02 January 2010

5. - 2 JAN: Lalibela

Get up very early to try and get to the monolithic Lalibela churches and find room to witness the orthodox Christian ceremonies. Our hotel is a bit far from the center, so we had agreed with the guide to tell the driver to be ready at 5. Mistake: should have told the driver directly. As it was, there was miscommunication between the two and by 5:30am we start walking. It takes about half an hour to get to the main churches. The cool morning air makes walking rather pleasant and we join thousands of pilgrims who are also on their way. It is still pitch dark.

By the time we get there the small spaces inside the Churches are already overflowing with the faithful praying and singing. Most of THEM can't make it inside, so I guess it is only fair that we, visitors, should stay out. No sweat, this is not really a problem, for two reasons. Anyway, many of the functions actually take place outside, in the courtyards around the churches, so we are not missing all the action. In fact come noon most of the action is outside, with musicians and drummers attracting the pilgrims attention in the open spaces by the churches.

The monolithic churches, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, were dug in the rock and are indeed impressive, though the cement roof that's been added to protect them from the elements takes away from the charm of the place. I wonder about the wisdom of this engineering horror, the curches were there for a thousand years and seem to have done well without any cover but maybe I am missing something. Luckily the church of Saint George, the most impressive sight because you can actually look down to it from afar, has been spared this, at least for now.

As the sun begins to peek up the horizon I am clicking away in the mayhem of pilgrims, priests and (very few) visitors. Most pilgrims are wrapped in white robes and turbans, and carry the traditional walking stick, both men and women. Some look poor but a few are rather well groomed and one young guy, perhaps thirty, is talking away with his cell phone between two high columns!


As the day progresses people move around and there is plenty of opportunity to get inside the churches as well. A dim light penetrates from the small windows and lots of candles create a warm and suggestive atmosphere.

Around 1pm I am off wandering about the market. Spices, live animals, jewellery, it is all for sale! In one corner of the market there is a coffee bar, and I see it at just the right time to eat a good spicy ingera and of course drink some coffee, prepared with the utmost care by a young lady in a bright red shirt.

By the end of the day I am walking back to the hotel through the immense pilgrims camp at the outskirts of the church complex. People are resting, eating, cooking, or just hanging around. Many have walked hundreds of kilometers to get here.

At sunset time we are all sitting at a cafè by the roadside, near our hotel, watching Lalibela people go by and drinking a good cold Ethiopian beer!

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