They walk barefoot in the rain-soaked soil, often on the edge of the road, where concrete ends and the flatness gives way to the dips and rises of a green valley in Ethiopia’s Amhara region. While their feet are bare, their bodies are covered with the blanket-like local wear called netele, a piece of clothing that is often white with color blocks or embroidery on the edges that one wraps around the head, shoulders and body.
This is Lalibela, a town north of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. In this landscape full of shepherd waving at tourists while their goats, donkeys and cows are grazing in fields made lush by the rainy season, you can’t find a quieter place for introspection as people go about their daily lives working the farms.
In the week we are in Ethiopia, the country’s Orthodox Christians are celebrating the Feast of the Assumption with a 16-day fasting, which means they do not eat animal products and the first meal of the day is at 3:30 p.m.
In Lalibela especially, the fasting and daily Mass are strictly observed because it is the country’s center of pilgrimage, second only to Axum, where the Ark of the Covenant is kept, and the town’s population is almost completely Christian.
More than any other place we visited in Ethiopia, Lalibela feels frozen in time, like the hands of the clock stopped moving after the 11 rock-cut churches were built during the 12th and 13th centuries by King Gebre Lalibela, when the town was called Roha and was the capital of Ethiopia.
The king began building the churches when Old Jerusalem fell to the Muslims in 1187. He wanted to build a symbol of the Holy Land to provide an alternate place for pilgrims. One church he named Biet Golgotha and features replicas of the tomb of Christ and the crib of the Nativity.
What’s amazing about these churches is that they were hewn from monolithic blocks that were chiseled out with 12th-century tools to form doors, windows, floors and columns.
The churches are grouped in two — five of them north of the river and another five south of the river. The last one to be built, the 11th, is separated from the rest. They were built “to symbolize humility and spirituality.” Today, they elicit amazement and are a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as The Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela.
We visit the northern churches where Biete Golgotha and Biete Maryam (House of Mary) are located. We are here at the right time, when Mass hasn’t yet started, the churchgoers with their walking sticks are making their way through what before were the drainage and ditches of the compound, and we won’t be interrupting Mass.
The children are playing outside on this rainy day. A girl with a blue blanket wrapped around her body seems to take a liking to me and pretty soon her group of friends, ages seven to 11, are holding my hand.
The seven-year-old doesn’t ask for money even after I’ve taken pictures of her and her friends. Instead, she says, “Pen? You have pen?”
I dig into my bag and hand her a wood-encased pen that I’ve been using for two years, the only pen I haven’t lost in a week’s time. I wish I had chocolate to give her, too.
The girls follow me until we enter the church. The interior is nothing like I expected. I had seen men and women in their plain white neteles walking in the villages, but seeing them huddled in groups on the mat-covered floors or seated on stone benches (one side for women, another side for men) was quite a sight, especially since the inside of the church is dark, lit only by natural light streaming through the windows — and on this gloomy day, it isn’t much.
After visiting another church in this cluster, I bump into the girls a second time. We take a selfie again and they wave goodbye.
We have lunch in a tourist restaurant nearby and then make our way to the last church built by King Lalibela. By this time, the Mass at the House of Mary has just ended, and I see the girl for the third time. I barely recognize her because she has her blanket folded in her arms and is wearing a dress.
It is almost 4 p.m. and she is on her way home to have lunch. Her fasting for the day is over.
* * *
Little did King Lalibela imagine that 800 years after he had a dream, pilgrims would continue to flock to the 11 churches he built during his reign — or that non-pilgrims would take an interest in them at all.
The dream was this: St. George, the soldier, the martyr put to death for refusing to recant his faith, asked King Lalibela, “But where is my church?”
Surely, an 11th church must rise. The king named this Biete Giorgis (Church of St. George) and George who slayed a dragon deserves no less than one dug from the earth, separated from the rest and built like the world had never seen before.
The church is shaped like a cross and stands in a 25×25-meter pit carved out of solid volcanic rock. First, they removed the waste material around it for a sunken courtyard, then they chiseled the outline, shaping both interior and exterior into a cruciform structure 12 meters high. Then they carved three doorways, lower and upper windows and embellished these with cross motifs. For the roofing, they made a sequence of Greek crosses in relief, one cross inside the other.
They say it took 40,000 workers to build the 11 churches in a span of 24 years — I bet this is the one they bitched over the most.
