The sacred and sublime in Ethiopia

Lalibela, Ethiopia

TYLER STIEM

LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA — From Saturday’s Globe and Mail

Since the 12th century, Orthodox Christians have trekked to Lalibela to worship at monolithic in-ground churches. Today, the remote landscape near this Ethiopian holy city is attracting a different kind of pilgrim: the tourist

For a moment, as I ponder the mystery of Amda Berhan, the Pillar of Light, and resist the monumental urge to scratch my feet, I feel every bit the pilgrim, at home among the shawl-clad women who cross themselves and file past.

“The history of the world is written here: the past, the present, even the future,” whispers my guide, Nega. He says this with conviction, having never seen the inscriptions for himself. Few people have: Only Lalibela’s wisest priests are allowed to lift the cloth shroud that covers them.

In this atmospheric mountain town, the veil between the spiritual and material worlds is tantalizingly thin. Lalibela has been a centre of worship and illumination since the 12th century, famous for its monolithic in-ground rock churches and a potent expression of Ethiopia’s ancient Orthodox Christian tradition. More recently, its remote setting and aura of mystery have proved irresistible to another kind of pilgrim: the tourist.

We’ve slipped into Bet Maryam, the oldest of the churches, depositing our shoes in a pile at the entryway. The ceiling glows in the half-darkness, a firmament of painted crucifixes and Stars of David catching daylight. Incense drifts from a pan. The floors are laid with tattered, flea-stricken rugs. They fizz with the tiny insects, but even as physical discomfort intrudes – when no one is looking, I rake my shins with the corner of my notebook – I feel the stir of something like awe.

“They say that Jesus Christ himself leaned upon Amda Berhan when he visited King Lalibela in a dream,” Nega says. “If you or I could look at it, we would go crazy.”

A few worshippers linger near the altar, their heads bowed and their hands clasped together, indifferent to the foreigners and the fleas.

“How do they do it?” I ask, admiring their stoicism.

“Do what?” says Nega.

“Stop themselves from scratching.”

“They tuck their trousers into their socks.”

“Oh.” It’s then I notice that Nega has done the same.

“A dash of flea powder works too. Did you see the lady selling it at the entrance?”

Apart from a few hotels and the souvenir stands that dot the main road, Lalibela remains the holy city that intrepid pilgrims would have encountered for most of the past 800 years, when the only way to get here was by mule cart or on foot. Its cobbled streets wind past stone-and-straw houses, a few dark strokes against the green wash of mountains.

Bet Giorgis Church, Lalibela, Ethiopia
Academics believe tens of thousands of labourers would have been needed to excavate the site of the perfectly formed Bet Giorgis.

King Lalibela is said to have ordered the construction of the churches after receiving news that Jerusalem, a Christian city at the time, had been captured by the Muslim armies of Saladin. Having visited the Holy Land in his youth, he commissioned the structures in homage to the city as he remembered it. The result was something uniquely Ethiopian: 11 churches carved vertically into rock faces, each in a deep quarried pit and connected by tunnel to the next.

We reach the most spectacular of them, Bet Giorgis, just before dusk. Unlike the other churches, you approach it from above, descending a small hill to the deep trench where its cruciform roof emerges spectacularly from shadow. The entire building has been carved in the shape of a cross. Ten metres below, the church steps provide a kind of visual echo, rippling outward from the foreshortened walls.

Bet Giorgis is so perfectly formed that it seems to have been freed from the rock rather than carved out of it. Little is known about the actual construction of the buildings. Academics estimate that tens of thousands of labourers would have been needed to excavate the site; Nega tells me the people of Lalibela believe it is the work of angels.

I try to imagine what Lalibela would look like during Easter or Christmas, when thousands of pilgrims from all over Ethiopia flood the town, and I wonder whether they, too, experience the feeling of unreality that has come to define my visit; I feel like an actor and a spectator at the same play. A few elderly nuns dodder past, their faces marked with religious tattoos. An apprentice recites scripture to a monk. Even the Australian couple debating how best to photograph the church seem, weirdly, to belong.

I find myself greeting a middle-aged man on the road back to the hotel. His name is Dawit, and I’ve noticed that he’s draped his prayer shawl over a dress shirt and khaki pants. Two small boys hold his hands.

“This is the first time I am here since 10, 15 years,” Dawit says. He is visiting from the capital, Addis Ababa, where he works as a civil servant.

Art inside Lalibela, Ethiopia
The people of Lalibela believe the churches here are the work of angels.

I tell him that Lalibela has impressed me in a way I can’t really explain, adding that I’m not a religious person.

“It is a feeling, yes? That you are someone very small and you are part of something very big.” He first visited Lalibela when he was a boy, and has drawn strength from the memory ever since.

“I want my sons to see this place when they are very young too. So that whenever they pray, they can remember this feeling.”

The next day is my last in Ethiopia. On Dawit’s advice, I set out for Ashetan Maryam, a monastery in the hills above Lalibela. I don’t have a map or even a clear sense of the route. I figure I’ll pass through enough homesteads along the way – they cluster in smoking knots on the mountainside – that I’ll find it eventually.

Ashetan Maryam was built around the same time as the churches, and, while made of humbler stuff – stone and mortar – it’s known for its tranquillity and its relics. Many are still used in religious ceremonies. I’m looking for perspective, figurative and literal, and Dawit seemed to think the monastery will provide it.

Away from the centre, Lalibela begins to look like any other Ethiopian town: lively, ragged, poor. It’s early and the tea shops are busy. Men take their breakfast outside, stooped on low stools in gravel yards. Vendors push barrows along the streets, their loads of fruit and tires and Chinese electronics never spilling, even as they swerve past ruts and humps.

An hour later and no closer to my destination, I spot a pair of elderly women and wave them down. They’re surprisingly energetic, swaddled in their shawls and head scarves and sack dresses. One of them skips down the road, umbrella in hand, while the other shouts after her. Their voices are high and tight with excitement: My saviours are, in fact, two skinny 10-year-olds in hand-me-down clothes.

I tell them about the monastery, pointing vaguely to a distant hilltop.

“No!” says the taller girl, shaking her head. It’s the only English word she seems to know. She leads us in the opposite direction, over a stream and up a boulder-strewn hill. We walk for 20 minutes. It begins to rain and the shorter girl insists on sharing her umbrella. I offer to hold it and she refuses. When her strength falters, I’m treated to a poke in the face.

I begin to resist their directions, convinced that they’ve misunderstood me. They tag along for a while, curious and concerned, abandoning their mission only when the path I’ve chosen vanishes into long grass and I can’t be persuaded to turn back. The taller girl wags her finger at me and runs off. The umbrella girl shrugs and follows her. I wait until they’re gone and double back, my dignity notionally intact.

To no avail: By noon, I’m still lost and it’s pouring. I come across some men sheltering under a tree. Their sheep huddle nearby, a sodden mass. I greet them in Amharic, the local language. They nod and smile in reply. A young shepherd stands and calls out to me.

“America!”

I shake my head.

“England!”

“I am from Addis Ababa,” I say, teasing him.

He smiles politely. “Please, hello, you can rest here.”

I join him under the tree and we quickly exhaust our reserves of each other’s language.

We sit in companionable silence, listening to the chatter of the older men and watching the rain, which as it picks up forms a shining curtain around us.

Their voices drone with the patter of the leaves.

I’m not sure I’ll ever make it to Ashetan Maryam, but up here among the shepherds and the clouds, I’ll settle for the feeling that I am someone very small who is part of something very big.

[mappress]