HIGHLIGHTS Mon 5 Jan: Lalibela Sth Eastern Church

Monday, January 05, 2015
Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia
Yemrehanna Kristos

We all 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 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 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.

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.

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

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.





Bet Gabriel-Rufael

It was a walk down to the South Eastern Cluster of churches and into Bet Gabriel-Rufael.




Bet Mercurios

Reached via a series of trenches and tunnels that starts from Bet Gabriel-Rufael, this church may have started as something altogether different.




Bet Emanuel 

Freestanding and monolithic, Bet Emanuel is Lalibela’s most finely carved church.




Bet Abba Libanos

Hearing the sounds coming from the inside Bet Abba Libanos, we hastily clambered inside to find this group of local women chanting to Virgin Mary and praising God.

Yes, we had to go inside the tiny church itself but to me it was the women just outside singing with their drums in what was a marvellous sound chamber whom I will remember. What a marvellous and truly memorable way to finish the tour of the rock churches of Lalibela.

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