Ethiopia’s Northern Historical Circuit – Part Three

July 11th – Mekele / Tigrai’s Rock Churches

Today brought an unexpected adventure. In the morning we went looking for a market. There weren’t the nomadic salt traders on camel that the book promised (wrong season) but the market was interesting for the “recycled” section: piggy banks made of cookie tins, stools from USAID food containers and the multihued almost psychedelic baskets and bowels we’ve seen almost everywhere.

With great luck, we met a French foursome shortly thereafter who had their own Landcruiser and driver and who invited us to join their day trip to two of the 120 area rock hewn churches. We found a guide with good credentials and we set off into the mountains.

The drive alone was worth it. As usual we went up, up, up and past a series of tiny farming villages all awaiting precipitation, some seeming healthier than others. The most popular churches here receive perhaps 500 foreign visitors per year, so a group of six farangi unfolding themselves out of the Landcruiser like circus clowns drew quite a bit of attention. The biggest drawback to the arrangement with our hosts was that we had no control over when and where we stopped and we passed up two bustling markets, Saturday being the primary day of commerce in these parts.

Of the two churches we managed to visit, the first, Mikael Barka, was reached via a short climb by foot then ladder to one of the panoramic vistas we’d enjoy that afternoon. The large church was cut nearly freestanding from the surrounding rock, its interior sparsely decorated but elegantly carved. Surprisingly, upon request, the priest gave us a peek into the inner sanctuary, an area usually restricted only to clergy. We’d tell what we saw, but that would ruin the surprise when you visit.

He then thumbed through a few ancient tomes by candlelight. Outside there were carved niches where the bones of monks were entombed.

July 12th – Mekele / Tigrai’s Rock Churches

More fun with the French. The few churches we drove past today, rock hewn or otherwise, were hives of activity, this being Sunday. The church yards were full of white robed women and white shawled and turbaned men. For some, new cotton clothing was out of reach, so recycled western beach towels often sufficed.

Our first visit was to Yohannes Maequdi, situated at the top of a large mesa. For some reason, probably seasonable but poorly explained by our guide, all the local boys were playing with rope whips that emitted a loud crack, similar to a gunshot when snapped. The resulting echoes off the sheer cliff walls were not unlike what one would experience on the set of a spaghetti western. On the way up, we encountered a few dozen female parishioners declining, escaping their drunken husbands up top. Forget lemonade and cookies. Local beer is the drink of choice here after church. As a result, one drunken priest tried to raise the admission price and limit our access, much to the anger of our seasoned guide. Add to this the fact that rusting oil drums were being stored leaning against 500-1500 year old (depending on who you ask) frescos and you had the recipe for conflict. Ethiopians apparently love to argue. A series of loud yet highly entertaining shouting matches ensued before we were permitted entry.

The church was quite large with several beautiful murals in slow decline, much like those near Bahir Dar. A few years ago, our guide took a professional photographer up to this church to document the frescoes, one of which was now a pile of rubble on the floor. Moisture seeping in through the porous rock is the source of this destruction.

Part two of the tour took us into the large chamber behind the main space all carved from solid rock. More evidence of neglect included a skull and a femur of a deceased monk (presumably) sitting in an open-topped box. But the highlight was just around the corner; an intricate little chapel with a ceiling adorned with wonderful geometric patterns, plus carvings of Ethiopia’s favorite saints, Mary, George and Abraham. A solitary window shed just a little light on the handiwork, so I doubt we got any good photos out of it – what a shame. When our tour concluded, our guide still suggested that we tip the priests the customary $2 above and beyond the $5 per person admission fee despite the hour of arguments and obstruction. Such is life on the tourist circuit in Ethiopia.

Outside the second church, our group found a handful of bivalve fossils, but none as cool as the small sea urchins we’d declined to buy from some local kids earlier. Unfortunately this was the final church on the itinerary. I longed to see a few more, but our French patrons were moving on.

