Friday, January 4, 2013
I hope you had a fantastic day today! What did you do? Did you play with your friends and all the toys? Take good naps? I wish I could see you everyday and watch you grow. Although I’m not with you, I’m very grateful that Dad and I decided to take this trip. Today has been one of the best days yet! I know tomorrow will be even better!
As I write about today, I’m sitting out on our hotel’s balcony. It’s overlooking the valley below and the mountains in the distance. The sun just set. There are children next-door playing games and singing/chanting songs. Below, there is a large family building a fire. There are also a few sheep “Baaa”ing in the distance. It’s a perfect setting!
This morning, we woke up and much to our great surprise, we had hot water with high water pressure! I had the best shower I had had in about 4 days. I was grateful. We were ready by around 7AM and ordered a quick breakfast of homemade bread from the hotel’s restaurant for a whopping 3 birr (15 cents). The bread here is wonderful- it’s almost like French bread, but round- crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. We took a shuttle to the airport. After checking in, we had a second breakfast of eggs, bread and tea. Our flight was about 30 minutes late, but when it landed, we quickly boarded the plane. We had a 30-minute flight from Axum to Lalibela, our last stop on our journey.
Our plane landed on a gravel runway! Upon arrival, we were greeted by the hotel we were staying at. On January 7th, Ethiopia celebrates their Christmas- Genna. This is one of the biggest Christian holidays and Lalibela is one of the best places to partake in this celebration. We are so lucky we’re here for this event! The airport is about 25km from the city, and we had a beautiful drive through the country! The town of Lalibela is around 2,600 meters high around a mountain!
Our hotel is beautiful- it’s overlooking the valley below. We have a nice, very soft bed, a very clean bathroom and great food! I’m grateful we were able to find this hotel online as so many hotels were booked because of the holiday! After we checked in, we met with our tour guide, Addis. We agreed on the itinerary for the next 3 days. We were so excited to set off and see the amazing churches this city has to offer.
We began our day around noon and started walking towards the rock-hewn churches. The churches in this town do not stand tall above the earth like most churches. Instead, the citizens of Lalibellia dug deep into the ground and carved the churches out of rock. As such, you only see the top of the church at ground level when you’re walking. To get into the churches, you must either climb down stairs or go through sloping alleyways carved through the stone.
These churches were carved about 800-900 years ago and they supposedly took a total of 23 years to complete. There are 11 churches in total that are carved into the rock and they all have their own story and purpose. King Lalibela, who was a priest and King of Lalibela, the capital of Ethiopia, wanted to give his people their own Jerusalem. Well, the real legend states that he was poisoned by his brother and was in a coma. During his coma, he went on a journey to heaven or Jerusalem (the debate’s still out). While on his journey, God told him to build the holy city of Jerusalem in Ethiopia. That way, Ethiopians would not longer have to pilgrimage to Jerusalem for religious events. The names around Lalibela take after names in Jerusalem! King Lalibela carved a River Jordan through the rock, and there is a Tomb of Adam and a Calvary mountain!
The local legend states that initially, King Lalibellia started to build his churches high on a nearby mountain, about 12,000 feet high. He wanted to carve his churches in rock and thought that the mountaintop was the best. However, right after he started, God told him to “Stop!” and wait for a sign for where to build the churches. Below, further down the mountain, King Lalibellia saw a ray of light hitting the earth. The earth was farmland owned by a local woman. Seeing this as his sign, King Lalibellia purchased the land from the woman for 40 cows. He didn’t believe thick rock lay below the farmland, but after the soil was removed, rock was found.
