I have been meaning to write about our trip to Lalibela but we have been getting our shipments and were busy unpacking, so I had to set blogging aside for a while. Our UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage – 700 lb of stuff from the U.S.) came the day before we went to Lalibela. The following Friday came our HHE (our largest shipment – 7200 lbs of stuff from India). Our Consumables (food, cosmetics, cleaning products, etc.) came the next Friday. The Friday after that was when our car made it to Addis but we didn’t get to take it home because it had to undergo a bunch of administrative mumbo-jumbo. We did see it though and we can’t wait to finally get our hands on it. Maybe tomorrow, we are told. So we have been busy unpacking a boatload of boxes. We are not completely done but the house is livable and I really need to blog about Lalibela.
So, in early February, we took a CLO trip to Lalibela. CLO is the Community Liaison Office at the Embassy and they organize various activities for the Embassy employees and their families, including trips. Since we don’t have our car yet, we have taken every CLO trip since we got here. Lalibela was our first CLO trip in Ethiopia and our first one outside of Addis.
Lalibela is located about 700 km/435 miles north of Addis but the terrain is quite rough and it takes a couple of days to get there by car, so we flew. I hear there are direct flights from Addis to Lalibela but we took the scenic route. We flew through Bahir Dar on the way there and through Gondar on the way back. A direct flight would have been preferable but flying through Bahir Dar and Gondar gave as an opportunity to see more of Ethiopia. We got to see lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and headwaters of the Blue Nile. You can see it on the map below located between Bahir Dar and Gondar.
Ethiopia is quite mountainous and it takes seeing it from the air to understand why it was isolated for a long time and why it was never really colonized. The Italians tried but weren’t very successful. We were there during the dry season and things looked quite parched.
There were tiny villages, made up of tukuls (traditional round houses with thatched roofs), which looked really quaint to me (that’s why I chose a picture of one for my new blog header). Life there is light years from life in Addis. People have very little and live very modestly.
We also saw a naked guy in the middle of the road. Not sure what his deal was but we saw him in the same spot on the way back two days later. Things that make you go Hmmm…
Lalibela was named after a priest who became a king. He ruled Ethiopia in late 12th/early 13th century right after Jerusalem was captured by a Muslim army. People from his kingdom would take the long and difficult journey all the way to Jerusalem to see the Holy sights but after Jerusalem was captured, he wanted to give his people a pilgrimage alternative closer to home. So he built a New Jerusalem in the area which was known as Roha at the time and made it the capital of the kingdom. The town has a number of Biblical features including a river Jordan, which is where people get baptized (though it was dry when we were there) and 11 churches cut out of the sheer rock. I had seen pictures of the churches before we went to visit but didn’t really understand how they were built nor did I have any appreciation of the gargantuan effort it must have taken to build them until I saw them in person.
Lalibela is one of the most important religious sites for Ehiopian Orthodox Christians. Even now people from all over Ethiopia flock to Lalibela on religious holidays, especially around Ethiopian Christmas when the place is teaming with people. Many of them walk hundreds of miles to get there. And as I said earlier, the terrain is rough, its elevation is roughly 2,500 m/8,200 ft, so it takes real dedication to make the long walk.
The most famous and my favorite of the 11 churches was the St. George, which is shaped like a cross and is just amazing. There is a trench which turns into a tunnel that wraps around the the huge rock the church is cut out of and that’s how you get down to the entrance of the church. It looks like this (you can also kinda see it at the top right in the next picture):
All 11 churches are active, so there were priests and pilgrims everywhere. It was interesting to observe and try to understand their culture and the way they worship. I am not going to go into a detailed description of each church because it took us the better part of two days to see them all but they were all neat. Here are my favorite moments of our time there:
Pilgrims – the white cotton scarves with embroidered silk borders are very traditional and worn in the country as well as in Addis. Women have to cover their heads when they enter a church and most of them wear scarves like these. They protect women from the cold in the mornings and the evenings and from the intense sun mid-day. The borders can be narrow and simple using just one color or wide and elaborate with beautiful, colorful designs.
Men also wear scarves though theirs are usually larger and not as fine or richly decorated.
Priests – they often wear turbans on their heads and crosses, which can be made of wood, iron or silver. Some are small and plane, others large and with very intricate designs.