Thursday, April 19, 2012

In The Cradle of Ethiopian Orthodoxy

Lalibela is the heart of Ethiopian Orthodoxy. It lies up north sort of smack dab in the middle
of mountains, 1/3 of the northern loop that is the required course for tourists visiting Ethiopia. After Aksum and Gonder, my next stop was Lalibela, where I met up with Bob and Denis on Good Friday for the weekend. This was one of the most special times to be here given it was Orthodox Easter weekend and there was not only a lot to see, but to witness the rituals of this high holy weekend.
Known for its 11 churches dug out from stone, Lalibela is amazing. Centuries ago, King Lalibela began this Herculean task of digging out of the rock sided hills 11 magnificent churches, all made out of one entire piece of stone. Legend has it that Lalibela’s brother poisoned him and while in a coma, the king went up to heaven where God told him to make the
churches and create a second Jerusalem. The legend also says that God sent down angels to help King Lalibela build the churches. His subjects worked all day, the angels working all night. Whether true or not, these churches are a miracle of engineering, planning and artistry.
Our guide for the 2 days we were in Lalibela, Mulule, took us around to all the churches and
explained in detail the history and special features of each church. It was rather tricky on Good Friday since each church was packed with worshippers and we had to squeeze our way through the crowds and over people going up and down furtively in prayer. We stayed at St. Georgiyos church for
the procession around the church to symbolize Christ’s walk up to Calvary Hill where he was crucified. With bright coloured, glittery umbrellas, censers wafting aromatic frankincense, and big gold crosses on staffs, the priests led everyone around this ancient church. It was a beautiful ritual, and
as was we walked around the church I reflected on how many times this procession has been done. It felt like something that harked back to the time of the first Christians and it felt so real. We are just mere people taking part in an ancient ritual—many have done this befire us, and many will do it after us. Humanity expressing their respect for their religion and their God. It wasn’t just another tourist experience but a chance to take part in an ancient Ethiopian
religious tradition.
Saturday was a better day to see the churches for no one, and I mean no one, was there. The Good Friday crowd was down at the town market buying their goats, chickens, sheep and ther food
for their Easter feast. Ethiopians fast for 55 days, denying themselves all animal products, and the final day before Easter, they have no food or water. From the churches we could see the mass of people at the market place down below St. Georgiyos church, and as we made our way through town, the locals would pass us with upsidedown chickens and sheep or goats on a small leash. The churches
we visited on Saturday morning were amazing as well, especially Bet Emmanuel, one of the largest churches carved out of the rock. What’s interesting is that most of the churches are not painted inside with frescoes or intricately carved. Maybe because after carving these monolithic churches out of rock, they were too tired to spend the time making the inside look nice. I bought a white cotton wrap that everyone was wearing over the weekend, the required white wrap that one must
wear when going to the church on the holy days. It was a little short, but I was able to wrap myself up in it sufficiently. Mulule had a longer one on that he wore the entire time he was with us.
After lunch at a fabulous new restaurant in town Ben Abeba, co owned by an Ethiopian and a
Scottish woman. This new place has made its mark on Lalibela with its very unique architecture—a structure that resembles some organic plant life sprouting flowers. Overlooking the valley, it is the perfect place to watch the sunset, and also look up at the towering moutain above the town. If you ever
get to Lalibela, put this place on your dining itinerary for it is worth it. Not only is the ambience wonderful, the food is delicious. Mulule met up with us at the restaurant and we piled into a van and drove off to see Yemrahana Kristos—another ancient church set in a cave up in the hills 45 kms
outside of Lalibela. The road is not too long, but it is not the best road so it takes about 1.5 hours to get there. It’s definitely worth the drive, for it is a beautiful wood and stone church that is
almost as old as the ones in Lalibela. My favorite part was the skeletons scattered in the back in a large recess in the rock. Over the years pilgrims have come here to die and their mummified remains are all that are left of them. They’ve fallen apart with time so now one can see piles of femurs, skulls, rib cages, and such just lying there. Creepy, but fascinating.
The highlight of our trip was definitely Easter service on Saturday night. People start gathering at the churches from 9pm and the priests sit outside the church, chanting, praying and reading from the Bible. Worshippers lay on the ground around the church in their white cloths and it looks like a sea of white glowing in the darkness. We had a perch up top on the edge, overlooking the priests and Bet Maryam (the church of Mary) and with a glorious view of the stars. As it got
later, more and more people came, locals and tourists, and the chanting and drums and singing could be heard from all the other churches. At 11:30 or so, there was a candle light procession around the church with more chanting and drumming, which was just magical. The soft glow of the hundreds of candles, reflecting off the white shawls, the drummers, the big velvet and gold umbrellas,
the frankincense, the chanting made this a wonderfully spiritual experience. Afterwards, everyone layed down and there was a quietness that fell over the town. The tradition is that you lay down until the priest announces that Christ has risen. Only then do you arise, just like Christ. This rising symbolizes rebirth and is marked by yelling and rejoicing loudly. Beautiful, is all I can say.
Eggs are not part of the Ethiopian tradition, but reeds are. On Saturday, everyone gets a piece of reed that they split and tie around their heads. Like the egg, the reed symbolizes new
life and rebirth. We got our reeds from a priest in one of the churches and wore them around our heads all day and night. Interesting to see the different Easter traditions around the world. I missed making Easter eggs this year, but was happy donning my reed around my head all day.
Easter morning came with the sounds of chickens cackling and sheeps and goats baaing their
last sounds before becoming a family’s Easter dinner. Around 9, the cacophony ceased and it seemed like the dreaded end came to those animals I could hear from my hotel room. Sad to know that the animals ended their lives this way, but such is life. I was talking to an American gentleman at breakfast who is working on a USAID agricultural project here, and he was telling me about the impact that fasting has on agriculture, especially all the cow’s milk and eggs that go to waste
because no one is eating them for 55 days. Interesting thought, there should be alternatives to this food use so as not to waste so much.
At 1pm Bob, Denis and I were aboard a Bombadier plane full of other tourists heading back to the capital after an exciting 5 days in northern Ethiopian. Just two more days and I’ll be on a bigger plane, heading back to my home base, New York City! I’ll have to enjoy the rest of my trip as much as possible!

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