19 May 2011
An early morning flight wisked me from Addis thru Gondor to Lalibela up in the mountainous north of Ethiopia. During the overcast days and through light rain showers we toured 12 ancient churches hewn out of the red rock hillsides. Centuries ago devout Christians led by Emperor Lalibela dug down into the rock to carve out multistory churches (40,000+ workers over 23 years according to our guide). Now the area is a holy land where thousands make annual pilgrimages to pray and kiss the rock walls. Tunnels and narrow pathways worn into the rock link the churches and many priests and nuns live in holes in the rock surrounding the churches. Originally the churches had intricate paintings and carvings but now they are mostly worn away. Many of the lower rock walls and pillars are a shiny black from the faithful who kiss the rub their foreheads against the rock. In January tens of thousands swarm the churches sleeping anywhere they can find space.
Several religious schools surround the churches full of young boys sent from near and far villages to study the holy scriptures under the careful tutelage of their new masters. They memorize the scriptures by group repetition and the chants of the young students fill the air. Often they are sent out to beg for their support and for their instructors. They sleep huddled in groups on the floor of their master's round huts. Although many may learn to read or recite the scriptures in a couple languages, few can write after the typical four year stay in Lalibela. Afterwards some earn advanced positions in their local churches and others continue to another religious school outside of Lalibela for another seven years of study before becoming a priest.
Our guide also took us through the village and we saw the usual village family life. The women prepared the millet, the kids played in the crooked muddy lanes between the stone huts, and the few men seen around were at work as tailors, hawking trinkets, or passing by on the cobblestone road with heavy burdens on their backs. The fields outside the village were being worked by most of the men and were freshly plowed. It was hard to look around and not see a policeman or woman in uniform in the streets and overall the town seemed very peaceful and quiet.