July 15 – Lalibela

Defying expectations and answering our prayers, our bus ride was a good one. First of all, only one person vomited. There were a handful of English speakers on board, plus an entertaining French-Ethiopian family who appreciated our limited French speaking skills. Plus, the bus left more of less promptly when full, a rare occurrence as the transportation network is hardly a paragon of efficiency. Three cheers for Greyhound. (Did I really just write that?)

If possible, this ride was the most scenic yet. The tops of some plateaus were foggy and green, evoking Scotland. Once in Lalibela, Ethiopia’s most famous tourist destination, the touts and beggars circled. Though nowhere near as bad as, say, Angkor Watt, with our frazzled and exhausted nerves it was all we could do from hurling a pestering would-be guide into a gully. And true to form, admission prices have doubled for entry into the church complex to nearly $30 per person, equivalent to a month’s income for many here. The rule of thumb seems to be, when in doubt, double the price. On the bright side, we found a good restaurant and had our first vegetables in days, not including the ubiquitous chickpea slop called shiro. CeCe’s been subsisting on it and Ambo, Ethiopia’s sparkling water, exclusively for days now, not helping her general disposition.

Over the course of the day I dolled out dozens of high-fives; our baseball card collection has long been exhausted. We also endured too many nearly identical brief conversations about our president:

Them: “Come from where?”
Us: “America”
Them: “Obama!”
Us: “Yes…”

July 16th – Lalibela

I got off the beaten path today, just by getting up early. CeCe slept in. At 6:30 I arrived at the church complex, joining perhaps a few hundred, mostly older, some insanely ancient, worshipers all doing their thing. There were a few small chanting ceremonies underway in a few nooks, but mostly folks were worshiping in solitude. Inside, Bet Medhane Alem, which could pass for an ancient Greek building with its columns and slightly pitched roof, I watched silently as cotton-robed men and women, resembling Druids more than anything else, finished their morning rituals. I plan to drag CeCe back for more tomorrow.

At 8:00, I fetched my lethargic and dare I say grumpy spouse and we embarked on a far more typical tourist tour of the eleven churches led by a guide, Meselle, who was knowledgeable and engaging, as have been all the licensed guides we’ve employed on this leg of our adventure. In general, the whole of Lalibela was greater of the sum, with the four great monolithic churches carved entirely from the top down serving as highlights. What tickled us most were all the legends and significances associated with each of the buildings and their features. For example, our guide professed faith in the popular legend that all construction was completed in 22 years with the nightly help of angels.

Again, like Axum, it was clear that much remains unknown awaiting research. I should mention here the dreadful UNESCO protective awnings that detract so terribly from the sights’ esthetics. They’re very European, very ill-considered and very ugly. Meselle says they’re temporary. They looked pretty permanent to us.

Inside almost every church we found the priest who inevitably appeared bored and who would grab the church’s most holy objects, usually a group of crosses, and pose for an uninspired photo. If we used the flash, he would don wraparound Stevie Wonder sunglasses. After the photo-taking formalities were complete, an essentially compulsory donation of 5 birr was expected. Ethiopia in a nutshell.


2 responses to “Ethiopia’s Northern Historical Circuit – Part Three

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  2. Dr Bernard Leeman

    I have just spent three months in Tigrai. I cleaned the paint off three incense burners at Adi Kaweh church and gave the priests there a large scroll in Tigrinya statying in general what the 2700 year old Sabaean inscriptions said, namely that there had been four Sheban kings there three of whom ruled the local kingdom of D’MT jointly with queens of Sheba over a mixed population of Sabaeans and Hebrew, thus supporting the the story that Menelik had founded a successor state to Judah ca 950 BCE. The priests , who have possessed the incense burners for over 40 years, said nobody had bothered to tell them the meaning of the inscriptions. The village overlooks the alleged resting place of Yodit, the 10th century Hebrew queen of D’MT who destroyed much of the 9 Saints Syriac inspired Christian churches and temporarily ended the Solomonic dynasty. German archeologists are excavating the site 500 metres from Adi Kaweh. I have read the inscriptions they have unearthed but nobody can publish anything until they have.

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