Lalibela, Ethiopia’s Christian Retreat

Legends link bees  to the creation of Ethiopia's greatest sight.  The rock-hewn  churches of Lalibela lie  in the remote Lasta Mountains  where electricity,  an all-weather road and  airfield are barely a decade old. They are attributed  to the 12th-century King Lalibela  who as a child attracted baffling swarms of bees.  Viewed as an omen of kingship,  the existing king – his brother – grew jealous and attempted murder. Through either real exile or heavenly coma,  Lalibela was inspired to build an Ethiopian Jerusalem. His brother abdicated, masons flocked....and the rest was hallelujah!

It's an extraordinary place.  2600m high, the air is clear and the light sharp. The town – more of an overgrown village – is cradled by  stark table  mountains roamed by  shepherds and hardy villagers journeying to distant hamlets. One morning we joined them, our mule train bound for the lofty church of Asheton Maryam.

As we plodded up through Lalibela,  wood-smoke veined its lanes and children scampered among striking round houses. Our trail contoured across the hillside, then zigzagged to a plateau of patchwork barley fields and wattle-and-daub huts. We climbed again until the mules could walk no further.  The narrow path tapered to a notch grooved into the cliff. Steps tunnelled the last few yards and  beyond a wooden gate we emerged before the church.

His morning congregation gone, the priest had time to proudly show us ancient much-loved treasures. There were ceremonial crosses  with dangling  scarfs and exquisite illuminated gospels on vellum. Out on the surrounding  precipice we gazed down on crumpled dun hills and barren scarps, at conical thatched huts with corrals of stakes and twigs.

Yet Lalibela's heart and soul  resides back in town straddling a ravine they call the River Jordan. There are two groups of churches, twelve in all.  Bet Giorgis, the thirteenth, was allegedly compelled by St George himself and remains the most celebrated part of this haunting site.

Along with the thousands of workers assumed to have laboured here, Lalibela's achievement is breathtaking. When not excavating caves or fissures they began with massive trenches hewn from volcanic tuff. The resulting monoliths were hollowed out and refined with bas-relief porticos and pitched roofs. Cruciform Giorgis is unique.

Solomon, our guide, led us from trench to church to cave to fertility pool.  A few cramped alcoves held ragged hermits or the embers of their fires. We fumbled down pitch-black passages and climbed up through trap doors. We passed the 'Tomb of Adam' and stood awed within Golgotha. In Bet Abba Libanos, Solomon pointed to a gleaming spot high on the altar wall. Turning off his torch the gleam remained undimmed.  "A miracle" he beamed, deflecting our chorus of doubt.  How wise, I thought, to guard the quaint mystique.

© Amar Grover