We left Axum on Tuesday (January 14th) and headed for Lalibela, expected to be the highlight of our trip. But the journey there took three days, as there was plenty to see on the way.
Yeha and Debre Damo
Our first stop was at the Yeha Temple, the oldest building still standing in Ethiopia. Views of the temple were unfortunately obscured by scaffolding, but we saw some ancient books and some colourful artwork. We also witnessed an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, which seemed to go through a number of stages in order to produce a thick black brew.
Our journey continued through scenery reminiscent of New Mexico, with flat-topped mesas surrounding a plain. On top of one mesa there is a monastery called Debre Damo, which can be accessed (by men – women not allowed) only via a rope which dangles beside a sheer cliff face. We walked up about 400 steep steps to reach the bottom of the rope, and were able to watch a monk and two other men making the ascent. None of our party wanted to give it a try.
The second day was spent travelling from Adigrat to Mekelle. On the way we visited three of the famous rock-cut churches of Tigray. Some of these are completely isolated, as was the first one we visited. It involved driving several miles on an extremely rough dirt road, and then climbing up a sheer rock face to reach the church. We then had to wait several minutes for the priest to arrive with the key. And after all that, we could see very little, as there was no lighting inside the church.
The other two churches were much easier to access, being close to their respective villages. And they had electric lighting, so it was easier to see the wall paintings inside. At the third church, a communion service was in progress, but nobody seemed to mind us wandering around and taking photos.
On to Lalibela
From Mekelle to Lalibela took us 12 hours of driving across mountainous landscape. The main feature of the town is the series of churches hewn out of the rock by King Lalibela in the 12th century, supposedly with the help of angels. In a day we visited about 12 of these (it’s easy to lose count). Some of them are monolithic, that is cut completely from the rock with a trench surrounding them. Others are still partly attached to the rock, or carved into it like caves. The outsides can be very impressive, but the insides are less so – they tend to be dark and gloomy, with a few pictures scattered about and a curtained-off section where the Ark of the Covenant is kept. The churches have recently been covered by large canopies, held up by thick metal posts, to protect them from the elements – but this slightly detracts from the atmosphere.
Each of the churches has a unique processional cross, allegedly given to them by King Lalibela. In some of the churches the priest produced the cross and displayed it to us for photos. The one church which has a lot of paintings and carvings on the walls (Bet Maryam) unfortunately suffered a power cut while we were there, so they were very hard to see. Another church (Bet Golgota) allowed only men to enter – another example of institutional misogyny.
Bet Giyorgis is probably the most spectacular church from the outside. It is cut from the rock in a cross-shape, with a trench all round. In the evening sun it showed up well, especially with yellow lichen growing on it in patches.
On Saturday morning we both did a trek up the nearby mountain, Abuna Yoseph. Most of our party went up by mule, which was a new and somewhat terrifying experience for Sandie. The path is rough and incredibly steep (in some places too steep even for the mules). But when the group reached the monastery of Asheton Maryam, at the top of the mountain, they were rewarded by the most spectacular views of the landscape. Meanwhile, Ian (who didn’t fancy a mule ride) went on foot and only made it halfway up the mountain.
Timkat is the Ethiopian celebration of Epiphany, which also commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. On Saturday afternoon we watched a procession bring the (replica) tablets of the Law out of the largest rock church, wrapped in cloth and carried on priests’ heads and surrounded by umbrellas. Preceded by a chanting choir, it wound through the main street of Lalibela, joined by similar processions from all the other churches. Eventually they arrived at a large field opposite our hotel, where the tablets were all put into a large tent, where they remained overnight. There was continuous chanting, which we could hear clearly while in bed.
On Sunday morning we got up early and crossed the road again. There were still crowds of people standing facing the tent, and occasionally bowing in response to the priest’s chanting. The main event was held in an arena which had a cruciform construction filled with water, and special scaffolding to allow people a view of the action (for a price). The timing of the ceremony was somewhat vague, so Ian got fed up with waiting and returned to the hotel. Sandie waited, and witnessed the processions entering the arena. An enormous crowd gathered, and most held candles which added to the atmosphere. The climax occurs when water is sprayed over the congregation, but Sandie was unable to see this as our bus was leaving at 8am.
Later that day, the tablets of the Law are returned to their original churches. Timkat celebrations of a similar kind (though usually smaller in scale) are held throughout Ethiopia. As we journeyed to our next destination, we saw several processions taking place in the towns and villages, sometimes accompanied by chanting and energetic dancing with sticks. Everyone, it seems, is enthusiastic about Timkat.