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Monday, December 19, 2016

11/14: Day Trip in Ethiopian Countryside to Two Exquisite Churches

Two days ago we had arranged to be picked up by Desta, a guide, from our hotel to be taken in a car with a driver to Yemrehanna Kristos Monastery and at least one other church in the countryside today. We had said we only needed a driver as long as he spoke English and didn’t need a guide on top of that. We were assured that it wouldn’t cost anything more and settled on the price, pick up time, duration of the tour, etc, i.e. all the possible details. We reconfirmed all of that again yesterday and looked forward to driving out into the countryside this morning to see another part of northern Ethiopia. The distance was too far to contemplate going in a tuk tuk as we had used yesterday when we visited Asheton Maryam. Desta met us as planned at the hotel at 8:30. 

He explained that people come from as far as 30 kms away to sell the piles of firewood here on Lalibela's main street. The wood is sold for only 30 birr – about $1.50, Desta said. What a hard, hard life these people lead, I couldn’t help but thinking.

The baskets on the side of the road were used as planters and decoration, Desta said.

After driving for about ten minutes, Desta said that, oh, by the way, his fees were NOT included after all in the agreed upon price and that we would have to pay extra for his services as a guide. At that point, we said no, we were not going to be held hostage and extorted, that there had not been any sort of misunderstanding whatsoever. I am sure he and the driver figured that, while they had us essentially captive in the car, we would feel we had no recourse but to ante up and pay whatever they demanded. That may well have worked with other tourists but not with us. We told them to take us back to the hotel right away. Steven and I were both upset at what had happened because this was our last day in Lalibela and therefore, likely, our last opportunity for the five to six hour trip to visit the other churches. Our hotel manager was very fortunately able to arrange for another licensed guide and driver to pick us up within minutes at the originally agreed upon price. What a huge sigh of relief we felt once we knew all was not lost.

The new guide, Mareg, and the driver appeared within a few minutes and it turned out that we really had lucked out as he and the driver were dynamite right from the get go. He spoke very good English, the driver drove well and the van was in far better shape than the other one had been.

Mareg mentioned that the people all dressed in white had gathered for a funeral ceremony in the grove of trees. He said that the religious celebration we had seen on our arrival in Lalibela a few days ago was for St. Abo and it was almost like a holiday in the sense of so many people participated in it. St. Abo, he added, was an animal king.
Furthermore, he said that most Ethiopians do not consider themselves Africans which means ‘burned face.’ Rather, they consider themselves to be Abyssinians which was the former name of the country. Steven and I didn’t understand that as geographically Ethiopia by any name is certainly in the heart of Africa.
He recommended that we should try and have dinner at sunset tonight at the Ben Ababe Restaurant which had fantastic views overlooking the valley. The restaurant is owned by a Scotsman but designed by Ethiopians.
The local farmers were growing tef, a prime ingredient in injera, the national dish beloved by all Ethiopians. The plant is only grown in the lowlands because diseases and insects make it too difficult to cultivate in Ethiopia’s highlands, Mareg told us.
The palace on the hill belonged to King Lalibela before he built the churches in the town that now bears his name.
Mareg said this was very low season for tourists and that was why he was available on the spur of the moment to be our guide today. He said that the owner of the van would give him a free lunch on our return, i.e. he was literally working for his daily bread. That sure put a new perspective on things for us.
Mareg stated that if you have a gun and a mule, you are considered rich in the countryside around Lalibela.
These homes were the future city of Lalibela, Mareg said, because UNESCO was so concerned that the existing city was too close to the churches which needed more protection.

The Chinese will eventually make this an asphalt road as they are now doing with the road from the airport into Lalibela. We had a huge problem getting into town from the airport as that road was in such deplorable shape. 
The trees were always green, so Ethiopians call them naturally enough evergreens!

