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Previous trips can be accessed by clicking the following links:

2013
Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

2014
Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Denmark

2015
Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

11/13: Lalibela's Rock-Hewn Churches: Take Two!

Our hotel in Lalibela was great in many ways: the location in the tourist area was ideal; there were a number of restaurants within a few minutes's walk and the manager was always available if we needed anything at all. There was one huge drawback, however, as both Steven and I came away with bed bug bites!
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.
The church entrance was flanked by a sloping sliver of hewn rock known as the ‘Way to Heaven.’ If you made it safely to the top, that meant you would go to heaven; if however, you fell, that meant you were bound for hell! So many people fell and died as they attempted to take the dangerously narrow path that the route was closed down. It's impossible to see from the shadow in the photo but to the right of that sliver of rock was a deep, deep drop. No wonder people died trying to climb up.

Eshutu told us that Bet Gabriel-Rafael represented 'Heavenly Jerusalem' as symbolized by the River Jordan. 

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. 
According to Eshutu, though, there had been no permanent bridge across so that the royal family was protected by ‘bad things.’ They had used this temporary, wooden bridge only – more power to them, I say!
The footbridge, along with the church's irregular floor plan and curious alignment, has led scholars to propose that Bet Gabriel-Rafael may have been originally carved, not as a church but as the residence for King Lalibela. More recent studies indicate that both it and the nearby Bet Merkurios could have been excavated as the core of a fortified palatial complex during the politically unstable 7th and 8th centuries, when the Axumite Empire was in the process of disintegrating.
It was a lonnnnng way down as we walked across the footbridge to the entrance of Bet Gabriel-Rafael!
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.

This was the area where the priests and deacons would dance and chant during the services which begin daily at 6 am.

The Holy of Holies, or the innermost sanctuary of an Orthodox Christian church, is always behind a curtain. Only priests may enter that area. During the Ethiopian religious festival of Timkat when people are baptized every January, the Ark is taken to the site of the celebrations about two kilometers away. On the way there, people chant and dance as part of the colorful festivities whenever they rest, Eshut said. Each church had its own Ark of the Covenant.
These were 900 year old olive wood boxes on which King Lalibela had placed the church design before the church was built, Eshutu said. I was surprised that such historically valuable items were not treated with more care than what we saw here. 
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. 
The priest:

The door to St. Raphael Church was barred because the first level is normally underwater. Services are therefore held at Bet Gabriel Church.




As three more churches were nearby, this area was known as Bethlehem as it was the preparation place for Holy Communion for all the churches in this area. Communion was distributed to the other churches via nearby tunnels.
Walking along the tunnels where Holy Communion is distributed was something I had never imagined doing before this.

We had entered Bet Gabriel-Raphael from the top but this was another entrance, Eshutu explained. The nails in the door were especially large.

The flowers and other vegetation were especially lovely at this spot in between Bet Gabriel-Rafael and the nearby churches.



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.
Eshutu forewarned us that it would be very dark in the tunnel as that was supposed to represent hell which we needed to go through before the tunnel became lighter which represented the path toward heaven.




It was easy for Eshutu to be smiling so much - he'd been through them hundreds and hundreds of times!
I vividly remember thinking that it looked like seeing pictures of a colonscopy! Sorry it that image grosses you out.
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 area where the guides sleep:

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.

This beautiful fresco painting was from the 12th century and it is sometimes said to represent the Three Wise Men with the 12 Apostles, six on each side. But, since they were holding crosses, this can’t be correct. 

Oh yeah - from Ber Mercurios another tunnel to get to another church!

We walked down the steps to Bet Emmanuel next where we discovered three levels. 
The first had been the underground tunnel we had just walked down, the second was the church itself and the third was the church’s upper galleries. Eshutu explained that the church was of typical Axumite design with the framework around the windows, their own monk’s head design and the arched design on the windows. Some have suggested it was the royal family’s private chapel. Its style reminded us both right away of what we had seen in Petra, Jordan two years ago.
Eshtu mentioned that Bet Emmanuel's exterior mimicked with remarkable precision the classical Axumite alternating layers of stone and wood built-up church typified by Yemrehana Kristos, a church outside of Lalibela. We hoped to visit it tomorrow on a half day trip so we could also see the countryside away from Lalibela.
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.


It was very decorated inside. Although inaccessible, there was a staircase to an upper gallery. 
In one corner, a hole in the floor led to a subterranean tunnel that connected the church to Bet Merkorios. 
The chambers in the walls were the graves of pilgrims who requested to be buried here. TMI, perhaps! (I had a lot of difficulty trying to take decent photos with the lighting here - sorry, they're not any better.)





The chanting room was once again outside the main church.

The baptismal font:
The graves inset into the walls:


Guards’ area:
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.

Eshutu said these were the church's original steps; in other words, they dated back about 800 years!

This man kindly helped me navigate the steep steps as I had lagged behind both Steven and Eshutu.

The church was called Bet Abba Libanos. Legend says it was constructed in a single night by Lalibela’s wife, Meskel Kebra, with a little help from angels. Bet Abba Libanos was built around a cave in a vertical face. Although the roof was still connected to the original rock, the sides and back were separated by narrow tunnels. 
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:
I thought that this was one of the most amazing paintings we had seen in any of the churches in Lalibela. At the top was the Holy Trinity. The next panel showed Mary with Jesus. The bottom panel depicted the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The angels looked just like those in the painting we bought in Addis Ababa several days ago. Hint, hint: There'll be more of these same fabulous angels in another church in the next stop on our swing through Ethiopia!
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.
A short tunnel led from the rigth side of the church to Bet Lehem or House of Bread, a small and simple chapel that might well have ben a monastic cell used for private prayers by King Lalibela.

Yesterday was the Day of the Saint, Eshutu explained, and cause for a yearly parade. That was why we had seen so many people walking on the road as we were driving into town from the airport. The end of the religious celebration meant that people were eating and drinking in the forest, according to Eshutu.




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.
We had read online that many people advise touring all of Lalibela's rock-hewn churches in just one day. To us, that would have been crazy as there would have been no possibility of our then being able to give due appreciation to each of them. As it was, we found that Eshutu went faster than we would have preferred. However, being able to tour each of the rock-hewn churches was still a highlight of our long trip and one I would recommend to fellow travelers who also share a love of history and religion.

Posted from Copenhagen, Denmark on December 15th, 2016.

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