Ruby and I had to admit Sampson had been right: the appallingly steep ascent into Lalibela would’ve killed Big Reg’s engine if we’d carried on in the heat of the day before. Even more challenging, the road was still in the process of being built, and traffic was expected to just squeeze around the roadworks despite the terrifying sheer drops either side. It was as nerve-racking as entering Matadi in DRC, but thankfully not as crowded.
We found our way to the main square, ignored the hustlers who flocked round the truck and entered Seven Olives: the oldest hotel, with the best food and the warmest welcome in Lalibela. This haven of 46 rooms was commissioned by Haile Selassie’s granddaughter Princess Hirut in 1967, but we chose it because its carpark was both beautifully shady and miraculously marooned from the unrelenting badgering of the market traders’ street below.
The myriad of birds gathered in the trees surrounding it, and the giant rondavel restaurant decorated with indigenous styled artwork and a woven roof were a bonus. The manager Mr Belay had the looks and energy of an Ethiopian Sylvester McCoy, while receptionist Mr Kenaw was a gem – he immediately took us to a jewellry shop to see if they could help us source some new gas (they use it for cleaning silver). No joy, but on the bright side, the lack gave us carte blanche to eat out for a couple of days.
While Sampson and Zola transferred the rest of the WVO we’d collected in Khartoum into the Jojo tank to settle, Ruby and I sat on Seven Olives’ blissfully shady terrace drinking Ethiopian coffee and bissap tea respectively. After the gruelling last few days, it felt so lovely, like a proper holiday! While I wrote up my diary, she made use of the weedy wifi to greet Uncle Pierrot and her friends. When we heard Afrikaans floating over from a table of hipster tourists nearby we were gobsmacked. They were from Pretoria and it was the first sign that we were nearing home.
A Brief History of Ethiopia part 3
Around 900CE, the Zagwe dynasty established a kingdom which spread from the highlands of Eritrea to Lake Tana. Its capital came to be named after the monarch who was reputed to have commissioned a series of monolithic churches there: King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. During the time of the Crusades, the Zagwe rulers strove to provide peace and stability in a theocratic society – three of their kings were canonised as saints – in contrast with the warlike Solomonic dynasty that followed.
In 1270 BC, nobleman Yekuno Amlak, who claimed to descend from the last Axumite king and ultimately the biblical Menelik I, overthrew the Agaw kingdom of the Zagwe and established the Solomonic dynasty with himself as nəgusä nägäst, King of Kings or Emperor of Abyssinia. The Empire expanded significantly through through the Tigray, Amhara and Shewa regions under the crusades of Amda Seyon I (1314–1344) and Yeshaq I (1414–1429), temporarily becoming the dominant force of the African Horn.
Subsequent rulers Zara Yaqob (1434–1468) and Lebna Dengel (1508-40) battled with neighbouring Muslim kingdoms the Hadiya Sultanate and the Adal Sultanate, who were only defeated in 1543 with the help of the Portuguese. This power struggle centred around the fascinating story of Queen Eleni of Ethiopia, who suffered a fate similar to Helen of Troy, but ended up wielding far more power during the reigns of three subsequent emperors.
* * *
Outside the (closed) Tourist Information office, we met a lady from Hong Kong that we’d sheltered from the hail with in Gondar! Voluble Alex told us she thought the $50 tourist tickets ($25 for under 14) valid for 3 days’ entrance to all 11 rock-hewn churches were a rip off for non-Westerners such as us. She reckoned we didn’t all need to buy one because “they don’t check”. Her theory was to prove a boon in this month where we’d blown more than half of our rental income on unplanned flights for Ruby.
We invited Alex back to eat with us at the Seven Olives restaurant, where she entertained us for 3 hours with stories of her extensive travels beyond Asia and Europe, from South America and the Middle East to North Africa. Most fascinating were her photos of the salt pans, hot springs, acid pools and lava lakes of the Danakil Depression in Afar in eastern Ethiopia, a vast volcanic plain 100m below sea level, shaped by the slow separation of three tectonic plates.
The average annual temperature in Addis Ababa is 16°C, with daily maximum temperatures averaging 20–25°C throughout the year. But Dallol in the Danakil Depression has the world’s highest average annual temperature of 34°C. The terrain looked very Star Wars, with crystal pillars and surreal colours of bright yellow, turquoise and neon green, looking more like somewhere on other planet rather than on the border with Djibouti. Indeed, scientists are researching microbes there that thrive in extreme acidity, heat and salinity in order to anticipate investigations of potential life on Mars. Here’s an actual paper on it, Ruby.
