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Missionary/Religious tours in Rock-Hewn Churches Of Lalibela-Ethiopia
In one afternoon the group saw more monks and churches that one would in a lifetime.
If there is one place one must visit at least once in a life time, it is Lalibela to see the rock hewn churches of ancient Ethiopia. These churches, literally carved within the rocks are a testimony of a grandiose civilization, perhaps never to be seen again on this planet. They are a magnificent work of art and architecture and without doubt, the eighth wonder of the world.
The road winding up the mountains and into Lalibela is dry and desolate. The terraced hills are sun-scorched, the little harvest done and the farmers waiting for the rains. It’s had to imagine a hidden wonder in this parched land.But the deceptive terrain hides the cathedrals of rock.
Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 4th century with its first foundation in Axum, a city founded in the first century. By the 9th century, Christianity was strongly in Lalibela.
“There are two sets of churches in Lalibela on either side of River Jordan,”Tsegaye Tirfe our guide gives the spiel. We’re standing in the heat of the day out side what appears to be a low ‘mabati’covered scaffold. It looks insignificant. The young tour leaders around the church hand us the twigs of pepper trees to keep us cool and the flies away while the faithful in white shammans,the Ethiopian hand woven cotton shawls pray in the Devine grounds.
The ancient churches are not just museums but are still used for the purpose they were built for-praying. As we walk nearer to the scaffold, we’re stunned because right there, standing under the tin roof is a monumental rock church-standing or freed from the rest of the rock surface as an independent structure but still part of the rock terrain. Sounds contradictory but you have to see it to believe. And if we’re awed by this one church, there are thousands more than anyone can see not only in one visit but in one lifetime in Ethiopia.
We stroll around the high rock hewn church built with the crosses carved into the walls. It’s a monumental church like all the others. Inside the cool chambers of the church, the light is dim and the walls tall. The priest comes with the cross and we are allowed pictures of him holding the most intricate of the crosses, the Lalibela cross. Because they are in big demand for posing for pictures, the men in robes wear sunglasses to protect their eyes against the flashes blitzing in their eyes.
The first European to see the churches of Lalibela was a Portuguese priest called Alvarez in the 16th century. He wrote thus:” They [meaning the readers] will not believe me if I wrote more.”
Lalibela is named after king Lalibela, a remarkable man with a dream to build the second Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Guided by the hands of the angels, as history records, many of the construction methods are still inexplicable to the modern technology.
The story of king Lalibela is as awesome of the churches he built within a span of a little over two decades when he was in his mid forties.
He was born in the province of Woll in the 12th century. His mother was convinced that his newborn son was destined to be a king and a saint for at birth; he was surrounded by a dense of clouds of bees which she believed were the proverbial soldiers who would one day serve her son. She named him Lalibela, meaning the bees recognize his sovereignty.
We are in and out of churches, walking through narrow mazes and pitch dark under ground tunnels listening to Tsegaye’s narration. Empty holes etched in the rock walls look at first like pork marks. Seeing our puzzled faces Tsegaye explains,” These are monk holes.”
“Monk holes?” we repeat wondering what that means.” Monk sleeps in them.” There is a cacophony of questions from the group
”How do they do that?”
“Can they fit in there?” It seems punishment to the normal being.
“Yes, they sleep in them even today because they want to be near the churches. Some monks are even buried in them.”
When the group disappears around the bend, I climb into one which is a bit of a feat trying to scale a smooth vertical surface. It does look frighteningly claustrophobic as I crawl into the dim vault. I reach the end and turn around to face the outside rock and the rock church and suddenly it doesn’t seem as daunting as it did at first. Its cool and as I lie down my hand brushes the weathered skullcap of a monk who lay here before me. There is an aura of peace around me.
Monks clad in simple cotton cloth walk in and out of the maze f tunnels. It would be easy to fill a book of many pages on the churches. A gigantic cross curved on the rock surface surrounded by a stretch shows. You have to be their to imagine the very scale of the depth the cross curved on the surface. As the story goes, Lalibela’s older brother Harbay was jealous of his brother being the chosen monarch. A poisonous concoction was left for Lalibela who fell into a three-day coma after drinking it. It was during his sleep that Lalibela went to angels in heaven and God told him to return to the ancient land of Roha, today called Lalibela.God showed him exactly how the churches were supposed to be built hence the magnificent of Lalibela today.
It’s been another full day of churches and walking. We take a photo shoot up one of the peaks of Lalibela surrounded by other massifs. The chill of the evening descends clothing the mountains in one mist. On the narrow lanes full of people walking out, we found a local ‘tel’house where the lady of the tavern, Askalen brings out the local brew, a fermented honey and wheat concoction and performs the coffee ceremony as we dance to the local numbers watched by the amused peasants coming in for there favorite toddy.
Contact your travel agent www.landmarksafaris.com for your passage to Ethiopia or simply drive across the border through Moyale .Nairobi /Addis Ababa/Nairobi is US 0. The local currency is Birr. You can change your dollars at the airport or the hotels because they have the same rate of exchange.
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About the Author: Robert is a tour consultant in Kenya and has planned business and vacation safaris for over 10,000 tourists in the East African region. He is a tour operation- major and involved in National tourism policy development in Kenya.
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