* * *
Another king we would get to know is Fasilides of Gondar, 300 years after Lalibela. He moved the capital to Gondar in 1636, where he and his successors built a castle complex.
According to UNESCO, which lists the city as a World Heritage Site, “The fortress city functioned as the center of the Ethiopian government until 1864. It has some 20 palaces, royal buildings, highly decorated churches, monasteries and unique public and private buildings, transformed by the Baroque style brought to Gondar by the Jesuit missionaries. The main castle has huge towers and looming battlemented walls, resembling a piece of medieval Europe transposed to Ethiopia.
“Beyond the confines of the city is a two-storey pavilion of a bathing palace associated with Emperor Fasilides. The building is a two-storey battlemented structure situated within and on one side of a rectangular pool of water which was supplied by a canal from the nearby river. The bathing pavilion itself stands on pier arches, and contains several rooms reached by a stone bridge, part of which could be raised for defense.”
The “Gondarian Period” of architecture that began at the beginning of the 17th century would “significantly influence the development of Ethiopian architecture for over 200 years.”
From Gondar, we travel by land to Bahar Dar for one of Ethiopia’s most spectacular natural attractions: the Blue Nile Falls. Our guide Henok Tsegaye warns us that the hike up to the falls is about 40 minutes one way and is muddy and slippery.
And it was — but it felt more like an hour-long trek. But what a view! The falls are located on the Blue Nile River, where the Nile originates, and are between 37 and 45 meters high with four streams that can go 400 meters wide in the rainy season.
While the falls’ color is brown due to the rains and mud, our local guides say that starting in September (to February), the water is clear, having shed the mud from the rainy season.
There’s a pretty stone bridge at the start of the trek called Portuguese Bridge — take pictures here on the way up rather than on the way down, especially if it’s raining. At least you might still be dry.
* * *
Our tour, hosted by Ethiopian Airlines, which celebrates its 70th year anniversary and one year of operations in Manila, starts and ends in Addis Ababa, the capital surrounded to the north by Mt. Entoto.
All of us journalists agree how the capital city feels very much like our Baguio City. Or maybe it was the weather. Located 2,300 meters above sea level, Addis has a population of over three million.
It is a mélange of huge open markets selling everything including the kitchen sink; throwback Russian Lada cars as blue-and-white taxis; the headquarters for the African Union; the esteemed Addis Ababa University; and shopping centers (no huge malls).
Just don’t look for western fast-food restaurants and especially not coffee chains because Ethiopia is where coffee originated. You don’t come here looking for American coffee or what the Italians call “dirty water.” The oldest coffee brand in Addis Ababa is To.Mo.Ca. coffee, which has several outlets around the city.
There are two places that I loved in Addis. The first is Mt. Entoto, 2,800 meters above sea level — where Ethiopian long-distance runners and Olympians train, including the greatest long-distance runner in the world Haile Gebrselassie.
Many years ago, when I was doing road races and marathons with friends, he was our idol — the one we wanted to meet the most. At the time, in 2008, he won the Berlin Marathon with a record time of 2:03:59, breaking his own world record by 27 seconds. They said then that if we were going to see a sub-2:00 marathon, it would be Haile who would give the world this gift. Alas, his Berlin record was beaten three years later. Now retired, he counts among his feats two gold Olympic medals, 27 world records and 61 Ethiopian national records.
Our guide Henok tells us that even their fiercest rival in long-distance races Kenya sends some of its athletes training on Mt. Entoto.
Besides marathon superstars, Mt. Entoto is a daily climb for many women. You see them carrying heavy bunches of eucalyptus branches on their backs down the mountain. Thin, strong women that gather the branches for firewood — every single day.
The second place I love is the National Museum of Ethiopia with its exhibition hall contained in a modest building — but my God, what it contains!
Lucy is here — the oldest fossilized remains of a human that’s 3.2 million years old. Why “Lucy”? It’s said that when the fossils were dug up in 1974 near the village of Hadar in the Awash Valley, the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was being played loudly and repeatedly at the expedition camp.
This discovery also has the highest number of fossils (40 percent of the human skeleton) and the reconstruction of Lucy shows the parts that were dug up and the rest are plaster to complete the skeleton.
You look at the life-size display and think, this is where humankind originated, where civilization originated (Blue Nile), where our morning coffee comes from. It’s true, it is “the land of origin.”
In the Ethiopian language Amharic, Lucy is known as “Dinkinesh,” which means “You are marvelous.” Indeed, so is Ethiopia.