Walking, walking, walking! The countryside is full of folks out and about on their feet. There is a rural minibus network connecting larger villages once a day, and Lalibela has tuk-tuks, of course. But mostly, whether it’s due to lack of affordability or availability, people walk to and from everywhere. Sometimes it is necessary to travel great distances to accomplish simple, everyday tasks like gathering water, heading out to tend a remote field, going to market, or even farther to visit a doctor. In the rugged agrarian highlands surrounding Lalibela, all the fields are tilled by farmers walking behind teams of oxen, as it has been done for centuries, on farmland passed down through a communal hereditary system called rist.The land does not belong to an individual but to the descendants who can never sell, keeping the land in the family for perpetuity. Without mechanization, planting, weeding and harvesting are done communally. If the rains are good excess crops make it to a local market; if not, it’s subsistence farming until the drought ends. Some NGOs are having an impact by drilling community wells for fresh water and remote irrigation.
We passed many individuals and groups walking as we made our way into the beautiful highlands surrounding Lalibela to visit St. Yemrehana Krestos Church, named for the king that commissioned its construction around 1100 AD.
It’s only 12 miles from Lalibela as the crow flies, and until the road was put in not too long ago, a two-day trek from town. Now, twenty-six miles of dirt road and an hour and half later we were there, a world away from Lalibela.
The path to the church took us across a footbridge spanning a boulder-strewn stream where women were washing clothes in the rushing water below. They agilely jumped from rock to rock as they spread their laundry out to dry. As we headed uphill, we stopped at the bottom of a set of stairs to wait for a group of church elders to cautiously descend.
Situated at 8500 ft above sea level, the altitude was catching up to us and we were glad to sit for a while in front of the church to admire its setting. St. Yemrehana Krestos is not a legendary rock church, but a cave church built at the mouth of a deep cavern, behind a tall slender waterfall.
It’s constructed in a distinctive pattern of horizontal stone block, followed by a recessed layer of timber in an architectural style copied from the Aksumite Kingdom that flourished from 400 BC until the 10th century AD.
The cave is very spacious and actually contains two buildings. The second directly across from the church is thought to have been the king’s humble palace or treasury, according to our guide. The door to it was open, but it appeared to be used mostly for storage now. The floor between the buildings is covered with reed mats that hide a substructure of large olive wood beams built over a shallow spring-fed pool that can be reached by a trapdoor in front of the church.
Behind the church are two tombs draped in fine cloth, to indicate their royal significance. The larger tomb is thought to be the grave of King Yemrehana Krestos and the smaller one that of his slave, Ebna. Deeper into the cave there is a mass grave of several hundred now mummified bodies, which have been piled on top of each other for centuries, the corpses of pilgrims and monks who could go no further.
It took our eyes awhile to adjust to the dim interior of the church as we worked our way through a columned interior, the tops crowned with wood and stone carved capitals. Never restored, centuries of accumulated candle soot partially obscured an inlaid wooden ceiling with geometric designs and, on the walls, what are thought to be the oldest examples of mural paintings in Ethiopia.
Outside a local teenager was selling small clay figurines of animals. His rendering of a Walia ibex, native to the Ethiopian Semien Mountains, caught our eye and we made his day with a purchase.
Heading back, we passed Bilbala St. George Church, a rock church built in the 5th or 6th century AD by King Kaleb. It is legendary for its sacred bees that have lived in hives in the courtyard since its founding. Their honey is renowned for its healing properties, especially for the treatment of skin problems and psychological disorders. We were crazy not to stop; in retrospect, we regret our decision.
Walking, walking, walking. Coming or going, people carrying umbrellas for shade traveling along with goats or chickens, for sale or for dinner – the road was crowded with activity as we drove through the village of Bilibala on its market day.
With no semblance of trying to attract tourists, we had a better chance of coming home with a donkey from the pre-owned animal auction lot than a souvenir.
Outside the village at the turn to our next stop, a magnificent ancient fig tree provided shade under its graceful canopy.
After walking briefly through a shady forest and crossing a narrow stream rock to rock we could see a large, what was once a turtle-shaped, monolithic rock rising from the ground before us, its front curve altered a millennium ago. The façade was chiseled smooth to be a high flat wall with an entry door centered in it. This was the wall to the courtyard that surrounded the church; from the outside only a small section of the upper part of Bilbala Kirkos Church peaked above the wall.
Hearing us approach, the caretaker emerged from behind his home, swishing away pests with a cow tail fly-swatter as he approached, and told us that the church was locked because the priest was away in another village to attend a funeral, but we could go into the courtyard.
Shoes off, we crossed through an ancient threshold hewn in the 6th century AD into a spongy moss-lined trench that encircled the church on three sides and served as its courtyard. The eastern wall or back of the church was still attached to the living rock. High arched windows were piled with stones to keep out birds and other critters.
Worn entry steps testified to centuries of use. As we were getting ready to leave, the caretaker offered us tella, an Ethiopian home-brewed beer made from teff and sorghum grain and fermented with buckthorn. Out of concern for maintaining our good health, we passed on the offer, but our guide enjoyed it and shared that “tella is used for religious purposes when holy wine is not available.” Sacred bees and holy beer – we’re on to something here.
Cheers. Till next time, Craig & Donna