LALIBELA, ETHIOPIA ~ JANUARY 7, 2014
I am in an underground tunnel connecting two of the 11 medieval, monolithic churches here in Lalibela. The tunnel is pitch black and light is prohibited in here. I am pinned between two people. My left hand is on the front person’s left shoulder and my right is on the wall to guide me through the dark. The tunnel is packed with pilgrims. There is no room to escape or turn around, you have no choice but to move with the crowd. This is not for people who are uncomfortable in small spaces. Time stands still in here and I feel trapped. The line is moving slowly, scuffling ahead a couple of feet, every couple of minutes and the tunnel is about 20m in length. Then the mood suddenly changes…Men and women start to chant and pray, little children start to sing, I can feel them smiling through their voices and it helps me carry through the rest of the way. When light becomes visible at the end of the tunnel, everyone in unison yell what would seem like a high-pitched war cry ”La,la,la,la,la,la,la,la,la!!!” The ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ and the chant symbolizes reaching the heavens. Aaaand I’m covered in goosebumps. Ethiopia is casting a spell on me…
It’s Julian Calender Christmas Day (Leddet) in Ethiopia and I’m spending it in ‘Africa’s Jerusalem’; Lalibela. The town is known for their Medieval, rock-hewn churches built in-ground, dating as far back as the 12th century. Ethiopia is predominately of Orthodox faith, following the old calendar. Thousands of people from all over Ethiopia and surrounding villages have made the pilgrimage to be apart of this celebration (some walk for many miles and/or days barefoot!). Many of the pilgrims have never been here before. Some from very remote villages have never even seen a ‘faranji’ (white man). I had a lot of curious but shy children approach me, touching my hair or the skin on my arms. Everyone is dressed in white for Christmas, the women’s heads covered in a white scarf known as a netela. I decided to wear one as well out of respect.
I attended mass on Christmas Eve standing on top of one of the cliffs overlooking one of the in-ground churches. Every inch of the place is occupied by white-clad pilgrims. Many staked out for much of the day to get a ‘good spot’. What surprised me is that many were sleeping during mass. Although understandable as this ceremony is over a 24 hour period. I carefully tip toe through the bodies, trying to find a good spot to see everything and it leads me to the top, where thousands of people are sleeping dangerously close to the edge. Everywhere I look I see white. Thousands of pilgrims who could not fit inside, stand in the dusty streets, sit in nearby fields and adjoining churches, listening to the sermon from the speakers.
The chanting, warm light from lit candles, smell of Frankincense and a sea of white bodies is permanently etched in my mind from that evening. Candles are lit after midnight and we make our way back through the chaos to the hotel to catch a couple of hours of sleep. We’re back again by 6 a.m and are overwhelmed by the crowds trying to get back in. The tiny, frail looking old women are the worst, aggressively pushing their way through, feeling a sense of entitlement perhaps, because of their old age. Security has their hands full. Elisabeth and I, separated by a few people in between us, look across at each other hopelessly. Then this young Ethiopian girl pops up out of the crowd and says “Come! Come! Follow me! I show you!” She grabs Elisabeth’s hand and I grab Elisabeth’s other hand and we begin to snake our way through the chaos. Miraculously she manages to get us to the very front. Two Polish men join us, catching on that this crafty little girl had a knack of working through the crowd.
We get to the stone carved steps leading down into the courtyard and it’s packed with people heading the opposite direction. A young American man is standing there too trying to discourage us from trying to get through. “You may as well just hang out here and wait. These crowds are insane! There’s no way to get through right now.” Humouring the guy, I look at the young girl who just led us through the seemingly impossible crowds and say “there’s always a way”. And in a matter of minutes one of our Polish accomplices has the idea to jump across a nearby boulder about 4 feet from the edge. He claims he’s a rock climber and I’m convinced as I watch him effortlessly leap over and scale his way down to the ground. The young girl is next, then it’s my turn and it gets a little tricky from there. The only one wearing sandals, I go barefoot on the jagged rock and carefully let myself down almost crushing the young girl in the process, who over eagerly decided to guide my foot onto her shoulder not realizing the amount of weight behind that foot and lets out a squeal when she loses her balance, and I quickly move it over to the intended foothold on the boulder and ungraciously scramble my way down. Much to the amusement of our local spectators chuckling at the crazy faranjis.
We make it just in time to watch 100 priests make their annual procession up the rock carved steps onto the cliffs surrounding the church. 2 dozen priests remain below ground in the courtyard playing instruments and chanting. Then it begins. A sea of robes, in unison begin this ancient ritual of transe-like dancing and chanting. The courtyard priests symbolizing the world’s people and the priests above on the cliffs symbolizing the angels in heaven. This continues for a few hours until about mid morning when the sun’s rays begin to shine down into the pit…
I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been a part of something so spiritually charged, so sacred and virtually untouched for many centuries. And a rare glimpse into what Christmas might have been like for some of our ancestors a few hundred years ago. Lalibela is special. It’s raw and it’s real and will happily embrace you, if you are ready to embrace the experience.