This was one of the few painted homes we had seen up to that point.
Shortly after that, we saw another one, of course!
Some of the more modern houses:

Another future city that is planned to be even bigger than the new Lalibela:
The men were carrying 15 kg, about 35 lbs, of straw for their animals. What backbreaking work!
Mareg said the houses at the top of the hill were chosen for their panoramic view. In addition, the location meant that they could protect themselves – not sure from what or whom, though.
The philosophy of those living in the countryside is ‘Life is today and tomorrow is another day.’ Certainly an admirable way of looking at things, I thought, but not one I could muster.
Mareg joked he and the driver wouldn’t charge us anything extra for the free 'massage,' i.e. because of the bad roads we’d encounter today en route to the town of Bilbilla. That was their tip to us!
Both men and women worked side by side on the construction of the new road as Ethiopia is equal for both sexes, Mareg maintained.
Moving in time to the Ethiopian music on the radio!
Eventually, the road from Lalibela to Gashena 45 miles away will be paved, he said. I wonder how long that will actually take.
The town of Bilbilla was only located about 30 miles northwest of Lalibela but it had taken 90 minutes to get there because of the condition of the road. We had decided to visit Bilbilla as it was the focal point of a cluster of four medieval churches, all set within a 10 km radius of the small town.

A donation station set up by the US Agency for International Development:
Maize fields:
A new church was being built outside of Bilbilla but it hadn’t been named yet:
Spectacular scenery with fields of sunflowers and other crops dotting the landscape:

It was interesting when Mareg commented that so many Ethiopians don't like Chinese tourists because they're not seen as respecting the local culture: they always cover their faces with masks; they cover their feet with plastic when entering churches; they don't eat Ethiopian food; and Chinese business people are seen as taking advantage of the country's natural resources.

When we arrived in the small village where Yemrehanna Kristos Monastery was located at 10:30, about 90 minutes after we had set out, we noticed lots of men were playing pool at tables set up in the open air.

The ticket taker: price for admission to this one church was a steep $15 each.
There used to be mud houses only in the village of Yemrehanna, Mareg said, as we began hiking up the hill toward the monastery. The monastery was set at an altitude of almost 8.900 feet.
There were a number of olive trees on the hike to the monastery but they were not fruit-bearing ones, Mareg told us.
Images from the hike to the monastery:

What a shame the church and monastery, both located in a cave, were protected by such an unflattering, modern outer wall.
Locals were praying against the wall and the gate to the church as it was closed. We had to wait for a few minutes until the gate was opened by a priest.

The main built-up church was constructed using alternating layers of wood and granite faced with white gypsum that gave it the appearance of a gigantic layered chocolate cream cake. In front of the church, a small opening revealed muddy soil which was said to be part of a subterranean lake below the cave.

Beside the church was the palace which was comprised of two floors. The first floor was for the workers and the second was for the king and his family.
Small stones, grass, mud and eggs which dried in the heat were used in part of the building's construction.
Behind the main building, adding an eerie quality to the already dingy cavern, lay the bones of some of the 10,740 Christian pilgrims who, it is claimed, traveled from as far as Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem to die at this monastery. 

Two views of the sistra instrument which was used for chanting:

The drums were often played for a mind-numbing nine hours during the Orthodox church services, Mareg said!

This was the only church in the Lalibela area where we had seen bamboo mats all over the floor.
The door was made of wood but then animal skins and eggs were applied to make it even stronger. It also helped to make it strong smelling too! These were the original nails in the door, Mareg stated.
Among the church's many interesting features were the cruciform carved windows, an etched wood panel roof, and a large dome over the sanctuary.

This was the grave of King Yemrehannah and his adopted son. People ask for forgiveness holding stones on the back of their necks as they walk around the grave three times.
These were wooden crosses but they resembled leather as they were so very smooth.
There were many different types of crosses, even some that were soccer ball shaped.

There were a variety of interesting panels in the ceiling, including this one with inlaid hexagons.
Mareg said this was a Negarit drum.
A reliable tradition says Yemrehanna Kristos was built in the late 11th or early 12th century by the third Zagwe emperor of the same name. He was a predecessor of King Lalibela and credited with restoring the link between the Ethiopian and Coptic churches. An unverified legend states that Yemrehanna Kristos visited Alexandria, Egypt, during his reign and built the church using wood imported from there as well as gypsum from Jerusalem. The church and its curative holy water formed an important site of pilgrimage in medieval times.

