The pilgrims, bundles on their backs, staffs prodding the track, walk with purpose. They are on their way to Lalibela, otherwise known in its northern Ethiopia location as the New Jerusalem or the Second Jerusalem. They make this journey a few times a year.
Ethiopian Orthodox Christians from towns and villages are travelling, mostly on foot, some on mules, to pay homage to their revered King Lalibela, whose remains are buried in Bet Golgotha, amongst the clusters of twelfth century rock-hewn churches for which Lalibela is world famous. During the next few days the holy city’s population of 32,000 will swell to 100,000 when the faithful, as well as journalists and tourists, crowd the cobbled streets. When I went to Ethiopia, Lalibela was high on my list of ‘must see’. I hadn’t yet ‘discovered’ the athlete who would change my writing life.
Many of the worshippers will come by bus from the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopian Airlines provides regular daily flights to and from the Lalibela airport, which is 25 kilometres from the city centre. Those arriving at the terminal walk between two long lines of smiling faces, representatives of many hotels; as large a welcoming party as one experienced at any major international airport.
The scenes on the drive to Lalibela are snapshots from a different era to airports, world weary travellers and smartly dressed tourists. Teams of oxen thresh the teff (a grain like wheat), trudging round and round, raising the dust. Donkeys and goats share the road reluctantly with the convoy heading to town; men till the unyielding soil with wooden ploughs pulled grimly by oxen. The primitive rural landscape is similar in ‘upcountry’ and ‘down country’ Ethiopia, but the pilgrim bands appear around Lalibela only a few times a year, including their New Year on 11 September and their Christmas, Gena, celebrated on 7 January.
Most of them wear plastic sandals, but others are barefooted, and they cover the miles in small silent bands. The seamed, sad faces of the elderly, with their far-seeing eyes, foreground the high ridges, cleft with ravines, stark against a pitiless blue sky. This is a forbidding, ancient land.
On arrival in Lalibela they will take shelter in the church grounds, while the curious ferengies (foreigners) with their cameras and questions have booked out the hotels. The Jerusalem Hotel is clean and quiet, with majestic views to the mountains which surround the city. The hotel’s restaurant, the Bethlehem Rest, serves plain good food, including warm bread, ambasha, with every meal. This is tasty spread with the local honey, creamy and lemon coloured. The name Lalibela means ‘honey eater’ or ‘the bees recognise his sovereignty’. Legend has it that a swarm of bees surrounded Lalibela at his birth, which his mother took as a sign of his future reign as Emperor of Ethiopia.
There is the Hotel Honey Land, but most of the hotels have Biblical names. Down the road from Jerusalem is the Paradise and across the road is Heaven; closer to town is the Top Twelve. The Jordan River is not ‘deep and wide’ at this time of year, the middle of the dry season. The Seven Olives Hotel makes the proud boast that Emperor Haile Selassie once stayed there and the manager commands his visitors to sit in two huge olive wood chairs in the reception area. Satisfied, he says, ‘Now you are the King and Queen!’ The Seven Olives’ restaurant is popular with the tourists, who have come from all over the world.
Two Belgian men are on an African safari, with Lalibela marked on their itinerary as a ‘must see’. A couple from Slovenia, holidaying in various Ethiopian places, regret that they have not planned to stay longer here. ‘Lalibela is one of the places in Africa that we have heard about often,’ explains a doctor from Milan who is relaxing under the trees with his wife. They are preparing to take a guided tour to the monastery, Yemrehanna Kristos, about an hour’s drive from Lalibela, and located in a natural rock grotto.
The youthful driver for one tour to this place is named King Solomon and his passengers hope and pray that his wisdom extends to negotiating the gravel road with its hairpin bends and precariously narrow passes. The guide has an unpronounceable name, but he answers to Happy. He observes with scriptural certainty, as the vehicle envelops stony faced villagers with dust, ‘The man is owner of the land; the woman is owner of the house.’ He is a church elder and kisses one of the walls as he enters the church. Others rest their hands on the walls, worn smooth and dark from the multitudes who have similarly expressed their devotion.
Yemrehanna Kristos is a sepulchral, unnerving place, dank and dark. Its exterior has a marble top, which Happy asserts has come ‘on a cloud from Jerusalem’. Such legends are woven into the history of the world heritage listed churches. Lalibela’s wife, Queen Maskal Kibra, created one church in one night, with the help of angels. There is a fertility pool to which women, desperate for children, are drawn in large numbers and are immersed in its holy water.
The pilgrims come from near and far to honour the birth of Lalibela, or Jesus Christ. ‘It is the same thing’, according to Happy. His father and grandfather (who was 101 when he died) were priests in the church and Happy attends services every day, before dawn. The city is proud that 100% of its people are believers in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The church is committed to feeding the poor, but there is evidence in the streets that this is not enough.
The teenager boys can be persistent, hoping to win a ‘sponsor’ from among the wealthy ferengies, for their aspirations to be lawyers, doctors or teachers. These are youthful beggars who have refined their persuasive pitch about hardship and dire need. Perhaps they are genuinely in want, but their charming repetitive sales pitch wears thin: ‘Hello. Welcome. Happy Christmas. Where are you from? Australia? Do you know Canberra? My name is…What is yours?’
One ferengie who is helping give the local youth a chance is Susan Aitchison, a Scot who has established Ben Abeba Restaurant with an Ethiopian partner, Habtamu Baye. They employ about 30 staff, who are delightfully deft and professional. ‘They think they run the place!’ says Susan, who entrusted the design of her unusual edifice to two young Ethiopian architects. Ben Abeba is on the outskirts of town and ‘you can’t miss it’, a unique structure of tiers and terraces. Diners are treated to fine food, magnificent views and a spectacle of aerial acrobatics by lammergeiers, huge birds of prey who are quite at home in an elevation of 2,600 m (8,500 ft.) in the midst of the Lasta Mountains. From one angle the top of Ben Abeba resembles the shape of a lammergeier.
This is certainly a place to stop and ‘make a picture’, Happy’s description for the work of cameras in constant use. His preference is for the churches below, where the pilgrims in their netela (white shawls) slip silently among the huge monoliths and pray in the cathedral gloom. Ethiopia is an unforgiving land, but for many, the blessings of Lalibela bestow absolution.