Lalibela was initially called Roha, which was the capital of Ethiopia. However, after King Lalibela died, the city’s name was changed in honor of the king who created the churches for the people of Ethiopia. We asked about the name, “Lalibela,” today. “Lali” in Amharic means “honey” and “bela” means to eat. It is said that when King Lalibela was a baby, his mother found him surrounded by bees. She was terrified that the bees would sting her baby son. But when she looked closer, she found that her son was fine and was actually eating the honey from the bees! And so, his earned the name, “Honey Eater.” To this day, Lalibela is famous for its bees and honey, which your Dad loves to eat! It’s thicker than the honey we’re used to, and it’s not refined or pasteurized. Some of it actually has specks of honeycomb in it, but it sure is fresh!
How were the churches made? Western scholars estimate that in order to build these churches, 40,000 people would have been needed and the construction would have spanned more than 23-year years. The people in the 12th and 13th Centuries only used hammers, chisels and curved sharp objects for filing stone to create the churches! However, Ethiopians believe differently. When asked, any Ethiopian Christian will say that the churches were built by angels. They say that building the churches at such speed, and with such craftsmanship and precision, would have been impossible to have been done by humans alone. God sent his angels to help create the churches, and they added their angelic perfection to them all!
The first set of churches we saw were the northwestern churches. The first church was HUGE: Bet Medhane Alem. This church is the largest rock-hewn church in the world, as it is over 33 meters long and 11 meters high! The top of the church is covered in designs. However, due to rainwater and damage, UNESCO constructed a large covering over the church to protect it for years to come! The design of this church may have been a replica of the original St. Mary’s Church of Zion in Axum, where the Arc of the Covenant is rumored to be located. The outside of the church is supported by 34 large columns, many of which are still standing today. Inside the church, there are 3 empty graves carved into the stone. These are made to resemble the graves of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In these graves lies a piece of wood. People in the church will touch the wood believing that it will save them. There are 3 doors, 1 on each side of the church: 1 for men, 1 for women and 1 for the priests. Inside the church, each group sits separately in rows marked by arches in the ceiling. The priests’ row has the highest ceiling.
A very large, 7kg gold Lalibela cross (the cross King Lalibela had) was found in one of the pillars in the church. This is one of the most holy objects in Ethiopia. Once weekly, it is taken out of a vault for locals to see. Foreigners are no longer allowed to see the cross. Why? In 1997, the cross was stolen and purchased by a Belgium tourist for about $25,000.00. The cross has since been returned. Who would ever return that cross? Locals say that the Belgium man tried melting the cross into pure gold. But as the cross came from God, the cross wouldn’t melt like normal gold. Realizing this, the cross was returned to Ethiopia, even furthering the belief that it is special gold!
The second church we saw was for the Virgin Mary, or St. Mary (“Sainty Mary” in local pronunciation) as she is known in Ethiopia. Bet Maryam is one of the most popular churches and is believed to be one of the first churches carved. It is attached to Bet Medhane and access is through a small tunnel carved through the stone. Outside this church is a 10m deep pool. This is the fertility well. Women who couldn’t bear children would “swim” in this well. But since they couldn’t swim 850 years ago, the husbands would tie their wives to a rope and dunk them 3 times! This was meant to cure women of infertility. Dad asked if men ever went in the well for their fertility issues, and we were told, “No!”
On the outside of the church are carvings that represent Jesus and the 2 criminals he was crucified with. The criminal to his right went to Hell as he was a sinner and the criminal to his left went to heaven as he asked forgiveness for his sins. These are depicted in the carvings by up and down arrows. On the other side is a carving of St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, fighting a dragon. Inside the church, there are beautiful carvings and paintings on the walls. The walls were wrapped with cotton, and then painted. Many of these paintings are falling apart, but they’re still beautiful to see! The paintings and carvings include plants and animals. Inside the church is a column wrapped in white cloth. It is said that this column is wrapped in cloth because the column itself was made by God. The location of the column is the exact location where the ray of light hit that informed King Lalibela where to build his churches. Local legend is fact in Ethiopia!
