In awe of King Lalibela’s New Jerusalem
Trip Start Sep 25, 2010
40Trip End Apr 01, 2011
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On the ride from the airport we met Thaddeus, who we decided to hire as our local guide for our 2 day tour of the area. He turned out to be the perfect choice, both because he was pleasant to have around, but also because he was Deacon by training making him ideally suited to share the history and customs of this deeply religious place. King Lalibela was the founder of the Zagwe Dynasty which ruled Ethiopia from 1137-1270 AD and is credited with lifting the country out of the preceding "dark ages." Legend has it that King Lalibela decided to built this city after he was poisoned by his jealous, thrown-hungry brothers. During 3 days of deep coma, he received instructions from God to build a New Jerusalem in Ethiopia. He ultimately recovered and immediately began his mission to save his people the hardships and tragedies of the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which required crossing hostile Muslim territories in Egypt.
Our experience was further amplified when on day two we, together with hundreds of pilgrims dressed in white cloth, attended an early morning healing ceremony. During the holy day ritual, a priest places the sacred Lalibela Cross on various body parts of one pilgrim after another. The whole scene is made all the more captivating by the subdued and rhythmic chanting, drumming, and ringing of an all-male choir. As so many guidebooks suggest, we felt we were experiencing Christianity in its rawest and purest form.
Before visiting a second round of visits to the rock-hewn churches inside Lalibela, we took the highly recommended 4WD day trip to Yemrehanna Kristos monestary. Located some 45km outside of Lalibela it is known to be Ethiopia’s best-preserved Aksumite structure. Unlike the rock-hewn models of the regional capital, the monestary, which predates Lalibela’s structures by about 80 years, was built such that it sits inside a cave. Behind the church we found mummified bodies of pilgrims who apparently came to the monastery to die over the centuries. A pretty macabre sight to say the least.
As soon as we had returned to Lalibela, we started to explore the south-eastern group of rock-hewn churches by entering through Bet-Gabriel-Rufael with its “Way to Heaven”. The churches that form part of the complex were smaller in size than those found in the north-western group, but the carvings were definitely more intricate. Bet Giyorgis, a church shaped as a Greek Cross, was by far the most impressive.
Our last night we spent enjoying another excellent plate of fasting food and some more stargazing. I thought nothing would ever beat the spectacular star-dotted sky I saw in Glacier National Park, Montana, but Lalibela proved me wrong. Our visit had been the absolute highlight of our trip to Ethiopia. In addition to the historic sites, the natural beauty and remoteness of their surroundings is stunning. The next day we flew back to Adis Ababa where we had a relaxing afternoon topped off by a delicious, brick-oven pizza dinner at Antica restaurant.
Next Stop: Uganda