Home :: NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND: PART THREE: the stone Churches of Lalibela

NORTHERN ETHIOPIA OVERLAND: PART THREE: the stone Churches of Lalibela


by Diana McLeod

In the morning we visited the stone churches of Lalibela, starting with the Northwestern group. They are truly remarkable, not only for their age (most were made in the 12th and 13th centuries) but also because they are not really buildings. They are sculptures. Pious Ethiopian kings commissioned them to be carved from solid rock. Luckily for the laborers, the rock in the area was compressed volcanic ash, which is far softer than most rock, and it carves relatively easily. Stone carvers started from the top down, sculpting the multi-storied “buildings” out of pure stone. Actually, the most difficult part of the labor was not digging out the churches themselves, but the areas around them. Tons and tons of material had to be removed so the each church could be a free-standing building inside its giant hole. Interiors had to be carefully planned so that the remaining pillars could support the weight of the solid stone roofs above. These rock-hewn churches are phenomenal evidence of the religious devotion of generations of religious Ethiopians.

The great king Lalibela himself was supposedly responsible for many of these churches. According to legend, the king was poisoned by his half-brother. During his coma, angels supposedly transported him to heaven, where God told him to re-create Jerusalem in Ethiopia, because a pilgrimage to the real city was too dangerous a journey at that time. He returned from his near-death experience and started serious work on his new task. He even tried to duplicate the “map” of historic Jerusalem. Names convey this concept today: the river “Jordan” flows through the area, and to get to some of the churches, the pilgrim first has to cross it. There is also a “Tomb of Adam” and “Calvary.”

These ancient and monumental holy places are fairly simple places inside, with large, open columned halls and little decoration. The tall ceilings and pillars do evoke a calm, meditative state when the daylight filters through the windows in long, slanting beams. Some of these windows are cut in the shape of Maltese crosses so they illuminate the interior with crosses of golden light when the sun hits them just right. Other windows were a throwback to an earlier age, with Axumite half moon tops copied from Pagan times.

At the back of each church is a curtained-off room called the “holy of holies. ” Only the priests are allowed to enter this area, because this is where the church'’s copy of the Ark of the Covenant resides. (There is a persistent rumor that the “True Ark” was brought to Ethiopia soon after Christ'’s death, and that it was hidden, and that thousands of false copies were then made, in order to keep it safe for all time. Every church in Ethiopia has one, and any one of them could be the real thing. While this is all highly unlikely, it gives each and every church in the country a spiritual power and legitimacy that most other churches around the world will never have. If there ever were such an Ark in Ethiopia, it would be highly likely that it would have been brought here, to Lalibela, since this has been the holiest pilgrimage spot in the country for centuries.)

I felt greatly at peace in these cool, hushed, pillared halls, and I certainly felt a tug on my imagination as I looked at those curtained rooms. The religious fervor of the priests and visiting Ethiopian pilgrims added to the aura of sanctity within.

The House of Mary church was by far the most interesting. Ethiopian churches use imagery to teach the gospel, and this was no exception. Even from the outside, the building itself told a story, just from its windows. At the back of the church, there were ten different windows, each with a different meaning. The top three rectangular windows represented the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Below that was a cross, representing the crucifixion. Below that, there were two half moon shaped windows, which symbolized Christ in the womb of Mary. At the bottom, there was another row of three windows. The one in the center was another cross for Christ, and the other two were for the two men he was crucified with. They were depicted with swastika- shaped windows. (This was an ancient good luck symbol which Hitler later bastardized for his own evil purposes.) According to the Orthodox teachings, one of these men went to heaven, but the other went to hell. There was one last oddly shaped and off-center window below, which signified the path that the unfortunate bandit took to perdition.

Inside the church there were ten arches,– one for each of the Ten Commandments. This church was elegantly decorated, with upstairs galleries for important pilgrims to look down from, and ornate “endless knot” and Greek key designs on the ceiling. The Central pillar was covered with cloth, because it supposedly has revelations to the mystery of the world'’s beginning and the world'’s end written on it. Nobody is allowed to see the pillar, because they would then know the truth about Judgment Day. Only the head priest of the church is privy to the mysteries, and it is his job to keep the pillar wrapped up tightly.

There were many churches, with many interesting and unique features. To get to one church, you had to enter an underground passageway and then cross a narrow stone bridge over a carved “chasm” twenty feet deep. There were several dark and spooky tunnels. Inside one of them, I was positive that I felt the presence of somebody right behind me. When I turned to let them pass, there was nobody there. But the hairs on my arms were standing straight up.

We went to lunch at a hotel called “The Seven Olives.” The rambling old hotel was built high up above a small, forested area, and the outdoor dining area was built right among the trees. A huge birdfeeder was the center of attention. Many interesting and colorful African bird species swooped in to help themselves to the bounty, from the largest Hornbills to the smallest wrens, finches and sparrows. Brilliantly iridescent sunbirds flitted among trees covered in sprays of purple blossoms. They were so brilliantly plumed and fun to watch! It was quite a bird show!

