Chapter 5: Eighth Wonder of the World
Jerusalem Hotel, Lalibela, Ethiopia…
One translation of Lalibela means “the bees recognize his sovereignty”. This goes back to the man, Lalibela, brother of the king, who was once covered in bees as a child. Rather than freaking out like a proper parent, his mother took this as an obvious omen that he would rule the kingdom someday. His brother, the current king, wasn’t grooving on this, so he exiled Lalibela to Jerusalem. There he had a vision that he should build a New Jerusalem in Ethiopia. Which is what he set out to do once he became the new king.
Hey, bees don’t lie.
Lalibela is one of the most important religio-historic places in Christianity and a major pilgrimage site. (Yet there are no bibles in the hotel room. Go figure.) Despite this, it still maintains a medieval village air where its six hundred year history seems to have occurred with obliviousness to the rest of the world. Electricity has only recently arrived. There is now a gas station (a shed with barrels of petrol), but no bank or pharmacy. Until 1997, the road we came in on was impassable during the rainy season.
We made our own pilgrimage here to see Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches. Some date back to the 12th century and are often considered to be the eighth wonder of the ancient world. After seeing them, I’d have to agree.
The hotel set us up with an official guide whom we met at breakfast. While we usually prefer to make our own way, we had learned that a guide here served many purposes. First, was their knowledge. Not only of a historical nature, but on more practical matters like where to find a napping priest who had the only key to the church. Secondly, they keep swarms of unofficial guides, touts and curious urchins at bay. Lastly, it was a useful way to put some money into the local economy and show how saving these historic structures could benefit the town.
There are about a dozen official guides in town who work on a rotational basis. We were lucky enough to draw a gentlemen named Fikru. He met us at breakfast dressed in green trousers and a tucked in gray polo shirt that revealed a little bit of a pot belly. He was very friendly, immediately playing with the kids, and had a great grip on English. He said he had seen Jim and I arguing with the airport guards yesterday while he was waiting to help out an arriving tour group.
“What was the reason they wouldn’t let us in?” I asked.
Fikru grinned broadly, making the edges of his thin moustache leap up. “I don’t think they knew the reason either.”
We were touring the northern group of churches this morning. They were nearby, so Melissa and I walked with Fikru while Jim drove the kids there in the SUV. After parking in the shade of an Acadia tree, he was instantly swarmed by a number of teens squabbling over who was ‘The Parking Master’. Jim’s response of “But I seek the Gatekeeper of Gozer!” was met with blank stares.
The rock-hewn churches of Lalibela are just that: hewn from rock. Each one from a single rock to be exact. Perhaps it’s a better description to say they’ve been “freed from” the rock. Imagine going into your back yard and digging out the bedrock until you have a thirty-meter square of rock in the center with about ten meters of clearance on all sides. Okay? Now hollow out that block in the center to make a church complete with windows, arches, altars, rooms, pillars and decorative scrollwork all around. Make sure it’s all level and square in all corners as well. Now do it in the 12th century.
It’s estimated it would’ve taken a workforce of 40,000 people to complete these churches. Plus, you’d have to pretty much turn the entire countryside into farmland to feed them and all the support staff they’d require. A more believable scenario would be the local legend that humans worked on the churches during the day and angels took the night shift. Some believe they used the Ark of the Covenant (which supposedly and conveniently lies just a few days north in Axum) as a holy blowtorch to carve them.
One other important point to remember is that these churches were never ‘discovered’ or ‘unearthed’. They’ve been in constant use since they were built over half a millennium ago.
We added our footsteps to history as we walked along what appeared to be a narrow cleft in a cliff face. Fikru informed us it was carved out as the initial entrance to the work area. Already my mind was awed by glancing up several stories to the top of the trench in realization of the work it took just to get started.
Then the trench opened up into an in-ground courtyard holding Bet Medhane Alem (Savior of the World) and, well, check this out:
We were asked to remove our shoes at the door and we were introduced to our personal ‘shoe tender’. This is a local guy who carries your shoes from church to church, keeping an eye on them and helping you on and off with them for a few birr.
The inside of the church was quiet and dim, lit only by the sunlight streaming through the carved cross designs in the windows. We padded over straw mats, wandering amongst the pillars while Fikru pointed out various architectural highlights. I pressed my hand against one of the pillars, feeling its smooth coolness and wondering how many other hands had slid over it during the last six hundred years.
There were no pews, so people had to stand for the duration of a service. Which, in Orthodox Christianity, can last for seven hours. Fikru showed us wooden staffs resembling tall crutches that worshippers could use to lean on for relief.
From there we crouched down and shimmied through a small tunnel to another courtyard holding three other rock-hewn churches. The first one was called Bet Maryam and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A pillar near the altar is tightly wrapped in cloth because, as legend has it, it was the pillar Christ leaned against when he appeared in a vision to King Lalibela. It’s also reputed to be inscribed with how and when the world will end. I tried to bribe the priest into letting me see the results for this year’s NCAA basketball tournament, but he politely refused.
