Sunday, October 10, 2010

Ethiopia- Picking my jaw up off the red clay dirt!

Sometimes you stumble upon a sight so absolutely breathtakingly stunning that time stands still, all your senses frozen, your chatter cut off in mid sentence, just unable to take it all in !
Ethiopia did that for me- more precisely the rock cut church of Beta Giorgis at Lalibella.

Sure we dream about going there, we see the photos in all the travel mags for Ethiopia, read up as much as we can devour in preparation for the trip, endure horrendously long and boring flights, sponge rubber njeera bread, upset tummys, and crummy hotels that haven’t seen a plumber since they were built, but suddenly you’re actually there. And nothing has prepared you for it. Nothing could. Stunning!

These churches were not constructed, they were excavated. Commenced around early 1200AD, popular legend has it that they were built with the aid of angels. Hard to believe these were built with only hammer and chisels. Built by King Lalibella, to create a city of worship to avoid that long arduous journey to Jerusalem, it's now a World Heritage site worthy of being called the 8th Wonder of the World!

That morning we explored Lalibella’s western cluster of rock cut churches, starting at the largest Beta Methane Alem, spoilt somewhat by the steel scaffolding roofing structure built to protect it from the elements. Cut out of one city sized block of red sandstone it has 36 pillars outside and 36 inside all hand cut from the same rock. Connected to it by tunnels and walkways is Bete Maryam possibly the oldest of the churches. We clambered through those tunnels, and climbed their steep stairways.

Being living churches of the Ethiopian Orthodox, which is part of the Coptic Christian Church headquartered in Alexandria, we were blessed with the rich sound of worshipper’s massed singing resonating from the churches and echoing through the hand hewn gorges and canyons. And when people are in worship, singing their hearts out, prostrating themselves then standing erect continuously, we tourists should stand back and give them space, and show some respect! Rather than those with the big cameras poking their long lenses into their faces....stand back and use the zoom for pete's sake. Gross!

We explored so many churches
(Lalibella has 14 in 3 main groups) that it was easy to lose track of just which one we were at any time. As we breasted yet another rise, chatting away to our guide, I glance over his shoulder....and I was stunned into silence! I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was finally here, and it lived up to every expectation I held. It was just incredible to take in the serene beauty of Beta Giorgis, the last church carved out of the rock, and therefore the finest example of rock hewn art of that period. Beta Giorgis is the Church of St George, the very same from our well known legend of St George killing the dragon, and we saw many illustrations of that scene in almost all the churches we visited. Viewing this church last and later in the day meant the sun was full on to it, highlighting the brilliant orange and yellow of lichens covering the ancient reddish stone.
My wife has just read this and remarked how she too remembers that moment, and just like myself being so struck with the power of Beta Giorgis.

Travelling in Ethiopia is not easy, lacking a well developed tourism infrastructure. For the independent traveller, there is a huge network of buses serving the locals needs and if you have the time and the ingenuity to figure out how to use them, you'll get to most places...eventually. Can't count the number of buses we saw being repaired in the middle of the road.
Most travellers to Ethiopia will find it so much easier to hire a guide and 4wd or join an organised tour. You've many choices from international group adventure companies- Gap Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Explore, etc. Or get on the net and google up the many locally owned tour companies if you want a more tailored experience.
However you do it, Ethiopia will reveal it's depth of history, it's colourful culture and people, amazing scenery and it will completely surprise you.

We spent 1 week independantly in Addis Ababa  visiting a child we sponsor through Childfund NZ  ,then  travelled Ethiopia with Gap Adventures.

The above post, written by myself first appeared as a guest post  a travel site for all those looking for inspiration, excitement and adventure!
Check them out!
I have posted more photos here as they are just too good not to publish!
Thanks Kass for making me relive this experience!



Anonymous said...

Once again, you have taken me on a fantastic journey to a land that I never thought about until now! The images that the media places in my head of Ethiopia tend to omit the history and beauty it offers and focuses more on the poverty and unsanitary living conditions. Thanks again Jim for introducing me to a country that I will never have an opportunity to visit... and for being a great guide.

Jim said...

Thanks Wanda,I know I promised elephants but can't find one at the moment!
They pop up when you don't expect them though!

Jamie said...

the churches sound incredible! great photos too. will be getting there, one day. cheers, jamie