…Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world…Gustave Flaubert
I cannot help but wonder how true this quote is as we start off the second half of our exploration of the subterranean Churches of Lalibela and make our ascent to the twin church: Bets Gabriel-Rufael. This is the first church of the south eastern cluster, set on the other side of the River Jordan and all I can see as I huff and puff up the hill is a large, reddish building looming before me that looks like it is rising out of a cliff. Indeed, as we cross a bridge aptly named “way to heaven”, I look down and see we are crossing over a deep moat like trench. The outside of the church is more memorable than the inside merely for its gargantuan size and my memory of how I felt when I was actually making my way into Bets Gabriel-Rufael. We enter the dimly lit Bet Gabriel, scout around and quickly make our way into adjacent Bet Rufael through an interconnecting doorway and then step outside onto a terrace like platform from where the colossal depth of the ravine is truly appreciated. As I stand on that terrace and just soak in the sheer magnamity of these structures, I am grateful that we have the place to ourselves to appreciate its raw and natural beauty. I feel tiny in the face of such colossal structures, and the depth of the ravine reminds me that one misstep on the unprotected edge and poof, that could be the end. Morbid I know, but honestly a humbling moment because in the grand scheme of things, we are all mere specks in a giant universe!
Could I be in an Indiana Jones movie?
Hand on heart, I can say that the south eastern cluster left their mark on me as my personal favourite churches to explore, not because they are architecturally more stunning than the earlier cluster but more for the adventures we had in reaching each of them. Unlike the north western cluster, these churches are farther apart and being connected by an enticing series of narrow doorways, tunnels and trenches, are super fun to navigate and get to. The lighting of late afternoon is just perfect. With warm rays of sunshine glinting off the pink rock, making the doorways glow like something ethereal, I wonder if this is what Indiana Jones felt like, exploring nooks and crannies of places that one cannot help but feel exist only in the imagination?
Indeed, I am in my happy place. Wanderlusting, exploring and most importantly, experiencing. The places that call my name to set Footsteps in seem to wave a magic wand and cast a spell on me. The whys and wherefores of life back home are cast off: all the stuff I was stressing about before getting to Lalibela seems trivial in this moment. I can’t even remember what my tribulations were and what I am obsessing about now are places, their people and more importantly experiences. I am living in the present moment, not worrying about the past or the future and honestly, I am loving this new version of myself!
Through the Tunnel of Hell…
My elated state is short lived as Abrham announces, with a smirk in his voice that we are about to descend into what is known as the “tunnel of hell” in order for us to get to “heaven” on the other side. Now, this is a 35 metre (some say 40 metre) pitch dark tunnel that connects Bets Gabriel-Rufael with Bet Merkorios. And I am almost peeing myself. Because, dear Wanderlusters, I am petrified of the dark. There. Now you know. Legend has it that you have to walk this tunnel in the dark, without any form of light whatsoever and as tempted as I am to put the torch on my iPhone on, I decide that this is the year I will conquer some of my fears. Today: it is that of the dark. I am reassured by Abrham going in front and am immensely grateful to have Wanderlustmate M guiding me along the narrow passageway, and I am bent so as not to bump my head, feeling my way alongside by keeping one hand on the wall alongside me and one hand above feeling the roof of the tunnel. Wanderlustmate M has one hand on my back, quelling my fear of being in the dark and calming the claustrophobia somewhat. Being pitch dark it is uncanny how all the senses kick in when one is inhibited but I cannot help but breathe a sigh of relief as I see the literal light at the end of the tunnel…I have made it through hell and could not be happier!