Next to this church lie 4 other churches that are much smaller: Bet Meskel, Bet Danaghel, Bet Golgotha, and Bet Mikael and Selassie Chapel. These churches are all connected through alleyways and carvings. There are also churches carved an entire level above other churches! We climbed through elevated tunnels and down staircases! King Lalibela is believed to have his tomb in Bet Golgotha. Visiting his tomb is said to ensure your place in heaven! The model of the Tomb of Adam is located outside of Bet Golgotha as well!
In between visiting these churches, we ate a local lunch with our guide. We sat outside and enjoyed traditional fasting food: vegan food. In 3 days, Ethiopian Orthodox Christians will be able to eat animal products- until then, they “fast.” In fact, many of the Christians that attend church fast all day, only eating at night! Our meal was delicious and we enjoyed the injera! The bill for 3 people, 2 cokes and 1 beer was only 54 birr…$3.00! Of course, Dad and I left a very large tip!
After lunch, we visited the Lalibela museum. Here, we saw many historic pieces from King Lalibela and his descendents, including their crowns. Lalibela was Ethiopia’s capital for almost 300 years, and had 11 kings, 3 of which were also priests (“priest-tis” as pronounced here). We saw many old bibles written in Ge’ez, as well as holy crosses. We also saw many objects that belonged to King Haile.
The last church we visited for the day was the Church of St. George, or Bet Giyorgis. Remember, he’s the patron saint of Ethiopia! This was the last, and most perfect church that was built in Lalibela! Without a doubt, it is the most beautiful church your Dad and I have ever seen! Legend has it that when King Lalibela was almost done with his churches, St. George arrived unexpectedly to visit on a white horse. Although he loved the churches, he was annoyed that none of the churches had been named in honor of him. In an effort to apologize, King Lalibela began to make the most beautiful church of all in honor of St. George. On the trenched alleyway leading down to the church, there are 3-4 inch wide indents in the wall. It is said that these are the hoof prints of St. George’s horse, which always remain to remind the city of St. George! Dad and I actually climbed out of the alleyway on these “hoofprints!”
The Church of St. George is beautiful! It is in the shape of a cross, and as it was carved with drainage systems, it does not need to be covered. It is about 15 meters high and has 3 sections. Each section is designed to represent a part of Noah’s ark: the bottom deck with closed windows for the large animals, the middle deck without windows for the small animals, and the upper deck for Noah’s family with large windows. The church is also wider at the bottom than it is at the top, which provides stability! Outside the church in the walls are caves with many dead bodies- some of which are over 500 years old! They’re almost mummified, but remain there as the followers’ final resting place. Inside the church is a very large box with 2 large wooden screws on the top keeping it closed. It is said that because this was King Lalibela’s last church, he decided to leave his box of tools inside the church, where they remain today!
Around all of the churches are holes carved in the rock. These were for monks and nuns 800 years ago and are where they lived. Today, in preparation for Genna, these small holes are occupied by pilgrims who are choosing to live in them for the religious celebration! It is estimated that close to 60,000 people pilgrimage to Lalibelia for Genna every year. Many stay with family, others in hotels. However, the majority live on the roads and in the areas around the church. They bring food and water. Some bring blankets and other items to sleep on. Most sleep on the ground or on plastic tarps. There is an entire market called the Christmas Market set up for the pilgrims on the hillside. The market sells everything from animals such as goats and donkeys, to clothes and food. ALL the pilgrim women wear white dresses with large white scarves covering their heads and shoulders. ALL the pilgrim men wear large white scarves draped over their shoulders. Most do not wear shoes, and many do not have shoes! It is truly a site to see!
After seeing our last church for the day, Dad and I went back to the hotel. We bought a few souvenirs for our family, and a cute Ethiopia hat for you! We ordered dinner in the room and enjoyed the sunset on the balcony! Dad is studying Thai right now and I just finished this letter!
Sweet dreams little one! I love you more and more everyday! Watching your videos and looking at your pictures makes me smile while remembering just how perfect and dang cute you are! I can’t wait to hold you again- only 3 more days!
All my love!