If the Book of Genesis was looking for a home on earth, Lalibela, a town in the northern Ethiopian State of Amhara, might have been a good place to consider. Lalibela feels more ancient than its legible history. Everything, even people and their memories, is covered in dust here.
The Coptic Orthodox churches carved out of the subterranean volcanic rocks claim a history nearing a millennium. Lalibela, meaning “the bees recognise his sovereignty”, owes its name and Christian heritage to the Zagwe king and saint, Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, King Lalibela, a pious Christian, envisaged building a “New Jerusalem” within his own Ethiopian kingdom, complete with a River Jordan and a Golgotha. Legend goes it took 24 years to build the 11 churches, in daylight by King Lalibela’s men and at nightfall by the angels.
Connected by pitch black tunnels, hermit caves and catacombs, the church complexes are recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, following the Julian calendar, celebrates Christmas, or Genna, on January 7. The advent weeks witness throngs of pilgrims on the streets of Lalibela barefooted and wrapped in their white cotton netelas . They come from all corners of the nation and walk together for days, sleeping on plastic sheets and cooking in makeshift stoves wherever night falls. Over the days, strangers turn into friends as the white netelas take on the hues of the hard mountain road. Much of Lalibela’s holiness is unspoken. Like the tradition of Asmat — the secret names of God that the pilgrims carry on their bodies enclosed in talismans. Mystery is everywhere. The blisters on the pilgrim’s feet seem to disappear as you watch and the hum in your ears sounds like a swarm of bees approaching. Abuna Ammanuel (Father Immanuel ) had this to say, standing outside Ben Giorgio’s church: “The long road to faith is always under construction. And full of potholes. But you keep walking.”
Pearl Jenifer is a teacher based in Sydney
Pilgrims’ progress During the weeks to Christmas, pilgrims throng the streets of Lalibela in Ethiopia carrying a Mequamia, a T-shaped prayer stick waved in rhythm to chants.
Walk of a millennium: The wall outside Bet Medhane Aalem, the largest of the 11 ancient churches in Lalibela. The walls have small meditating caves for monks and small windows in the shape of the Ethiopian cross.
The road to faith Two-way traffic on the stairway to heaven — the 11 churches of Lalibela are connected by a maze of tunnels and stairs, some so narrow a person can barely squeeze through.
Emperor’s new clothes Haile Selassie (1892-1975), the last Ethiopian emperor, was considered God Incarnate by the Rastafarians. The famous Selassie cloak is still a popular ware on the streets.
Sad state Women constitute the bulk of the agricultural labour force of Ethiopia, but more than half of them undergo genital mutilation and child marriage.
Totem pole: Every pilgrim centre, a market place. The elaborately designed Ethiopian cross, Masqal is heavy with symbolism and ritual function, from healing to blessing to signalling political power.
The Book: The Ethiopian Orthodox Bible was written in the ancient language of Ge’ez, with a total of 81-88 books across the Old and the New Testaments almost 800 years before the St. James version.
The liturgy: The Copts are miaphysites who believe that in the person of Jesus, human and divine nature are united without separation or alteration.
Frozen time: Pilgrims look like characters from the Old Testament: ‘Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest’.