…and into Heaven at Bet Merkorios
I would like to imagine that that this church was nick-named “Heaven” because at 4:30 pm, the sunlight streams into the tiny interior from a cross shaped window bathing it in light that can only be described as other worldly. The rays of the sun pour in like beams sent from the heavens and it almost feels like you expect a choir of angels to appear! Bet Merkorios is nondescript from the outside and visited mainly for an original fresco of the three wise men which is semi-visible, but for me, is memorable simply because of this cross shaped window. The priest in this church is a friendly chap and noticing how enthralled I am with this window, has a quick word with Abrham who asks if we want to take some pictures of him. The next thing I know, he appears all clad in his traditional robes and poses in front of the window with an Orthodox Ethiopian Cross, making one heck of a photo opportunity. We leave a couple of Birr for him and a donation to the Church, noting that he didn’t actually ask for this, which is so refreshing!
…and onwards to the Valley into to the “Petra” of Ethiopia
Leaving Bet Merkorios, we traverse a deep valley and criss-cross through yet more tunnels, to emerge from within a doorway to descend into the enclave of Bet Amanuel, a monolithic church which is deemed the most finely carved church in Lalibela. Flanked with almost barely there large vertical pillars, the locals have nicknamed it the “Petra” of Ethiopia, because the external façade resembles that of the Treasury in the famed city of Petra in Jordan. The inside is probably the fanciest we have seen from all the churches and there is various paraphernalia peppered about, suggesting that this was once the Royal Family’s private chapel. A closed hole in the ground covers up a tunnel that links this church with Bet Merkorios. I sit on a wooden bench and gaze around, in awe. I have been pinching myself all afternoon as we amble along this cluster and I know I am not dreaming, yet this adventure feels like one! We exit Bet Amanuel and peek in to the only grotto Church in Lalibela: Bet Abba Libanos. The tiniest church in this complex is said to have been built by King Lalibela’s wife in one night with help from the angels and is the last in this cluster of churches.
Sundowner at the iconic Bet Saint Giorgis – the Church of Saint George
At last, it is time to head to Bet Saint Giorgis, the church that I have been waiting with eager anticipation to see all day and I am not disappointed. Set apart from the other eleven churches, this iconic church in the shape of a cross is the symbol of Lalibela and is probably the reason why a lot of people, myself included, come here in the first place. Seen from above, this is the most visually perfect church of all and because it is so well preserved, it has been spared being covered with the visually unpleasing UNESCO tarpaulin tarps (sorry UNESCO), for now at least. Now that I am here, I want time to stand still for a while so that I can gaze upon this splendid creation and just live in the moment because this too, was once a dream and the moment will pass before I know it and become a dream once again. There are several vantage points from where to appreciate the beauty of this church and I am indulging in every one of them: from up atop a little hillock to peering in at the edge of the rim of the crater from where the church rises. We have arrived just before sunset because we want to see the inside of the church as well, and given that the priest will lock up and head home at 5:30 pm, we have timed our arrival to allow for exploring inside and then heading back up to witness sunset over the iconic church.
Being at ground level of the church makes me appreciate how high the structure is: a 15 metre three tiered plinth in the perfect shape of a cross: no mean feat to achieve! The inside is as humble as any of the other churches in Lalibela, carved with crosses however this church contains some of the treasures that were thought to belong to King Lalibela: olive wooden chests with an interlocking mechanism that baffles most scientists today, being one of them. The priest is anxious to leave, it’s been a long day but this is a popular church for tourists and people keep filtering in.
The sun is setting fast and so we head out to watch as the last golden rays bathe the top of the cross shaped building, highlighting the carvings perfectly. As I sit gazing at this epochal structure, I see the priest clad in his white robe amble past, homeward bound, the large keys to the church jingling in one hand. He raises a hand in greeting and I wave back. The priest smiles and carries on his merry way, another day done. And I am left there thinking just how in the end, we are all the same. No words pass between us and yet we seem to have had a whole conversation. A wave, a smile, a nod: and that dear Wanderlusters, is how
Travel: leaves you speechless and then turns you into a storyteller.
Thank you as always, for spending a part of your day with me. I hope you have enjoyed my memoirs of traversing a super special part of Africa – do leave me some comment love below if you did, I love love love hearing from you! Stay tuned for the final post in my series on Lalibela, coming up next week. Until then, Happy Wanderlusting! xoxo