Ethiopia: Heaven-helped journeys in rock-churches and caves

Priest-guide Wondale talks on his favourite subject: the 'rock-hewn' churches of

Priest-guide Wondale talks on his favourite subject: the 'rock-hewn' churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia.

The priest drives the solid bronze cross into her back and then thrusts it into her upper abdomen. She yelps each time it breaches her resistance and then wails in Amharic.

She lies on the worn pomegranate-coloured carpet that has molded itself to the bumpy rock floor by years of pilgrim footfall. The priest continues to prod her, the indents evident on her exposed skin. A man and woman, probably her mother and father, pin down the tall, thin girl by her feet and shoulders, leaving the priest free to do his work. Perhaps she is in her mid-teens, but right now she is as helpless as a toddler.

The parents and the priest chat amiably during breaks in the action. Only two metres away, our guide, Priest Wondale Demssie, describes the treasures behind the curtain covering the ‘Holy of Holies’ in the largest of the ‘rock-hewn’ churches of Lalibela, a small but spiritually concentrated town straddling lofty mountains in northern Ethiopia.

Priest Wondale acts oblivious to the action unfolding next to him. When he needs to raise his voice to be heard over the girl’s cries, he does so, seamlessly, as if he’s talking over an obstinate child. After we move into to the church’s chanting area, he confirms (only when asked) that we’ve just witnessed an exorcism. Apparently they are common in this bastion of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

“She must have been sick and had some bad spirits in her,” he says. “Her family would have arranged it with the priest – she will be better. There are many like this.” His brow furrows in concern for the girl, and he swiftly refocuses our attention on what we’ve paid to see: the eleven rock churches of Lalibela, which draw pilgrims from all around Ethiopia.

This is Orthodox religion at its most raw. Increasingly international tourists are detouring here, more because of the scale, spectacle and splendor of the churches than the area’s religious heritage.

Each church is a majesty of ancient engineering, not just carved from a rock face, but down into the volcanic rock, extensive areas cleared around monolith sculptures, creating a baffling series of courtyards, mossy canyons, clandestine passageways and drainage channels. There are free-standing monoliths, such as the most famous, cross-shaped Bet Giyorgis (church of St George), semi-monoliths and the rough (by comparison) cave churches; perfect in their imperfectness.

The interiors are hewn, from floor to roof, out of the rock, the basalt pillars and walls bearing hundreds of thousands of subtle chisel marks, each with a style slightly different to the last. The churches are dotted around the town in three clusters; in the Western world they would fenced off and castrated by car parks filled with tourist coaches; but the churches of Lalibela live and breathe, hosting daily services, anything but untouchable museum pieces.

The endless interconnected chambers pulse with priests, nuns and pious individuals of all ages. White-robed men and woman, many with sticks bearing the weight of old age and some with physical deformities, inhabit nooks and crannies seemingly carved for them. Ceremonial chanting and sacred music fill random chambers, concentrations of incense smoke merge with the sun rays that dare to breach the churches’ nocturnal subterranean spaces.

“We advise to take guides because the Lalibela rock-hewn churches are not a museum and a monument, they are worship areas,” says Priest Wondale. Indeed they have been homes of worship since King Lalibela commissioned their carving in the 12th Century “by order of God”.

The king was beatified for his prolific altering of the physical and spiritual landscape here. Clearly he was not alone. Scores of thousands of highly skilled artisans were corralled by the king. Apparently even angels took flight to help him in his 23-year quest to construct the churches.

Religious myth and legend collide on why the temples were made here: some say the king returned from exile in the holy land to create a new Jerusalem. A modern map of Lalibela indeed reads like a map of Jerusalem: Mount of Olives and River Jordan et al taking centrestage. Whatever (or whether) you believe, the churches are the spiritual heart of the modern town, says Priest Wondale.

“The churches are very important for my spiritual life. They are the main importance in my life and my main source of income – but for the town as well.” The priest-guide used to do most of his ceremonies in Bet Maryam (church of the Virgin Mary), his favourite Lalibela church, but four years ago (1999 in the Ethiopian calendar) he concentrated his energy on guiding tourists around the complexes.

The university educated 34-four-year-old is one of 120 registered guides in Lalibela (the only priest-guide). The father of two daughters believes his new role is no less spiritual than being a priest, more of a logical divine progression.

“I am only a guide here to transmit a true history of Lalibela and Ethiopia – my spiritual responsibility. I would not be a guide anywhere else. I want to show people the miracle of God and the power of God in the King Lalibela churches.

“When I go out of Lalibela, I don’t feel good. I can’t stay in other towns for long. Everything I think about is about Lalibela – also when I sleep, when I dream.”

Priest Wondale believes the flowering number of foreign tourists (faranjis) will not spoil his Jerusalem, but he doesn’t deny the changes it has brought to the town.

“Tourism is good but it also has a side-effect. The people here like the tourists but sometimes it affects the town’s culture “Many town people now follow modern culture so maybe we lose some culture. Otherwise it is very nice for us. It is both a tourist and spiritual area and, most of the tourists, they have good respect.”

Priest Wondale also pinpoints local children as potential casualties in this influx, with many trying to be unofficial guides and many turning to touting and begging in this poor agricultural town, dazzled by the tourism dollar (birr).

“We discourage these young kids from becoming guides without the training because it is one of the job opportunities for the people here.

“We think the children should attend lessons and finish their education – and then they will be as they want. The children must have a vision for the future.”

Perhaps the most telling symptom of modernity in Lalibela comes in the form of two translucent shelters that cover some of the churches, protecting them from the elements, funded by EU money. Locals and tourists alike agree on the need to protect the churches but they are also in accord that the shelters are ‘sore thumbs’ in the otherwise unobtrusive town, particularly conspicuous in the flowing emerald mountain scape of the rainy season.

“No one likes the look of the covers here. At first we saw another design that many people in the town liked. We thought that they would be made that way. But then they made these ones without telling anyone.”

Apparently the shelters are due to be replaced in the near future with more ‘sympathetic’ ones – no word on exactly when. But this ancient town transcends such temporary embellishments.

A wander around, in and through the churches pulls you into a storybook of ancient folklore and religious metaphors. A long walk along the dark tunnel of purgatory; a glimpse at the sacred rock-hewn Jacob’s Ladder; a mysterious spot of light that glows night and day, explained away as the finger print of God. There is even a cave representing hell – tellingly, a locked wooden door now bars everyone from entry.

Orthodox Christian or not, the town, the people and the churches of Lalibela have their arms wide open.

“Everyone who comes to visit the churches is a pilgrim,” concludes Priest Wondale.

Steve Madgwick