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Friday, April 11, 2008

Lalibela: Churches & Mummies at World Heritage Site

(Friday 11 Apr 08)
Now in small town of Lalibela (2630 meters above sea level), in the remote mountains of northern Ethiopia. This was an ancient capital of Ethiopia during the 12th century, where King Lalibela built numerous churches, supposedly with the help of angels and saints, by carving them out from hard mountain rock. Many of the churches as well as natural features of the surrounding landscapes are supposed to represent actual sites in the Holy Land, where King Lalibela once spent many years in exile. There is Bethlehem, Jordan River, Golgotha, among others. For centuries, Ethiopian Orthodox believers have been coming year during religious festivals as pilgrims, visiting the many churches and imagining a visit to the Holy Land itself
Today, the 11 monumental churches of Lalibela are a World Heritage Site and Ethiopians call them the 8th Wonder of the World. Monks clad in ancient robes still run these churches, and guard the many treasures inside. For small donations, they were always happy to show huge 800 year-old goat-skin bibles colourfully illuminated with drawings of biblical scenes, or the many gold crosses bestowed on the monasteries by the emperors and kings of Ethiopia.
I visited a number of these churches today and will do the remaining tomorrow. Whilst they are quite interesting, many of them have suffered from erosion over the centuries and have slippery steps and uneven floors – I'm glad that I do them now rather than in my old age. One other major minus is that one has to remove shoes when entering the monasteries and churches, and most of them have very dirty looking carpets that look as though they have not been washed in the 800 years since their foundation. The guidebook even warned that they have ticks or fleas.
The most famous of the Lalibela churches is that of Bet Giyorgis, of St George, which is dedicated to Ethiopia's patron saint. Legend has it that after building many churches, St George appeared in King Lalebela's dream and scolded him for not even building any church for him. And so the king built this magnificent building in the shape of a Greek cross. Today its image appears in numerous posters and postcards, as the symbol of Lalibela. A monument it certainly is, but I am puzzled why a number of five-hundred year old mummified corpses of ordinary pilgrims are placed in a most undignified manner in the open cavites of the wall surrounding the church. You see half-decomposed dried-up feet sticking out of holes in the walls, and worshippers sitting around in the church compound, totally unaffected by the macabre sight.
I have made changes to my Ethiopian domestic flights. I will fly to Axum (Aksum) on 13 April and then to Addis Ababa on 14 April. I will try to change my flight to Uganda, one day forward, to 15 April. They can't change international flights from their Lalibela office.
It's quite cold in Lalibela due to its altitude. It rained earlier, which made the temperature fall further. Its unpaved streets are quite muddy now. Internet is expensive here, at US$6,50 per hour instead of one quarter that in Addis Ababa.

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