Lalibela

22 April 2013- Lalibela, Ethiopia

We had the day in Addis walking around, stopped for a pastry and hot drink (as half of Addis seems to be doing at any given time) and even tried a coffee, yuck. Ethiopia is the home of coffee and everyone says its great. We are not coffee drinkers but thought we would give it a go. We both found it very bitter and had to eat our pastry to get rid of the taste. 🙂 We went to visit the excellent cultural museum and then went to the National Museum to see Lucy and her mates. After studying anthropology I felt I should have known more about it all but hardly remembered a thing.  As expected Addis is a busy crazy city- cars, bikes, animals and people all over streets and footpaths. Of course the traffic is impossible. There were a lot of people begging, far more than we have seen anywhere- its difficult to see. We are so fortunate and its hard to reconcile that.

We left Addis a few days ago and drove half way to Lalibela, stopping in a town and once again camping in the car park of a hotel. Not for the first time I found myself standing under the shower head all ready for a shower, with the ever-present smell of sewage and turned the tap… no water. Got dressed and went to get the bucket and cup, I really don’t mind that option, in fact I am fond of it. At least it’s water and enough to get wet with. Sleeping in car parks is, perhaps not surprisingly, not peaceful so we ache for our peaceful camps of Australia and early in Africa. Oh well, no doubt its car parks for a while yet for us. We spent the night trying to sleep and listening to the night watchmen, just as we started to doze the call to prayer started and we were awake again.

The last 100 or so km of the drive to Lalibela was on a dirt road, most of the roads in Ethiopia so far seem good, paved and the best overall we have seen for a while. This little road was a beautiful stretch winding through the mountains and a few small villages with literally every person waving at us. Although it was slower and bumpier it was nice to turn onto a small road- you always see so much more from a small bumpy road than you do from a paved road, travelling at speed and having to be so vigilant of other vehicles in your lane and all the people and animals.

Many of the children here work themselves into an absolute frenzy when we drive past, their shrieking gets higher and higher pitched until we can no longer hear them. They run along side landy shouting “pen, pen, exercise book”. We can’t believe there are (have been?) people silly enough to just drive around handing out pens to children. No doubt with good intentions but it seems to us it doesn’t take much thought to see that it’s not useful. The funny thing is when you stop and talk to them the are calm and just say hi and tell you their name. We have experienced the (in)famous ‘farangi frenzy” in Ethiopia where people (mostly children) just go mad- shouting and shrieking “You You You” whenever they see us. Although it is a bit full on we have not found it too bothersome and mostly just laugh or wave and occasionally shout “You You” back, that bemuses them. We’ve not had the problems some people have mentioned of children throwing rocks at us, only a few times, nothing too worrisome. One thing we have had to get used to in Africa but even more here is we ALWAYS have people watching us- from first thing in the morning to last thing at night and it’s not at all unusual to have someone leaning on landy at some point during the night. We have found generally people in Africa have a very different sense of personal space and its common to have someone right next to you or for example if we are sitting in the back of landy with the door open to have someone walk up and stand right in the door and lean in and touch things and look at us. it has taken some getting to. I still can’t imagine what is so interesting about us brushing our teeth!

Anyway we arrived in Lalibela in the afternoon and after sorting landy’s spot in the car park (yep car park again) we went for a walk around town to get our bearings and stretch our legs. At the moment its fasting time in Ethiopia, in their calendar it is lent, which means no meat for locals and yummy food for me. We had a feast our first night- ordering a fasting beyaynetu (platter of injera with about 6 or so small vegetarian dishes and sauces poured onto it) for me and beef tibs (bits of beef and peppers cooked in sauce in a clay pot) for Olly. My fasting dish was easily enough for both of us so we had a lot of food- too much really.  We now know one fasting plate is always enough for us both.

We have heard from a few people the churches in Lalibela are a must see in Ethiopia. They are. The town sits high on a ridge overlooking a dry stark landscape and has eleven old churches. In the 12th century, after travelling to Jerusalem, King Lalibela decided he wanted to build a second Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Historians (or whoever looks into these things) think it would have taken many thousands of people (perhaps tens of thousands) twenty some years to construct these buildings but some locals, including our guide, believe it was King Lalibela who worked during the day and an angel that worked at night, explaining the seemingly miraculous buildings.

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Yesterday was Sunday and as we walked down the hill towards the churches with our guide a flood of people in white shawls were heading up after the Sunday morning masses. We paid the entrance fees and headed towards the first church.  It was hidden as we went down a ramp and some steps towards it, we were both looking down at our feet at the rough steps, when we got to the bottom, looked up, and stood with our mouths open, and gasped.  We had walked down into a deep ‘trench’ surrounding a large building with pillars all around it, the roof was level with the surrounding rock on the outside of the ‘trench’.  Olly knew the buildings were carved into rock and I thought they were built of stone, and hadn’t realised they were carved from the surrounding natural rock.  We took our shoes off in the door way and stepped into the dimly lit interior. Going inside we were memorised and the enormity of their excavation hit home.  We realised then that masons must have chiselled the outside of the building, then into the door way and from there removed all the rock from the inside as they went, chiseling the entire inside of the large pillar vaulted church!   Inside was cool and dim, as though we had stepped into a cave, shafts of sunlight picked out the small cross-shaped windows.  Thin carpets covered the uneven floors, where it didn’t quite reach the floors were polished by hundreds of years of bare feet.  Looking up into the gloom we could make out crosses and carved patterns in the vaulted ceiling connecting the robust square pillars.  We walked around slowly as our guide pointed out details and the symbolism of the church construction.

There are a number of ways the churches struck us, the immense task of actually constructing (excavating!) them is mind-boggling, they are also startlingly beautiful buildings with arches, fresco paintings and superb details carved into the ceilings and pillars.  All the time we were looking around a trickle of locals came in crossing themselves and kissing the cold stone pillars or kneeling down, touching their forehead to the floor in prayer.  Each church has its own unique features but all are beautiful and have the odd person in a quiet corner huddled over a prayer book mumbling melodically a prayer over and over. These 800 year old buildings are not museums or ruins but are alive in this deeply religious country and are used daily for services or rituals and especially pilgrimages.  In the first church the priests were rubbing a gold cross onto someone who had ‘bad spirits’, we were told that church is often the first port of call for anyone who is ill, blessings and holy water are thought to cure most ills, only afterwards would someone go to a clinic.  For us it was like watching something from another world and time, the woman with bad spirits was lying on the floor moaning, the priest rubbing and bumping her with the cross and moving her into different positions while pushing the cross into her body. This was a special cross, made of solid gold and is only brought out on Sundays (it is protected because it is pure gold and weighs 7 kilos, and was once stolen and sold to Europe, but thankfully was recovered and returned).

We are enjoying Lailbela, and will have another day or so here before heading west to Gondar area.

L and O

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Not in perfect focus but shows the inside of the first church, the scale

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Fasting Beyaynetu

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