We had guessed Alex was around 30 years old but she turned out to be 52! She told us horror stories about the prices of houses in Hong Kong, while the kids ordered roast chicken and Sampson the ‘stuffed steak’. I think I chose best with the traditional ‘fasting food’ platter, a colourful selection of delicious flavours both vegan and gluten-free.
Traditional Ethiopian wat stew is usually served on a pancake of teff flour called injera which you tear and use to scoop up the different sauces. I loved the lentil, split pea and spinach stews but had to leave the ground chick pea shiro when I realised it had MSG in it. All four of us ate for 600 Birr, about R250, and were very full. That night’s episode of This Is Us was so lovely, and the evening ended with a full family pile-on-the-bed hug.
The rich food gave me a full body sweat and had me waking every hour but thankfully no insomnia. I was relieved that the pain in my legs from walking up the hill yesterday was only about the same as the remaining PEM in my arms. So today was the day to attempt to tour the churches.
Having survived the drive up here, Sampson was also feeling more chipper, cheery at the prospect of inventing a MacGyver fix for the radiator. This morning, he caught me up around the waist and kissed me genuinely for the first time in forever. After T’ai Chi to loosen my hips, helping Zola make EMS revision notes, and another gas-free lunch of tuna and grated carrot, the kids and I set off down the road to the Ticket Office.
Our bags were searched before we filled in chits with our details while a rather smug middle-aged monk made a great display of reading his holy book and chanting piously. I registered the kids but not me, explaining that we couldn’t afford $50 each for all of us and it was more important that they were given the chance to see this unique African heritage, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. (Plus there was no way I could physically manage to walk around all 11 churches.)
We went into the next room to pay. An ancient fellow, who reminded me of my great-grandad Albert, was propped on a high wooden bench behind glass laboriously filling in carbon receipts in long hand like some Dickensian scribe. There was one price for Ethiopians and one for foreigners; I respectfully suggested that three tiers with a mid-priced African/Asian tourist level might attract more of us?
A large well-heeled European tour group were ushered through ahead of us and it felt a bit unfair that their pack of blonde brats were allowed in for free, as they bounced about chewing on Haribos, completely oblivious to the precious opportunity being offered to them.
Ruby and Zola followed them on their walk around the Northern group of churches: the largest Bete Medhane Alem (House of the Saviour of the World), the oldest Bete Mariam (House of Mary), the chapel Bete Meskal (House of the Cross), the smallest Bete Denagel (House of Virgins) and the twin churches Bete Golgotha Mikael (House of Golgotha and Mikael).
There were no tourist leaflets available, or reading material on the walls, presumably to make hiring a guide indispensable. While I sat waiting, I chatted with the security guard’s children and asked if I could take a picture of Boss Monk’s intricatedly folded palm leaf rings secured with fine gold twine.
From Wikipedia, I have subsequently learned that the churches date from the 7th to 13th centuries, although traditionally assigned to the reign of the Zagwe King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (1181–1221). Lalibela, revered as a saint, is said to have decided to build a new Jerusalem as his capital in response to the retaking of old Jerusalem by Saladin in 1187. Each church was carved from a single piece of rock to symbolize spirituality and humility.
Construction proceeded from the top down to a depth of 20-25m, using basic hammers and chisels to excavate trenches surrounding the monolithic and semi-monolithic structures as well as a system of tunnels out of the scoriaceous basalt which connect the two separate groups of churches with each other.
It is a breathtaking achievement, especially when you touch the rock they were hewn from and feel its unyielding nature. I remember the parable about building your house on rock but this was taking Matthew 7:24 to the next level. Bete Medhane Alem is a three storey high church with five aisles. Whose vision was that? To craft it from one piece of rock?? With a chisel???
Situating the churches underground meant they were not easily visible to invaders; it seems Ethiopians’ judicious defensiveness goes back over a millennium. Their faith is not just built on rock, it is protected by it. There are two hundred rock-hewn churches and monasteries all over the country, some even more hidden.
With funding from the EU, four (shockingly ugly) shelters were erected in 2008 to cover five of the site’s churches in an attempt to provide a temporary mode of protection from the elements until a more long-term solution could be decided upon. However, the shelters have remained in place for far longer than they were meant to, and consequently pose serious dangers to the buildings underneath – there is a risk of collapse due to earthquake among other factors. The Director of the local Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage has indicated that the shelters must be removed; however there are still not yet any definitive plans in place.
Ruby came back very chuffed with the photos she’d taken. She showed them to me as we sat in the shade of some ancient trees at the top of a hill between the Northern and Southern church clusters, rehydrating and eating sesame seed snacks. It was very hot and humid, and we were glad we’d brought both umbrellas.
