives are granted their wish - to have their bodies kept in the alcoves. It was slightly freaky to see - I mean, some of them still have bits of desiccated skin.

The windows had different designs signifying different periods of history. The Axumite one was particularly noticeable - it symbolises an erect circumcised willy!
(top window in picture)

We went back into town for lunch, mainly because Antoneh was whining he was hungry. When we got to a restaurant he bought food and refused to eat it. Stef and I agreed that the whole thing wasn't working very well. We want to stay here another day, but we can't really afford to pay him any more. Also, we reckon it'll be better without him. He's been helpful, but now we're ok and especially if he's ill... we decided we'd ask him to go back to Addis alone.
However when the moment came, Stef backed out, and we lost our united front. I didn't like doing it any more than he did, but it was causing too much tension. I was cross, since we had agreed, and left Stef to it and walked back to the hotel.

They followed later and we all sat down to sort it. Antoneh wanted paying for the day alone back to Addis, which is only fair, but he also asked for the bus fare. He had given us a choice at the start either he'd pay his way out of what we gave him or he'd pay for accommodation and food, not transport, and we'd pay him slightly less and pay for his transport. We didn't really mind but decided on paying him the higher amount, and him covering everything. We figured it would be easier. See Addis entry

So, back to today. We sat there talking and then gave him the remains of what we owed him. He said it wasn't enough and explained that we had agreed to give him the higher amount per day. We pointed out that we had been paying his bus fares all the way. He asked why we hadn't mentioned it - and our answer was that we had made it clear back in Addis that we didn't really mind either way. It didn't matter to us. So when he changed the rules on the way by making us pay his transport, we just shrugged and made a mental note. Did he think we wouldn't notice?
He conceded, but then added that he thought we should have let him know before hand. He said that if we wanted to get a guide in Africa in future we should talk to them. We countered that if he wanted to become a good guide for western travellers he should stick to his agreements and not treat them like they are stupid. It works both ways. But he's right, we should have mentioned it.

Ah well, it's sorted now.

We continued round the churches in the afternoon. Walking up to the edge of the small plateau gave us a nice view over the complex.

The usual afternoon breeze sprung up giving some cloud respite from the sun. We met a small boy sitting in a pile of cactus shells (they looked like prickly pears). I asked him "if afotak?" ("tasty?") and Antoneh laughed. It was an alright afternoon, all things considered. I felt the tension had been released a bit and we had a laugh together.

Two churches are connected by a tunnel through the rock.

It was pitch black and the floor was slightly uneven. We walked through like toddlers, with arms groping for the walls and reaching to the dipping ceiling. I followed the swinging of Stef's glow-in-the-dark watch hands. We took some photos which all came out with us looking wild-eyed, like rabbits.

We returned to Bet Giorgis for the sunset.

Stef wandered off as I sat talking to Antoneh. He used the moment to do some secret filming of the church, by all appearances nearly walking off the edge. Sigh.

We had walked round all day and we hadn't seen one other tourist.

We walked back up to town in the dusk, and had a nice last meal with Antoneh.

And I'm still ill. I'm not getting chance to get better. Maybe having an extra day away from the city fumes will help.
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