There was a selection of crosses on arches too, including the Maltese cross.
This was the priest who had unlocked the church for us.
This was the priest's private area, Mareg mentioned.
Mareg was hungry so, when we returned to the village, he said he was going to get something to eat while we walked around and looked inside some of the souvenir shops. They all had beautiful things but there was only so much space we still had in our bags. Steven had been reminding me for awhile that we still had X more number of countries on our trip; in other words, don’t blow the wad here as there would likely be other items I would want to purchase in those places and we needed to save some room down the line! 
We had long ago given up the idea of mailing a second parcel home as we didn’t feel safe at the prospect of one getting home all in one piece from the likes of Ethiopia, Kenya or Zimbabwe. So that meant lugging everything we bought and exercising some degree of caution in what mainly I chose to buy. The pressure to buy from each of the merchants was strong because it was obvious they were in dire straits and there were very few tourists there these days, Mareg said.
We met up with Mareg again who was enjoying his second plate of injera. The dish is made of eggs and spices and always eaten with the right hand.

Of course, there just happened to be a woman selling scarves where Mareg was eating the injera so I ended up buying a lovely one with the bright colors of the country’s flag. Hopefully it will see the light of day so Steven will know I actually did plan on wearing the scarves I bought as opposed to just buying them, only to have them gather dust in my drawer!
This was a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot.
Once we got back to the car, our driver said that a local priest had asked him if we would agree to having him drive back to Lalibela with us. We couldn't understand why we were consulted as, of course, we didn't mind one iota. Mareg said it was because we had a 'contract' with the driver which didn't include other passengers. We left Yemrehanna Kristos at noon stopping off at Bilbilla Giyorgis Church on our way back to Lalibela. 
There was another pretty steep hike to look forward to before we saw the church which was said locally to date to the 5th century rule of Kaleb.

Carved into a rock face, the three-quarter monolith church was dedicated to St. George. Unfortunately, the protective scaffolding that was erected a few years ago obstructed the imposing facade that was decorated with a frieze said to represent the 12 vaults of heaven. 
 Mareg told us that the church admission prices were established by the community and not the government. There was animal fat on the door just like there had been at Yemrehanna Kristos Church.
Mareg told us the story of this 20 year old painting known as St. George and Brooktite. The woman in the upper right hand corner was selected for her beauty to be an offering to the dragon on the bottom of the painting. St. George killed the dragon and freed the woman who, Mareg said, had believed in Jesus Christ and therefore knew she was going to be freed.

The church contained several beehives whose 'holy honey' is used to cure abdominal upsets. Mareg said people, if they're sick, come to the church to eat the honey rather than going to a pharmacy.
The honey is blessed one day per year at a ceremony attended by 20,000 people.
Mareg told us the horse painting was from the 5th century and represented freedom because there were no people in the picture.
The sticks used to support people while they stood during the very long services:
The 'Holy of Holies' was behind these curtains and was only accessible to the priests. I thought it interesting that the priests here had families and were also farmers.

As I am sure you must have guessed from seeing our visits to the other rock-hewn churches, these drums were used by the priests and deacons during the services.
As you can see, we had a longish hike down to the village where the driver and the priest were waiting for us.

The poles were set up for the village's weekly market. There was little in the way of a cash economy in the countryside, Mareg stated, as people barter their crops for what else they may need.
On the way back to Lalibela, we offered bread that we had bought to snack on to Mareg, the driver and the priest who was still in the car. The priest declined because, Mareg explained, it was forbidden for him to accept any handouts from anyone.

Mareg was one of the best guides we had ever had. He knew not only the history and architecture of the churches we saw but also all about the sights en route. What a huge difference a good guide can make when experiencing something so far removed from our normal, everyday world.
We had had a fabulous few days in Lalibela discovering the rock-hewn churches there as well as taking side trips to others. We knew how very fortunate we were to have been able to come all this way to visit the area's churches, the likes of which we could see nowhere else in the world.

Posted on December 19th, 2016 from our home in Littleton, Colorado.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so relieved that you are safely home. I can hardly wait for reading about the remainder of your expedition. Lil Red


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