The road to Lalibela

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.

Cross cut into the wall of Yeha temple

Cross cut into the wall of Yeha temple

Ancient book at Yeha

Ancient book at Yeha

Coffee ceremony

Coffee ceremony

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 mesa on which Debre Damo is located

The mesa on which Debre Damo is located

View from Debre Damo

View from Debre Damo

Showing how it's done

The ascent to the church

Showing how it's done

Showing how it’s done

Tigray churches

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 climb up to the first church

The climb up to the first church

The front of the first church

The front of the first church

Inside the first church

Inside the first 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.

Interior of second church, with its priest

Interior of second church, with its priest

Detail of ceiling of second church

Detail of ceiling of second church

Interior of third church

Interior of third church

Priests in the the third church

Priests in the the third church

Wall paintings in the third church

Wall paintings in the third church

The head priest gives a blessing

The head priest gives a blessing

Waiting for alms outside the church

Waiting for alms outside the church

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.

The largest monolithic church

The largest monolithic church

One of the other monolithic churches

One of the other monolithic churches

Window detail

Window detail

A trench surrounding one of the churches

A trench surrounding one of the churches

Studying down in the trench

Studying down in the trench

A church cut into the rock (originally a palace)

A church cut into the rock (originally a palace)

One of the non-monolithic churches (roof still attached to the rock)

One of the non-monolithic churches (roof still attached to the rock)

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.

Priest with his church's special cross

Priest with his church’s special cross

Painted ceiling of Bet Maryam

Painted ceiling of Bet Maryam

Carving of a saint in Bet Golgota (men only)

Carving of a saint in Bet Golgota (men only)

Raphael (the saint, not the turtle)

Raphael (the saint, not the turtle)

Don't know who this guy is, but he likes cats

Don’t know who this guy is, but he likes cats

Light from outside

Light from outside

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.

Bet Giyorgis from above

Bet Giyorgis from above

View from the side

View from the side

View from the trench

View from the trench

St George

St George

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.

A mountain to climb

A mountain to climb

View over Lalibela on the way up

View over Lalibela on the way up

Sandie on a mule heading up the mountain

Sandie on a mule heading up the mountain

In the monastery - man with two crosses

In the monastery – man with two crosses

Inside the monastery

Inside the monastery

View from the top

View from the top

Walking back under the cliff

Walking back under the cliff

Timkat

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.

Priests arriving for the ceremony

Priests arriving for the ceremony

The tablets of the Law carried in procession

The tablets of the Law carried in procession

The procession moves through the town, joined by others

The procession moves through the town, joined by others

An excited crowd at the destination

An excited crowd at the destination

Processional crosses

Processional crosses

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.

Gathering at the baptism pond

Gathering at the baptism pond

One of the spectators

One of the spectators

Priests in the crowd

Priests in the crowd

The clergy line up

The clergy line up

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.

Part of a procession on the road

Part of a procession on the road

Dancers with sticks

Dancers with sticks

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