We walked down the hill to reach the churches on the south side of a massive rock-cut trench accommodating the non-perennial stream known as the river Jordan. The capacity of a very old woman with sticks walking past us over uneven ground amazed me – no wonder everyone was so fit here, going up these hills all the time.
The steep slopes next to each church were full of white-scarfed people celebrating mass. I had never before seen Christians praying like Muslims, up and down on their knees, bending their foreheads to the ground repeatedly and crossing themselves with two hands as the service was intoned by monks over loud speakers.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is more ancient and places more emphasis on Old Testament teachings than the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Protestant churches. Many of its traditions and practices have more in common with Orthodox or Conservative Judaism. Followers remove their shoes before entering holy ground, observe the Sabbath and practice circumcision. Devout believers attend daily services and are expected to maintain 250 fast days per year. The longest period of fasting is the 55 days of Lent prior to Easter and the festival of Fasika, where no meat or animal products of any kind are eaten and alcohol and sexual activity are refrained from.
Zola became increasingly unhappy as the crowds got bigger. I felt he was about to mutiny when we were saved by the rain – as heavy drops began pelting down, we sheltered with a group of small boys under a ruined tukul roof. They shyly greeted and – in the absence of any useful signage – told us the route to the most famous Bete Giyorgis was through the churches below us rather than up and around.
On the southeastern side, the fortified palace of Bete Gabriel Raphael connects via a 35m unlit ‘passage through hell’ tunnel to the cave-like Bete Merkorios, complete with iron shackles; the Bete Abba Libanos (House of Abbot Libanos) was, according to legend, constructed in a single night by Lalibela’s wife Meskel Kebra, with help from angels; the Bete Leham (House of Holy Bread) is little more than a monastic cell but the Bete Emanuel is thought to be the former private church of the royal family.
Zola really didn’t want to go, but he didn’t want to walk back alone either. I was so glad Ruby was here with us to persuade him to come along because I didn’t want to force him, and he certainly wouldn’t have been confident enough to proceed with just me. After she gently pep-talked him, we went through a tiny passage into a tiny church and found ourselves surrounded by women sitting together convivially rather than praying. It seemed a pleasant respite from the world outside.
Only once we came out and through and over and down the road and reached the other side did we come across a tourist information map – perhaps we’d come at the whole thing backwards.
Finally we found the way and as we rounded a corner, caught sight of the St George’s cross cut into the ground I’d been waiting so long to see. Bete Giyorgis was constructed last of all of Lalibela’s churches, apparently after Saint George appeared to the King and asked him why no church had yet been consecrated to him?
There were a hundred or so people sitting above it, another hundred or so below, all apparently waiting for something. By complete fluke, we seemed to have arrived in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Our positioning was nothing short of spectacular, so we found a gap, sat down and tried to blend in.
About 5 minutes later, we were approached by a custodian who asked if we had tickets – “of course!” Ruby and I played it brilliantly: while I fumbled in my bag for my purse with the three receipts folded together (Ruby’s, Zola’s and Alex’s) Ruby passed him the roadblock kit family pic with the explanation of our trip in Amharic and he was so delighted by the story and her friendliness, he didn’t pay close attention to the latter’s dates.
When we looked up again, a procession was approaching. As one, the crowd around us rose and set off down the slope, so we fell in. A man in a green beanie started sounding on a horn, heralding the arrival of the parade of white-clad figures. Propelled forward by the crowd, again I found myself perfectly positioned to take pics of the procession circling the church below.
Somewhere in the middle of this extraordinary 15 minutes, I realised this couldn’t possibly be a daily occurrence and Friday 6th April 2018 must indeed be Good Friday in Ethiopia – a week after South Africa’s. We had lucked into witnessing the conclusion of the most important service at Lalibela’s most famous church on the most holy day of their year! It really felt like someone had slipped some Felix Felicis in our water during our snack stop.
After the conclusion of the ceremony, the crowd melted away surprisingly quickly; in hindsight I realise that people were rushing home to break their long fast! Zola immediately relaxed and we sat and enjoyed the views of the last golden light over the monument and surrounding mountains.
It was closing time 6pm, just too late for us to enter, but I was finished anyway so we jumped in a bajaj for a 10 minute ride back. This was Zola’s favourite bit of the day, and he was grinning as our daredevil driver, curly Thomas, swerved around goats and donkeys up the long long incline to Seven Olives. Squashed safely between my big babies, I was glowing with the sense of being incredibly blessed to have witnessed this Good Friday and shared it with both my kids. If Ruby hadn’t been here, Zola would never have stuck with it and we’d have missed the finale. I felt like the luckiest woman alive.
