Yemrehanna Kristos

Monday, January 05, 2015
Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia
We decided on an early 7 am departure with a view to beat the other foreign tourists heading to our first destination. Some 2 hours 45 kilometre drive on more bone-jarring and butt-wrenching unpaved roads later reached the carpark below Monastery of Yemrehanna Kristos / Yimrhane Kirstos Cave Church.

It was only a short 15 minute walk along a well formed paved path way through juniper forest along with the many locals up to the cave church.

The first glimpse of the church is really nothing too spectacular at all. Is this what we came to see? It looked more like someone's home than a church. An ugly looking protective cinder block wall was built in 1985 to improve the church’s security. It completely obscures the church from sight.

First outside of the wall it was "shoes off" again. Once inside, it was directly clear that this was a unique church in the Lalibela area. Instead of a rock-hewn church, before us stood a freestanding church built inside an enormous volcanic cave that also formerly housed an underground lake. It was like a feeling one might expect from being inside an Indiana Jones movie itself.

It is actually a church constructed of layers of wood and white-faced granite, with large windows carved in cross-shape. The architecture and design is ancient, yet impressive.

According to legend, the church was constructed by Yemrehanna Kristos, a predecessor of King Lalibela in the late Axumiteperiod 11th century. Another legend wants us to believe that the wood of the church was imported from Egypt, while the granite blocks were taken from Jerusalem.

Not reading up on today’s visit, the real surprise to me were the bones or pile of human skulls and skeletons of more than 11,000 people lying in the far backside of the cave. Did our local guide say that they are the remains of Christian pilgrims from Syria, Jerusalem and other far-away areas who came all the way to die at this sanctity and their remains were piled in the back of the cave? It’s definitely a little on the spooky side.

Behind the church was a tent-like construction which is supposed to be the red cloth covered tomb of Yemrehanna Kristos. The locals walked around it in an anticlockwise direction.

Under the soil of the cave is thought to be a lake with curative powers.

We waited outside the Church, and "Yes", the priest did bring out the Holy Cross.

Then it was our turn to join the locals and go into the church. The inside was not very spacious. It looked bigger from the outside. Filled with unretouched artwork on the pillars, walls and roof. Inside, probably one of the most striking features is the wooden ceiling with etched decorations. The main door is made from a single piece of olive wood. Love the metal studs in the wood. Wonder how many times these doors have been closed and open over the centuries. Symbols, meanings, and details were etched into every part of the church. Most of the crosses and decoration were of the Aksumite style. I am glad that my camera caught more of the detail than my naked eye could!

Many of the church’s gypsum covered walls are claimed to have come from Jerusalem.

The artwork and colours were all original and no doubt preserved quite well being hidden within the cave and from the outside elements.

For our CEO Ermias, this turned out to be the highlight of the trip for him because of the local pilgrims who were there. He had never seen the cave transformed with the local human element added in. I can partly understand why. It would have been a totally different experience with just us and perhaps some other foreign tourists.

I left Yemrehanna Kristos impressed by its beauty and peacefulness. One of the locals said to me as we walked down the path “Thank you visiting our holy place”. That put a wee smile on my face.

Back to Lilibela along the same road with more African massage but it was not that bad.

Lunch was back at the Seven Olives so it just had to be their Special Olive Special - garlic & vegetable sauce, topped with olives 62.85 birr / NZ$4.20 / US$ 3.10 plus a Juice = 116 birr / NZ$7.70 / US$5.70. No injera on the table. Most decided to have the colourful mixed juice.

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