Eshutu, the guide we had hired to show us Lalibela's rock-hewn churches in the Northern Cluster yesterday afternoon, picked us at 9 so we could see the other five rock-hewn churches in the Southern Cluster. We walked for about thirty minutes before reaching the first church.
Bet Gabriel-Rafael was the only monolithic church we would see today as well as being the only double church today too! This imposing twin-church marked the main entrance to the southern group.
The church was surrounded by a deep trench that sometimes fills up like a moat in the rainy season.
Unlike most Lalibela churches, its entrance was at the top and was accessed by a small rickety, wooden walkway, high over the moat-like trench below.
He showed us the monk’s head design in the door, i.e. the four stones.
We took notice, too, of the angel and also the painting of Jesus and Mary on the door.
One of them was the Bet Giyorgis box even though this wasn't wasn’t Bet Giyorgis Church. That made no sense to me!
Bet Gabriel-Rafael Church was protected by two Ethiopian saints.
We had entered Bet Gabriel-Raphael from the top but this was another entrance, Eshutu explained. The nails in the door were especially large.
To get to the other churches was nowhere as easy as it looked from this spot though. It would involve our accessing them via a tunnel, something I wasn't crazy about.
Thank goodness Eshutu led the way as he was able to point out a large rock in the middle of the tunnel. He kindly illuminated the way for us with the light from his phone so we could see it.
The tunnel was the longest and darkest we have ever gone through and it was disconcerting being in the pitch black like that. Technically, no flashlights were allowed so Eshutu told us we needed to stretch out our arms and hold onto both sides of the tunnel wall as we slowly walked along it. Even though I am almost totally blind in one eye, I had a newfound, if brief, understanding of how tough it must be to be totally blind.
Finally, there really was light at the end of the tunnel! We both exclaimed a sigh of relief at that point. We still weren't out of the woods yet though.
I had a deep appreciation for the priests who had to make the same trip we had just made so often in order to deliver Holy Communion to each of the churches.
At last we were inside Bet Mercurios, the second biggest rock-hewn church and the largest monolithic one. It was dedicated to St. Mercurios, a 3rd century Coptic saint who was tortured for his Christian beliefs and eventually beheaded by the pagan Emperor Decius.
This was another church that may have started life as a secular excavation, most probably as a jail or courtroom, judging by the iron shackles embedded in the surrounding trench! The church could be as much as 1,400 years old and it has suffered badly from the ravages of time and the elements.
The gate to open and close the tunnel:
The wall had collapsed over time and a new one was built by the local residents, Eshutu explained. The area needed to be enclosed so that the Ark of the Covenant could be returned to the church from having been at Bet Emmanuel, another of the rock-hewn churches.
We were so surprised that there were no other tourists in any of the churches we were visiting this morning. Eshutu explained that was because they always visit the churches in the Northern Cluster first and then come here in the afternoon.
The chanting room was once again outside the main church.
The baptismal font:
The graves inset into the walls:
Steven going through to the next church: You certainly need to be in pretty decent shape to visit Lalibela's rock-hewn churches as there were a number of uneven floors, narrow trenches, steep steps and pitch black tunnels we had to navigate.
This man kindly helped me navigate the steep steps as I had lagged behind both Steven and Eshutu.
The roof had been put over top by UNESCO to protect the church from further damage from the elements.
The chanting place for the deacons and priests at Bet Abba Libanos:
Curiously, although it looked large from the outside, the interior was actually very small.
More of the blind windows we had seen at some of the other rock-hewn churches:
The carved corners of its cubic capitals were unique; some guides say they may represent angel eyes.
Paintings of the wife of King Lalibela:
The priest had kindly unlocked the door for us and then waited patiently while we had walked around the church. Of course, he had to be rewarded for his time.
On the way back to the hotel, Eshutu pointed out with pride the hotel he was building. It was a work in progress. He started it three years ago and, as he gets more money, he does more work on it.