Without internet access to allow me to do any research beforehand, unable to read up more than the very basic outline about Lalibela in our Lonely Planet Africa book, I’d felt unprepared for this experience. But it forced us to be more open to clues, operate more like travellers from centuries ago, working out what’s going on from what you can see and hear. (Like Mary Bateson in her Persian garden – that’s just for Kleh.)
I’ve had the added joy of discovering much more about the churches since and filling in the gaps of my knowledge. Once again, as on so many occasions on the trip, I have been shocked by how completely ignorant my ‘topnotch’ Western education is of these treasures of the continent’s heritage. A deafening silence continues to be maintained on the implications of attempting to enslave a sophisticated religious culture more ancient, more constant and more devout than ours.
More tragic is the fact that my kids’ African education didn’t mention Lalibela either. Why isn’t Bete Giyorgis as well known and immediately identifiable with Ethiopia as the Eiffel Tower is with France or Big Ben is with Britain?
If African children don’t see themselves in history, as kings and queens, heroes and conquerors and survivors, builders of palaces and cathedrals and libraries and impregnable fortresses of faith, is it any wonder they might grow to lack belief in themselves as potential beings of importance? Of immortal fame? Or even just agency?
There was a tangible feeling that ancient history is alive and well in Ethiopia, being nurtured alongside the present. The slow-burning realisation that this is how visiting the rest of Africa should feel like was beginning to hurt. The awareness that the deep layers of Ethiopia’s cultural richness had been wiped out everywhere else by colonialism was weighing heavily on me. My growing appreciation of the black hole of the appalling Absence of indigenous history was dragging an immense sorrow in its wake.
Ethiopia’s towering culture stands quiet and defiant like Bete Giyorgis, glorious in the sunset, surrounded on all sides by the yawning chasm of its neighbours’ history, still hidden from hegemony, only visible if you make an effort to go and look for it.
Do yourself a favour and check out this impressive immersive tour of Lalibela churches, created by the Zamani Project at UCT in partnership with the Aga Khan University. It’s just one of 65 heritage sites across Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia comprehensively documented in their phenomenal Black Monuments Matter online exhibition to promote awareness and pride in neglected ancient cultures, from the pyramids of Sudan and ruins of Swahili kingdoms to the great mosques of Mali.
If you’d like to get a sense of the atmosphere of that day, please enjoy this beautiful video of worshippers.
We got back to find Sampson very happy with his day’s work of designing a DIY sprinkler system for the radiator. He’d dropped rice and lentils into the kitchen earlier so we went straight into the restaurant where the darling cooks served us big portions of simple dahl with garlic and spinach and only charged us 100Br for 4. It was delicious and just what we all needed.
We had a quick chat to Jeremy and Margot Otty of Silvermine Village – who’d seen Sampson’s last show show at Café Roux in Noordhoek! – before beetling back to the truck to watch 2 episodes of This Is Us while holding hands snivelling.
Afterwards, while Dad was telling Zola how important it was not to measure your self-worth against internet standards of achievement (he still thinks he’s rubbish at everything including unicycling because of YouTube) Ruby came on the bed for a cuddle with me and PJ. I said I needed to see her just as much as she needs to see us, as does Zola.
“Yes” she agreed, “He needs me to knock him into shape or something”.
“To love him the way you do” I amended.
“Yes,” she added; “brutally”.
We laughed uproariously.
(Zola you’ve done so well to survive us.)
The next morning, passing tour guide Mr Gashaw was very interested in hearing about Big Reg running on WVO. He was very well informed about South Africa’s post-apartheid history, right up to our present State Capture crisis. (He slagged off the Guptas and knew Ramaphosa was already rich!)
He told me that Ethiopia’s State of Emergency in 2016-17 had slashed tour bookings by 75%. But he was not disheartened. “Military government is what Ethiopia is used to,” he shrugged. He was optimistic about their (then) brand new prime minister Dr Abiy Ahmed and told me all about his first speech following his swearing in that week in Parliament, which was radical in acknowledging both his mother and his wife, as well as the Creator. Dr Abiy is the first Oromo in that position, and seemed committed to seeking unity between warring ethnic groups inside the country as well as peace with neighbours in the Horn. Mr Gashaw was cautious enough to add “But we’ll see..”.