Another church, Bet Golgotha, had seven life-sized carvings of saints along its walls. Nearby was a movable slab of stone behind which, supposedly, is the tomb of King Lalibela himself. I didn’t notice any bees nearby, so I can’t speak any truth to this. But moving through the ancient air of these structures, one feels hushed into a respectful piety where legends stirred up from the dust become entirely possible.
Last on our circuit was Bet Giyorgis, a church dedicated to St. George. If you doubt that, just check the hoofprints his horse left in the stone of the courtyard when he visited.
We had a short walk across a sandy hilltop to where we saw its Greek cross-shaped roof poking up from the ground. It was one of those moments when your mind says “I know this place.” even though you’ve never set foot within a thousand lifetimes of it. I recognized it from old library books and yellowed National Geographics. Until now, St. George’s Church in Lalibela existed in my imagination as much as the Death Star. Now my feet dangled over the edge of a three-story man-made cliff and I saw it in full and in person. Just where it had been patiently waiting all these centuries.
Coming out of the narrowly sloping trench that lead us to the courtyard, Fikru went over to an alcove in the outer wall and started showing the kids a pile of what appeared to be human bones. The kids ‘oohed’ and ‘aaahed’ as he explained these were the bones of pilgrims who had requested to be buried here at the church. Those weren’t real bones were they? I went over for a closer look and saw mummified parchment skin stretched taut over a skeleton, bare toe bones poked through where the flesh had disappeared completely. Fikru rested his hand on a skull while he continued his talk. We debated the rest of the day over whether or not they were real.
After an afternoon siesta we met up with Fikru again and drove outside of town to Na’akutu La’ab a church built into the side of a cliff behind a waterfall. It was a mere dribble at this time of year, but water still leaked over the ledge and from cracks in the natural stone that made up the ceiling. This water that filtered through millennia of rock was considered to have healing properties. It was gathered, drip by drop, in stone bowls that had been formed and hollowed out through centuries of use.
The priest showed us a number of the churches treasures, including royal crowns, intricate metal crosses and book printed on goatskin dating back to the 16th century. It was full of meticulous hand lettering and illustrations of various saints doing saintly things. Here was an amazing piece of both art and history and we were allowed to get as close as we wanted to it without any barriers. A blue plastic tarp overhead, a thick blanket and the Lord’s will were the only protection. That was almost as amazing as the book itself.
The priest, with Fikru translating, asked if he could bless the children. Despite being quite the opposite of religious, Melissa and Jim easily agreed. While pressing a carved hand cross over their hearts, he spoke his blessing. He also spoke to them directly, saying that they were very lucky to have parents who brought them to Ethiopia and to Lalibela. Part of his blessing was that someday they would return with their kids and show them what they have seen. I felt blessed just to have witnessed it.
Eager for a bit of exercise, Melissa and I decided to walk the 7km back to town. We were hoping for a peaceful stroll, but soon realized that we were encountering everyone who was leaving the big Saturday market in Lalibela. Donkey carts creaked by loaded down with plastic jugs of cooking oil and people with bags of grain and rice balanced on their heads struggled to turn and look at us as we passed.
Everyone was very polite and there were minimal demands for birr, pens or candy from the local urchin union. Two young boys were content to just say ‘Hello’ to us once and start walking alongside us, matching our stride and beaming huge white grins. There was also an attractive young woman who broke from a group and made a beeline right up to me. She formed a circle with her fingers and held her hand up to one eye like looking through a telescope. Neither Melissa nor I had any idea what this meant. But we narrowed it down to either her wanting me to masturbate into her eye or open a home equity loan at a local bank. Erring on the side of caution, I did neither.
A group of young boys, probably in the 8-10 year old range, latched on to us the last stretch through town. They were clearing having some fun with us, so I tried out my limited Amharic on them, asking their names, how old they were and where the Jerusalem Hotel was. But after awhile I just started asking them stuff like “Can I get a Chipolte burrito in this burg?” They’d all laugh and chant “Yes!” in unison. So we continued like this—“Will you take me to La Chupacabra?” “Yes!”, “Are you my homies?” “Yes!”, “You guys check out that sweet new Resident Evil game on the PS2?” “Yes!”—until we reached the hotel gate.
At this point, the guard stepped from around the courtyard wall. His lanky height was dressed in a poorly fitting dark blue uniform with gold piping on the pants that made him look like a stick-wielding chauffer or a down on his luck Motown back-up singer. His mere presence scattered them shrieking with mischief back to their homes.
Jim sat in the courtyard reading guidebooks while his three daughters shuffled up dust and made gravel cakes from a secret recipe known only to them.
He looked up as we approached. “Those were real bodies, by the way, back at the church.”
“Girls! Go wash your hands.” said Melissa. “Twice.”
[In the Next Episode…The Birthday Scorpion]