Suitcase and World: More of the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela.

Friday, January 17, 2014

More of the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela.

Bet Abba Labanos

I finally got a good night's sleep last night even though I woke up a couple of times to drink water. It's so arid here. The laundry that I did last night was completely dry by the time I woke up!

The group agreed last night to be ready to leave the hotel at 8:30a. On the top of the agenda was to wrap up our visit to the churches with those that make up the Southwest cluster - Bet Amanuel, Bet Merkorios, Bet Lehem, Bet Abba Lebanos, and Bet Gabriel-Rafael.

It was a short drive through town to arrive at our starting spot. The driver simply pulled over to the roadside and let us out. We followed Achey up hill on an unpaved, at times rocky path. It was quite a hike. One of the women in our group, Jean, has problems with her knee so we all encouraged her to just take it slowly. Luckily, Achey has two guides in-training following us about and they're helping her along. She made it through the churches yesterday though by taking as many rests along the way as she can.

Walking along the path to reach the southwest cluster.  No paved ways here!

The two story, thatched roof, circular shaped, mud buildings that are typical of the Lalibela region.

We eventually reached a small bridge. I figured that would lead us to the churches. As we waited for Jean to catch up with us, Judy and I watched several women prostrate at the base of the tree and kiss the rock. Once Jean arrive, Achey us about the tree which is a cedar tree. It represents the cedars of Lebanon. He pointed to a mountain in the distance and indicated that Ethiopians consider it to be a representation of Mount Tabor in Israel which is where Christians believe the Transfiguration of Christ took place. Thus, this location, with its view of the mountain is considered be a holy spot.

Cedar tree on left.  You can't see it in the photo but Mount Tabor is in the distance.

From here, we crossed the bridge and walked a short distance to arrive at Bet Gabriel-Rafael.  What an unusual sight. Unlike the other churches we've seen so far, the entrance to Bet Gabriel-Rafel is high above ground.  You have to access it via a small walkway which was also hewn from rock. 

Walkway leading to Bet Gabriel-Rafael. 

It was quite a drop down.

Cross detail chiseled into the wall.  You can see the chisel marks.

Inside, Achey told us of the unique features of this church.  Unlike the other churches in Lalibal, this one has a, for lack of a more accurate description, an irregular i.e., *non-church* floor plan and non-east-west orientation.  This has led many scholars to believe that Bet Gabriel-Rafael was a fortified palace for Aksumite royalty rather than functioning as a church.  The interior of the church was simply decorated with paintings cropped up against the walls - must less interesting than the church's façade.

There were some paintings on the door.  According to Achey, they were done by clergy practicing their art.

Robert making his way out of the church.  I needed someone to pose next to the door :-)

From Bet Grabriel-Rafael, we made our way to Bet Lehem which we first saw from above.  I have to say, Bet Lehem does not look anything like a church and in fact, some scholars believe it was a bakery, producing bread for the Eucharist, and not a church.  I would agree.

Another view of Bet Lehem which looks more like an odd lump of clay than a church.

Descending down into a passageway leading to Bet Lehem.

We all took our turns to head down the passages.  Slippery rock and nothing to brace yourself from falling.

Bet Lehem protective under scaffolding.

The one difference between the Northwest cluster of churches and the Southwest cluster is that the latter has an enormous labyrinth of narrow passageways and tunnels running through it.  At times, I had no idea where I was or where I was going.

From Bet Lehem, we headed down into a narrow tunnel that was pitch black dark.  I was at the back of the pack and thankfully, I had my flashlight with me so I could light the way for the others ahead of me.  I think someone else also had their flashlight so collectively we could all see the path ahead of us.

We emerged into a circular shaped room that was the chapel of Bet Lehem. 

We weren't done with our climbing!

At the top, we had arrived at a Bet Merkorios.  We had most certainly taken a very unusual route to arrive at a church!

Stone bell located near the church's entrance.

Passion of the Christ painting dating from about the 16th century.

Faint remains of a painting on one of the stone pillars. 

More paintings.

From a window, I could see Bet Amanuel.

A VERY steep set of steps.

At the bottom was magnificent Bet Amanuel. The beautiful, crisp and sharp edges of this church is such a stark contrast to Bet Lehem; I think it's Lalibela's most finely carved church and in fact, some scholars have suggested that it was the King Lalibela's private chapel.

Inside the church, the hewn design of the exterior façade was carried into the interior.  Unfortunately, it was a really, really dark interior so I had a lot of trouble taking anything but blurry shots.


The interior of Bet Amanuel was filled with impressive details on the ceiling.

More wonderful details.  The arches were outlined in the classic Axumite shape.

Another view of the ceiling detail.

Paintings and wooded cross sticks (?).

Back outside, it was the usual ritual of putting back on our shoes.  I had slip on shoes so I was always done before anyone else :-)

A closer view of the façade of Bet Amanuel. Remember, this was all chiseled out of stone by hand!

Nooks and crannies in the walls around the church.  All of them had these.  According to Achey, the clergy use the smaller crevices for storage; the larger ones are often sleeping quarters.  Amazing!

More of the detailed façade.

And more of the crannies.  Some are natural holes in the rock and others, like this pair, were hand carved out.

From Bet Amanuel, we took another circuitous route to get to Bet Abba Lebanos. On the way, we passed this stunning rockface which I immediately recognized from the cover of Selamta, the Ethiopian Airline's magazine that was in my seat front pocket on my flight over from DC.  I had to take a photo!

More of the narrow passages!  Some were really narrow.  Not meant for *pleasantly plump* tourists like me :-)

Finally, we had made it to the last church - Bet Abba Lebanos.  Bet Abba Libanos is hewn into a rock face.

View of the interior with its carved columns topped with capitals.

Where there's a wall, there's a painting and someone keeping watch over it.

Another view of the ceiling details.

Bet Abba Lebanos is also unique among the Lalibela churches in that it is a it’s a hypogeous church meaning tht only the roof and floor remain attached to the strata.  Back outside, I walked around the church.

On the right is the rear façade of the church which is separated from the rock face by a narrow path.

Details of one of the carved windows.

The tiny church and the rock wall it's hewn from.
Bet Abba Lebanos was the last of the churches we visited and with that, we concluded our trip to Lalibela. On our way back to the van, we passed a small cemetery and based on the dates on several of the gravestones, it is a current cemetery.

All toll, we spent close to 8 hours exploring the rock hewn churches of Lalibela nd it was truly a memorable time!  What a monumental feat of human nature it was to build this place; I'm happy know that Ethiopia is working to preserve for generations to come!

We still had a half day of sightseeing ahead of us but I know it will in no way compare to what we have seen either yesterday afternoon or this morning!