Regarding the $50 tourist entrance fee (1350 birr or R600 at the time), I asked if the money went to locals and he said “Ah, you’re a journalist I see…”
It was a long story, he said. Although the land around Lalibela has been cultivated for 2000 years, its only industry is tourism. When he started guiding, 8 years ago, the price of the ticket was 150birr, which was first increased to 350birr with a few complaints. A new chief monk of administration came in and built a hotel, and started trying to monopolise guests services – from airport transfer to hotels to church tours. He proposed an $80 ticket and began sending deacons to tourism college in Addis, trying to corner the market.
The local guide association fought back, and the power struggle culminated in a climatic scene at a meal in a local hotel. When the blessing was called for, the owner refused to let the chief monk bless, as he said he would not eat with him. After that the charge was capped at $50 and the church authorities backed off on cutting out local guides. The guides are still campaigning for 10% of the tourist fee to be given to buy oxen for the poor of Lalibela. However (and he dropped his voice to a shocked whisper), he’s heard that the monks just bought a 60million birr building (R26million) in Addis.
Shoo, there’s corruption everywhere people.
In the late morning, Ruby and I set out to the Saturday market. As we tripped our way down the road, studiously ignoring kids hassling us with constant ‘hellohellohello youyouyou’s, half the town was walking fast back uphill, pulling goats or holding chickens by their ankles.
Everyone had a palm frond tied around their forehead. The sellers of green rushes were doing a roaring trade. They seemed to be Easter necessities. We took the right turn to the market rather than the left to St George’s, and wound our way through a scrum of bajajs, past stalls of socks, belts, boxes, the ubiquitous green jelly bean shoes to where Ruby stopped to look for chunky rings for Zola and bought him an Afro comb.
As we came over a rise I was shocked to see, beyond dozens and dozens of stalls lining the steps below us and stretching away to the right, a packed crowd of hundreds and possibly thousands of people milling around the animal fair. It was massive. They must have had 10000 people pass through that day.
The fresh food was already mostly sold out, with only hot squashy tomatoes remaining. We walked through to the clothes section and I finally found the blue/green dresses I’d been coveting from a distance. It was disappointing to find they were not made of cotton but man-made fibres, impossible for my skin to tolerate. But I was pleased to buy a red, gold and green woven scarf for my Rastafarian friend from Ocean View.
I could feel all the cells of my body going into shock from overdoing it by this time, so blame my wired mind for coming up with the idea of an African Doctor Who (Prof What?), who time-travels not in a TARDIS but in a colourful TUKTUK (tiny on the outside, massive comfortable velvet-red-and-gold-wallpapered truck on the inside): The Ultimate Kickass Time-Ululating Kombi! I mean look at this magnificent machine – beats a 1960s police telephone box hands down:
When I woke on Ethiopian Easter Sunday 8th April, the PEM had caught up with me bigtime. I felt beaten all over with a stick. But it was a perfect day to rest. The streets below were empty – everyone was at home feasting. Ruby took her Dad to see the churches and they had a lovely time, completely alone. I lay on the bed and reorganised my clothes into cold and warm weather bags, while Zola lay in the nose cone on his phone and didn’t speak the entire day, also in recovery mode. That evening, we binged the last 3 episodes of This Is Us season 1 which had Sampson sobbing, bless him.
That night I was woken from deep sleep by pack of young men in the street below howling. They seem to have gathered especially to make weird shouts and animal noises. Shooed away by security, they proceeded to stop and do the same at various places on their way down the valley. I wondered if it was outside all the hotels.
It didn’t sound like normal drunken twatting about after a few too many beers watching the World Cup which was underway. It sounded more like bottled rage. If my entire town had become a zoo for tourists to be shuttled around with their cameras, I think I might feel equally frustrated. In the daytime, you have to be nice to them at your stall, wheedle their dollars and euros off them, but really you loathe how they march into your mother’s church during mass with their expensive shoes on.
Ethiopia has never been colonised, except by the tourist economy.
In a week where a Benin bronze was finally returned, here’s a suggestion regarding reparations not just repatriations: perhaps all institutions holding looted treasures might start with evaluating what percentage of their collections is made up of looted treasures and extrapolating what portion of ticket sale income that would amount to since the date of the theft?
That chunk should be handed over to the countries in question – Nigeria, Ghana, Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia – to allow them to invest in their museum infrastructure and establish world-class tourist destinations that would simultaneously economically uplift those culturally rich areas and banish the wilful ignorance of them from the rest of the globe.
The British Museum could start with footing the bill to restore these unique rock-hewn churches, replace the dangerous canopies over them and build a decent road into Lalibela. We could call it Prince Alemayehu‘s tax.