With the impressive 4190 m Mt.Yosef in the background, Lalibela may not feel like it’s situated at 2630 m altitude. 8 centuries after king Lalibela of Zagwe dynasty dreamt to build here a new Jerusalem, this remote Ethiopian town is finally fulfilling its destiny. 11 rock-hewn churches, narrow passageways and crypts were carved into the iron-rich volcanic rock. Today not only arduous pilgrims and monks flock to this UNESCO World Heritage site, but also tourists from all over the world.
The soft basalt hardens after carving, but Ethiopian rains are merciless, so, in time, some of the churches deteriorated so severely, that UNESCO has temporarily installed protective roofs. Some of these roofs are quite unfortunate looking, given the context, some give character.
One cannot simply come and see Lalibela. This special place makes you work, like Cambodia’s Angkor, on a more modest scale, of course. Climb, walk, sweat, lose balance, get stuck, become blind, be dazzled. Smell the rock, smell the mountain, admire the craft and dedication, written in a stone kept alive with faith by present-day worshipers and students. It’s interesting how the layout reads from early christianity, the clothing has semitic flair, and the chanting of verses makes you feel in a mosque.
Monumentalitatea bisericilor este coplesitoare, interiorul si decoratiile nu prea. Mirosul de tamaie si lumanari ne-a amintit de atmosfera uneori lugubra din bisericile ortodoxe. De dincolo de ziduri, insa, ruga din incaperi ascunse umplea aleile subterane cu armonie divina.
If the play of shape and proportion is quite spectacular, the interior of the churches left us unimpressed, as did the decorations. Lots of incense and beeswax candles reminded us of the gloomy hopelessness from the Romanian churches. The chanting reverberating from hidden praying chambers were, on the contrary, mesmerizing.
Bet Giogios is particularly stunning, emerging, symmetrical and monumental, from the gut of the mountain. The lichens on the outside walls make it even more beautiful and more alive.
Next to the labyrinth of churches, a rather secular one: the traditional tukul village. Because of torrential rains last for many months per year in this region, contemporary homes have similar design. One or two floors, on top of a round, rock foundation. A real life smurf village.
At the end of the pious circuit, this devilish kid
And his best friend, the guard’s son, with berbere smeared around his mouth
Ready to give the descent a go we were, but unfortunately for us, so was the rain. Sky was black with cloud, only lit by even scarier lightning. Ana looked at me. ‘I wonder if this is a good idea’ she said. I could tell she was worried. And to be fairly honest, my own confidence we could make it to Wadi Halfa under such weather was weakening. I was ready to rock, packing up gear and squinting at Ana when she mentioned the rain, making an ‘are you serious?’ face. ‘Why haven’t we looked for ponchos?’ she asked. When I replied that we didn’t need any ponchos — the rain couldn’t last forever — she said: ‘we should have prayed in all those churches’.
It started like a drizzle. We were not fooled, the whole valley was shaking with thunder. Soon the skies broke, and water started pouring furiously. Before I had been mindful of declivities and tight bends, now all I could barely feel was that the road was disintegrating into mush. I would see that soggy bog and hope it was solid, but my front wheel would sink into it, knobblies covered, mud bubbles rising. It was like riding on soap and smutted worms. With the bike sliding and drifting, we just hung in there. Pounded by cascading rain, teeth clenched, fingers and toes frozen, head spinning, the lot. It was not pretty. I don’t know if the plastic bags covering Ana’s hands can be easily spotted in this pic. I used the same metaljockey trick to cope with the wind.
I don’t know how we made it to the junction with tar. If not shivering uncontrollably with cold we would have stepped off the bike to kiss the asphalt. It took another hour to buy petrol from the local mafia (actually from a bajaj driver I decided to stop), as the gas stations were out and the next ones were at 100 and 140 kays in both directions. I should probably mention that, as soon as we took off, it was raining again. For those of you who keep track at home, that is another full week in the wet. In one hour it was dark, and we stopped again. We had spotted a dim light coming from what looked like a tea room. Amira had not only sweet, hot, live preserving tea, but also two freshly baked loafs of bread, with aromatic black sesame seeds in the crumble. Back in the saddle, it took a mere 5 minutes to lose all heat, contort and hope.’Look, a hotel’. Ana shook my shoulder. Only later it would come out that she had coped with the insane weather imagining a chain hotel, nothing more fancy than an Ibis for instance. She fantasized about standard cleanliness, white linens, hot water, a good mattress. Well, our visit to the mystical town of Lalibela would pay off: the ghostly building was indeed a hotel, looking like Ana’s fantasy, clean, but dirt cheap. Before we could settle in, windows were screaming with wind and torrents, sky was lit with dramatic lightning. It was scary to think we could have been outside, riding. We devastated the room, using all towels, slippers, blankets and hot water, until our sorry-asses failed asleep like dead people, on the best beds we had seen in 400 days.
The next day was sublime. Impenetrable fortress of escarpments, pinnacles and protruding ridges. Streams and waterfalls gushing through gorges. The mighty Ethiopian highlands. The Abyssinian abyss. We had arrived in the ethereal kingdom of sky, and it had taken our breath away. After leaving our nighttime oasis we were still going up the mountain, sometimes passing the 3000 m altitude, wondering if we would ever reach the plains again. Behind us, the dreadful storm from last night was regaining composure, preparing to hit hard.
Everytime we would stop to get the green terraces of tef in focus, the sky seamed to darken in anger. We could smell the rain, run, Forrest, run! Only when we were off the plateau and into the valley, seemingly out of danger, rain caught up. A blond sky hovering over our heads let out a gentle drizzle, or at least that’s what it felt like, after the pounding of past days. But soon rain let up as abruptly as if a giant tap had been snapped shut overhead. We kept rolling under a changeable sky that was quickly loosing cloud and accumulating heat.
A couple of dozen kays before the border we had to stop and strip. Temperature had been climbing like crazy, from less than 14 to 32 in one hour. Time to eat whatever we had left (banana and bread) and sort our papers out. While waiting for the customs officers to finish their lunch break a wannabe fixer told us: ‘you didn’t like rain?’ ‘Now go to fire’.