Foolhardy churches that inspire


WE TRIED not to stare at the Ethiopian embassy official who processed our visa applications, but it was impossible not to ask questions about her face. Her forehead, cheeks and neck were garlanded in tattooed blue crosses. At a monastery on Lake Tana, a female monk displayed the same markings. She explained that it was a public display of her faith; her tattoos exhibited several versions of Coptic crosses.

Considering that the country is home to nine United Nations World Heritage Sites, Ethiopia’s tourism industry is tiny. It is growing, though; there was one tour and travel agency 13 years ago and now there are 310. About 600,000 tourists visited Ethiopia in the last year.

The religious fervour is a huge attraction — from the foreigners who flock for pleasure and pilgrims and locals who fill churches and cathedrals for services and frequent religious festivals.

Two Ethiopian towns are renowned for their devotion – Lalibela and Harar both boast world heritage status. Harar has 99 mosques squeezed into one square kilometre and Lalibela has 12 churches hewn into volcanic rock.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church is the second-oldest organised Christian community and claims 45-million adherents. For those who choose to drive, the journey to Lalibela can’t be rushed. The roads from the surrounding towns are mostly gravel tracks, often plunging into river banks. They skip from mountain ridge to mountain ridge, above valleys green as cricket fields, edged with yellow and orange aloes.

Lalibela, circled by mountains and perched up high, is surprisingly small considering the punch it packs in international tourism circles. Many of its hotels are perched on clifftops and have great views of verdant valleys rolling away to the horizon.

The town’s 12 rock-hewn churches can all be visited in a one-day tour; they are tiny and close to each other. With a good guide — Lalibela’s are organised into a “Guides Association” and all trained — three days may just be enough.

Our guide Hailu, a young anthropology student earning pocket money, was steeped in knowledge of the churches. His grandfather was the head priest at St George’s Church, his mother died of malaria when he was young. His communist father was convicted of persecuting the populace, sent to jail when the Derge government fell, and died behind bars.

Hailu was baptised in the well at St George’s, and played soccer with his friends in a large underground room recently claimed as the 12th church. All his life he has known the dark tunnels that join the churches, and has had privileged access to monkish grottos and spaces reserved for the priesthood.

Hailu can recite the lore and legends of Lalibela — but he is by no means a mouthpiece of the priesthood. He is alive to the many tensions and controversies that play out on this marvellous stage.

The church complex is a UN World Heritage Site, which — as the priests have become uncomfortably aware — brings not only international prestige and World Bank assistance, but also bevies of archaeologists, historians and other students of antiquities who peskily insist on verifying folklore and priestly claims with science.

The Italian government was given the contract to preserve the sunken churches, and designed eyesore metal roofs that glitter with white protective fury above the petite pink clay ancient buildings.

Hailu questions the priesthood’s attitude to the church complex. The church recently hiked the entrance fee for foreigners to $50 — a whopping threefold increase. The guides believe that 10% of the proceeds are taken by the UN and the church keeps the rest. The community gains little from the tourist traffic.

The churches are inspirational, if merely for their foolhardiness.

One man, King Lalibela, had a vision during a three-day coma in the 1200s. On awakening he inspired (forced?) his countrymen (subjects, slaves?) to build a new Jerusalem at Lalibela, even contriving (coercing them?) to carve a new River Jordan out of the mountain rock.

Some legends say it was by King Lalibela’s hand alone, with some help from angels, that the churches were carved in 23 years. Others say it took more than 150 years to complete the vision, and the hands that chiselled away great masses of rock were very human and perhaps included Syrian and Indian master builders — Arabic iconography and swastikas are very much in evidence. Some believe Christian mythology was imposed on and obliterated older structures, perhaps temples to other pagan deities.

The more you examine the exquisitely symmetrical little churches, hand-carved into hostile volcanic rock, the more you admire the sweat-soaked vision of one man in a coma. The churches are colonnaded, pillared, alcoved and decorated with religious symbols from around the world.

They are designed according to ancient, strict rules. Rule one is a secret place for a replica of the Ark of the Covenant — the original is elsewhere in Ethiopia, 45-million people believe. Only priests may enter these locked rooms.

The churches are stacked with art. Some have triptychs hundreds of years old and tapestries put up not much later. Stylistic religious art leans in frames against church walls. Jesus is an infant on his mother’s lap looking out at the world with an adult’s knowing gaze. Every other figure has identical eyes, noses and mouths. St George with a dead dragon at his feet is everywhere. He is Ethiopia’s favourite saint.

Lalibela’s churches are not the only fantastical buildings in the town. On the cliff’s edge, surrounded on three sides by volcanic peaks, is the Ben Abeba restaurant, half-owned by Susan, a Scot, who had come to Lalibela to teach English and never left; and her Ethiopian partner Habtamu.

It’s a glassed Hobbit-like building and while it may not be the most practical restaurant design (the staff have to go down a ramp from the kitchen to reach the level above), not a single nook or cranny detracts from its magnificent view.

The food is better than the sunsets across the green valley below. There’s comfort food like shepherd’s pie on the menu and local favourites like doro wot, a strong, spicy Ethiopian “stew”. Like all restaurants in the country they have several options for vegetarians — the Ethiopian church requires fasting at least twice a week and on many more days each year during festivals and commemorations.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian church has more chapters in its Bible (81) than the rest, more archangels and saints, more miracles, more feasts and more fasts.

It also requires scarves, turbans, mitres, incense holders, silver crosses, brocaded robes and silk umbrellas for daily use — a spectacle in a spectacular landscape.