David Rich 1500 Words
W o r l d H e r i t a g e E t h i o p i a
See churches hewn from solid red rock, churches in caves, churches on mountain tops, churches through tunnels in labyrinths like catacombs to delight kids of all ages and the Church of St. George (Beta Giorgis) called the 8th Wonder of the World by UNESCO: World Heritage Ethiopia at strikingly situated Lalibella, named for the Prince who become King and gave World Heritage a kick-start in the 12th Century. Go in awe.
I swooped into Lalibela on a Fokker 50 that reminded me of the old Messerschmidt joke, transfixed by the high desert of pyramidal mesas. Truncating hotel check-in I headed directly for the Western Cluster of five churches.
Presto I'm standing next to Beta Medhane Alem--House of the Savior of the World, a humongous 800 square meters, the largest rock hewn church anywhere. I thought of Cappadocia in Turkey as I circled the massive monolith to count 36 pillars outside and 36 inside. I removed my sandals while reckoning the adjacent uncarved rock at six meters or twenty feet. Through the gloom stood a priest in yellow, grand red umbrella jaunty overhead. He pointed to ancient icons, blood-thirsty murals and fanciful carvings of what had to be extinct animals. Then it closed, promptly at noon and I was ejected from the Western Cluster until it would reopen at 2 pm.
I tied up this loose end by an eye-bending trek to Lalibela's menagerie of a Saturday market, struggling to remember being crushed by so many people in one place at one time. We were crammed in like moth-eaten fleas with a teeming multitude shopping for the basics for living in rural Ethiopia. Farmers hawked bolts of tattered cloth gotten from who knows where, matrons sold cast-off plastic bottles of cooking oil turned brown, a boy scooped honey from pots coated with buzzing bees, urchins offered empty tin cans only worth kicking, men displayed donkeys and cattle with sling-shot horns, red hot chili peppers and all the spice of living crammed into a half dozen football fields where the average income might forever hover below a dollar a day. I retreated to a lunch costing half a week's sustenance for everyone in sight and then sped back to the churches, one down ten to go.
The most spectacular church, the eighth wonder of the world, is Beta Giorgis. Saint George is carved from a city-block sized monolith sculpted into the shape of a Greek Cross, the most common postcard scene in Ethiopia. The reddish stone is coated with streaks of a gold and canary-yellow lichen that looks like pollen, lending St. George (the patron saint of both Ethiopia and England) an extreme patina of age. The church is a gem but, because of the high stone walls from which it was carved over a millennia, it's difficult to photograph. But that evening I met a guy who could do it.
Shen Wangping, senior project manager for China International Telecommunications Construction Corporation is helping build most of the roads in Ethiopia and, with his wife, takes a few photos in their spare time. They showed a laptop slide show to the oohs and aahs of everyone at the hotel, the first I've witnessed that elicited such enthusiastic admiration. For these dreamlike photos www.ctphotos.net.
Prince Lalibela also dreamed under the spell of drugs administered by his blackguard brother, a dream of carving bedrock . The Prince became King when his rogue brother abdicated, promptly commandeering an army of craftsmen. Legend insists the churches were carved by angels at night. In mundane reality their sculpting took two centuries.
Yet the people I met were angels. Sophi chefed 14 years in Paris and was back serving the best eats in town at the Blue Lal Hotel. Precocious Mareg, age 14, who wanted to be a shrink, guided me to the mountain top, to the Asheton Monastery 700 meters (2300 feet) straight up. After a sermon on the mount by a cool priest in sunglasses outside a solid-rock carved church reached through a mountain tunnel, Mareg, I and the congregation repaired to cozy cave brunch of sour dough wheat cakes washed down with the local barley beer. The congregation, dressed in white or blue sackcloth, heartily tucked into a feast I nibbled at tentatively. Sour wheat bread and watery barley beer may be an acquired taste but the comely maidens and bustling lads serving our ragged lot elevated the refreshment out of the ordinary.
Twenty-something Thomas had shown up earlier, hanging around Mareg and I during our seventeen kilometer climb to Asheton Monastery and clamber back down to Na'akuto La'ab in a rock wall, pleading for books written in English. I finally bought him an Amharic/English dictionary for nine dollars and he was thrilled. Mareg earned his tuition by working 25-hours a week in Lalibela's only "supermarket" for 50 Birr ($6), precisely the amount I paid for him to lead me up and down ten miles of spectacular scenery to Sunday services, churches and brunch. Mareg invited me home where his mother performed the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony from stove-top roasting of raw beans through grinding, brewing and sipping in a homely hut not much larger than an outhouse.
Thomas and Mareg insisted I visit the Torpido Bar to sample tej, a honey mead beer brewed by the ancients since Babylon. The boy bartender served up a half liter beaker of what looked like grimy orange juice. Suspiciously the locals were drinking regular clear beer from traditional brown bottles but damn the torpedoes I took a deep breath and sipped. Surprise, tej was truly tasty with a mildly euphoric residual that accompanied me reeling back to my hotel.
Stop by Gondar on the way to or from Lalibela, described in Footprint's East Africa Handbook as "undoubtedly one of the most thrilling experiences that Ethiopia has to offer, with its churches, castles and mountain scenery." Lalibela was the religious center of old Ethiopia while Gondar was its political center, hence the sprawling royal enclosure of twenty acres in Gondar's center housing a half dozen spectacular castles. The Saddle Castle, named for the shape of its main tower, was decorated with ivory, gold and gemstones but an 18th century earthquake and WWII bombs reduced parts to ruins, making the royal enclosure seem older than it really is. The oldest and best preserved is the Castle of Fasilades from the 1600s. From its battlements on a clear day you can see the largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile.
Lake Tana is dotted with dozens of islands, most containing one or more ancient monasteries richly decorated with murals, icons and ancient manuscripts written on goatskin. Back in Gondar, on a high hill to the Northeast of town, sits Ethiopia's most famous non-rock carved church, Debre Birhan Selassie. Its walls and ceiling are beautifully decorated with bright religious paintings by Haile Meskel, an artist who painted them when the church was built in 1682.
Ethiopia is world heritage, land of King Lalibela's treasure, Gondar's castles and Lake Tana's monasteries, a trip in awe.
If You Go: Addis Ababa is served by many European and Middle Eastern airlines with fares far more competitive than most of Africa. From Addis you can fly to Gondar and Lalibela for $230 return and spend as much time as you wish in both locales. In Lalaibela stay at the Asheton Hotel or Seven Oaks Hotel for between $9 and $15 for a self contained double, or splurge and stay at the government-run Ghion, opulently renovated, for $37. Eat at the Blue Lal for Sophi's cooking, or at the other hotels. In Gondar I recommend either the Belegez or the Terara for $9 to $14, self contained double, or spend a few dollars more at the newer Circle Hotel. The best food is at the Terara Hotel, especially the fish. If you visit the island monasteries from Bahar Dar stay at the Ethio-Star Hotel, nicer than the Ghion, with great views and private balconies in self contained rooms from $13. Again, the hotels serve the best food.
Entrance to the Royal Enclosure in Gondar is 50 Birr ($6), good for a full day. Entrance to Lalibela's eleven stone carved churches is 100 Birr ($12), good for as long as you stay in Lalibela. The Asheton Monastery high above Lalibela charges 30 Birr ($3.50) entrance, as does the rock monastery in the wall at Na'akuto La'ab and most of the island monasteries on Lake Tana. A day tour of the island monasteries will cost between $12 and $25 for boat transportation depending on whether you prefer a half or full day, including a foray into the source of the Blue Nile.