We struck up a conversation with the people at the next table, and it turned out that one of them was the head of the Ethiopian chapter of the well known charity organization Oxfam America. This gentleman was mostly responsible for assisting Ethiopian farmers to attain “Fair Trade” status for most Ethiopian coffee. He also won a lawsuit preventing the coffee chain Starbucks from trademarking the word "“Ethiopian"” in coffee marketed inside the U.S. and Europe. If the chain had succeeded, no Ethiopian growers would have been able to legally market their national name in exported coffee at all, except to Starbucks!

We enjoyed our conversation with these dedicated people, although we did bemoan the fact that the term “Fair Trade” cannot easily be applied to the jewelry and handicraft business, since most of the people we deal with cannot qualify for legal “Fair Trade” status. (It is an impossible task for tiny family businesses who work in their own homes and who do not have assistance to help them with the arduous paperwork. If they do not have a factory that can be inspected and which can pass international standards for the workplace, they cannot qualify.) He shook his head and said that what we were doing –- making direct contact with as many family entrepreneurs as possible in many countries -– was what “the intention of Fair Trade” is really all about. It felt good to hear a true “Fair Trade” pioneer being supportive of our business model.

After lunch, we had a little time to kill before meeting up with our driver again, so Dave decided to go and get a haircut. (Dave likes to get a haircut in every country we go to- it’'s a habit that always makes for a memorable experience.) Dave reasoned that, since Ethiopian men all have curly African hair, the barbers there would be unfamiliar with his straight Caucasian locks. He thought he would have better luck at a ladies’ salon, because many Ethiopian girls straighten their hair. So, he trotted off to find a ladies’ beauty parlor. There was one right on the corner, and he went inside to negotiate a price. The young girl on duty clearly thought that he was crazy. So did the crowd of young men who were tagging along with us (We rarely were able to walk around town without an entourage of “new friends,” most of whom were hoping for a handout of some kind.) I showed the young hairdresser how much hair she should take off the top of Dave'’s head. She proceeded to get out the oldest, saddest, dullest scissors I have ever seen in my life, and began to hack. When the scissors didn'’t cut well enough, she got annoyed and tried to yank his hair tight so it would cut better. Dave howled in protest whenever she pulled too hard. In the end, I think she tore out as much hair as she actually cut. The boys pointed and burst into gales of laughter, which only made her angrier. This made her tug harder, which made Dave squirm and yelp, which only provoked more guffaws.

And the result? Well, I suppose it was an improvement. Dave'’s hair was shorter and somewhat neater, but there were spots that looked that looked as though he’d been in a dogfight and had lost some of his fur. When Sisay (our driver) heard what we’'d done, he looked carefully at the results and he laughed so hard that I actually thought he was going to pee himself. He had to pull over and stop the car. His laughter cracked us up, in turn. It took several minutes before we all got ourselves under control. Finally, he drove off, wiping tears from his eyes. (Sisay: when you read this, as I know you will, enjoy the memory, but don'’t hurt yourself laughing)

OK, back to the real story: That afternoon, we toured the most famous Lalibela church of them all: the Church of St. George. This one makes a marvelous photograph, because it is shaped like a giant cross. The building is cut straight down three stories from its cross shaped roof. Distinctive carved windows and a little portico in the front decorate its exterior. It is an arresting and unique piece of sculpted architecture, enhanced by a subtle reddish color. I wondered if the color was natural or manmade. The church sits in the gigantic hole that was dug for it. To get to the church itself, a stairway is dug down about a story and a half deep, which turns into a tunnel. This tunnel links the outside world with the churchyard. Once inside the churchyard, you can see niches and little caves dug into the manmade cliff. One of them holds the mummified remains of ancient people (priests? pilgrims?) who perished here long ago.

Inside, I must confess, I was a bit disappointed. The interior was quite plain, almost as if the builders were weary and eager to finish, after the monumental labor it must have taken to carve out the exterior.

We walked back to the Seven Olives for dinner that night, and they served us the best meal we had in Ethiopia. We had a succulent lamb stew in a clay hotpot, served in a tomato and chickpea “"chipotle"” sauce with an aromatic, spicy, smoky flavor. There was also a wonderful vegetable dish of spinach and sweet carrots (the carrots here are divine-– much better than our supermarket carrots back home. They even beat the special Vermont organic ones by a two-to-one margin). They were mixed with onions, potatoes and other goodies, and served in another heated clay pot.


When Sisay picked us up in the morning, he was appalled to find out that we had walked all the way to the Seven Olives and back the night before, all by ourselves. He asked why we didn'’t call him and ask him to drive us. Apparently, most of his guests would never consider trying to find their way through an Ethiopian town by themselves, especially at night. He'’s not used to independent travelers.

That morning, we toured the ancient monastery of Ashetan Maryam. This primitive church was built under a huge overhanging cliff. The monks showed us their collection of treasures, which included very old illuminated manuscripts, crowns, crosses and ceremonial drums. Part of the sacred enclosure was a natural cavern, in which water dripped continuously from the cave roof into a natural limestone pool. Basins carved of limestone were placed below to catch the pure drips of holy water, which the monks claimed was endowed with special healing powers.

The road back to Addis was not terribly memorable, except for one scenic overlook. But our last hotel was amusing. The hotel thoughtfully left some amenities which were placed on the night stands for their guests’ convenience. On one side was, of course, the Bible. On the other nightstand was a colorful selection of condom packets. At least this hotel could not be accused of contributing to AIDS in Africa.

Thanks for reading!, Diana

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